Some thoughts on ghost production

Recently there was a minor storm in the techno community on Twitter about ghost production. It revealed some underlying values about authenticity, integrity and individuality that I found intriguing, because they appear to be in conflict with certain fundamental aspects of how dance music operates.

So in this blog post I want to discuss ghost production, as a way to consider the question of whether authenticity and individuality are worthwhile aspirations in dance music.

(To anticipate a criticism: I realise that for many people dance music is all about the music, and it’s seen as a waste of time to discuss it or theorise it. I would respectfully disagree with that. Any vibrant art form will generate critical thought and debate around it, and these things can contribute to the vibrancy of the art form in question.)

Ghost production is an arrangement where a producer is paid to produce tracks to be released under the name of another artist. The ghost producer may agree not to be named, or may be given a production credit, but will not be named as the main artist. The ghost producer may create the entire track, or may be employed to assist with specific elements of the process. These practices are often frowned upon as a form of deceit, although some people see them simply as a pragmatic division of labour.

There are many other musical practices in which authorship is blurred: covers, tribute acts, sampling, artists employing songwriters, engineers, session musicians etc. It’s also easy to think of parallels outside music. Marcus Boon’s book In Praise Of Copying (free pdf available here) is a recommended read on this bigger picture, but for this post I want to focus on ghost production.

The recent Twitter storm began when one DJ (I’ll avoid using names, in keeping with the ghost theme) posted a question: why do people in the dance music scene complain about ghost production, but won’t name anyone using ghost producers? If it’s so bad, why not expose it?

In response, and with a hint of mischief, another DJ and producer posted the name of a well-known label, which he said he’d heard used ghost producers.

Things then kicked off big time, with a pile on of views alternately rubbishing the idea that such a respected label would ever do this, and conversely slagging off the label in question for using ghost production.

The label boss – himself also a respected producer and DJ – weighed in to reject the rumour in no uncertain terms. Before long, the Tweet naming his label was deleted and an apology issued. Within a few days techno Twitter moved on, and the ghost production kerfuffle was buried under a much more politically charged discussion of racism (see here and here for good summaries of that).

But to stay with the ghost production furore and think about it a bit more, it did at least neatly answer the original question. Definitive claims about who uses ghost producers are difficult – perhaps impossible – to make, because the very nature of ghost production, and the stigma attached, demands a high level of uncertainty, creating a haze of rumours and unverifiable allegations. It’s a bit like crop circles: once you know who makes them, the whole thing doesn’t really work any more.

While people disagreed as to whether the label in question would ever use ghost producers, there seemed to be broad agreement across the debate that the practice was at best problematic, and at worst appallingly duplicitous.

That agreement looks to me like an instance of what Foucault called the ‘author function’. This term refers to the practices through which certain creative works are attributed to specific individuals, thereby naturalising the idea that such works emanate from a person (or persons), belong to them, and can be accounted for by them. Foucault was writing about texts and authors, but the controversy over ghost production suggests that his arguments are equally applicable to tracks and producers.

(At this point it is worth noting that for Foucault, subjects are always produced. So on this view authors, as subjects, do not precede their works. Rather, works are retrospectively attributed to the person through whom they came into being, whose subjectivity as an author – or artist, producer, whatever – is then formed by that attribution. This point is fundamental in understanding Foucault’s thought, but also quite counter-intuitive. If anyone reading needs more explanation, email me at the address here and I might do another post about it.)

Foucault’s essay “What is an author?” discusses the author function in far more detail than I can do justice to here (the full essay can be downloaded here). But his argument is driven by a question that might be worth asking about dance music: is the author function helpful, or are there instances where, as a regulatory principle, it might be limiting?

When it comes to economic issues, such as revenues from streaming and performing rights, it is easy to see an argument for clear lines of ownership, given how little money most dance music producers make from their work, and how much exploitation has taken place over the history of the music industry. But there is nothing inherently economically exploitative about ghost production; the fee earned might well be more than if the producer had released the track under his or her own name. So the economic argument for maintaining the author function is not so strong.

What seems to be driving the disdain for ghost production is more like a kind of morality based on notions of authenticity and artistic integrity: a conviction that the ties that bind works to individual artists have an ethical value.

In relation to this point, Foucault makes a provocative claim: that the social function of the author is in fact to limit the danger posed by creative works, and hence to constrain their potential. Works are tied down, fixed in place, and held to account by mooring them to individual subjects, rather than allowing the possible meanings and functions of a work to proliferate free from such ties.

An ethical attachment to this kind of author function seems particularly ironic in dance music, because it is a cultural form that originated as part of black, working class and queer practices of liberation. Dance music arose from attempts to escape from, rather than conform to, dominant discourses and structures. That radical, oppositional side of dance music continues to thrive, alongside the more commercial aspects of EDM, house and techno.

The attachment to the individualising author function is ironic also because dance music is such a collective enterprise. All music is collective of course, but some forms of musical culture thrive by emphasising aspects of individuality. Rock music appears to have absorbed the 18th century idea of the virtuoso, reshaping it into the role of the lead singer. This person tends to be portrayed as an individual creative genius, acting as a focal point for the attention of the audience, and the personalised narratives spun around the music.

Dance music, by contrast, doesn’t require this cult of the individual in order to function. At its most basic, dance music brings disparate people and machines together, in ways that can involve radical depersonalisation, as individuals are absorbed into a mass of dancing bodies.

The same is true for the music itself. The art of DJing is precisely to blend one work into another, creating a seamless flow in which the contributions of individual artists are less important than the whole. The DJ’s role is to select and mix music to facilitate dancing, not to be singled out as a focus of attention. The idea of the superstar DJ can be seen as a reassertion of conventions of rock and pop – to put it more bluntly, a colonisation of dance music by these conventions, rather than something intrinsically fundamental to dance music itself.

If I’m right that dance music is a form of culture in which individual creativity is subordinated to the functionality of dancing as a collective practice of liberation, then ghost production is not intrinsically problematic. Its undermining of the author function is actually quite well aligned with the fundamentals of dance music. It might even serve as a useful reminder that successful DJs are not the sole authors of their own success.

To conclude: this blog post isn’t an argument in favour of ghost production. What I want to suggest is simply that it might not make sense to judge ghost production according to norms of authenticity that sit uneasily with core aspects of how dance music operates. Perhaps better questions would be things like: are ghost production arrangements fair or exploitative? Are the producers being remunerated adequately, compared to what the track might earn? And most importantly, is the music any good?

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