Column: What George Martin’s death may say about the state of music

The words "George forever" are seen written on a wall outside Abbey Road studios where the Beatles recorded albums and where the zebra crossing cover picture of the Abbey Road album was originally taken in London, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. George Martin, the Beatles' urbane producer who quietly guided the band's swift, historic transformation from rowdy club act to musical and cultural revolutionaries, has died, his management said Wednesday March 9, 2016. He was 90. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

George Martin, the Beatles’ longtime producer, often considered a fifth member of the band, died at age 90 on Tuesday.

Martin signed the Beatles to the fledgling Parlophone label after every other British record company rejected them and then produced 13 classic albums with the band. Needless to say, without Martin, popular music would look much different than it is today.

News outlets like the New York Times are saying Martin was one of those rare producers, such as contemporaries Quincy Jones and Phil Spector, whose popularity was almost on par with the bands they sat behind the mixer for.

It’s disputable, for sure: unless the teenage girls of Beatlemania were obsessing over the liner notes of With the Beatles or Help! (I don’t know, I wasn’t there), I’m not sure that was the case for everybody but devout fans and music connoisseurs.

Maybe the haircuts and the impeccable harmonies placated them enough, or maybe people were more prone to digesting ancillary band information because of the more physical, less fickle nature of the album in the 1960s; I can’t make that call.

Seeing as he kept a minimal presence in the twilight of his life (unlike 70’s mega-producer Bob Ezrin, who recently became subject to a Kanye West Twitter rant, not many people in 2016 even knew the producer George Martin had definitively passed; instead, Game of Thrones fans freaked out thinking the books would never be finished now (George R.R. Martin).

So, can a producer be as ubiquitous as a band in 2016? Will the person in the control room ever again receive 79 Grammy nominations a la Quincy Jones? Are producers even guaranteed a career as long as Jones’, one that is lucrative and successful enough to span 60 years?

I’m specifically referring to producers experiencing success in a thoroughly digital musical industrial climate (we’ll use the semi-arbitrary metric of someone whose first professional recording was 2006 or later), so this effectively negates people like Rick Rubin (The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Slayer), Danger Mouse and even El-P – who, despite owning an acclaimed independent record label (Def Jux) and producing a string of excellent hip-hop albums since the 1990s, is really just getting his big break now with his and Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels.

I honestly don’t think producers can receive those kinds of accolades anymore, and I don’t think it speaks to a lack of skill so much as a total stratification and democratization of music by way of the Internet. This, I believe, has lead to a perpetual obfuscation of artists as more and more appear and make themselves indistinguishable in the morass of .wav files. 

There are, of course, young exceptions to rise above the competition. An example I can think of off the top of my head is the omnipresent DJ Mustard (“Mustard on da beat”), who had a whopping 70-plus production credits in 2015 alone. One of his first professional recordings was Tyga’s “Rack City” in 2011 and a slew of hits employing his self-described “ratchet music” style have since followed.

Only time will tell of his longevity, but he’s become a permeating presence on mainstream hip-hop radio since his rise to prominence five or so years ago.

Another successful producer by this metric is Ryan Lewis, 27, rapper Macklemore’s sidekick. Their most recent album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, sold 51,000 physical copies in its first week, a not-shabby feat considering abysmal physical sales in the present day.

It’s helpful for Lewis’ notoriety that his name is included next to Macklemore’s, similar to the DJ Mustard strategy of inserting a catchphrase in every song he works on.

A commonality I see among these producers – and a Billboard Top 10 Producers listicle – is that all of their recognition comes from producing the loud, highly compressed pop or hip-hop that is commercially viable today. Granted, that is more or less what Rick Rubin did before, but it’s generally not regarded as “good” from a production standpoint.

In order to rise above many talented colleagues as a producer to get to the ranks of a George Martin figure, one must compromise what is sonically good or interesting in favor of dynamic-less, mostly mediocre pop. It’s a great time to be a musician.


Stephen Friedland is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at stephen.friedland@uconn.edu.