The best music producer in the world that nobody has ever heard of

Grammy-award winner Jack Antonoff has worked with some of the biggest stars of today, but his fame is still to catch up with his success

Producer Jack Antonoff at the 64th Grammy Awards.
Producer Jack Antonoff at the 64th Grammy Awards.ETIENNE LAURENT (EFE)

On April 3, Jack Antonoff won the Grammy Award for Producer of the Year – classical music aside. It was his first win and third consecutive nomination in the category. Given the importance the US music industry attaches to big hits at these awards, it couldn’t logically have gone to anyone else. Antonoff produced the songs Gold Rush in 2021 for Taylor Swift, Chemtrails Over the Country Club by Lana Del Rey, Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent, Solar Power by Lorde, Sling by Clairo and Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night by his own group, Bleachers.

In fact, the award confirmed what an algorithm had already spelled out: “Jack Antonoff is the world’s top music producer,” according to the 100 Most Successful Producers in the Business list by Jaxsta, a new website that describes itself as the world’s largest music database. According Jaxsta, their algorithm used the following criteria to put Antonoff in the number one spot: chart position, Grammy wins and nominations, Spotify streams, and physical sales – the same criteria that put more famous producers such as Kanye West, Max Martin and Diplo at the top of the list.

When Antonoff’s name was called at the 64th Grammy Awards ceremony, he emerged from the audience nervous but elegant in a Chanel suit and, in accordance with his shy and modest image, he dedicated the gong to his team, his agent and his girlfriend, Margaret Qualley, the daughter of actress Andie MacDowell. In fact, his acceptance speech ended with the words: “This is for all the people who sit at home, make shit that they think is really cool and just keep making it and just keep making it.”

He might have been a millionaire for some time now, but Antonoff continues to speak like the music nerd he was when composing in a room of his parents’ home, which he did until the age of 27. In fact, these beginnings are so much a part of him that, on his 2017 tour, he meticulously replicated this room in his trailer so that fans could understand where his sound came from. Rollercoaster, his biggest hit with Bleachers, may have more than 115 million streams on Spotify alone but, according to Antonoff, Bleachers’ songs are “supposed to sound like a person going crazy in a room alone – that’s what it is.”

Jack Antonoff with his girlfriend, actress Margaret Qualley
Jack Antonoff with his girlfriend, actress Margaret QualleyTheImageDirect.com (GTRES)

Antonoff’s misfit image is becoming ever more elaborate. When he was a guest on the Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show three years ago, he appeared in jeans and a baseball cap, but on his last visit, 10 months ago, he was dressed like the geeky Steve Urkel from the TV show Family Matters. At 38, this scrawny white man with exaggerated horn-rimmed glasses looks like a modern-day version of Woody Allen. Allen grew up in Brooklyn but made his life in Manhattan. Antonoff grew up in the wealthy New Jersey suburb of Bergenfield, but finished his studies in Manhattan at the exclusive Professional Children’s School, founded in 1914 to educate Broadway child actors. His girlfriend at the time was Scarlett Johansson.

Like Allen, Antonoff is Jewish; his family is of European origin and he easily identifies with the Woody-Allen neurosis often attributed to his ancestors’ troubled history: “Holocaust thinking. Depression mentality. It’s in my lineage,” he recently told Rolling Stone magazine. “That’s a crazy road to go down. Because of the stories you’ve heard of your ancestors, like, ‘We went through this shit so you could play music if you wanted to.’ Two generations ago, the highest form of success was to not be murdered. So you go burn it down for all the people that couldn’t do it. But don’t get cocky!”

Antonoff was still in his twenties when his group at the time, Steel Train, signed their first contract with a record label. Steel Train didn’t do badly, but the ambitious Antonoff wasn’t satisfied with touring mid-sized venues with an emo band. “You accept different things at different ages,” he told Rolling Stone. “When you’re 18 and your friends are going off to college and you’ve scored some small record deal, you’re a king. When you’re 21 and your friends are planning their lives and you’re smoking pot in a van, you’re a loser. When you’re 25 and your friends are going, ‘I feel a little stuck,’ and you’re smoking pot in a van, all of a sudden you’re kind of cool again. I wasn’t able to support myself, move out, envision a life where I could do music and not live in my parents’ house. And it was that way until I was 27. I was on this blind-faith path. I call it a delusion, which I think is part of being an artist.”

Early on, he got involved in a band called Fun, which he defines as “a side project.” But in 2012 it gave him his first number one, We are young. It was success on a grand scale, but Antonoff aspired to do something totally solo, and in 2014 he founded Bleachers, which he defined as a group that could fill the gap between Disclosure and Arcade Fire. The media was on side from the start. His music could feature on the soundtrack of any teen movie, from Pretty in Pink to American Pie. His songs sound like they could be by either a Californian punk pop group or pop star Britney Spears. Others make you think of LCD Soundsystem and Interpol. His epic and colorful compositions are reminiscent of something, but you never know exactly what. That is a big deal when it comes to monetizing a style.

In 2014, singer Taylor Swift contacted him. Together they wrote Out of the Woods, which was also produced by Antonoff. He says this happened almost by chance. “I fucking put my heart and soul into that thing. Right at the moment when I was expecting some heavy to come in and do the production, she was like, ‘Can’t wait for this to come out!’ And I was like, ‘That’s it?’ She was like, ‘Yes, perfect.’”

The success of Swift’s foray into synthpop was just the push that Antonoff needed. He had wanted to become a producer for years, but had, he says, come up against record executives again and again. “Overnight, you’re allowed to produce records,” he told Rolling Stone. “And it filled me with joy and fucking resentment because it’s a reminder of why I keep myself extremely separate from the business. Where are the ears, man?”

But it was nearly three years before Antonoff was allowed to produce an entire record. After the success of her debut, the New Zealander Lorde was trying to match its success with her second album. In the music industry, it is said that an artist has a lifetime to produce their first album, but only two years to make their second, and that pressure has sunk thousands of careers. Lorde turned to Antonoff. Together they composed and produced the entire album. Both sales and reviews were fantastic. According to the big guns in the music media, Melodrama was the best album of the year.

From then on, it was plain sailing. In five years, the “Antonoff sound” has become the dominant sound in commercial pop, especially in the female sphere, to the point that there are already artists who sound as if he had produced them without it being so – Olivia Rodrigo had to add Antonoff, Taylor Swift and St Vincent to the credits of Deja Vu to avoid a potential plagiarism lawsuit.

This year, Antonoff is embarking on a massive tour with Bleachers after recording the group’s new album in Paisley Park, Prince’s studio in Minnesota. Presumably, this means he’ll be turning down hundreds of proposals to produce albums around the world. In 2017, an article on the Stereogum website claimed: “In the future, all albums will be produced by Jack Antonoff.” Obviously it was a joke, but in 2022, it seems more like a prophecy that’s not far from being fulfilled.

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