A heavily contested practice in the EDM community, ghost producing is argued by some to enable obscure producers to earn income and advance their industry notoriety, but the reality is that they may actually be doing their careers more harm than good.
Guest Post by Collin McLoughlin on Medium
Ghost production is one of the most hotly debated subjects in electronic music. People who support ghost producing argue that the long-term value of a superstar is more important than the music the star performs. Detractors argue that ghost producing ruins the spirit of music, tricking listeners into thinking their favorite artists are fully responsible for the music they release. Like many things in music and life, however, the situation is much more grey than it is black and white.
The term “ghost producing” refers to a scenario where an established artist outsources the production of a song to another creator and essentially buys the rights of that creator’s work to release it as an original. The process normally goes like this: large artist A buys a song from up-and-coming artist B for cash; then artist A releases the song as his/her new single. The fans assume artist A actually made the song he/she released.
I’m going to come right out and say it: ghost producing is killing EDM.
It’s a widespread practice that’s hurting producers, writers, artists, and fans. I am writing this to urge newer musicians to realize that they do not need to resort to ghost production to have a successful career as a producer or DJ, and that ghost production oftentimes can hurt more than it can help.
During my career as a musician I’ve had some incredible opportunities to write and produce songs with the likes of Hardwell, Laidback Luke, and Vicetone. I was even fortunate enough to write and sing a hit with Dash Berlin in 2015. In each of these cases the artists had no issue crediting me for my contributions. I am lucky to have been able to work with brilliant musicians who have good integrity.
But not every artist has been as lucky as I have, and many creators in the dance music space go quietly uncredited. I’ve become close friends with a variety of EDM producers and writers, some of whom are or use ghost producers. I’ve met artists who can’t even operate a DAW (digital audio workstation) to create original music even if they wanted to, yet they “release” a steady stream of records each year to throngs of hungry listeners. Some of my friends have had their creative work played on Top 40 radio around the world without even being named in the title or credits of the records they’ve created.
The most important thing to understand about the ghost producing phenomenon is that it is rooted in distribution. The current landscape of electronic music is as saturated as it’s ever been, with more and more musicians making and releasing content today than any other time in history. This has created a variety of consequences, the most pertinent one being: it is harder than ever before to cut through the noise as an electronic artist.
The conventional thinking is that by ghost producing a newer artist can 1.) Earn extra income to help survive in an increasingly saturated music economy and 2.) Build relationships with high profile artists who they hope will then launch them into stardom with a co-sign or collaboration down the line. By ghost producing for larger artists, new producers feel that eventually these artists will connect the dots and open doors for them in the future.
The problem with this mentality is that by ghost producing for more established artists, newer artists are actually reducing their odds of cutting through the noise even further. With each new hit an older DJ/producer releases, the expiration date on his/her career gets delayed. This means that instead of becoming outdated, older DJs will actually remain on the festival bills for a few more years than they would have otherwise. Ghost production allows the more established artists to have a steady stream of new, relevant music, which helps them to avoid one of the most common pitfalls any musician faces historically: an eventual change in consumer listening tastes.
Many ghost producers are never lifted up into the public eye intentionally, as the more established artists tend to be fearful of the newcomers and defend their position in the EDM ecosystem to avoid becoming irrelevant. I’ve had conversations with countless ghost producers who were promised future collaborations and show opportunities, only to be stuck years later wondering if those promises will ever come true.
By allowing artists to persist through ghost production, the more established acts will consistently have a new, fresh sound to keep up with the times, which keeps them relevant for far longer than they could remain otherwise. With the headliners never truly retiring from the scene, more pressure and crowding occurs at the lower levels of the festival bill, making those slots even more precious and sought after. This makes the competition within dance music even more fierce, and the DJs who tend to succeed overwhelmingly in today’s saturated market are increasingly the ones who have mastered the art of marketing (Dillon Francis comes to mind).
Ghost production is especially hard for me to swallow, as I’ve always been interested in empowering musicians to make better music and achieve their own dreams without spending years in the shadows of others. This mantra led be to launch my startup eMastered for online mastering, and I’ve spent years building out my career in a world where people constantly told me my path wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t have lasting impact. I’ve been able to earn a sustainable living off of my work in the face of a music landscape that told me my approach wouldn’t let me accomplish my goals.
It’s heartbreaking for me to hear from talented musicians who think that ghost production is the only option they have to building a career. Recent history has shown us that by creating a unique stand-out sound that connects with listeners, incredible things are possible. This pathway can often lead to the same support that people aim to secure through ghost producing.
Kygo began as a bedroom producer in Norway, and now he plays massive sold out shows worldwide on an incredible scale (he also secured support from Diplo early on in his career). Flume opted for a new style of R&B and electronic fusion, and it has carried him to brilliant heights he might not have reached if he’d opted for the ghost producing approach.
It’s my hope that these same musicians understand that by continuing to ghost produce, they might in fact be making their dreams even harder to realize. David eventually beat Goliath, but what would’ve happened if David gave Goliath the slingshot instead of keeping it for himself? Each musician must make their own choices, but it’s important to understand how those choices might affect an artist’s future—and the future of the dance community as a whole.