MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios today. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund.
Ricky Reed has all the signs of a very successful career in the music industry – a Grammy (and multiple nominations) for his work on Lizzo’s major label debut (signed through his own Atlantic JV, Nice Life Recording Company), production credits on some of the biggest releases of the last decade from Twenty One Pilots to Kesha, and a developing artist roster as a label exec.
It’s therefore easy to assume his path has involved win after win. But, according to the San Francisco native, it’s actually been a fairly tumultuous ride of trial and error. “When I tried to get into the music industry, nobody would open the door for me,” he explains. “I didn’t have a relative with connections or a ton of money, I wasn’t even born with natural ability. I was not a music virtuoso by any means; I was just somebody who is really passionate and persistent and loves it.
“At the end of the day, my thing has always been that I may not be able to out-sing them or out-solo them or even out-produce them, but I will out-work them – and that has been the mantra since I was at least 15.”
Reed’s first foray into the business was with a band he started in high school, the pop punk outfit Locale A.M., who attracted multiple major label offers.
They were advised to turn the deals down by their reps, who promised that bigger and better things were around the corner. They were not: the offers dried up and the band, whose sole (and naive) goal was to get signed, imploded.
Reed channelled much of his consequent angst into his new band, Facing New York, before starting a half-hearted day job as a producer for other artists – using skills he’d first picked up during the days of Locale A.M.
Success as a producer only came when Reed realized that he needed to put “as much passion, sincerity and authenticity” into his day job as he did for his own musical projects. But he’d (perceive himself to) be burned by the industry one more time before he reached that point.
“I just started making shit and sending it to people with almost like an nihilistic energy. I was just like fuck it, I’m making weird shit that I like and I don’t even care if you like it.”
After meeting L.A. Reid on a night out, Reed secured a record deal from Epic (where he’s no longer signed) for his pop project Wallpaper., which came from the ashes of Facing New York.
Once a month, he rented a car and drove to L.A from San Francisco to do sessions for his major label debut while still producing for others, but says he found the recording process frustrating, and “was hitting roadblocks.”
“I started getting some cuts, like with CeeLo Green and Far East Movement, but I was getting bored with all the pop copycat things I was producing,” he explains.
Boredom, fuelled by another surge of industry-stung anger, resulted in his first big success: “I just started making shit and sending it to people with almost like an nihilistic energy. I was like fuck it, I’m making weird shit that I like and I don’t even care if you like it. This industry is burning me again.”
Today, Grammy-adorned and success-flushed, Reed says he can see in hindsight that “it wasn’t that the industry was scorning me, it was really that I was disappointed in myself for getting suckered back into it and for making music for the wrong reasons”.
Still, he’s thankful for those pissed off, “nihilistic energy” sessions, because they led to him flipping an instrumental by Balkan Beat Box – which ultimately ended up turning into Talk Dirty for Jason Derulo. “That was the moment that it really all changed,” he says.
Today, Reed is a producer, songwriter, and label owner. His production/writing credits span releases by the likes of Fifth Harmony, Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers, Halsey, and of course, Lizzo (including Juice, Good As Hell and Truth Hurts, amongst others).
Reed signed Lizzo to Nice Life thanks to an introduction through their shared booking agent, and is now developing John-Robert (“one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time”), plus singer/producer/rapper/multi-instrumentalist St. Panther and “rock star” Junior Mesa – as well as working on his own material for the first time since he was signed to Epic.
Here, as the third guest in MBW’s new World’s Greatest Producers series, Reed talks about overcoming the music industry doubters, his approach to production, and the best piece of career (non) advice he’s ever been given…
What in your view is the role of a producer?
The first thing a producer does is create a space and hold space for artists and songwriters. If it’s a day where you are going to write something from scratch, for example, my job is to make sure everybody feels comfortable.
So making sure everybody has food or water, that they know where the bathroom is, you’ve got to get those things out of the way, and then you’ve got to set up an open, honest environment and meet people where they are. If they are bouncing off the walls caffeinated and they want to make something wild, you’ve got to meet them there. If they are having an off day and in a funk, you have to meet them there. Whatever the energy in the room is, you have to help distill it into music.
“as a producer, you’ve got to set up an open, honest environment and meet people where they are.”
When it comes to production, the biggest thing you have do is not ruin or obscure the emotion — the feeling, energy and electricity buzzing in the room. I always say to artists, when it comes to drum sounds, keyboard sounds, vocal production, harmonies… that’s the easy stuff. It’s really about creating that environment where everybody feels like they can make something honest, trying not to mess it up.
When we are at the stage of this piece of art graduating, it’s about protecting the art, and protecting the artist from the record label. The main purpose of that is to show [the label] why this piece of art is magical and that if we keep it as honest and true and direct as the artist intended it, you are going to have a better chance of having a big song than if you fuck it up, if you muddle with it.
How do those conversations with record labels go?
They usually go well. If I’m doing my job right, the artist and songwriters are all motivated, and we make something great, the conversations are usually fine. If you have something great, I think most people can feel it and you don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops.
Oftentimes when I have the most feedback, comments or criticism from any person on the label side, I’m already quietly having those thoughts myself. Every now and then you do have to get on the phone or go to someone’s office and really fight for what you believe in. As a producer it’s my job to be on the artist’s side.
How do you avoid ruining the organic vibe of what’s going on in the studio?
Artists and songwriters are prone to not trust ourselves, especially if you’ve been working in music for a long time and you’ve gotten knocked down a couple of times. You are prone to wondering if what you made is any good or if it’s good enough, and sometimes you might second guess yourself or try to force something that is not real because essentially you don’t think that listening to yourself is going to bring value. But listening to yourself is literally the only thing of value that we all bring to the room.
The way this will actually play out is, I’ll tell artists what they are doing — if they say or sing or come up with something great and it feels honest, I’ll say yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great! If it’s something that has potential, we’ll talk about how this is awesome and if we push this a little further it’s going to be crazy.
But if somebody comes in and they are clearly trying to write outside of what they are naturally feeling, I’ll try to pump the brakes a little bit. Let’s say an artist comes in and they are clearly down. They’ve been looking for a big uptempo single for months but they are beat up because they’ve been trying and trying and their label says they are coming up short over and over.
“When you take a sad song and give it tempo, it’s a wrap. Those are the best.”
Instead of actually going down that road with them, I’ll say, ‘There’s no pressure today, we are not going to write a hit, we are not going to write this song you’re looking for. Let’s just clear the air.’ And we’ll start talking, maybe they are frustrated, and I’ll just listen to them talk.
Artists and songwriters speak in song lyric, that’s their language, so I’ll be paying attention to what they are saying and be like, ‘What you just said, can you sing that?’ Meanwhile, I’ll be noodling around on a guitar or keyboard part, and I’ll say something like, ‘What if you just sang it with this melody?’ All of a sudden, we’re on our way.
The thing is, if you make something truly great and honest, anything can be uptempo, especially the sad songs. People never realize that. When you take a sad song and give it tempo, it’s a wrap. Those are the best.
Who are the most memorable artists you’ve worked with?
I did one session with Sam Smith. The song never came out, but I thought he was one of the most incredible artists and humans I’d ever been in the room with. When an artist is humble, very funny and can sing the way he sings, I’m like, sign me up. I could do this all month.
[In terms of] my favorite artist that I’ve worked with that has made some noise with the music we made together, Lizzo would be top of the list. She is also somebody who is truly herself, so authentic, so real. She writes the song that she’s feeling that day because she knows she has no choice to try and fake it.
To be as good of a songwriter as Lizzo is, to be as fun and funny as she is, to be as creatively fierce as she is, to have all of that, and then be like, okay Lizzo go cut the vocal, and she cuts the vocal and it just blows everyone’s heads off… she makes my job easy.
When you were working with Kesha for her album Rainbow, she was in a really vulnerable place. How did you manage that situation, and what were those sessions like?
Yes, she was in a very vulnerable place. This is the time period when she wrote Praying, one of the most important songs of the last couple of decades. I didn’t write or produce that — that was Ryan Lewis. At this time, I had also just worked with Phantogram, a great band on Republic, and they had gone through a very serious tragedy right in the middle of making the album.
“[working with kesha was] at a point in my career where I’m starting to understand what creating space for an artist means, and what holding space for an artist means.”
So this is a point in my career where I’m starting to understand what creating space for an artist means and what holding space for an artist means. I’m starting to understand how a safe space is No.1, and even if you don’t fire off the big songs right off the bat, maybe it’s just a couple of weeks of creating a safe space so the artist feels comfortable and empowered and they can be vulnerable, silly, cry.
The Kesha sessions really started off as just let’s just get comfortable. That led to some really great music.
Is there anyone who has inspired you throughout your career?
Somebody who has been a big inspiration on me since we met in 2010 when I was still in the Bay area, was a guy called Steve Brodsky. He was a manager who ended up becoming my manager and he was one of those light-up-the-room infectious personalities.
He was the first person to say to me, ‘You could produce pop records, you could produce rap records.’ I was like, ‘Nah, I’m a little too cool for that,’ and he was like, ‘Dude, producing rap records is fucking cool, producing pop records, that’s cool, you should do it.’ He was the one that said, ‘You need to move to L.A.’ He was really the person who set me on this path.
He passed away young at the age of 34 in 2013, he had acute leukaemia and he got diagnosed and passed away in four months. It was one of the worst things that ever happened to me in my whole life.
“Steve’s presence, his guiding philosophy and principles for treating people well, being friends first, having good energy and trusting that we’ll work out the paperwork later, and knowing how important it is to make a room feel alive, I still hold onto all that today.”
His presence, his guiding philosophy and principles for treating people well, being friends first, having good energy and trusting that we’ll work out the paperwork later, and knowing how important it is to make a room feel alive, I still hold onto all that today, and he is the namesake of my record label and publishing company, Nice Life.
People hear the name of the company sometimes and are like, ‘Oh yeah, life is nice or you have a nice life’ or something like that. But Nice Life actually is sort of the rallying cry of the rebel spirit, of the outsiders. Because Brodsky, like me, was not a music industry insider. He was a passionate music fan on the outside trying to get in.
When he or I would see somebody with the keys to the kingdom, or born into a massive amount of money or whatever it is, Brodsky would always say, ‘Oh man, nice life bro.’ He would actually use that phrase sarcastically, mockingly, to people who were already inside the party that we couldn’t get into.
So I took the bro off of it because I couldn’t do that to myself, but that’s where the name comes from.
What’s the best piece of career related advice you’ve ever been given?
There is one that sticks out. A person who I won’t give the satisfaction of naming said to me, when I was 21, when my band was about to turn down those record deals and fall apart, ‘Just because you can make an album, doesn’t mean you should.’
That’s not the advice — those words I don’t agree with. It was somebody on the inside standing at the top of the castle wall, looking down at me and saying, better luck next time, you are never going to get in here.
“The best advice I’ve ever been given honestly is just people rejecting me over and over and over. Thickening my skin, lighting my fire, and driving me to where I am now.”
When I think of what’s driven me my whole career, it’s often been different versions of that. Maybe it’s a relative or a family friend saying, ‘When are you going to give up on the music thing and try something else?’
Or, ‘I’m too busy to work on your project.’ ‘This song isn’t right for this artist.’ ‘Sorry, I totally spaced on our meeting time today! I got tied up on the west side [of L.A].’
The best advice I’ve ever been given, honestly, is just people rejecting me over and over and over. Thickening my skin, lighting my fire, and driving me to where I am now.
What advice would you offer to someone starting their career as a producer today?
Be yourself. It is the most valuable thing you have. It’s harder than it seems, but it will bring you joy and success faster than doing anything else.
What would you change about the music industry and why?
I would like to see a lot fewer males in power. I’d [also] like to see some version of a HR department – I don’t know if that’s in the form of unionizing – but some way that producers, writers and artists who are independently employed can go and tell their stories when they are being mistreated.
I think the gig economy of Los Angeles, Nashville, Atlanta, New York – anywhere where there is a songwriting and producing community, and people are desperate to break through for any success, sometimes desperate just to get a little money to get by – sets up a system where people can be taken advantage of and there is no place to report that.
When you say taken advantage of, do you mean in many different ways?
Yeah, I do. You have things all the way from people being sexually harassed to being offered and often signing deals that are predatory and hurtful and can really put somebody in a bad financial situation for five, seven, years.
“[In the songwriting and production community] you have people being sexually harassed to being offered and often signing deals that are so predatory and hurtful. There is no place to report that.”
Oftentimes, the people making those offers and doing those deals, they know better, they know exactly what they are doing.
I was lucky to meet a couple of really kind people in LA that started my music business family that grew outwards, but not everybody is so lucky and I would love a real support system for those just coming into town.
What are your ambitions?
Continuing to amplify and help empower any artists that are on the outside trying to get in. It’s not just about music, it’s about culturally having an impact and bringing artists to the world stage that are needed right now.
Lizzo is a shining example of that. Beyond that, we are going to have to stop climate change, and I want to raise my kids to be kind to others.
MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Traded on the London Stock Exchange, Hipgnosis was established to maximise the value of music… while also proving that value to institutional investors. Music Business Worldwide