Producers are unquestionably some of the most influential people making music today. They often determine the direction of entire projects, sonically and sometimes even thematically. Good producers stretch artists beyond their comfort zones, encouraging them to reach for a higher level in their art. Through their creative vision for an album, producers craft, mold and refine until it elevates from “good” to “better.” Occasionally their efforts can result in a landmark work that inspires us even years afterward. A "Lead Me On" (Amy Grant), a "Welcome to Paradise" (Randy Stonehill), a "Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth" (Rich Mullins) – the stuff legends are made of.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with five of today’s leading producers, so enjoy a rare look into the hearts and minds of these unsung music heroes, as they discuss trends, controversies, ministry, Whitney Houston and the future of Christian music.
CCM: It seems like 10-15 years ago, it was fairly common for one producer to be at the helm of an entire record, while now it is very common for there to be anywhere from two to 12 producers, depending on the artist and the genre of music. Why do you think that is, and, from your perspective, is that a good or a bad thing?
Michael Omartian: I think it really just comes down to taking people who’ve had a certain amount of success and saying, “If we put five producers together who do well, it increases our odds of doing well.” The trouble is the albums are pretty safe sounding – kind of a homogenized mish-mash of songs you hope you can get a hit with.
Steve Hindalong: I think it’s because of radio. And that happens in the pop world, too. I’m not really comfortable with that, not really excited about doing just a couple of songs. I still think of an album as a whole, of the entire scope of the project. Although it can be successfully done; Nichole Nordeman’s latest album was a good example.
Tedd T: It really depends on what sort of musical vision the artist or group has in mind. Artists looking for an eclectic mix of music can benefit from each producer bringing in his or her different musical influences. But if you’re talking about a band that’s going after a particular direction and sound, having several producers can be a hindrance. Then you want someone who can help you define that sound and keep you focused.
Brown Bannister: It’s kind of like everything else that we’ve done in Christian music: We sort of modeled ourselves after the secular market. It seems like kids, at least when I watch my own kids, they just check out things; and then they download. (My kids don’t download unless they pay for it.) They download everything, and then they put it in a playlist. With that in view, this sort of album-sculpting and album production is kind of falling out of vogue, in a sense, because of the way people listen to music now. Still, just being old school, I still prefer full albums.
CCM: As digital downloading increases through legal sites like iTunes and the new Napster, there is talk throughout the industry at large that the full-length, 10-song CD as we know it is on its way out and that single-song releases from artists are the wave of the future. What is your reaction to that, both from a professional standpoint and a music-lover’s standpoint?
Bannister: You know, part of it’s current technology, part of it is that I just don’t think the music business, in general, has done a great job at providing value and content of albums as a whole.
CCM: Which I think has driven consumers to the point where they’d rather buy only one or two songs off an album.
Bannister: When I go online to iTunes to buy music, I may take two songs off the record because a lot of times the other songs aren’t consistent. No A&R person says, “Hey, let’s do a record with only two or three great songs on it.” But somebody, including producers, somebody’s not holding the bar high enough on material.
Omartian: I think it’s a temporary stopgap. I think everybody’s trying to find a way to reduce costs. And I think this is one way out; I don’t think it’s the way it’s going to be, just the way it’s going to be right now.
Hindalong: It’s terribly disappointing. I’m all about creating a 45-minute experience [of a whole album], so as a producer and a songwriter, it’s kind of scary.
Monroe Jones: I still think in terms of writing a book or making a movie when I am creating an album. I want it to be a complete listening experience where when you are done. And I feel like, in that regard, I hate to see that happen. When I first heard about this, I was just thinking “Oh no, please don’t do this.” But you know, that’s what the music business came out of in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You could argue that what broke the Beatles was a singles-oriented market. But I do think that great music will always be heard; that’s the bottom line. But yeah, it’s still scary.
Tedd T: The exciting thing about singles is that they give the artist a chance to have the record company’s full attention devoted to one song without going through the often lengthy process of making an entire album. That might well give us at least a glimpse of many more artists. But also as a music lover, my worry is that a singles-driven market doesn’t introduce me to an artist in depth. Sometimes it takes those 10 or 12 songs on a CD to really get to know the heart of a singer/songwriter or a band, to paint a picture of what an artist is called to say.
CCM: I think it’s fairly common knowledge to the American public now because of the efforts of the RIAA that illegal downloading has had a negative impact on CD sales. And the declining sales has had an impact on record companies, at least partially resulting in mergers, consolidations and thousands of layoffs. But I think what a lot of people don’t stop to think about is the trickle-down effect it has on producers, engineers, studio players, etc. How much of an impact have the woes of the music business had on you personally and on those that you work with or hire when you are on a project?
Jones: It affects me as a producer because labels are either not going to do projects, or they’re going to look for another route. There are many amazing engineers and session players that in the last year and a half are just not getting the work they used to get. Numerous times I’ve had guys tell me in the studio, “Man, this is the first work I’ve had this month.”
Hindalong: Yeah, everyone is affected because record budgets are down. You don’t use strings; you hire five players instead of 20. It affects everything.
Tedd T: It’s hard to see so many talented people and their families struggling because there’s less [work] to go around. All we can do is try to look at this from a positive standpoint, which means taking this as an opportunity to find ways to be more effective and more efficient while staying focused on making great music.
Omartian: Somehow, to me, the richness of the music is a little bit gone. And yet we go, “Oh, why isn’t it selling?” Well, because it’s crap. I’m sorry; it’s snobbish of me to say so, but we can blame it on downloads, blame it on whomever we want to blame it on. What it comes down to is: Are we making music good enough where someone’s going to go, “I’m not just going to download a song on my computer. I’m interested in the whole thing, and I want to go out and buy this thing.” And to me that’s the issue.
Bannister: You know, for artists who I have worked with on a regular basis, a budget now would be 20-40 percent less than what it was just the last time we worked together. It’s not always the case. But, in general, that’s true. Kids [who are illegally downloading] just have no concept of how something that seems like an inalienable right affects so many lives.
Omartian: When I go through a struggle when all of a sudden work is kind of drying up, I can always go, “Whatever’s happening to us inside the industry, for those who know the Lord, we know that this is not all we have. This is not the end of the road; it’s just one step.” God really knows about all this stuff; and if we really believe that He’s there and He’s got His hand on us, then we can live in a relatively peaceful state even though hell is going on all around us.
CCM: Now on to something happier. I think especially over the last four or five years we’ve seen a substantial shift in the way Christian artists have an impact on the mainstream culture. I think where “crossover” used to be a real rarity — it pretty much used to be just Amy Grant — it’s now almost becoming routine to have Stacie Orrico on MTV, Switchfoot on "The Tonight Show" and MercyMe all over multiple formats on the radio. What do you think that means for the future of what we know as the “Christian music industry”?
Bannister: It seems a lot of young people I talk to really don’t have an interest in being in “Christian music,” per se. But they certainly have a vibrant faith, a vibrant spiritual life and a desire to be “salt.” You know, it used to be when we talked about crossover that the big headline was: “Artist Trying to Dilute the Gospel.” I think what we’re realizing now is that there really are people who are called different places.
About 10 years ago I asked Billy Ray Hearn [founder of Myrrh Records and Sparrow Records] what the big difference was between artists now and artists when he started on the West Coast [during the ‘70s]. And he said, “Well, artists would come in and just have this burning passion for the gospel, to minister on the beach or to go to Berkeley or college campuses or just take it to the streets or wherever. They would really have a vision about where they wanted to go. And now more often than not, artists managers come in and say, “Where are you going to take my artist?” And that’s a huge shift now that we’re two or three generations away.
I think it’s all about calling. What is your calling? Who are you supposed to speak to? Who are you drawn to, and how are you gifted to communicate?
Omartian: Well, I’ve done both. I’ve produced secular artists; I’ve produced Christian artists; I’ve produced Christian artists who want to crossover. The more I do this, the more I think what it really comes down to is individual vision for an artist. Jesus said, “If I suffer, you will, too.” The decisions that you make to be a testimony for Christ will close certain doors for you. Because the very nature of Christianity is that Jesus said, “I came to bring a sword.” So the whole concept of being popular and being a Christian is an oxymoron. It’s a message of love and peace, but it’s a divisive message. The Cross is an offense to people who don’t understand. It makes people uncomfortable.
Jones: I do think that the last year and a half has been very exciting. I’d love for artists who happen to be Christians to go out into the world and do exactly what’s happening with these artists. I think this could be great for Christian music if it means we’re pumping that many great artists out into the world who are right up there with their favorite rock & roll acts. I’d love to see the lines melt away.
CCM: Generally speaking, it seems in recent years that Christian music has had trouble developing substantial new artists who are able to maintain and build on their initial success. In a lot of ways this industry is still dominated by Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Point of Grace, Avalon, Third Day — the same A-level artists who were here five or 10 years ago. Why do you think that is?
Omartian: I don’t know the answer to that. To me, what attracts people to these artists you mentioned is the thing called a song. Not an attitude, not a concept but a song. The very people you were talking about, their whole thing was built on songs and songwriting. That’s why I remember Beatles tunes; that’s why I remember stuff from 40, 50 years ago — because those songs meant something.
Bannister: I’ve seen the same thing. I think that, just like on the secular side, it seems like there’s not a real long-range development kind of concept on the part of labels. You don’t see labels sticking with artists. But I don’t want to be too hard on labels. Maybe things aren’t as bleak as we think they are.
Jones: I think that, in my experience, there are artists who can deal with the environment of being successful a little more easily than others. It’s almost just a microcosm of what’s going on in the pop world. And it’s almost more confusing because you’re going, “Hey, wait a minute now. I know these are brothers and sisters who like this music. But how do I comprehend this; how do I deal with this?” Also, we have a lot of artists who make a big splash on their first record. But then the system says that six months after that first record comes out, they need to be writing and getting ready for record number two. And it’s really hard to expect people to keep up the quality of the material. I mean, they had their whole life to write that first record!
Hindalong: Well, it’s a lot more like country music than anything else, isn’t it? I think that market is also more of an older audience, one that’s not changing very fast. The Bible Belt isn’t exactly interested in the next trend. So it’s always been safe … obviously the Dove Awards play it safe; they’re not really about change. The CCLI [Christian Copyright Licensing International, which tracks song use in churches] chart is the slowest moving chart on Earth. If you get a song in the Top 10, it’ll be there for years. Of course, I hope “God of Wonders” stays in the Top 10 for another 10 years! [Laughs] But Christian music has never had an audience that embraces change.
CCM: Other than what we’ve already touched on, are there any trends you see in Christian music right now? And trends specifically from the production side of things?
Tedd T: The single most exciting thing about modern Christian music is that the palette, the musical language we speak, that we work with has expanded so dramatically. Producers and artists are being encouraged to explore new musical ways to communicate their heart, their faith and their view of Christ at work in today’s world. Add the technical achievements of recent years, and you’ve got a period that is unequalled in diversity, innovation and excitement. It’s a great time to be making music.
Jones: I think we’re moving into a time where it’s more acceptable to have stuff that isn’t as slick. I think we’re moving back into a time when more artful music is going to be accepted. I hope we’re going to see more music that is going to expose artists’ hearts.
CCM: All of you, at one point or another, have started a record label. Some of them aren’t around any more, and some of them are just getting off the ground. Talk about that process a little bit. What were/are your goals for the labels?
Jones: My concept for Eb+Flo is really just a little boutique label that, I hope, will put artists out there who will cover a lot of territory. I’d like to be progressive with the way this label handles things. I’d like, eventually, to get really heavy into the online delivery of music. The artists I’ve signed are all very prolific, and I’d like to put out a lot of music with them. I think these are phenomenal artists, and they need to be heard. I really have a heart for artists who are going to push the envelope, not in an indecent way, just in a challenging way. We need to be challenged as listeners. I’ll forever crusade for those types of folks.
Tedd T: Teleprompt Records was started out of my desire to go deeper in the world of artist development. I wanted to provide a nurturing environment for artists who could be at home both in Christian and mainstream settings. It was really an extension of what I’d been doing as a producer. The label is structured so that it’s small and focused on one level, a place where we can take the time to search for and refine an artist’s vision. And it’s large and well-connected on another level so that we can make the best music possible with all the integrity we can bring to the task and to give the artist the best possible chance to flourish.
Hindalong: That idea [starting a label] comes up all the time, but I keep shying away from it more and more. I want to be free to do music for the “wrong” reasons, not just based on what’s going to make me the most money. When you get on the label side, it’s all about what will sell. It’s all about sales. And yeah, I want to succeed; and I want artists to succeed. But the main thing is that I want artists to love their music. And being on a label doesn’t have anything to do with that; it’s all about “How much success did we have?” And I’m not entirely motivated by that.
Bannister: I might want to be involved with something that has a different focus to it in terms of profitability and ministry and the global work of the church and the Kingdom of God at large. Debbie [his wife] and I have gotten our heads turned around a bit, reoriented and recommitted and revitalized spiritually. I would just love to see some sort of commercial-oriented ventures that were non-profit in status, with all the profits going to different ministry opportunities around the world. Sort of a business model with real low overhead, so that there actually would be profits [laughs]. I think if I did the label thing again, it would be more a model like that. Make it more of a ministry. And not to compete with the “Christian music business” but just to make it more of a different model. That’s what I would love to be involved in, as a life passion.
CCM: Is there anything in particular in your career that, if you could go back in time, you would love to do over differently?
Omartian: I remember when Clive Davis [founder of Arista Records] called me and said, “Come to the hotel; I want to play you something.” He played me a videotape of [a new artist named] Whitney Houston, and said he wanted me to produce her. And I said, “I’m sorry; I’m too busy.” [laughs]
Jones: I’ve been back in Nashville since ‘93, but before that I was in L.A. for five years and was really thrown in the middle of working with people who were my heroes growing up. I would love to go back to that place now. I feel like, first of all, I would have something to contribute and also that I would at least be willing to hear what God would have me do in those situations.
Hindalong: I’ve worked with so many bands, and I wish I could go back and tell them that it’s just not worth the amount of fighting, bickering, dissension that goes on among brothers – the anger at managers, promoters, agents. In the end, it’s a lot of comedy, but I wish I could go back and have more levity, have more grace.
Tedd T: I’d love to have learned a better balance between career and family earlier in life. I would have to say that I have been most profoundly affected by moments that have had little or nothing to do with career success. I’m proud of the successes, but I haven’t found in them what I find in those moments when creativity, honesty and divine inspiration intersect. I love it when my creative plans for the day are overturned by the arrival of something God-inspired and unexpectedly beautiful.
Why you know him: He produced or co-produced seven of "The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music" according to the book published by Harvest House/CCM in 2001, including the No. 1 honoree, "Lead Me On," by Amy Grant. Speaking of Grant, Bannister produced her first 10 albums (including the classic "Age to Age") and has had a hand in all but two of her eight albums since.
But wait; there’s more. Bannister has also produced an astonishing range of other talent, from Avalon to Charlie Peacock, Point of Grace to Michael English, Twila Paris to Whiteheart, CeCe Winans to Rachael Lampa, Debby Boone to Kim Hill. He was also at the helm for the now-classic "My Utmost for His Highest" project.
Oh, and one more thing: Bannister occasionally co-writes a classic tune such as The Imperials’ “Praise the Lord” and Kathy Troccoli’s “Stubborn Love.” Bannister has received the Dove Award for “Producer of the Year” an unparalleled four times since the award originated in 1994 and at press time is nominated again for the 35th Annual Doves.
Coming Soon: a new Anointed album for Columbia Records, a new “more organic” project from Steven Curtis Chapman and the debut from The Afters on a new label from producer Pete Kipley (MercyMe, Rebecca St. James) and MercyMe’s Bart Millard.
Quotable: “I still look at all these other guys and think they’re the ones with all the talent.”
Dream Gig: Producing James Taylor.
Overheard: “Some of my fondest memories of music-making are with Brown Bannister. He has a great mind for detail and overview. I learned many things working with Brown, primarily: Be humble, grateful, prayerful and uncompromising. He is a giant in the world of production and deservedly so.”—Charlie Peacock
Why you know him: He’s produced (or co-produced) many of the major releases from Michael W. Smith’s Rocketown Records, including all of Chris Rice’s, Shaun Groves’ and Ginny Owens’ projects (except "Blueprint" EP). Jones has also worked with Margaret Becker, Lincoln Brewster, Caedmon’s Call, Paul Colman Trio, LaRue and on the "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie" soundtrack. He’s produced four gold-selling projects for Third Day, including both "Offerings" albums and the GRAMMY-winning "Come Together." Jones recently started his own record label, Eb+Flo, with his first artist being Steven Delopoulos, formerly of Burlap to Cashmere.
Coming Soon: a few new songs on Chris Rice’s best-of, "Short Term Memories" (Rocketown) new ForeFront artist Kimberly Perry, new Eb+Flo artists Holly Williams (daughter of Hank Jr.), Jeremy Casella and a new project from ‘60s guitar icon Dwayne Eddy.
Quotable: “We need to be challenged as [music] listeners.”
Dream Gigs: Producing Paul McCartney and U2.
Overheard: Monroe Jones has been one of my best friends for almost 20 years, so from the very beginning when I started recording, there was nobody I trusted more with my songs and my work. I've learned most of what I know musically from him. — Chris Rice
Why you know him: He produced or co-produced four of "The 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music." He’s in his fourth decade as a major music-biz player. He’s worked with everyone from Steely Dan to the Four Tops, Donna Summer to Rod Stewart, Christopher Cross to Loggins & Messina (topped the pop charts in 1975). He is reported to be the first producer in music history to have No. 1 songs in three separate decades: the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
In Christian music, he’s worked with Gary Chapman, 4Him, Amy Grant (including five songs on the five-million-plus selling "Heart in Motion"), The Imperials (He co-wrote “The Trumpet of Jesus” with his wife, best-selling author Stormie Omartian.) and Kathy Troccoli, among others. In the ’70s, his group Rhythm Heritage also performed the actual theme songs to several TV series such as “S.W.A.T.” and “Baretta.” Omartian also recorded several solo albums, including 1974’s "White Horse," named one of CCM’s “Top 100 Greatest.”
Coming Soon: debut from the “incredible” Joshua Payne, songs on the new stateside album from U.K. sensation Cliff Richard and a concept album to accompany Stormie’s new book "The Prayer that Changes Everything: The Hidden Power of Praise."
Quotable: “I don’t look at anything I’ve done as an accomplishment. I look at my response to a call from God as an accomplishment.”
Dream Gigs: Producing Bono, Sting and a film score.
Overheard: “Omar is, by far, the most talented person we have ever had the experience of knowing. His ability to make a song come alive is rivaled by no one. And would you believe he’s a great person, too? It’s as much fun to hang out with the guy as it is to work with him. That’s rare. He’ll definitely go down in music history as one of the all-time greats.” — 4HIM’s Andy Chrisman
Why you know him: Tedd Tjornham, much better known as “Tedd T,” got his start at Paisley Park, the Minneapolis studio owned by pop superstar Prince. T’s since gone on to produce recordings for Avalon, Margaret Becker, Delirious, Stacie Orrico and Tammy Trent. He’s also produced quite a bit for Rebecca St. James, including her GRAMMY-winning "Pray." He recently started his own label, Teleprompt Records, in partnership with Word Records.
Coming Soon: projects from MuteMath, Antonio Neal, Natalie Warner, Maximilian Williams and Sanctus Real, as well as Jeremy Camp remixes and a live album/DVD from Stacie Orrico.
Quotable: “It’s a great time to be making music.”
Dream Gigs: Producing Bjork, No Doubt and Frou Frou.
Overheard: “I truly believe I would not have the platform I have in my music and ministry today if it weren’t for Tedd T. His commitment to experimenting with sounds and pushing the boundaries musically greatly inspires me whenever I work with him.” — Rebecca St. James
Producers of the Year
While only one studio whiz can walk away with the Dove Award as the 2004 “Producer of the Year,” the Gospel Music Association has honored five with nominations in the category. In addition to Brown Bannister, who has already won the award four times, and Steve Hindalong, the others being hailed as this year’s standouts are Christopher Harris, Steven V. Taylor and Marc Byrd.
Harris, whose earliest production credits include 4HIM’s 1990 self-titled debut (Verity) and dc talk’s 1991 disc "Nu Thang" (ForeFront), owns a prestigious resumé which features top-selling albums by Anointed, Avalon, Ron Kenoly, NewSong and Jaci Velasquez. His recent production highlights include David Phelps' (Gaither Vocal Band) solo debut, "Revelation" (Word), and Allen Asbury’s "Somebody’s Praying Me Through" (Doxology).
Taylor, a long-respected studio veteran, is best known for overseeing praise & worship albums, musicals and children’s projects and has helmed recordings by Christian music pioneers such as Truth and Scott-Wesley Brown. Last year Taylor co-produced Sandtown’s debut, "Based on a True Story" (Gotee), which is nominated for a 2004 Dove Award in the “Urban Album of the Year” category.
Byrd, meanwhile, entered the Christian music scene as a founding member of the alternative rock band Common Children, before going on to form GlassByrd with his wife, Christine Glass. His reputation as a producer and songwriter (“God of Wonders”) catapulted during his recurring collaboration with Hindalong for the “City on a Hill” series of releases. Byrd’s recent production contributions include work on Jeremy Camp’s "Carried Me: The Worship Project" (BEC) and Sonicflood’s "Cry Holy" (INO).
This year’s “Producer of the Year” was announced at the Dove Awards the week this issue of CCM hit newsstands. And the winner is… Go to CCMmagazine.com.
— Jay Swartzendruber
Before Charlie Peacock hit the production scene during the mid to late ’80s with the 77s’ "All Fall Down" (EXIT/Word), The Choir’s "Diamonds and Rain" (Myrrh) and then Margaret Becker’s "Immigrant’s Daughter" (Sparrow), established artists weren’t seen as potential heavy hitters in the role of producer. A lot changed over the next 15 years as Peacock helmed projects by Nichole Nordeman, Switchfoot, Avalon, Audio Adrenaline and Twila Paris, among others, while landing the Dove Award for “Producer of the Year” three times and being profiled in Billboard’s The Encyclopedia of Record Producers as one of the 500 most important producers in history.
Nowadays it’s no surprise when a new artist such as INO’s Anthony Evans calls on another artist to help bring musical muscle and an esteemed producer’s reputation to a high-profile debut. In the case of Evans’ "Even More," the artist of great repute is Kirk Franklin, who’s overseen recordings by Crystal Lewis and Trin-i-tee 5:7 and produced the original soundtrack for the 2001 motion picture "Kingdom Come." And when you think of the Newsboys’ most popular albums, which producer comes to mind? No doubt, a producer who first established himself as a groundbreaking artist. Steve Taylor. Taylor also has a platinum-certified album to his production credit, Sixpence None the Richer’s self-titled Squint 1997 release.
Is your favorite artist also a trusted producer? And if so, have you heard the latest albums that he or she has produced? Can you hear their influence on the music and quite possibly the albums’ lyrics?
Here are several artists we think you should keep your eyes on as their production prowess continues to grow:
Newsboys’ Peter Furler (Plus One, Petra);
Michael W. Smith (Stacie Orrico);
Margaret Becker (Ginny Owens, Kelly Minter);
Caedmon’s Call’s Josh Moore (Bethany Dillon, Pilot Radio);
Out of the Grey’s Scott Denté (Christine Denté, Charlie Peacock);
Poor Old Lu’s Aaron Sprinkle (Kutless, MxPx);
Watermark’s Nathan Nockels (Point of Grace, Phillips, Craig & Dean);
Steven Curtis Chapman (Casting Crowns);
FFH’s Jeromy Deibler (Big Daddy Weave, Palisade);
Audio Adrenaline’s Mark Stuart (Jennifer Knapp);
apt.core’s Will Hunt (Shane & Shane);
tobyMac (The Katinas);
Glitter Twins—Gabriel Wilson and Solo of Rock ‘N’ Roll Worship Circus (Sherri Youngward, The Deadlines);
Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin (Fine China, Map)
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