What do we talk about when we talk about ghost-producers? Judging from the new rounds of ghost-producing scandals that have once again worked everyone into a tizzy this month, I wonder if there's a fundamental misconception over what the process of creating a dance music track from start to finish is really like.
Nothing incites a more inflammatory response than fresh accusations of a DJ using ghost-producers. David Guetta, Steve Aoki, and Paul Oakenfold have long been stuck with bum raps, while Martin Garrix and Porter Robinson have more recently discussed producing tracks for other artists without being credited. Benny Benassi and Tiësto have tried to sidestep censure by openly crediting the producers who have penned their biggest hits. Yet, the results are always the same: buckets of haterade are promptly dumped on any DJ who admits (or is rumored) to have used hired help.
David Guetta, one of the many EDM artists accused of hiring ghost-producers
Earlier this month, a ten-year-old producer named Aiden Jude became the latest pariah in the unending war against this supposedly shameful taboo. Aiden denied these rumors, adding that, "Everyone has help. No one does the producing, the mixing and the mastering by themselves." As much as some might be loathe to admit it, the kid has a point.
While there is no set rule on how many people contribute to a single track, the fact is that there are often many chefs in the kitchen—and it doesn't make sense to pounce on one arm of a multi-handed operation. Entire teams of producers, melody writers, vocalists, and mastering engineers are often brought on board to carry a track to the finish line. The terms vary from contract to contract, but these so-called ghosts usually benefit from copyright and royalty shares.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some DJs like Deadmau5 and Wolfgang Gartner are also brilliantly meticulous producers, and sometimes take pride in working solo. Still, even Wolfgang has struggled with performing for massive crowds. "I used to get so nervous that my hand would be shaking too violently to put the needle on the record sometimes," he told THUMP in an interview last year. "Through years of practice and a few really uncomfortable experiences, I learned to become a frontman."
Like it or not, it may be time to acknowledge that ghostwriting and ghost-producing has been part of dance music since its inception - aside from the fact that most DJs are actually playing other people's music in the first place. There are a variety of reasons why DJs bring in assistants, but it usually has to do with the fact that even the best producer/DJ superstars aren't always technical masters.
"I can't blame them," said Benno de Goeij, who has co-produced tracks with Armin Van Buuren and Tiesto. "Since I likewise don't care for being an artist or DJ."
Armin Van Buuren and Benno de Goeij collaborating in the studio together
The practice is only becoming more widespread as dance music continues to invade mainstream charts, and DJs, traditionally tasked with entertaining the dance floor, face increasing pressure to create endless streams of original hits. One could argue that this conflation of the DJ and the producer is the root of the problem.
Many of the "ghost" producers I talked to can't understand why their work is so reviled. "Often, I'm accused of ghost-producing, although I have always been credited," said de Goeij. "It feels kinda awkward having to see this kind of negativity when I am just doing stuff I like."
Lopazz, a veteran musician and mixing-and-mastering engineer who has produced key tracks for Heidi and M.A.N.D.Y., has managed to fund two fully-equipped studios full of analog instruments and outboard gear from his lucrative 20-year career. "I've never understood why people complain about ghost-producing. It´s a pretty old school part of the industry," he says. "I think it´s fair and professional as long as the composer get paid."
The culture of shame and scaremongering have caused many ghost-producers to become wary of public exposure. Jimm M, the founder of GhostProducing.com, a for-hire EDM production service, was reluctant to be interviewed, claiming that every magazine that has covered his start-up has only done so to mock them. However, he did divulge that they produce about five tracks a week for customers, and that 70% of the company's profits go directly to the ghost-producers.
Jimm points out that many of his employees are musicians in their own right and that working as producers-for-hire is a viable way to make a living. "Unfortunately, people download the tracks that they spent a lot of time and money on for free," he tells us. "They do ghost-producing because they need money to live."
What could be a simple transactional agreement between an artist and his or her staff becomes problematic when DJs claim full credit for tracks they did not produce alone. As long as the use of co-producers remains EDM's dirtiest little secret, DJs will have few incentives to divulge their covert collaborations. This ends up hurting young ghost-producers who are ripe for exploitation.
Dance music producer Figure, who has co-produced several hits with Tommie Sunshine, put it this way: "Ghost-producing is fucking weak. It's like finding out the Mona Lisa was just paint by numbers."
"I've heard insane stories about ghost-producers," he says. "All the mainstage house guys' ghosts get hundreds of thousands (of dollars) and then I know of people getting next to nothing in trade for the promise that it will 'open the door' for them."
The truth is that very few artists make tracks entirely on their own. An entire industry of behind-the-scenes professionals exists to help the process. The only way to encourage big artists to give proper credit to those who deserve it is to end our culture of public shaming for privately collaborating. That is, if the artists feel so inclined.
"It's only fair to credit others if they want to," says de Goeij. "But if they don't, who am I to say that's wrong?"
Michelle Lhooq is a contributing editor at THUMP - @MichelleLhooq