Friday, 3 June 2011

Song Writing

Once upon a time it was all so easy.  Writers of popular songs would sit in a small bare room with a thermos and a piano and toil relentlessly until they had a half decent song and then their agent would sell it to a suitable performer.  Writers seldom performed and conversely, performers virtually never wrote.  Everybody knew where they stood and more importantly, writers, having a target audience in mind, would tailor their songs to fit the performer.

This cosy and ordered world was upset firstly by the early rock ‘n’ rollers who often liked to have a hand in their own material, but more particularly by The Beatles who insisted on writing their own material and, what’s worse, tended to be quite good at it thus putting out of work a whole generation of writers.  Their endeavours upset the apple cart of A&R and from then on artists felt duty bound to write their own material for better or worse.

This alternative universe was therefore peopled by bands and artists who wrote to their own strengths and the once noble art of writing specifically for someone with a different style to your own was submerged in the rush to make yourself into a pop star.  But there were exceptions.  The Beatles themselves occasionally wrote songs for others (Mary Hopkin, Cilla Black and so on) and Rod Argent, whilst with The Zombies wrote the magnificent ‘If it Don’t Work Out’ for Dusty Springfield.  The latter song is a really good example of a writer working outside of his own band’s remit to create a creditable Dusty-type ballad.

Bringing this line of thought up to date, current singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot, an artist who has never written anything other than for herself, was approached last year to write songs for Kylie Minogue’s’ last album and turned out a couple of classic Kylie style pop songs.  Check out ‘Better Than Today’ and the title track ‘Aphrodite’.

But here’s the rub.  Should these writers be deliberately writing in the style of the performer, thus perpetuating their perceived style or should they be writing in their own style in order to broaden the horizons of the performer.  Bit of a tricky one that, especially as there is money and reputation at stake.  Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that by pandering to a ‘house style’ the writer is not doing themselves or the recipient of the song any real good. The songs that Pallot has given to Kylie are a bit Kylie-by-numbers and by her standards are a little, well, sub-standard.  Why not get Kylie just to cover some of her better songs even though they are not tailored to style?


Adrian said...

The mainstream record industry has systematically removed genuine creativity from the equation. Decades ago, there were pop confections, and there were also writers and singers aiming to make great music - that was also commercially successful.

Today, acts that are on corporate labels and "top of the pops" are facsimiles of musicians and, especially, singer-songwriters. There is zilch integrity to the process - and the results show it. We're talking and hearing marketing not music.

Two of the great singer-songwriters of the past 50 years have candidly and concisely nailed the reality in interviews of recent years:

"The industry has been in the corporate noose for so long, it doesn't even have a leg jiggle left. There's no one left saying, 'Wait we want to make art'." ~ John Sebastian


"It's an insane business. Now, this is all calculated music. It's calculated for sales, it's sonically calculated, it's rudely calculated." ~ Joni Mitchell

music obsessive said...

Adrian - summed up in two quotes! I love singer songwriters and want them to be free to be expressive. It seems only the very successful, who can afford the experiment, or the very bold can work this way.

Adrian said...

Yes, indeed.

And, you raise good points - and I didn't want to travel too long and winding a road in response.

Calculation creeps in to so much - who owns publishing on tunes may matter as much, or more, to the label and management as the quality of the songs etc.

And, not only is there the art and craft of songwriting at issue, there's the art of interpretation...

Rather than hear me blather on about such things, it's nice to have John, Joni and others around to comment!

Keep the pies cooking!

music obsessive said...

Adrian - Yes, the point about ownership and publishing rights is a good one, and not one I had considered so thanks for the illumination. Clearly the business world and its machinations have more say that I dared consider. It all seems a long way away from art.

Charlie said...

I don't know much about either Pallot or Minogue but as for the rest of your premise: never were truer words spoken.

music obsessive said...

Charlie - thanks for the endorsement. If you want to know more about Nerina Pallot, watch this space. I shall be reviewing her latest album 'Year of the Wolf' soon.

luminous muse said...

Martin, this may seem like a contradiction of my post on Authenticity and the 60s, but after the Beatles Joni, and Bacharach, I feel that songwriting as a craft has steadily degenerated.

With occasional exceptions like Jand Siberry, and of course Nerina.

Richelle Perkins said...

Great topic! Hope you don't mind if I jump in here. Hi Adriad. Richelle here. For those of you who don't know me, I am a singer-songwriter from Kansas City. I consider myself somewhat of a student of Allison Crow's who with her cohort Adrian, have been a huge help to me and a lot of support. I've studied everything Allison (and a few others just for comparison), from songwriting to the day to day business practices and have found that, although it may be the harder road, in the end, it's likely the more stable road. Those industry people can ruin you as easily as they can make you.

As you have said here, the business and the art are two very different worlds. I recently sent in three of what I consider my best songs for evaluation to the NSAI where members get feedback, etc. You probably know what I'm talking about. I was alarmed at how very calculated these evaluations were. But their biggest critique on one was the use of "love" and "of" because they are too common. So, sometimes you have to use common words for common everyday people.

I quit worrying about what everybody else thought, and wrote what made me happy and wrote what I listeners liked it. There is nothing worse than listening to someone who does not like what they are singing or playing. Now I am happy with my non country, somewhat gothic, dark and twisty, sad and sometimes bitchy music. I also no longer send my music in for evaluations. I think that's ok if you've never really had any music background, but I think I've got a decent handle on the situation. And if I want to use "love" and "of" in a song....I will. Sometimes, there's no getting around it.

Once I became happy with music, it paid off and that was the important thing. Now I'm playing all over.....have two big shows coming up in London that I've very excited about and getting shows for people I couldn't even get to give me a second look before. I learned very early on, thank God, that the advice given to me by the highly esteemed Adrian, was good sound advice. And I'm very grateful. Thanks for reading.....Random Richelle :)

Richelle Perkins said...

I wanted to add a couple of other things for the record here concerning Adrian....and the quote above. Adrian definitely practices what he preaches. "I love the singer-songwriter and want them to be free to be expressive...only those who can afford the experiment or the very bold can work this way."

I was lucky Adrian didn't run like hell. I bombarded him with questions from the very thought of "can I do this." He helped me so much from discussions of equipment I would need, how to book shows, promotions, and everything imaginable and what I found was the busiest man who was most hospitable. And I've even received some cool feedback from Allison including when I said I hope to someday open for her and she said....maybe one day! lol

If you want to learn anything about songwriting and the business of songwriting and you want a lifetime career, not a short period of stardom only to be washed away with the next big Allison & Adrian work. What a team!

music obsessive said...

Hi Richelle - thank you for commenting here. I have no doubt that what you say is true. Adrian has been a regular commentator here and I have never known him to be less than honest in his views which are always written from the heart with a sprinkling of humour, revealing a real love of music.

I am sure you are in good hands. Good luck with your own career. It would be my advice also to do what your soul tells you, as a listener I can assure you that it always shows.

Adrian said...

Richelle, Martin - you're more than too kind! Wishing you, and everyone, a Happy Canada Day (July 1), Independence Day (July 4), and every day you celebrate!!

YourZenMine said...

I posted a comment here a week or so ago but for some reason, it has been sucked up into the ether... Now, if only my dodgy memory would serve me and remind me what I said, because I'm sure it was to the point...

Anyway, this is a great, if divisive subject. As an amateur songwriter, someone who tried to crack the Aussie market while also trying to stay true to myself, I am reminded of a time when I was told, in no uncertain terms, that if I wasn't writing grunge (the flavour at the time) then I may as well forget about trying to sell anything. While I understand the Australian market is very small, I remember when good songwriters were respected, regardless of what 'genre' they were writing. These days, it is mostly about how many units I can shift.

I learnt very quickly not to be discouraged and to write from the heart. And while I might not have the career I wanted, I am writing some of the best songs I've ever written (at least, according to my wife and friends). And I'm happy!


Adrian said...

NPR has an item on "How Much Does it Cost to Make a Hit Song":

If a song is in the pop charts, the numbers can be higher or lower, but, this is the game.

Near the start of this century, I had opportunity to view the inside from a music industry veteran. They managed an artist with multiple Grammy nominations - and they correctly pegged the outcome of that year's Grammys for me. Their label's campaign had been in the range of $1-3 million, but Clive Davis' label had spent about $20 million to grease the path of its prime act who was up for prizes in the same categories. Sure enough, the $20 million campaign mopped up, and the $1-3 million campaign fell short.

Sorry, back to discussion of music...

music obsessive said...

Hi Yourz - there were some funny things happening in Blogger recently and I lost a whole load of comments as well. Anyway, glad you had the energy to repost your thoughts and that you have found the path that suits you best. I never like to be told what to do at the best of times so for something that is classed as an art, it must be very difficult to take that sort of advice.

Keep on doing what you feel. I said it in the reply to a previous comment, but as a listener you can always tell what is real.

music obsessive said...

Adrian - why doesn't that surprise me? In fact I can't quite see why a 'campaign' is necessary at all - doesn't the music speak for itself? Obviously I'm being very naive and you have given the answer, but really, what's the point?

As you say, back to the music...

Adrian said...

Yes, this is the business.

Your book - "memoirs of a music obsessive" - reveals love of music through expression of the art and life. There's another terrific book called "Hit Men" - that takes an entirely different tack. Written by a business reporter, Fredric Dannen, it helps explain how things turned from being about music to something else entirely.

Very broadly, ’til the late '70s, what we remember as the punk era, it was still possible for some genuinely independent artist to get radio play/support - and for grassroots public support to create hits. This did not sit well with folks running the major labels - who realized money should enable them to tilt the scales and trump talent and popular movements. With enough marketing muscle, they could eliminate the competition - and remove the uncontrollable elements – art and artists - from the equation. They institutionalized payola in all its forms. Thus, it then cost label A $50,000 to get the #1 chart spot. So, label B then bid up $60,000 to top that... and on, until the only players able to be in the high-stakes game of getting pop/chart hits were the monied label racketeers.

A few years following my aforementioned experience stateside, learning about Grammy's wheel, I had opportunity to study the workings of a music manager+ from Dorset - whose acts had enjoyed considerable commercial success in the U.K. - particularly via the year-end derby for the Christmas #1 spot. This trail inevitably led to an understanding that back-handers to radio host/producers were goosing songs up the holiday charts.

The internet today provides a mass media/forum where graft and corruption don't dictate what music reaches people. And, for that, however long it lasts, I love YouTube, blogs, and all that keeps on rockin' in the free world-wide web.

music obsessive said...

Adrian - Hurrah for the internet! Although I'm not familiar with all the detail the gist of your comment sounds ominously correct. Luckily the blogging community have other ideas and you can't control word of mouth!

YourZenMine said...

I have friends in the industry in Australia and they all, to a man (person), claim that if it weren't for Triple J radio in Australia, most of their acts would never have made it. For this, as a music fan, I'm grateful. Of course, trying to get my songs heard on the 'youth network', as it is often called, is particularly difficult when I am anything but a youth. This is the perils of an industry focussed on the young and hip.

Thanks for the information, Adrian. It certainly goes a long way to explaining how some acts seem to get all the breaks while others, who are better in all respects, slip and falter. It is a tough industry to break into, especially without the right backing. But as you rightly point out, the advent of YouTube etc has certainly made the playing field a little more even for new acts.


Adrian said...

Yourz, one of my favourite quotes from Joni Mitchell, because it's so true, about the record biz: "They're not looking for talent. They're looking for a look and a willingness to cooperate. And a woman my age, no matter how well preserved, no longer has the look. And I've never had a willingness to cooperate."

The industry itself, essentially, is not talent/merit-based. However, as Martin points out, and our presence here on blogs+, points out - we the people do care about such things. And, it is indeed a challenge to build an audience and community in this world - still, the internet opens a way to do that, and bridge it with the world of physical performance.

I whole-heartedly believe that, other than being around to emerge in that wide-open window of the mid-to-late 60s, there's no better time than today to be an artist/musician who makes music that is real and from the heart/soul. Your voice can now reach ears unattainable for decades.

Ever-hopeful, I look forward to the day when the direct artist-audience connection helps transform terrestrial media, and physical performance settings.

Richelle said...

wow you have so much great content on here.

music obsessive said...

Thank you, Richelle!