Believe it or not, I get asked that all the time by youngsters that want to be in the music business and people who work in other fields. I have my spiel but I am interested to know the community's perspective. Anyone care to elaborate?
The late Bruce Fairbairn once said in an interview that the producers job is to bring out the best in a band, not put their stamp on it. He woked with such a diverse group that he really didn't have a "stamp" but he made some really great Albums. (Aerosmith / Bon Jovi / Loverboy / The Scorpions / Prism / Kiss / Yes / The Atomic Fireballs / The Cranberries). If he had a stamp, he liked horns / eclectic percussion / and his famous Jungle Calls!!!!!!! Brian Wilson (Beach Boy) once said "An artist never, never, never, ever finishes making an album, but every oncein a while he has to stop and put it out"
The producer's job (at least in my humble opinion) is, besides managing the logistics of the recording process, to be as invisible as possible stylistically. It's about distilling the musical essence of the artist. Part of it is also recognizing whether or not there's good chemistry between the artist and producer before the project starts, and saying no to the work if you feel you can't do justice to the artist's music.
Another way to look at it is: Music is a producer's medium, just like film is a director's medium. The director is ultimately responsible for the film's end product, just as the producer is ultimately responsible for the record.
A film producer is more like the executive producer of a recording - he arranges the financial end of the enterprise. From there, it depends how much control the producer has, as far as assembling the crew, booking the studio, etc.
I've only worked once with an exec producer - he was great, because he stayed completely out of the way, and simply judged my decisions on a cost basis, and trusted my artistic judgment. But then, he was 12 years younger than I, and he was into it simply to learn the process. God bless young kids with money... : )
I think the best comparison for the lay person is a movie director. None music people don't seem to have a clue to what a producer does, but they all have some concept of what a movie or play director does. Then you can compare engineers to camera operators and editors, actors to musicians, script writers to songwriters, etc. Some directors are very hands on with writing the script, acting, or operating the camera while others just sit in their chair and say "do it again" or "that's a wrap". They have to deal with the budget and work with the big movie companies, etc. That seems to be the best analogy that I've found.
You know what, you are right. I really need to remember who I'm talking to. It's just that I get the basic question all the time, too, and had rehearsed the answer so much it just splatted out. In fact, I deleted my message in this group.
If I can have a chance to try again...production is, to me, figuring out who the artist is and getting that recorded, instead of trying to change them into, well, me. I had that done to me and I try not to do it to others. Even vocal production is a tricky business, because I don't want to legislate the life out of the vocal. Just coax the heart out.
Good book that gives some insider insight to this very question is David John Farinella's "Producing Hit Records". A great read as it is basically interviews with 40 different guys and girls in the industry (even some locals) and gives their perspectives rather than being, as the name suggests, a "guide". Very inspiring and encouraging for producers to read as you find yourself identifying with the different stories (or not).
One of the things I noticed is that there are very few hard and fast rules for what a producer does but the reoccuring theme is building art out of relationships. I think anyone who's produced can identify that having a great relationship with the artist will make or break the "vibe" of the record (I'm sure there are still exceptions of course).
Actually a lot of the responses in this thread seem to echo a lot of what is in the book.
Producers are like a director in a movie... You have to get what you can out of great musicians with out spooking them... It is so mystical & fragile when doing a session, that one wrong word taking the wrong way, can ruin a session... When working with very creative people, it is an art form, learning how to speak to them & guide them, so very gently, with out being over instructive at the same time... Being a musician myself & a jazz artist, I know what it is like on the other side of the glass...
IMHO a good producer provides perspective. Artists are often so close to their work that they need another voice to find balance. An artist's domain may become narrow because they are emotionally tied to their work. A producer would then objectively bridge the artist's expression to the world at large. The result of good production is that a wider audience can then appreciate that artist's work.