The 5 Qualities of A Master Producer – Lessons from a Sushi Chef

This was originally published in 2013 in the Dubspot blog…

Just over a year ago, I saw the film Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. It’s a documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. The movie is a beautiful piece, and is really a study of what it takes to become a master artist. In the film, a well-known Japanese food critic lists the attributes of what makes Jiro a master. Having had the privilege of working with some real masters in the world of music and production, I thought these attributes were a good summary of what it takes to be an excellent producer/artist as well.

1. He Takes His Art Seriously – This is probably the hardest part of being an artist. Most of us grow up in a world where we are told that sitting in an office and entering numbers into a computer is “serious,” but making a piece of music is just for fun, or even frivolous. So, when we make music, many of us (myself included) struggle with our inner parents/teachers/friends who tell us it’s just a phase until we decide what we’re really going to do with our lives. If you plan to be an artist, change this attitude now. What you do is the most important thing in the universe. You create beauty to give people joy, ecstasy, or sadness. You give them the fleeting moments of their life, to make them know what being human truly is. In our journey on this plane, we need these spiritual moments to make existence meaningful.

This means creating a daily routine where production takes a consistent and important role. After all, you don’t put off going to work or doing your homework if you’re not feeling “inspired.”  Make creating an integral part of your life–after all, you’re an artist and creativity is your job

2. Willingness To Work Hard – I’ve been in the NYC music scene for over a decade, and I’ve noticed that talent is maybe 10% of why an artist does well. Work ethic and perseverance are far more important. I really don’t believe in luck, except for the fact that you’re lucky to be alive and in good health. Beyond that, you make your own opportunities.

3. Absolute Cleanliness – In Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, absolute cleanliness is considered a virtue, because a great sushi chef believes that if a restaurant is the slightest bit dirty, it affects the taste of the food. In the world of production, absolute cleanliness is a virtue because it speeds your workflow. Cleanliness does not necessarily mean being able to do a white glove test on your console (although, if you can maintain that level of cleanliness, your equipment will love you). It’s about the organization of files and projects. It’s about maintaining your tools in top working order. This sort of cleanliness will unclog your workflow and let the creative spirit pass through you without interruption.


4. Command And Leadership – As a producer, especially as a producer/artist, you are in charge. Although this may not be the case in every project, there are times when you must take command. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be a collaborator–all musicians should. It means you should have a strong vision, be clearly competent, and have the other necessary attributes of leadership: responsibility, punctuality, and the habit of keeping commitments.

5. Impatience – On one hand, patience is a virtue in music and art, in that it takes time to practice, acquire skills, and fully realize them. However, impatience means that an artist realizes he has something to say, and that there is no time to be wasted in acquiring the skills, producing a product, and getting it out to the world. It may seem like there’s plenty of time to do everything we want to do. There isn’t.

One final piece of wisdom from Jiro: in the movie, he tells his son, “A great chef must eat the best, so that they will always have better taste than their customers.” This is true with music as well. Listen widely and listen to the masters. Listen deeply to outstanding musicians of all styles. It opens the mind, fills you with ideas, and helps you channel some of that mastery into your own work.

Dan Freeman (CØm1x) is a bassist/producer/Ableton Certified Trainier based in Brooklyn, NY.  He’s the Director of the Brooklyn Digital Conservatory and on the faculty of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.