Death of the Auteur

A look into the industry and the function of the auteur in modern record production.

Auteur theory is firmly rooted within its relation to cinema, a term that was propagated in the French Cinema magazine, Cahiers du cinema, in the 1950s and was a theory popularised in the 1960s by critic Andrew Sarris. The nature of auteur theory in this context is that the director as overseer of the product is to be considered more the author of the product than the screenwriter and/or other people involved in the creative process. When applying this theory to music production, Richard Burgess states that ‘the defining factor is the unique personal identity with which they infuse their productions’. Though the theory has been subject to some scathing criticism in the film world, it may be argued that auteur theory has definite applications to the art of record production. It may be that the actual factors that define the auteur have not been aptly imposed upon the aural art form and thus it is worth investigating whether the term should be applied to certain music producers in reference to both their role within the industry and the effect they have on the art form itself.


In his famous essay, ‘Death of the Author’, Barthes states that ‘this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”. The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation’.

Thus the author should not be held in the value that we appear to hold him/her in modern society. In popular music it is notable that as an audience we are not particularly concerned with what role the author has played in the artistic influence on the product. We are not concerned with his mastery of the narrative code or whether he has exemplary skill or knowledge (compared to classical music say, where the composer is viewed in such terms). The primary factor in modern pop music is that the end product has its place in the domain so it can be deemed relevant. An example of this may be in the plethora of external songwriters in the majority of pop music, with some artists having up to twenty different contributing songwriters on a particular piece of music. Is it possible however to see the record producer in terms of the notion of the auteur?

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One such producer who may be considered to be an auteur is Trevor Horn. Horn was the driving force behind a great deal of successful pop hits in the 1980s, praised for his work with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Buggles as well as Art of Noise. Horn was one of the first producers to obtain the Fairlight CMI digital sampling synthesiser. Burgess states ‘The Fairlight was expensive, which limited early market penetration. It was the first sampler to market by several years’. One may argue that the exclusivity of technology of this time enables Horn to be viewed as an auteur producer and someone who pushed the art form forwards, his work with these early sampling technologies often being noted as a cornerstone from which hip-hop would emerge. It may be that as the technology of sampling became more accessible for the average producer, these changes in the field of recorded music would have ensued naturally as with any new technology; however Horn may be credited as the catalyst for this change due to his ability to experiment with a new technology before it was readily available. In contrast to the state of technology during the early 1980s, technology today is cheap and easily accessible and knowledge can be obtained from online sources for free. It may be argued that the modern auteur in the production work is the amateur ‘bedroom’ producer fulfilling his or her vision alone, picking from a digital smorgasbord of computer based virtual instruments and plug-ins that can be easily swapped for the next, interesting alternative and an ever growing range of plug ins that remove parameters into a simple one-knob-for-all graphical user interface. Would Horn have made his mark on the production world with such pertinence if he had not been concerned to harness new technology? Does his ability to access and recognise potential in emergent technologies of the time excuse the question of technical application or prowess? Csikszentmihalyi’s model of creativity suggests that technical prowess is unimportant in whether we should consider a piece or document as creative or not creative. Drawing parallels from a Rembrandt painting, and an exact forgery of the Rembrandt painting, Csikszentmihalyi states they ‘may be of equal technical skill, of the same aesthetic value, but they cannot be considered to be equal in creativity’. From this definition of creativity, Horn deserves to be respected and revered, as his intuition and vision in using the Fairlight supersedes the question of his skill and technique in using it. This is perhaps a favourable way of looking at the auteur music producer, as someone who has creative vision.

One producer who can be argued to embody the traditional auteur role is Kevin Parker. Parker operates under the guise of Tame Impala, a fabrication that Parker creates in order to place his music within the psychedelic rock domain. Parker undertakes all creative eventualities within Tame Impala as writer, lyricist, performer, engineer, and with his latest release, Currents, mixing engineer. It is this particular method of creation that leads people to hold him in such high regard. Though Parker professes himself that he is not necessarily doing anything unorthodox in his engineering, speaking of the recording process of his first album, he states that ‘I recorded the whole album with the same gear I had at home, but just did it in a slightly more professional manner’. This raises the question of how factors such as socio-political climate, technology and the industry have perhaps shaped how people develop and create musical artefacts. Parker’s roots lie in ‘bedroom’ production, which could perhaps be seen as the purest form of the auteurism. In recent years we have seen a decline in cost and rises in performance of computer hardware and electronics in general; many amateur musicians and producers have more capability within free software (or in some cases, unlawfully appropriated software) than common studio technology of the times of Led Zeppelin or The Beatles. It may be argued that in some ways, the democratisation of technology has levelled the playing field in that anyone can begin to produce music on a relatively minimal budget, and has led to the need for increasingly unique aural creation in order for the artist to become noticed. This suggests that we have not seen a decline in the auteur music producer, merely that the majority of auteur producers are amateurs creating their own vision of the domain, a minority of whom emerge into the marketplace due to their vision being recognised as commercially viable.

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One may also consider the role of the auteur producer to be intrinsically based around the commercial packaging of a specific style and image. Take for instance modern pop producer Mark Ronson, who has had a string of successful hits, with his name preceding that of the artist. This method of music production could be considered analogous to a capitalistic mode of production. The auteur producer becomes a brand, regardless of the artistic validity of the music, the auteur unquestionably has strong ties to his or her art being commerce, a tangible product that can be bought and sold. Even the term music production lends itself to the idea of a concrete product created to serve a market. Kofsky writes with vitriol of how ‘Cockroach capitalism’ creeps into jazz music, with talks of how the music inevitably serves the purpose of monetary gain, often for the party who has the least influence creatively. ‘If there’s one thing they hate to see it’s a bunch of people sitting around open-mouthed with their brains absolutely paralysed by the music, unable to call for the waiter. They want to sell drinks’. Jazz music has been the backbone of social movement and in empowering African American people, and it is possibly more difficult to find an auteur producer within this field, primarily because the genre has its roots in communal music-making and foregrounds spontaneity. In a 1970 interview, John Coltrane commented ‘It just seems that the music has been directed by businessmen, I would suppose, who know how to arrange the making of a dollar’. This directly shows Coltrane acknowledging the trials that the jazz music industry was facing at the time in 1970, something that has been enhanced and proliferated since then, with jazz music being translated from bars and clubs into the concert hall. This perhaps shows that capital profit can be gained from a music that is or was primarily concerned with inspiring social change. Jazz music has become high art, studied academically in much the same manner as classical music, and with high art being etched into the genre, we can see how high capital recompense can be gained. Despite this, the means of production in jazz music has not changed tremendously. Of course there are sub-genres that incorporate jazz idioms, but generally production methods are focused around clean capture and faithful sound reproduction in order to maintain the organic integrity of the performance. The element of production within the genre tends to be that of a transparent producer – one who is there to capture the magic, rather than attempt to instil their own creative vision. This analysis suggests that in order to be an auteur here, the producer needs to be fundamentally a musician, a multi-instrumentalist, and one of high standard at that. Jazz music is built around individuals that are often highly competent with one instrument; as well as this, the live and spontaneous nature of the genre lends itself to having multiple people playing live with one another. In a traditional sense, the genre may not be convincingly produced by the auteur producer.

The binary opposition of the auteur producer in application to production could be considered to encompass a wide variety of ideas and interpretations, one of which may be in a very literal sense, the producer who shares his work with another party. There is no certain binary opposition to the auteur producer, though one may draw parallels from the realism movement of art, much like the aforementioned transparent role of the jazz producer, concerned with accurate representation of the physical properties of sound. If a music producer is striving to be an auteur producer, whether consciously or subconsciously, he wishes to deviate from this, to fulfil his vision because it is outside of the box enough that he does not have any comparable contemporaries. The auteur ignores the ‘field’, something Csikszentmihalyi notes as ‘a set of social institutions’ and pursues his own vision of how the ‘domain’ should be. One might argue that Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of creativity is apt in defining the auteur producer and his intentions of contribution to the industry.

In conclusion, the auteur producer is a term that is difficult to define due to its being subject to interpretation, through looking at a variety of producers and genres, one can see how the auteur has his/her place within a commercial context, becoming a brand and upholding a marketable image similar to how we view the performer. There are however some genres that do not seem to require the auteur to make contributions to the domain or require this production style. These are the genres where perhaps virtuosity and musicianship take precedence over production technique. We have seen that the auteur has his place in music production and is perhaps an ever growing mode of producer in the form of amateur bedroom producers in the information age, but in that a whole new argument of technical skill being secondary to vision arises, as discussed in relation to Csikszentmihalyi’s model of creativity.