Op-Ed - Black Hat Ghost Production Needs to Stop

The shady practice of black hat ghost production has ruined our industry for both professionals and fans.
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The controversy and muddy definition of ghost production have been floating around our industry for a long time. Many high profile "producers" and DJs that don't have any talent in making music often purchase complete works from unknown producers and slap their name on it to fuel their careers.

Let's start first with the white hat, grey hat and black hat versions of ghost production.

As fans of electronic music, how do we know that we are getting the genuine article and not some Milli Vanilli joker who has the right look, neat Berlin haircut, and great fashion sense? 

White Hat - A large number of DJs and artists have great musical ideas but cannot engineer them. So this is when they work with an engineer and collaborate with them on a track, in effect acting as a producer or executive producer. You can still be a producer of a song or album, even if you don't touch the board or the DAW. If you contribute to the song with any artistic feedback, concept, lyrics, and the business side of it - you are a producer.

In the white hat version of what you might call "ghost production," the engineer is still listed in the credits but often takes a back seat in regards to the recognition. More often then not, they are cool with it and fancy themselves as engineers for hire. The critical element here is that the artist does not try to hide the credit for the contribution of the work.

Gray Hat - This version of ghost production is unfortunately used by more artists then we care to mention. However, it's still somewhat legit because the artist taking the credit has worked alongside the engineer/producer on the song. The difference here is that the engineer is given financial compensation but often is contractually left out of the music credits on the work. Not great, but we can live with it.

Black Hat - This is where someone (an artist, manager, or label) buys a complete work and takes the credit for it or assigns credit to a proxy, often with an iron-clad nondisclosure agreement attached with the payment. These works go for more money, so many producers that are broke will concede to this ghost production market place. More often then not, the "artist" taking credit is more marketable or has financial resources and marketing expertise to advance their career vs. the broke producer. Thus we get a lot of artists that can't DJ, can't perform, and let the light show and the glitzy marketing/pr do the work.

So what are the results of this ghost production ecosystem? The acts (not artists) with the biggest bank account win, and the real artists are often left behind in obscurity. We get the lowest common denominator of "main stage" talent who relies on light shows, power brokers, and a big marketing machine. This ghost production market built the "EDM" joke that fueled the explosion of electronic music and corporate festival culture in the early 2010s. Yes, this is still happening, but the appetite for it has waned quite a bit, and with the onset of COVID 19, there is a revolution brewing. More on that in a bit.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule (see white/gray hat), and many engineers or studio producers have no desire to become artists. They want to make a decent living making music, and they are often introverted studio junkies.

So what now? As fans of electronic music, how do we know that we are getting the genuine article and not some Milli Vanilli joker who has the right look, neat Berlin haircut, and great fashion sense? It's not that hard to spot the bullshit, but here are some ways to spot the posers.

  1. Please get to know the artists you like, not literally but by reading interviews, watching them do master classes, reading bios, and diving into their work. It's a level of music fandom that has died off, we eat singles like candy, and in our short attention span sugar high, we keep looking for more more more. Real artists will resonate with you; the fakes become easy to spot because they feel like Canal Street Gucci.
  2. Genre is often a key indicator, people that are making more traditional electronic music like house and techno are often the real McCoy, not cash-grabbing poptronic clowns. If they feel like a one-hit-wonder and their press photo looks like it should be in a teen magazine - you probably just bought a fake.
  3. They start with a big album, get signed to a major label right away, and there is no previous work. These are manufactured artists, aka boy bands.

So that being said, there will always be consumers that don't care about any of this, and that's fucking sad. To those of you who love this music, are fans of real artists and support the culture in the right ways - keep doing what you are doing, this is where art thrives and keeps this music and scene moving forward.

If you are someone that participates in this practice, you suck, and your careers will hopefully be short. You are lying to your fans and yourself. You are a joker, and you know it.

Back to the COVID crash, and yes, this will all tie into the more significant point here. So our industry has been destroyed and has burned to the ground. The live events, festivals, clubs, and concert businesses will be reset, and this is an opportunity to course-correct. New festivals, new artists, new clubs, a fresh start in so many ways - so let's see the silver lining here, there will be new opportunities as we rebuild.

Hopefully, we have learned from past mistakes, and that consumers are now craving more legitimate music and talent. Hopefully, the practice of sticker slapping, aka black hat ghost production, dies a painful death, and we can support genuine artists who have the talent and not slick marketing gimmicks and fist-pumping playlist jockeys.

The power is yours dear music fan, use it wisely. 

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