An online friend (@uberkings) sent me the link to a New Yorker article from 2012, called “The Song Machine – The hitmakers behind Rihanna” (John Seabrook). Things change quickly in the music business, but I suspect that most of what this article is saying still holds true in 2015. And it’s depressing.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m reluctant to question anyone’s songwriting process, if they’ve got a vision and they go for it. But here’s a process I just don’t get:
Most of the songs played on Top Forty radio are collaborations between producers… The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners [demo singers] come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song.
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I’m a fan of collaborations between intelligent songwriters who look to expand their musical offerings by tapping into the talent of others. It’s a process that can and will work, and has been done since there was ever pop music.
But what’s missing in this kind of collaboration is an initial vision.
I think most of the songwriters reading this blog are visionaries, and I don’t mean to overly stroke your egos. All I mean is that for most of you reading this, you’ve got a mission when you write songs: you want to affect how people think, how people feel, and you want to do it in the most imaginative, creative, entertaining way you can. That requires an initial vision.
To be successful in music composition, I think there’s got to be at least a little bit of a nod toward your audience — toward what you think they’ll be wanting from you. That’s understandable. But for real songwriters (and I don’t mean to be inflammatory), this is more important:
You’ve got to build an audience that trusts you to go in new directions.
The lack of an initial vision, of a desire to present something creative and new, leads to this sort of thing:
In 2009, both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson had hits (Beyoncé’s “Halo,” which charted in April, and Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which charted in August) that were created from the same track, by Ryan Tedder. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyoncé shared a credit with Evan Bogart. Tedder had neglected to tell the artists that he was double-dipping, and when Clarkson heard “Halo” and realized what had happened she tried to stop “Already Gone” from being released as a single, because she feared the public would think she had copied Beyoncé’s hit. But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; “Already Gone” became just as big a hit.
To me, that’s more than a bit sickening. It’s not what music composition is or should be, and it sounds like rank amateurism. There’s an attractive quality to music that follows the principles of good songwriting structure, but that’s just the starting point. What you ultimately create should (in my opinion) be the result of some kind of visionary process.
On this blog, I concern myself a lot with helping songwriters understand good songwriting structure. But only for this reason: That makes it more likely that you’ll be able to convey your initial vision properly to your audience.
In other words, it’s not strictly about getting the structure of music right. It’s making sure that bad structure doesn’t get in the way of the music you’re trying to communicate.
The good news is that there is lots of good music out there being written, performed and recorded by really fine artists. The state of music today is exciting, and don’t let the very noisy and visible Billboard Hot 100 overly depress you.
If, in your opinion, songwriting means coming up with an initial vision, and then creating new and innovative music that communicates that vision to willing and trusting listeners, you are one of the real artists. Don’t give up!
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.