In 2008, I had the rare privilege of watching producer Phil Ramone up close, running a recording session—rare especially because he hates when extraneous people such as myself hang around the control room, like slugs on a tomato. The session was at Avatar Studios, one of the world’s best recording studios in New York, with an A-list session musicians, Elliot Scheiner behind the desk, an on-hand arranger, gear techs, and others—perhaps fifteen people in the studio, all together. This was a high level production, and I can only imagine the project’s cost per diem. Maybe $60,000 per day? Double that? I don’t know, something big. Too big to allow for distractions.
Time was money, as they say. Yet, Phil set an easygoing, professional, fun, and focused tone for the session, and watching his insights into how to improve the performance was incredibly inspiring, to me. My most memorable moment, though, was when Phil decided that a song needed a vocal harmony part. One of the world’s great session arrangers was sitting just a few feet away from him, but Phil cheerfully grabbed a sheet of manuscript paper, and simply wrote out what he wanted, while everyone else waited. It took him several minutes.
From a project management theory perspective, a purist might argue that Phil should have had his excellent arranger write the part instead. But I would classify that as a sophomoric suggestion. Composing what he knew would be the most effective line was what was best for the project, at that moment. Grabbing the pen was the simplest and most pragmatic solution, even though it perhaps blurred the lines between project management and specialist. But Mr. Ramone has enough Grammy awards that those of us theorizing about how to achieve success should examine what he does as a model for how great work really gets accomplished, rather than measure his every action against some laboratory standard regarding how managers must spend their time.
In much of the literature, project managers are told to focus only on planning work, analyzing and managing progress, and facilitating productive communication throughout the project team. That’s the project management role, in its pure form. The vision for the project comes from someone else, and the actual creation of content is executed by specialists. For example, a producer such as Phil Ramone (i.e., project manager) will be hired to work with an artist or a label executive (i.e., a visionary) to guide/clarify/implement the vision, and then various engineers, performers, arrangers, and such will create the recording according to spec, of which the producer is the guardian. That way, during project execution, the producer can focus on coordinating logistics and resources to make sure that the project’s vision gets actualized according to the agreed scope.
That’s the theory, and that’s what’s considered best practice. If a project manager starts to get seduced towards wandering too far into the details, their focus on the big picture can be compromised, their stature as leader is said to be potentially diminished, and there is the danger that they will lose sight of the overall project vision. Conventional wisdom says that this increases overall project risk. That’s a major reason why artists do well to partner with producers. It keeps logistics in the hands of someone who has emotional distance from the content, so that they can keep the trains running on time.
On the ground, though, things are rarely this simple, and there are also risks when project managers become too detached from the details. And it’s an easy excuse, for executives to dodge responsibility for disasters by claiming that their role requires detachment. “Passing the buck” is one way to phrase it. Contemporary music history books have endless anecdotes about clueless suits steering artists in inappropriate directions.
The ability to delegate depends a lot on available resources, as well as circumstances, and this “pure” model of project manager is perhaps more effective in larger organizations where increased staff on hand gives freedom for everyone to be a specialist. But in music, particularly on artist-produced projects, the roles between project manager, visionary, and worker bee are frequently best intertwined. Music is an art of cross-pollination by multiple creative spirits, and producers sometimes have clearer visions of the projects than do the performing artists. That’s our reality, and we can embrace it without guilt, because examples of this model’s success are legion, where success can come from either abandoning ego and collaborating, or from embracing ego and pushing forward. Flexibility to entertain either approach—to accept inspiration where we find it—seems to be the necessary paradox of the music project manager’s mindset.
To maintain focus on the big picture during any digressions down rabbit holes, it’s just important for us project managers to be self-reflective that our own time is a limited resource, and it should be managed as such. If the PM wants to do detailed work, they must also step back, consider how much time they are spending on that compared to other required tasks, and confirm that all can still remain on track.
I would argue that project outcome is more important than maintaining purity of role, particularly in the case of someone in a more managerial role taking care of the business of a more content-creation role. While you probably don’t want a session drummer to take the initiative to, say, redo the singer’s mic placement uninvited, any producer would do well to have a detailed enough understanding of audio engineering to have a meaningful conversation with whoever is actually running the board. While project management is a specialized skill, it is helpful in our business for the PM to have a diverse, applicable skill set, in order to be able to put out fires (or write the occasional background vocal line) with the greatest efficiency.
Micro-management is to be avoided, obviously, but too much golf also increases project risk. Sometimes, project managers need to roll up their sleeves and address details, in order to keep things moving, and having a project manager capable of nuts-and-bolts problem-solving brings a kind of resilience to a project, as well as the ability to take advantage of serendipitous opportunity. The deep dive just needs to be done with our eyes wide open, regarding how that diversion affects the big picture: the timeline, the budget, the quality, the team morale. In the end, what the project needs is an over-arching consideration of what the situation demands, rather than how neatly tasks are accomplished in accordance with theories of best practice.