Ghost Hunters: EDM Ghost Producers Speak Out

Image via Dirtcaps on Facebook / Pim Hendriksen
Image via Dirtcaps on Facebook / Pim Hendriksen

The last time you went to an EDM festival you were robbed. You shelled out $300 for a ticket to watch a bunch of DJs perform songs that some poor, unknown soul secretly created for them. You were lied to. You should be outraged! You deserve answers!

It’s easy to get caught up in this firestorm. EDM’s ascendance has brought a greater level of celebrity, and a greater level of scrutiny, to it’s performers. The TMZ-style investigations have recently unearthed the deep, dark secret of ghost producers. A not-so-new concept – existing since the beginning of art itself – of uncredited musicians composing works for a higher profile artist.

This past summer, Martin Garrix felt pressured by questions of his authenticity to the extent that he conducted a 68-minute live stream demonstrating the creation of his top-40 radio anthem “Animals.” Even more recently, DJ Snake defended his flourishing, yet still newfound, fame against allegations that he downright pilfered a remix from a lesser-known producer.

A Google search for “EDM ghost producer” turns up accusations against electronic royalty like Skrillex, Steve Aoki, and David Guetta in the first few results. These types of claims aren’t exclusive to electronic music, however, as a similar search for “hip-hop ghost writer” reveals that lyrical luminaries like Ghostface Killah, Kanye West, and Big Boi have allegedly received assistance with their pen game as well.

Is this treatment fair or are critics overreacting? As Mad Decent‘s Derek Allen says, “These days people will write and produce a song together but then there are no credits to read ‘co-written by’ and everyone freaks out!”

To really understand the concept of ghost producing, we have to look deeper into the career of a modern DJ.

DJs and producers have been elevated out of nightclubs and recording studios and onto the main stages of music festivals. A new lifestyle that brings with it an entirely new set of responsibilities. The same demanding lifestyle that has caused nervous breakdowns in everyone from Oprah to Charlie Sheen. A 24/7 deluge of managers, publicists, fans, label reps, airports, photo shoots, interviews, social media, business meetings, performances, and oh yeah… making music.

Most people who work a “9 to 5″ job complain that they don’t have enough time to go to the gym, yet musicians are expected to produce a constant stream of quality music under these conditions. A common way to balance this workload is employing a ghost producer (sometimes referred to as an “engineer”).

The anger and accusations towards ghost producing leads one to imagine a dark sweatshop full of 12-year-old music prodigies chained to their laptops, rewarded with scraps of food when they produce a hit record. Try telling that to Dirtcaps – the Dutch trio of Max, Danny, and Tim – who work full-time in the studio producing music for themselves as well as other DJs. They have a new single out on Spinnin’ Records with The Partysquad and upcoming releases on Ultra and Viscious. They also play several festival stages throughout the year. Many of these opportunities stem from their work as ghost producers.

“I make a track for a big guy and the big guy says you get a fee plus a big stage on a festival” says Max. These sort of terms are worked into the contract when negotiating a ghost production agreement. “It’s a money question, it’s a promotional question.”

If it’s a fair split of the pie you’re concerned about, Max says “we always get half of the publishing, plus retaining the master rights… and the fee that comes with producing as well.”

Critics of ghost producing should also consider the camaraderie that develops in the DJ community. There is a deep bond formed among artists who all start their careers playing the same hole-in-the-wall clubs. It would be difficult for anyone to succeed if they didn’t turn around and support those who have supported them in the past.

“That’s why we ghost produce,” says Max “It’s not because we want to earn a lot of money. It’s like helping each other out.”

This sort of collaboration is arguably the most important force in art and many of history’s greatest works have been collaborations, both public and private. Almost any world renown fine artist – from Andy Warhol to Kaws – operates a studio employing several talented young artists to create masterpieces under their guidance.

Musically, even the most famous solo musicians have worked with teams of producers, writers, and engineers to compose their hits. Look at the credits on almost any Kanye West record and you will find co-writers and additional musicians who loaned their support. The Beatles had four members (plus producer Phil Specter) involved in the creative process. So how can we then vilify David Guetta for getting a little help producing music that appeals to millions worldwide?

Derek Allen aka DJA, well known for his Billboard-charting work with Diplo, is someone who knows a thing or two about collaborating. He recently spoke with DAD about his struggle to be properly credited, yet still stands by the collaboration process.

“I don’t know why, but people seem to have a weird obsession with the idea that the artist came up with every single thing on their own,” Derek says, “In the past, this didn’t matter – there were big budgets, records sold – there were massive lists of credits on the liner notes and lots of awards for everyone involved.”

Collaborating directly with the other artist is also common for Dirtcaps, who are often given computer files with the basic idea for a song already laid out. “It’s not like Max is producing a track and the party that we’re producing for is sitting next to us and doesn’t do a thing… They cooperate a lot” says Danny.

Of course there are those who will take advantage. Max is the first to admit, “We’ve been fucked” in the past. That’s a reality in the music world (or any competitive industry, really), but for artists like Dirtcaps and Derek Allen, the pros clearly outweigh the cons.

“I think it’s really important that people know how the whole thing works because it’s not that bad at all,” insists Max, “It works both ways. It’s also good for the people that listen to music because otherwise they wouldn’t have the music they have now… It brings quality to the table.”

  • controlla

    “This past summer, Martin Garrix felt pressured by questions of his authenticity to the extent that he conducted a 68-minute live stream demonstrating the creation of his top-40 radio anthem “Animals.””

    he just showed the project file of some other guy :)

    • BigDik187

      word that nigga garrix is a fuckin faggit n dont really do shit himself. fuck that nigga.

      • Charlie

        You sound smart

  • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

    Most famous EDM ghost production ever: Rob Playford doing Goldie’s Timeless. Everything after that showed it really wasn’t Goldie that made it great. . . .

    • http://www.rockthedub.com/ khal

      Was he considered a “ghost,” though? He’s regularly credited on much of those early recordings.

      • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

        Fair enough, I probably overstated it. But he was there as an “engineer,” which after reading Goldie’s “Nine Lives” I gather meant that he made the music while Goldie jumped up and down and shouted “Yeah, mate, that right there!!”

        lol

        • http://www.rockthedub.com/ khal

          True, but that’s Goldie’s thing. Tech Itch has been his “Rob.” Heist is his current “Rob.” I believe Goldie can DO it, but I’ve always looked at him like an idea man. Same way you’d look at Diddy or Quincy Jones.

          • John Disgraceland Stanhope

            Goldie’s dyslexic and simply couldn’t use the kit – i.e. the early sequencers and samplers relied on a lot of text on the screen, and he couldn’t deal with it.

            What he does is ‘produce’ and by that I mean input everything into the project apart from twisting the knobs, which he relies on an engineer to do. Nothing wrong with that at all, imo. If you are a composer, you don’t necessarily have to play all the instruments in the orchestra, right?

        • http://soundcloud.com/the-colonel-mc The Colonel

          You guys are both right. I guess really my issue is that his work fell off so hard for me after Playford left the picture (see, e.g., “Mother”).

  • Cousin Cole

    phil spector only produced 1 beatles album — george martin would be a better reference.

    And btw the Beatles allegedly used Bernanrd Purdie as a ghost drummer

  • Sam

    99.9% of top 40 tracks aren’t written, produced, mixed & mastered by one single person. So why are people freaking out when a dance track isn’t written, produced, mixed & mastered all by the same person?

    • benjamin

      ha ha yes thats right written produced mixed and mastered by 1 and the same ghost producer ;D look at avici he is 20 years old and i travel all days on the globe maby he buy his tracks on http://producerfactory.com :D

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  • esolesek

    George Martin helped engineer and mix the Beatles, and his efforts to produce the Beatles consisted of his telling them to try harder, until they were suddenly writing genius songs and he stepped back. He was NOT a ghostwriter for the Beatles, he was an arranger and studio engineer for them, massive difference. You can be a writer in EDM and still get engineering help, though it seems to be the litmus test for being legitimate in the genre if you ask me. Sound and melodies are the major features of EDM, lyrics are generally secondary, except of course when people learn their true power to get songs across, like happened in earlier dance music of the late 80s early 90s and with disco. Its just that now the sound is so tremendous, it can come across on its own without vocals, but that is an ever-flexing state.

    It’s one thing if a famous DJ consults someone on techniques and then applies them. I can understand the appeal of someone unknown getting a foot in the door, and producing tracks or songwriting for vocalists is nothing new, but it should be credited, otherwise the artist is a fraud, and the newbie is undermining themselves longer term.

    Then again, this isn’t life and death we’re talking about, though artists who think integrity won’t sting you should look at Milli Vanilli or whoever happens to be unlucky enough to get exposed or ridiculed. Integrity and perception of goes a long way in popular culture.

  • Frank

    As long as the credits show who did what ,no problem.The problem starts when someone uses a ghost producer and does NOT credit them – because then its pretty much becoming a Milli Vanilli thing.