May 08, 2012 10:47AM

'Your Song': An Essay on Songwriting

What comes to mind when you think of a songwriter?

What comes to mind when you think of a songwriter? Is it Leonard Cohen, guitar in hand, sitting on his unmade bed at the Chelsea Hotel? Or is it Aphex Twin, programming away in the converted bank vault he calls home? Now more than ever, the traditional notion of songwriting is being challenged by sampling, ready-made beats, and the gradual decline of the record industry. Is it simply evolution, or is it the beginning of the end of an art form?

The 1984 film Amadeus tells the (highly fictionalised) story of the 18th century composer Antonio Salieri, who becomes obsessed with the notion that God is acting through his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The devout (and celibate) Salieri cannot come to terms with the fact that God has chosen the puerile, vulgar Mozart over himself, and dedicates his entire life to bringing down his nemesis. Salieri eventually attempts suicide and is placed in a mental asylum, where he confesses that his jealousy drove him to murder Mozart.

In 2003, 50 Cent released the Dr. Dre–produced 'In Da Club'. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained there for nine weeks, ultimately spending a total of 22 weeks in the charts. Good news for Dre and Fiddy, although the song's success was not so well-received by Dre's friend DJ Quik. An MC and producer who grew up in Compton with Dre, Quik claimed that he gave his friend the drums for the track, telling anyone who would listen: "You guys don't understand! I gave Dr. Dre those drum sounds!" Dre's fans spent a lot of their time on internet forums ridiculing DJ Quik.

Depending on your level of romanticism, Mozart either transferred his fully formed compositions from his mind onto paper, or sat at a piano like a regular person and worked through his ideas. Either way, his skills in composition were so great that on more than one occasion he met a deadline by improvising the piece at its premiere.

Dr. Dre, on the other hand, works with a drum machine, sampler and team of musicians. (A 2001 Time article said of his musicians: "They carry beepers. When he wants to work, they work.") He programs the beat and the musicians improvise until he hears something he likes, at which point he singles out the person responsible and tells them how to adjust their sound. "My greatest talent," Dre told Time, "is knowing exactly what I want to hear."

Dre isn't a songwriter in the traditional sense of the word, but this doesn't make his approach any less valid than Mozart's. Advancements in recording technology have blurred the line: today all you need is an idea, as most computers (and even some phones) come bundled with industry-standard music software. The distinction between production and songwriting has become ambiguous, and today the strength of a song lies more in its actual sound rather than in its lyrics or melody. Now producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes are household names, and their mere presence on a liner note can guarantee a hit. Dre can sample Joe Cocker's 'Woman to Woman' to create 'California Love' — which happens to be one of the greatest rap songs of all time.

Although they lived centuries apart, the music industries of Mozart and Dre are not so different. Mozart was employed as a court musician and chamber composer for rulers of the time. Two hundred years later, songwriters acquire publishing deals (whereby a publisher pays a writer an advance and takes 100 percent of royalties until the writer has paid back the amount, after which takings are split according to the agreement) and orchestras have composers-in-residence (Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was the BBC's in 2004).

Adelaide-born Donnie Sloan received a US publishing deal off the back of Empire of the Sun's hugely successful debut album, which he co-wrote and produced. His contract is quite flexible in what it allows him to do. "There are all different types of publishing deals," he says, "but this one, in the most basic terms, means that you sell your songs to the record labels and get them on to other people's albums — if that's the kind of songwriter you want to be. Or they'll assist me in writing more songs, so if I'm kind of stuck and need people to collaborate with, they're great for organising that. Or, if I have some completed songs and need some artists to sing on them, then they'll actively pursue that as well — as well as getting syncs for movies and ads and that kind of stuff." Which is where the money is, I suppose. "Yeah," he agrees with a laugh.

According to Beatles mythology, Paul McCartney composed the melody of 'Yesterday' in a dream, and spent the next few weeks worriedly checking that he hadn't subconsciously plagiarised someone else's music. I wonder if Sloan finds writing so easy that he can do it in his sleep. "Well, I could give you ten ideas in an hour, but I don't know if they're going to be any good," he says. "And I think some people miss the point: if you get two or three amazing ideas in a year, and you're able to exploit them, then that's a great year — and they're the kind of ideas that would (hopefully) last forever. I always want those ideas, which is why I find [songwriting] really painful — I'll just shut an idea down pretty early on if I know it's not going to be that super-strong. Someone said to me once that it takes just as long to write a really good song as it does a bad song. So, it's kind of like, what's the point of spending that time on a bad idea? Just wait for the good one.

If you see yourself as a potential Dre but just don't have the time to "wait for the good one" — or if you find yourself lacking in the talent bestowed upon Mozart by the hand of God — then 2012 is your year. Just google 'hip hop beats for sale', sift through the 11 million results, and buy a studio-quality WAV file with full usage rights for a sweet $79.95 (Paypal accepted). If you're feeling slightly more creative, $4.99 will buy you the Jamie Lidell–endorsed iMaschine for iPhone, and you can carry around a production studio in your pocket.

That's just the first step, though. Songwriters need to market themselves and research their pitches to artists and labels, just as in any other business. In 1960 an 18-year-old Carole King wrote 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' with her songwriting partner (and husband) Gerry Goffin. They were reluctant to give their song — a sure-fire hit — to then-unknowns The Shirelles, but their publishers insisted, and the deceptively sweet-sounding record became the first US number one by a girl group. In 1999, influential publishing company executive Mark Bright got some of his writers' songs on Faith Hill's eight times platinum Breathe album, just by listening to what Hill was saying in interviews and on fan sites. "She was saying, 'I'm going to be more contemporary this time out,'" Bright told Electronic Musician. "We publishers and songwriters have to be better at the marketing side of being creative."
One of the casualties of the weakening record industry has been the publishing deal — people aren't buying music, so it's difficult for a label to recoup a large advance. As a result, labels are getting involved in other facets of their artists' business, such as touring, merchandise, management, and even publishing itself. Touring, once a way for a label to promote sales, is now one of the only ways an artist can make money — and the success of a tour depends as much (or even more) upon image as it does songs.

One avenue that does allow publishers and songwriters to make money is radio airplay — in the US, radio is seen as a promotional tool for performing artists, so stations only pay songwriters. Unfortunately, with record sales falling, performers increasingly want a piece of the royalty pie. Publishers are finding it hard to help writers get 'cuts' — that is, place writers' songs with recording artists — and the advances go to those who can get in on projects by other means, such as producing or recording. This means that a songwriter in the traditional sense, like Burt Bacharach or Diane Warren, would have difficulty getting a deal today.

The Nervo twins have had no such trouble. Mim and Liv are a publicist's dream: former models turned recording artists, DJs, and producer/songwriters for people like Kylie Minogue, Kesha and the Pussycat Dolls. (They're also responsible for the David Guetta and Kelly Rowland mega-hit 'When Love Takes Over', soundtrack to a thousand coming-out parties.) When I suggest to Mim that a songwriter can write one big hit and retire, she disagrees. "Absolutely not. Songwriting is not as lucrative as it used to be. It's still glamourous, because you rub shoulders with pop stars, but no, it's definitely not lucrative. Even if you're a 'big hit' songwriter, you still need to write hits all the time — and they're called hits for a reason, because they don't happen all the time," she laughs. "It's not the golden ticket people think it still is."

Earlier in this issue Dan Whitford of Cut Copy said, "I think we're going through a bit of a period — or have been for a while now — where good music and popular music are divorced from one another." It's a sentiment that's easy enough to agree with (especially when Maroon 5 can sell seven million copies of 'Moves Like Jagger'), but is it accurate?

There has definitely been a shift in mainstream music. The Billboard Top 100 — previously dominated by stadium rock, Britney Spears, and hip hop — is now filled with the commercial electro-R&B of Pitbull, LMFAO and Guetta, with the occasional appearance from singer-songwriters like Adele and Gotye. Particularly in the US, dance music has progressed from the underground to the overground.

What's more, taste is subjective — so a more objective way of explaining Whitford's theory might be that the purpose of songwriting has changed due to a significant shift in the way that music is obtained, consumed and shared. In a world where music is perceived as being 'free', it is also more disposable. Once upon a time, record labels would invest time and money in artists to write and release songs according to a well-planned schedule. Now, Kreayshawn can put a few songs on YouTube and end up with a (rumoured) million-dollar major-label deal.

Mozart died at the age of 35 from unknown causes — although many have been postulated, including rheumatic fever, vitamin D deficiency and poisoning by the malevolent Salieri. Ironically, he was partway through completing his 'Requiem'. Meanwhile, Dr. Dre is still writing and producing records for himself and others. He has his own line of high-end headphones (Beats by Dr. Dre) and is rumoured to be one of the founders of Burning Man. Now 47, Dre is ranked third on Forbes' list of the wealthiest artists in hip-hop.

So, what does all this mean for songwriting? Well, it's a lot easier to capture an emotion and turn it into a piece of art than it was 200 years ago. While you still need a certain degree of knowledge to be a successful songwriter (be that music theory or marketing skills), not everyone in Mozart's day could make music unless they had access to the technology. Today anyone can make music — and anyone with the internet can download music.

Eventually, all anyone will have to do to write music is imagine a song and it will magically appear on a piece of electronic paper. But if the music industry can't adapt to the new model, songwriters won't be able to support themselves, and the value of songwriting — and music in general — will be reduced to nothing. And that will be a very sad day indeed.