John Seabrook’s forthcoming book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory delves into the post millennial brand of formulaic pop songs and writing “committees.” I didn’t actually read the book. It’s not out yet. But I did read Nathaniel Rich’s recent piece in the Atlantic about it. Bob Lefsetz chimed in (of course) in this post. (He obviously received an advance copy.) They agree: Max and Luke are leading the way (duh) and if you’re not on a favorable committee (especially one of theirs) you might as well throw in your towel.
If you didn't get the memo by now, it’s true. Most of today’s pop hits (and to be clear, we’re talking about songs written by serial songwriters and producers for pop stars, not self-contained bands) are indeed written by at least 4 or 5 people. In fact, it’s not unusual to see as many as 10 names listed as writers on a modern hit. What would be unusual is 2 names. There is hardly ever just 1. (My good friend Jon Lind suggests that there should be a Grammy category for Best Song Written by Less Than Six Writers.)
How did this happen? Well, since computers entered the studio everyone and their mother started writing songs. Because they could.
So if all songs are written in a factory-like environment, what happens to the songsmith who enjoys a more intimate creative experience? Truth is, even if you sit down with one good buddy and you're lucky enough to come up with something that penetrates the gatekeepers that surround a notable recording artist, chances are, if and when that artist records your song, by the time label copy is finalized there’s going to be a few more names added to yours. Hence, the “committee anyway.” Who else’s name might be on there? Could be the recording artist him or herself. And sometimes, credit is deserved. Or the producer who programmed the track or the A&R person who contributed an “oh” or a “whoa” :). Hard to say. But I’m sayin’ anyway.
Artistically, even though a committee-driven song is usually hooky as hell (cuz everyone in the room has a hook), and…every section of the song is hooky, (not just the hook), the original inspiration for a given song is more likely to take a detour simply because there are more chefs in the kitchen adding ingredients to the pie. Now this isn’t necessarily a negative. A song idea can certainly morph into something more commercial or viral. So it’s all good. But if you’re precious about your idea, you may want to avoid the crowd.
Having said all of this, the other day I shared a post on my Facebook page about waking up in the morning after having “dreamed” a song and going out into my yard with my guitar and a cup of coffee, and writing it. All by me, myself and I. I never had so many songwriters chime into that post, relating to the feeling. But from what I can tell, by Seabrook’s and Lefsetz’s account, it was a waste of time because only formulaic committee’d songs are getting cut.
I had to wonder if I was being disingenuous with my Facebook friends. I know how the business is. Why encourage aspiring songwriters to write a song that will in all likelihood, never see the light of day?
But today, as I was making the rounds—Bed Bath & Beyond, Trader Joe’s, Goodwill—I thought about it some more and the following songs came to mind:
“Jealous” (3 writers)
“All About That Bass” (2 writers)
“Stay” (3 writers—no artist participation)
“Try” (2 writers—no artist participation)
“The Heart Wants What it Wants” (3 writers—no artist participation)
“Say Something” (3 writers—no artist participation)
And I’ll tell you something else: These songs are special. Grammy contenders. Copyrights. Songs that won’t be forgotten in 10 years. Songs that don’t sound like so many other songs. In addition, I suggest to you they defied the odds because there was a clear purpose behind them from start to finish that didn’t get derailed, distracted or diluted along the way. The fact that there was no artist participation should tell you that if a song resonates deeply enough, a "smartist" (smart artist) will record it regardless of whether or not they got writer's credit. I can’t imagine they had regrets. In fact in many cases, it upped their game. Because these songs are that good.
Bottom line: It is f*cking hard to get your little song through the door if it wasn't penned by a pre-ordained test-proven hit-making posse. But, it’s not impossible.
So a songwriter has some decisions to make. She must decide what type of song she wants to write, with whom she wants to write it and how many whoms she wants to write it with.
Personally…I like to keep things tight. Otherwise, I tend to lose my plot. And if a name wants to jump onto my label copy after the fact, I’ll cross that bridge when it comes to me.
I look forward to reading Mr. Seabrook's book in full. I'm sure in many ways, it will tell it like it is. In the meantime...call me crazy...after much thought, I do not want to discourage anyone from getting in a room with one favorite collaborator, or sitting by themselves in their yard and chasing a song that came to them in a dream. In fact, I'm feeling a nap coming on.
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