Marshall Altman has an extensive history in the music industry, starting as a musical artist as frontman for the alternative band Farmer in the mid-1990s, then venturing into A&R work for a major record label, and eventually moving into the role of music producer. His discography includes work for Matt Nathanson, Kate Voegele, Brooke Fraser, Natasha Bedingfield, Marc Brossard and numerous others. He also recently produced the upcoming album from alternative band The Almost. As a songwriter, he recently co-wrote the hit song “Parachute” with Ingrid Michaelson, which was recorded both by Cheryl Cole and by Michaelson herself.
Altman recently appeared at the Durango Songwriters Expo as a guest panelist to offer advice and song critiques for the attendees. Between events, he was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us.
MIMO: How did you make the shift from artist to producer? How does one role inform the other?
Marshall: Well, it was a pretty long arc…I stopped being a touring artist. I think we all consider ourselves artists to some degree. I view myself as a musician and as a writer, and as a producer. Granted, being a producer isn’t, you’re not on the front line. You’re not on the mic, you’re behind the scenes. But I still view what I do as some form of artistry. But I was in a band, I was touring, I was going around the country playing shows. [Then] I took a job doing A&R at Capitol in ’96, I think, or ’97, and I never really went back to being the typical artist…I have a wife and family. I’m happy at home, but I make records. I make music for myself all the time. I think that’s the definition point of being an artist. I make music for myself. If you make music for yourself, you’re an artist, at least by my definition.
MIMO: So, how do you determine which projects you’re going to produce? What do you look for?
Marshall: It’s really about the music first and foremost. If I can hear a rough demo of a song and imagine the entire record, I want to produce that record. If I’m fascinated by the artist and what they’re doing, I want to do the record. You know, it’s a very artistic decision. Sometimes it’s an artist’s history that I’m compelled by. Sometimes it’s the songs they’ve written. Sometimes it’s who they are as people, a lot of different factors.
MIMO: Right, and probably not just one for each. You don’t have a set of criteria.
Marshall: Yeah. It all comes down to the songs, too. That’s always very, very prominent in my decision-making process. And [also] how I get along with them. Sometimes you’re thinking about making a record with somebody, you sit down with them, and you can tell it’s not going to work.
MIMO: Have you had the experience of getting started on a project, and abandoning it because there isn’t chemistry?
Marshall: I’ve never done that.
MIMO: Okay, so once you commit, you’re in?
Marshall: Once I’m committed, I’m committed.
MIMO: I imagine, though, that makes you a little careful about what you commit to?
Marshall: Yeah, definitely. And sometimes I’ve committed to things and I knew I made a mistake, but if you’re in it, if you cash the check, you’ve got to do the job.
MIMO: You mentioned the great songs. You’re a songwriter as well, so what in your opinion, constitutes a great song?
Marshall: Wow. I think a great song is something that captures an idea that you know incredibly well as a listener but in a way that you’ve never heard before. It’s way too deep to get into, but it’s some combination of lyric, melody, and phrasing that makes you feel a certain way and makes you want to feel that way over and over again. That’s a tough question. I know a great song when I hear it.
MIMO: On some of your critiques [at the Durango Songwriters Expo], you mentioned a couple of times, “I think this is a very good song. I don’t think it’s a great song.”
Marshall: Yeah, but a good song and a great song are very far apart. If a bad song is the floor and a good song is the ceiling, a great song is the sun. The distance between a bad song and a good song is 15 feet. The difference between a good song and a great song is 93 million miles.
MIMO: There are a lot of indie artists out there these days, and you said that you’ve produced some of them, as well as label artists. What do you think is good about the rise of the indie music these days, and what do you think is bad about it?
Marshall: I don’t think there’s anything bad about it. I think what’s good about it is it gives artists a platform to work from. It gives them freedoms that they’ve never had before or were too expensive for them to get inside the major label system. I think it’s great for music fans. I think it’s great for music…I’m thrilled about the indie scene…Maybe the only downside is that it’s just more people whose hearts are going to get broken, because most people don’t make it. Only the best indie artists make it, just the same way only the major label artists make it.
MIMO: Okay. So, just for clarity, when you say an artist makes it, you’re thinking in terms of financial…
Marshall: I mean, makes a living. By “makes a living,” I mean literally makes a living. I don’t mean “gets rich.” If you can just make a living in this business, you can figure out a way to live a lovely life.
MIMO: So, how does an indie music artist reach out to somebody like you?
Marshall: I have a website, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter. Those are the sort of normal channels. A lot of times I find indie artists myself.
MIMO: Somebody you listened to and you liked?
Marshall: Other artists turned me on to them. Artists always turn me on to the best music. Other musicians always, always know the best music.
MIMO: What advice would you offer someone who would like to become a music producer, somebody who wants to do what you do for a living? What would be the best brief bit of advice you could give them?
Marshall: A) Use great players. B) Don’t expect to get paid. I mean, make sure you cut a good deal so that if something good happens to the project you’re working on, you can benefit from it. But I worked for free for a long time. Don’t be afraid to suck, don’t be afraid to be bad, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and if you can, try and make mistakes in the privacy of your own home or studio. It always helps to have a relationship with your engineer. Use an engineer in a tracking session. Producing is so much more than just the sounds that you’re getting. It’s about the emotional content of music. To a certain extent, your job as a producer is to see that through – to see the emotion that’s in the music and see it through to the album. Also, do a lot of pre-production. A lot of pre-production always helps.