The Art of Music Production is the first book to comprehensively analyze and describe the role of the music producer in creating successful music recordings. Now in its fourth edition, it is the definitive guide to the art and business of music production. Author and producer Richard James Burgess distills this complex field by defining the distinct roles of a music producer.The first part of the book outlines the underlying theory of the art of music production. The second focuses on the job’s practical aspects, including training, getting into the business, and–most importantly–the musical, financial, and interpersonal relationships producers have with artists and their labels. The book is packed with insights from successful music producers, ranging from the beginnings of recorded sound to today’s chart-toppers and across genre lines. It features many revealing anecdotes, encompassing both the daily and overarching career-related challenges that a producer faces. Burgess addresses the changes in the nature of music production brought about by technology and, in particular, the millennial shift that has occurred with digital recording and distribution. His lifelong experience in the recording industry as a studio musician, artist, composer, producer, manager, and marketer, combined with his extensive academic research in the field, brings a unique breadth and depth of understanding to the topic.
But before we start discussing music production, over the next couple of months we’ll be looking into the most scant-regarded and often-ignored element of music: arrangement. It’s a massive subject which has umpteen rules, all of which can be bent, broken and rewritten. For the purpose of this series of articles we will not be looking into how a guitar/bass/drum group get their live set together (for a detailed look at those aspects of arrangement and general musical preparation. So just how do you go about arranging a tune? The answer to that question has as many connotations as the age-old conundrum: how long is a piece of string? On the assumption that the string is two metres in length and seven strands thick, I intend to look at the long and short of arrangement for any sound that calls itself modern popular music.
* This is the first article in a three-part series. We hope you enjoy, and if you want to participate with ideas and/or opinions do not hesitate to contact us.
WHAT IT’S NOT
Let’s start by looking at what arrangement isn’t:
• It’s not finding a chord sequence for a song (although it often is changing the pattern of a chord sequence to make a more sympathetic harmonic bed).
• It’s not writing the lyrics to a song (although it can be working out exactly what the backing singers will be doing with themselves).
• It’s not deciding what the rhythm to a track is (although, in truth, it sometimes is).
Actually, the line between composing or producing a tune and arranging it is a very thin one. If you’re either the producer or the composer, arrangement goes with the territory, whereas if you’re being brought in by a composer or producer specifically as an arranger, it’s usually to arrange the strings or the horns or the backing vocals (we’ll examine those particular aspects and what the job pays later in the series). For now, we’ll look at the basics of how to get the best out of a song you’ve written.
The first thing you must do is make sure that there’s a reason for every part to be there — that goes for any piece of music you write. The amount of times people include four bars of nothing between sections (because it’s always been there) is equal to the amount of songs that never have a hope of getting anywhere. If you’re writing a piece of art that you hope will turn on millions of people, make sure that every part has a reason and nothing is missing. That’s the art of writing, arranging and producing hits. Everyone knows what ingredients can be used — it’s all down to the stirring, I guess. Aprons on: let’s cook!
THE VERSE: We all know that a verse is the part of the song which tells the story. Most songs have no more than four verses, which would include repeating the first verse at the end. Bob Dylan has written songs with dozens of verses, but none of those ever became hits. Of course, you can get away with only one verse repeated over and over again, if you want. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, with ‘Roller Coaster of Love’, and Nirvana, with ‘Something in the Way’, are two that did.
THE CHORUS: The chorus is the part of the song which you want people to be singing along with by the end of the song — the first time they hear it. One easy, effective and sure-fire killer way of making a chorus lift to maximum hit-ability is to find the highest root note string sound you can and have it simply playing all the way through. It sounds corny, but just try it. It could be one of the elements that makes your track a worldwide smash hit. Ask the Pet Shop Boys what they think of this idea.
THE BRIDGE OR TAG: This is a section that links the verse and the chorus together. That music shop favourite ‘Wonderwall’, by the mighty Oasis, has a perfect example of a bridge, if a little long and unadventurously used (“And all the roads we have to walk are winding…”). The song also has the ‘two verses at the beginning’ trick (see next section).
THE MIDDLE EIGHT (or, as James Brown would shout, “Take it to the bridge”) is a third melodic part, usually placed after the second chorus to break up the song pattern. It’s called a middle eight because it’s usually eight bars long, but there’s no law saying it has to be that length or even there in the first place — whatever feels good and fits the bill. No-one has ever done a study on this but I would hazard a guess that 50% of records have a middle eight, and of those, 50% are eight bars long. Michael Jackson used this device for effect in ‘Billie Jean’ (“People always told me, be careful what you do…” — which, by the way, is eight bars long).
A KEY CHANGE: Why? Because it can lift a song at that difficult ‘two-thirds of the way through’ stage, where the listener’s interest is beginning to waver. The usual key change is to move up a tone (from A to B, for example). It’s advised, for maximum effect, to build into this with a huge drum break or a dramatic pause. Key changes down are seldom, if ever, used, because they give the opposite effect of uplift. And note that more than one key change per song can be more annoying than exciting. There’s a classic example of a key change in the Whitney Houston hit ‘I Will Always Love You’.
THE CODA is a cool way of ending a track. It’s either the chorus hook repeated continuously, or a new section used to tail off a track. One of the most exciting codas used in popular music is the end of Elvis Costello’s ‘Accidents Will Happen’ — the bit that repeats the words “I Know”, ad infinitum.
Of course, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ doesn’t fit the patterns explained here, but all but a handful of the tens of thousands of top ten hit records before and since have.
PIECING IT TOGETHER
Let’s assume that your song has the following conventional structure:
How do you make it more interesting?
• The first thing to add is an intro. It could simply be a vamp of the opening couple of bars of the verse or the final four or eight bars of the chorus. Then again, four bars of drums at the beginning of a song never goes down badly either.
• Try getting rid of the first chorus by sticking verse 1 and verse 2 together.
• Then, after verse three, double up the chorus, drop the last verse down a gear and make it a middle eight. Halving the rhythm track or changing the fourth chord to a minor second chord is a good way of going about this.
• A middle eight section is a great way to set up the final chorus onslaught (see ‘The Nashville Number System’ box).
Beats per minute (BPM) first became a science in the mid ’70s, when various producers using early sequencers to make dance music worked out that 137bpm was the optimum speed to excite the human heart rate whilst dancing (137 — the disco heaven). Since then sequencers have become an awful lot more sophisticated, as has the BPM awareness of the music makers. These days there are more pigeonholes in which to place music than ever before: house and garage tracks tend to fall betwen 130-145bpm, jungle in the 165-170bpm bracket, and happy hardcore between 170 and 175bpm, but all bpms are subject to change on the whim of a single track, which could be yours. There are some styles of modern dance music which have very eclectic tempo constraints: techno can go from an industrially moody 80bpm to a brain-smashingly bizarre 500bpm. If you’re thinking about trying something in a new style for you, do some homework first. Dance music is an exact business, and close scrutiny of the current market leaders is essential to understanding the form and arrangement. A visit to your friendly local specialist record shop with £20 in your pocket will give you the best overview of what is the current norm. And in dance music, being current is everything.
Even if you’re not a dance music expert and have no intention of dipping your toe in that particular beat pool, tempo is still an issue. A couple of tricks that are seldom used these days, but were common practice up until the Linn drum came onto the scene, involved speeding up the track, both gradually and as a whole.
Tracks would speed up naturally during the recording of the backing track, which is something that doesn’t happen these days. If you use a sequencer but don’t use loops, try notching up the BPM of your track every verse and chorus. Starting at 120bpm and ending the track at 125bpm can give a sense of urgency without the listener having the faintest clue what’s going on.
The other way of speeding up a track which used to be used on a very regular basis was to slow down the mastering tape machine by a factor of 8.5% at the final mix stage. When played back at normal speed, the finished master would be slightly over a semitone higher in pitch. The reason for this was that it made the playing sound a bit tighter, particularly the drums, and gave the overall sound a bit of a toppy edge. On the downside, it made working out songs from the record difficult, because they were often slightly out of tune.
It may seem that some of the aspects we’ve covered have strayed into production or composing, but as I mentioned at the beginning, the line is a fine one. Next month we’ll look at instrumental arranging, including adding horn and string parts, both sampled and real, basslines, rhythm structures, and fancy arrangement tips.
ANATOMY OF A HIT: THE BEACH BOYS’ ‘GOOD VIBRATIONS’
Each month, I’ll take a look at the arrangement of a well-known record to see what makes it tick. To start with, let’s consider ‘Good Vibrations’, recently voted the greatest single of all time by the readers of Mojo magazine.
This record is more than a mere classic, it’s the Holy Grail of pop. Recording commenced mid-February 1966 at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, towards the tail-end of sessions for The Beach Boys’ most influential album Pet Sounds (although ultimately, it was not included on that album). After a shaky and uncertain start, it took six weeks of recording time, spaced out over several months, to complete the track. Moving the session between five different studios, bouncing from a 4-track machine to a stereo mix on one of the early 8-track machines, and slicing multitrack tape as he went, Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ founder, producer and principal composer, gave ‘Good Vibrations’ a godlike sound.
On the finished record, ‘Good Vibrations’ is in the key of G flat major (six flats) and starts with the verse descending from the relative minor: E flat minor. It was probably played in the key of F (one flat) with the verse starting on the chord of D minor and sped up at the mixdown stage. Typical pop songs of that era (or indeed any era) usually have a basic groove running throughout the track which doesn’t change a great deal from start to finish. Not so ‘Good Vibrations’; this is, in Brian Wilson’s words, a ‘pocket symphony’. It lasts just over three and half minutes but has as many dramatic changes in mood as a piece of serious classical music lasting more than half an hour, moving from the delicate opening verse (bass, vocals, and organ only) to the soaring vocal harmony sections on the chorus and bridge, and then, in the middle of the track, dropping right down to the simplicity of a church organ pad accompanied solely by a tambourine. Of course, much of the atypical structure is due to the way the track was recorded in completely different-sounding sections, and then edited together later.
As well as the unconventional structure, the instrumentation used is, to say the least, dangerously exotic. This was a period when pop records were either guitar, bass and drum combos or traditional orchestrated arrangements for vocalists. For one thing, ‘Good Vibrations’ doesn’t use a guitar; instead it uses a solo cello and a theremin to build the rhythm section for one section, and in another section doubles a honky-tonk piano with a jaw’s harp. The instrumentation changes radically from section to section; the bass plays in some parts but not in others, drums and vocals drop in and out, and the voices sometimes accompany fully developed backing tracks (such as in the chorus) and are in parts almost a cappella.
The beat, although the standard four-in-the bar, has a triplet feel (1 2 3 / 2 2 3 / 3 2 3 / 4 2 3) — some people call it ‘threes over fours’, others ‘a shuffle beat’. This is the same feel as Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and Billy Ocean’s ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ and many other lesser number one records. For the casual listener, the most prominent triplet figure is the part played by the cello, which saws away on the root note of the chord during the chorus.
The very first thing you hear is the angelic voice of Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother, singing the word ‘I’ a triplet quaver before the downbeat. The first eight bars of the verse feature a heavily phased organ passed through a Leslie rotary speaker (for more on this, see the Hammond feature starting on page 40 this month). The organ plays the chords on the beat, accompanied solely by the tight bass guitar sound of Motown and Country music session giant Carole Kaye playing super-cool triplet figures. The second eight bars have a broken but rigid drum pattern played by session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine (alleged to have played on more hit records than any other musician ever) in tandem with a tambourine splash and a counterpoint descending French horn laid beautifully in the distance.
The 16-bar chorus was edited into the multitrack master tape at some point during the construction of the track. Like all the other edits that made up the finished record, this one is partially masked by vast reverb decays added at the mixing and sub-mixing stages. Rhythmically, the chorus is stable, but instrumentally it’s wild; the throbbing cello is stretched over a straight bass and drum framework accompanied by a back-beat tambourine, and the whole arrangement is topped off by a gentleman called Paul Tanner playing a theremin — most unusual for pop music of the time.
The chorus vocals are split into four 4-bar sections. The first section is the ‘I’m picking up Good Vibrations’ hook line, the second section adds an ‘oo bop bop’ figure (years before those Hanson boys were a twinkle in their parents eyes), the third section adds a gorgeous high harmony to the ‘oo bop bop’ part and the fourth section adds an even higher harmony. The structure of these vocal parts and their harmonic framework may not be the kind taught in the Royal Academy of Music, but the excitement they generate in the listener is equal to anything scratched on a piece of parchment by a long-dead composer.
A common way to develop a song arrangement is to add something to the second verse. Again, ‘Good Vibrations’ deviates from the norm; the second verse and chorus adhere to exactly the same patterns of instrumentation and harmony as the first time through, and the verse section is never repeated again in the song. Furthermore, the song then moves into a section that is completely out of left field; a honky-tonk piano plays with half-time feel accompanied by an on-beat bass drone, a different tambourine (shaken, not hit), a jaws harp, and more theremin low in the mix. After eight bars, there’s a four-bar vocal crescendo (‘aaaah’); the third and fourth bars vocally counterpointed with an angelic ‘Oo my my my’, which takes us into the middle eight.
Musically, the middle eight changes from the relative minor to an E flat major and instrumentally adds a sleigh bell. The vocal arrangement (‘I don’t know where but she sends me there…’) has four separate parts which interweave so divinely the Spice Girls or Boyzone couldn’t even dream them properly.
From a half-time middle eight, most people would go straight into a big splash hook-line section. Brian Wilson decided to slow the track even further, moving into a 23-bar section of church organ and tambourine by means of the most savage edit in the track. Most arrangers would steer clear of this kind of drop in pace, on the grounds that it would be chart suicide, but not Brian. This section is split into six sections of four bars (my maths is fine, just give me time to explain). The first section is vocal-less. The second section adds the line ‘gotta keep those loving Good Vibrations happening with her’ and at the end Carole Kaye’s fat, round bass strikes up, leading into the third section which has blissful vocal harmonies and a bass line. The fourth section adds a harmonica and over the course of these four bars all the vocals fade out (again, an unconventional move). The next section is vocal-less, with just the church organ, tambourine, bass root and harmonica, as is the first two bars of the sixth and last section. On the third bar there’s a crescendo vocal ‘aaaah’ which stops with everything else on the down beat of the last bar, decaying with delicious, distorted, ultra-analogue spring reverb to near-silence, before the next surprise: an eight-bar coda of ‘Good good good, good Vibrations’. This time, there’s no ‘Oo bop bop’ vocal accompaniment, just straight root-third and fifth block harmony, but once again, all these vocals fade out in time for the final two bars of the section, leaving the cello and bass prominent before the final piece of singing on the track: eight bars of rapturous barber shop-type vocal harmonies. There are no words, just ‘dos’, ‘bas’ and ‘oos’. As if this wasn’t unexpected enough, the final playout is then heralded by two bars of just cello and very prominent theremin before the drums and bass kick in for the final two-bar fade-out with full instrumentation. The exotic instruments, the complex vocal arrangements, and the many dynamic crescendos and decrescendos all combine to set this record apart from most pop music. In short, if there’s an instruction manual for writing and arranging pop songs, this one breaks every rule.
MANIPULATING YER DIGITS
I’m working on the assumption that you’re not a classically trained pianist or a gifted jazz ivory-tickler, and that you input your musical information through that new-fangled MIDI thing, by means of a keyboard. Here’s a handy chord-playing tip. In short, instead of having one chord shape that moves up and down the keyboard, never changing, try using different inversions. If the chords you play are (C) (F) (G), rather than playing the notes in the order C E G / F A C / G B D, where the fifth note of the chord stays in the same position, try playing C E G / C F A / B D G.
To create a mere interesting bassline, use notes from within the chord other than the root. You’ll be playing like Liberace before you know it. (For chords with more than three notes, see ‘Posh Chords’ box).
THE NASHVILLE NUMBER SYSTEM
In the last decade of the 18th Century, the centre of the music world was Salzburg, Austria. Two hundred years later there is no more productive music city on the planet than Nashville, Tennessee. Whether you like country music or think it’s a pile of twanging nonsense, the fact remains that there are more studios, producers, arrangers, composers and musicians making music every day in a square mile there than anywhere else on earth.
Though this is more to do with songwriting than arranging, there’s a most remarkable thing about the way that music is made there, which can be of great benefit to musicians of all tastes: instead of musical notation and chord progressions, they use something known as the number system. Numbering the notes of the scale from one to eight (the latter being an octave higher) and applying those numbers to chords means that a song is seen as a numbered pattern of chord changes, regardless of what key the song is in. It may seem an odd way of looking at music, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it — whatever flavour of music you deal in. It makes learning new songs easier, changing the key to a song a doddle, and understanding what makes other great songs flow so well more straightforward. It would be completely out of order of me to suggest that looking at a number of great songs by other artists as a set of chord numbers, and picking the bits you want to use as a blueprint for your own song in your own comfortable key is a good way to start a new song. If only because this article is about arranging and not songwriting.
Anyway, every musical key is numbered in the table below. A number on its own signifies a major chord; in the key of C, a 1 is read as C major. Other “flavours” of chord are created by a simple shorthand; for example, if you want a Bb minor in the key of C, a minor chord based on the flattened seventh degree of the scale, if would be written as b7-. Nashville convention implies a particular kind of chord for each step of the scale, although this is always fully notated to avoid ambiguity:
1 = major
2 = minor 7th (2-7)
3 = minor 7th (3-7)
4 = major
5 = major
6 = minor (6-)
7 = 7th (7/7th)
So while the 6 chord would normally be minor (notated as 6-), you might want it to be a major or major 7th (6 or 6/7th). And remember, changing a chord from major to minor and vice-versa could make the difference between a massive hit and just another song.
Incidentally, the 6- chord is the relative minor of the key. (In the key of C it would be A minor.) Which means that the same notes are used in the relative minor key of A minor as are used in the major key of C. This may not seem that interesting, but if you use it in the correct way it can make you as rich as Eric Clapton. (Eric Clapton has based his entire guitar-playing style on exclusively using relative minor scales, and he’s not the only one, by a long shot.)
1 C C# D E F F# G G# A Bb B
2 D D# E F# G G# A A# B C C#
3 E F F# G# A A# B C C# D D#
4 F F# G A Bb B C C# D Eb E
5 G G# A B C C# D D# E F F#
6 A A# B C# D D# E F F# G G#
7 B C C# D# E F F# G G# A A#
8 C C# D E F F# G G# A Bb B
Here’s a list of every chord used in music, ever. They’re only in the key of C. To find out what they are in other musical keys, either use your musical transposing skills, or the transpose button on your keyboard or sequencer. Try them out — you’ll sound like a musical genius.
– = MINOR
&Mac198; = MAJOR 7th
+ = AUGMENTED
o = DIMINISHED
C6 = C E G A
C6/9 = C E G D A
C+9 = C E G D
C&Mac198; = C E G B
C&Mac198;(13) = C E G B A
Cmj9 = C E G B D
Cmj13 = C E G B D A
C7 = C E G Bb
C9 = C E G Bb D
C13 = C E G Bb D A
C-6 = C Eb G A
C-6/9 = C Eb G A D
C-+9 = C Eb G D
C-7 = C Eb G Bb
C-7+11 = C Eb G Bb F
C-7+13 = C Eb G Bb A
C-9 = C Eb G Bb D
C-11 = C Eb G Bb D F
C-13 = C Eb G Bb D F A
C-&Mac198; = C Eb G B
C-9&Mac198; = C Eb G B D
C-7b5 = C Eb F# Bb
C-9b5 = C Eb F# Bb D
C-11b5 =C Eb F# Bb D F
Co = C Eb F#
Co7 = C Eb F# A
Co7+&Mac198; = C Eb F# A B
C+ = C E G#
Csus = C F G
C7sus = C F G Bb
C9sus = C F G Bb D
C13sus = C F G Bb D A
C&Mac198;b5 = C E F# B
C&Mac198;5 = C E G# B
C&Mac198;11 = C E G B F#
Cmj9#11 = C E G B D F#
Cmj13#11 = C E G B D F# A
C7b5 = C E F# Bb
C9b5 = C E F# Bb D
C7#5 = C E G# Bb
C9#5 = C E G# Bb D
C7b9 = C E G Bb C#
C7#9 = C E G Bb Eb
C7b5b9 = C E F# Bb C#
C7#5#9 = C E Ab Bb Eb
C7#5b9 = C E G# Bb C#
C7#11 = C E G Bb F#
C9#11 = C E G Bb D F#
C7b9#11 = C E G Bb C# F#
C7#9#11 = C E G Bb Eb F#
C13b5 = C E F# Bb D A
C13b9 = C E G Bb C# A
C13#11= C E G Bb D F# A
C7susb9 = C F G Bb C#
C13susb9 = C F G Bb C# A
Csusb5 = C F F# B
This is the first article in a three-part series.
“You don’t really start a band in your 30s,” Radical Dads’ Robbie Guertin says. “Well, you do, but the motivations are different.” Guertin knows what he’s talking about. A veteran of mid ’00s powerhouse Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, he’s recently started focusing on his other project, Radical Dads. Guering and his bandmates Lindsay Baker and Chris Diken are all in their mid-30s, all married, all facing down life changes like children, home ownership, and big career moves. Somehow, they all find time to practice and play in one of Brooklyn’s most exciting rock bands. Why exactly is it worth all the trouble?
It’s Friday night, and Guertin is throwing together a little dinner at his rent-stabilized Williamsburg apartment. “Sorry, but I forgot to eat earlier,” he says, standing above a sizzling pan of chard, rice, and onions. “We found this new farmer’s market and got a bunch of food, but totally forgot that we’re going out of town this weekend. Do you want anything?”
NPR is playing in the background, his wife’s old marathon bib from Wisconsin is pinned to the fridge with a magnet, and his old artist lanyards from his time in Clap are stuck to the kitchen cabinets; it’s a textbook scene of early 30s bliss. Guertin was in that band–one of the first indie buzzbands, one of the first to release their record by themselves over the internet, and one of the first to generally point the way to today’s fractured music business landscape–from virtually the beginning until last year, when he quit. Now, he’s waiting for his wife to finish her PhD in Sociology before they probably-but-not-definitely move out of the city for her to start her career as a professor.
Clap released its self-titled first record when Guertin was 26, in 2005. They were a phenomenon, playing television, touring the world, selling their album on their own. David Bowie was reportedly a fan. Yet Guertin still looks back and wonders if they could have done more, become more successful. “It’s never really been about money,” he says. “It’s just fun to advance, to make more people psyched about it.” When you start out at the top, though, it’s hard to advance. According to Soundscan estimates, the band’s second record sold close to a third of as many copies as their debut. Their eventual follow-up, 2011’s Hysterical, did even worse. Some of that had to do with the bottom falling out of the industry, but that didn’t make the numbers go down any easier.
All the while, Guertin, Diken, and Baker were working on Radical Dads. “I was having more and more fun doing this than I was in Clap Your Hands,” says Diken. It shows in the music. While Clap seemed caught trying to catch up to its audience, trying on new sounds in attempt to recreate their early success, Radical Dads have an easy vibe. Guertin laughs when I describe Radical Dads’ as loud, guitary, melodic noise “90s-style college rock,” as he met his bandmates at college in the 1990s. “We’re just doing the same thing we were doing, I guess,” he says. Today, all the bandmates live in the same building. Diken and Baker are married to each other.
Their influences include Dinosaur, Jr. and Yo La Tengo, and you can feel the pull of the classical period of guitar noise in other ways when you listen to them. “I’ve named so many different songs ‘The Sonic Youth Song’ while I’m writing them that I lost count,” says Baker. Diken’s AOL screen name was Pixies1.
Radical Dads – Serious Business on BTR [ep129]
Its members obviously feel extremely comfortable with each other and the music they’re playing. They’re also lucky in that their audience has caught up to them, with their style of fuzzy, backwards-looking alternative rock recently back in style. Still, getting to the next step seems difficult to them.
Part of the problem is not having the great asset of a band in their early 20s: a large group of friends who will come to anything you do. “In the early days of Clap, all of our friends who lived here would come to every show. I wasn’t even in the band for the first few shows, and I went to every show. Any friend who was in a band, you’d go to their show, and you’d know half the people there.” This isn’t the case any more. Guertin can barely get his own wife to come out. She’s started getting up early to do school work, and “After lunch, basically, she’s done for the day,” he said. “She wants to take a nap.”
Schedules are a larger issue. Baker is a teacher, and Diken works at a tech company. They practice after work, and tour in the summer when Baker is off of school, but can’t do much touring otherwise. “Every year,” Guertin said, “Lindsay’s like ‘maybe I’ll take a year off next year, and really do it and Matador will sign us.’ Now it’s like, OK, that’s probably not going to happen.”
So, the inevitable question: is the band just a hobby?
“That’s kind of how we justify a lot of the money we spend on it,” Guerkin says. “It’s like, ‘If this was just our hobby,'” meaning something like gardening or restoring cars, “‘then it would be totally okay to spend this much money on it.'” The idea, though, is that it’s not a hobby. It’s better than a hobby. It’s their band.
“I don’t know what I want,” said Guertin. “I just sort of want people to realize how good it is.”
Radical Dads played October 2, at 285 Kent, NYC.
The other day, a friend of mine who recently moved to New York from Salt Lake City was lamenting the collective fashion sense of her Williamsburg brethren. Back home, she explained, you could automatically tell who was alternative and who was a square, based simply on the way they were dressed. In New York, it’s different. “Everything’s blended together,” she said. “There’s no way to tell who’s mainstream and who’s not.”
All due respect to my friend, there are still plenty of freaks walking around in NYC. But her observation is useful in evaluating the output of a new crop of indie singers, who, as Steven Hyden noted over at Grantland, don’t sound all that alternative. Like the kids in Brooklyn that my friend can’t figure out, these artists are mixing signals in a way that makes them hard to decipher and emblematic of a shape-shifting generation.
One of the best and poppiest new acts toeing that line is Lorde, a 16-year-old Kiwi with a voice like Lana Del Rey and an attitude far more interesting. Where Del Rey seems content to be a poster-girl for an industry-stamped combination of vintage style and vague, fashionable angst, Ella “Lorde” Yelich-O’Connor is more difficult to pin down, and is, as a result, a lot more fun.
The first single from her new album Pure Heroine is a good example. “Royals,” seems at first to be a straightforward song, with the same anti-consumption attitude that has powered recent radio hits (“Thrift Shop”) and avant-garde outbursts (“New Slaves,”) alike. But the song is knottier than it first appears.
For one thing, similar to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank),” it’s got the potential to sound like a celebration of the very things it purports to reject. The song’s catchy, elongated bridge: “gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room” etc. will no doubt lead some epic party sing-alongs. And those signifiers’ placement within the song guarantee that they’ll be celebrated with the fervor that Lorde is initially denying them.
Then there’s the chorus, where things get really tricky, as it operates on a distinction between being a “royal”–someone with money–and “ruling,” which, apparently means simply being awesome, a trickier aspiration that’s less easy to assume simply by making some money.
This is fascinating stuff, which contains an undercurrent of political thought that has (for the most part) been missing from mainstream pop since rap found shiny suits. The difference is that there’s no confusion here about “serious” music–Pure Heroine makes it clear that pop songs are as useful as vehicles for in-depth ideas as any banjo-powered protest jam.
The album is chock full of moments of genuine rebellion–a spark that can’t be consistently found in any one genre of music anymore. “Buzzcut Season” opens with a line delivered innocuously enough: “I remember when your head caught flame.” The story goes on to detail a genuine devil-may-care reaction to an unintentional hairstyle change–a rebellion more difficult to signify than the simple mention of molly in an otherwise perfectly bland anthem-by-numbers. But at the same time, the song is pure pop, with girl-group cooing, another of those head-grabbing bridges, and talk of “explosions on TV” and other recognizable symbols of pop bombast.
Lorde – Webster Hall – 9/30/13
Better Than: Whatever the hell I was doing at 16.
Lorde has a darkness about her. Around 9:30 p.m, she slinked on a fairly dark stage that never let itself become much more brightly lit than moments of off-center spotlight grazing her dancing along to the beats of her songs. In all black herself, Lorde’s stage presence is as much an antithesis to pop as her lyrics are. But beneath her Wednesday Addams exterior and pouting lyrics that serve as the linguistic equivalent of giving a one shoulder shrug, the rapidly rising New Zealand native is beginning to cast a pop star mold for herself that’s as refreshingly moody as it is addicting.
In her contrarian pop way, Lorde is still very obviously cultivating her own presence on stage. It’s charming and relatable the way she moves to her own tunes by jerkingly hunching her body over her microphone in time to the drums while her fingers pet the air in front of her like a cat. She looks natural, unchoreographed, and less apathetic than her music would make one assume. Much like her audience, Lorde couldn’t help but get lost in the lush beats and sound of her debut album Pure Heroine. Its songs sound even more captivating live.
With only the new album and a short EP The Love Club under her belt, Lorde’s setlist was understandably short. Beginning with “Bravado,” a gothic electro-pop ballad from her EP, she sang how she wants “the applause, the approval” before becoming the hearty recipient of both from the packed audience. The repetitive but hauntingly doom-beat driven “Biting Down” followed and brought out the debut of her most intense incarnation of her clawing and hunching drum dance.
Single “Tennis Court” arrived early in the set and delivered the night’s sweetest moment when the audience warmly and enthusiastically cheered right after Lorde sang “pretty soon I’ll be getting on my first plane.” The applause felt sincere as the singer continued on without missing a note. Even sweeter was her crooning, swooning cover of The Replacements’ “Swingin Party” which gave her an opportunity to really show off her rich voice in all its glory. The Replacements weren’t the only artist Lorde covered during the night, however, and her version of “Hold My Liquor” from Kanye West’s summer smash Yeezus was a particular delight as it slipped in and out of her setlist with a surprising amount of ease.
Naturally, before the night ended, Lorde had to include “Royals.” Being the opposition to modern pop luxury, hence her reign on the Alternative Charts, she chose to not make her biggest song the bookend to her concert and completely skipped an encore despite the crowd lingering for an abnormal amount of post-concert time. Non-closer “Royals” elicited a massive sing-a-long without Lorde having to do the gimmicky microphone-towards-the-audience trick. Afterwards, she blazed through her final tracks, including a glimmering performance of “A World Alone” at the end. With that, Lorde left the stage as mysteriously as she entered it before allowing the set to be illuminated brighter than it had been all evening.
USA DEBUT Lorde – A World Alone (live @ Le Poisson Rouge 8/6/13)
The Talking Heads man says that free music streaming sites are bad for new artists
David Byrne has laid into online music streaming sites in a new opinion piece.
In the blog, which was published by The Guardian, the former Talking Heads man says that the ‘pittance’ paid by sites such as Spotify to artists means that new and upcoming musicians won’t be able to survive without supplementing their income in other ways and focusing less on making music.
Byrne writes: “I could conceivably survive, as I don’t rely on the pittance that comes my way from music streaming, as could [Thom] Yorke and some of the others. But up-and-coming artists don’t have that advantage – some haven’t got to the point where they can make a living on live performances and licensing, so what do they think of these services?”
He added: “What’s at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts (such as St Vincent, my current touring partner, who is not exactly an unknown). Many musicians like her, who seem to be well established, well known and very talented, will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money. Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim.” Read the full piece here.
In another blog post earlier this week David Byrne claimed that the wealthiest section of New York’s population has crushed the city’s creative energy. He expressed his feelings in another opinion piece published by The Guardian. In the article, Byrne said he fears that New York is becoming increasingly dictated by wealth and not culture, adding that he will leave the city if he perceives that is is getting worse.
David Byrne’s most recent musical project is a collaboration with St Vincent. The pair released their debut album ‘Love This Giant’ in 2012 and headlined the End Of The Road festival in August of this year.
The 46-year-old pop singer-songwriter-guitarist talks about the 10th anniversary of her self-titled album ‘Liz Phair’, the pros and cons of major label money, and finding a kindred spirit in Lil Wayne.
So, the self-titled album.
Eponymous. I love that word.
The eponymous album. What’s the biggest misconception about it?
Hmm…the biggest misconception is probably that it was recorded all at once. It was actually recorded in many different studio situations over the course of probably a year and a half.
How much of that was done before The Matrix was brought in as songwriters?
All of it! The Matrix was the last thing that happened. After touring with whitechocolatespaceegg I did some with my band from that record and then I did a few with Pete Yorn’s guy Walt Vincent when I first moved to Los Angeles. Then, when Andy Slater became president of Capitol, he hooked me up with Michael Penn. In the end, I think it was supposed to be all the Michael Penn sessions, but I didn’t really feel like that quite represented me, you know? I remember my A&R guy was Ron Laffitte and he was like, “Well, what would you do differently?” And I said I wanted to use these songs from these other sessions as well, like I just didn’t feel like they represented what I had musically inside me to give. He went back to Capitol and they were like, “Well, you can do that if you work with these sort of hitmakers and give us some hits to work with. Then we’ll sort of let this be some whole other animal.” And I had some trepidation going into that, but at the same time I embraced it pretty quickly. I said “sure!” I hadn’t really done any cowrites, and at that point, it wasn’t such a horrifying idea to work with someone else. When I went to meet them, I discovered that I actually knew them, I just didn’t know them as the Matrix. I knew them through friends and people. I remember Lauren [Christy] opened the door and said, “Yeah, I was waiting to see what your reaction would be when I opened the door.” And it was such a wonderful feeling because I just had loved them when I’d met them. It’s so funny, [adopts Elaine Benes-style mocking voice] “The Maaaaaaaatriiiix.” It has such a…I don’t know. A sort of branded name. “The Maaaaaaaaaaatriiiiiiix.” And the people involved I already knew and liked very much.
How familiar were you with their other work at the time?
I like Avril Lavigne! I loved “Complicated.” I thought that was a great pop song. I thought she was a cute little punky, quirky chick. When the label says, “We need some hits,” you know what it’s going to be like. Duh! It’s going to be like that. Some people expected me to have some sort of aversion to that, which I’ve never had. I’ve always loved hit songs my whole life, that has nothing to do with it, I just write differently than that. When I’m left in a room alone, I sound much more small and personal, and I think my older fans just expected me to have a political feeling about that, that I wouldn’t do something like that. Which is…just not true. I’m much more inclusive, musically, than that. It just was a different thing. Which is how I looked at it. But then of course, the shitstorm began.
Right, the shitstorm. Why do you think people reacted so strongly in this particular case?
Because it meant something more to them and I understand that now. A lot of people making that kind of indie music were doing it because they were against mainstream music. Talking to Steve Albini in the Guyville Redux documentary, he’s a perfect spokesman for them, he’s eloquent. He explains that it has its roots in a business decision, in an alternative economic model that’s based on good faith and sort of a…pure love of music. That makes sense to me now, but the misconception was—and anyone that knew me back when Guyville was first breaking would know this about me, when I was in the suburbs—the reason it sounds like that is because when you stick me in a room just by myself, that’s what’s gonna come out. I write these weird, introverted, conversational, confessional, angry songs. It wasn’t a political decision for me.
I always thought it was funny that the eponymous album is considered this fluffy pop thing but opens with the heaviest guitar you’ve ever put on a record.
But it’s produced! There’s no question you can smell money on it. As a person I’ve always lived this way and will continue until the day I die: there are times when you go to a local bar and hang out with your regular friends, and there are times you get dressed up and you go to a black tie dinner or some fundraising function. It’s still you, you’re just in a different context. I’ve always lived that way, and I think a lot of people do. I love hip-hop, I love jazz. If someone came to me with a budget and said “Let’s do a jazz record!” I’d be like, “Whoa, okay!” I guess that’s not a good example because jazz is cool. But my friend wants me to do this thing that he wants to become a dance hit—and that makes sense to me! This is me, I’m musical to my core. Why not explore? So I felt once we added the old tracks onto the Liz Phair [note: every time Phair says the title of this album aloud she says “Liz Phair Liz Phair,” it’s beyond endearing but too much to ask on the page—ed] disc I thought it was this nice bouquet. There’s some serious roses, but you have some wildflowers in there too.
What happened in the five years following whitechocolatespaceegg and what was going on with the label? That album wasn’t directed by Capitol in any way—
Oh no, it was, it was. Matador had signed with Capitol at that point. I was really pissed off about that, but they sort of paid me out so I was like, fine. It was really awkward promoting that record because they had two labels involved. They’d have these meetings with representatives from the indie label and then there’d representatives from the major label. They were trying to work together but ultimately looking back on it, all those major labels buying up all the indies in the Nirvana period…that was all economic, they just wanted to grab that wave for themselves. And then they had to figure out how to work with them, and that of course didn’t make any sense. They approached working totally differently, so after whitechocolatespaceegg, anything I did would either come from the indie or the major, and sometimes they fought. It was ridiculous, like having two masters.
Obviously that didn’t work out, Matador left Capitol but I got stuck staying on it. I think that was sort of part of the deal when they let Matador go. “Okay, but we’re keeping Liz,” because at that time I was sort of a big name. That felt really daunting; suddenly I was on this label I never intended to be on, never would’ve signed to. But I also had a young child, so that’s sort of the dark matter that’s not obvious. I’d just had my son and touring with a really small child…sometimes it was fun but very emotional, to get tired and cry a lot. I needed that time off in between to even get back to a place where I could function like a touring entity.
Do you remember any specific things Capitol and Matador people argued about?
Not so much, it was just…Matador was great about it and was always so fun. I was watching School of Rock the other day and I love when Jack Black’s like, “Stick it to the man!”—that’s what Matador was all about. Like, the larger the circulation of the publication we were being interviewed by, the more they expected us to kind of lie and bullshit, make up ridiculous answers and see if they would get printed. That kind of spirit was so much fun. Capitol was about servicing as large a venue as you possibly could, with like, please and thank yous. It just was a mess. You know? It was a mess.
It’s odd because Capitol put out OK Computer the year before spaceegg so you’d think they were looking for more weirdness.
Well Gary Gersh was a huge advocate of Radiohead and he probably personally…well, you never know if he became a spokesperson for someone else’s idea—but there was definitely a sense that Radiohead was a smart move, and that they felt smart for having them. But I think Radiohead had friction with them on and off their whole time there.
Do you think the bad reaction to Liz Phair was a gender thing too? Like you were still a really serious guitar player doing these complicated chord sequences and…
Are you saying I was rocking too hard and people couldn’t accept a woman doing it?
Oh no, I’m saying it wasn’t even accepted as a rock album.
The eponymous one was much more pop. It just was, in my catalog. And it was overtly about pop, it was a moment when pop was big. The thing that made the eponymous record what it was, were the Matrix songs. You cannot divorce anything that happened around that record. It also afforded me the ability to stretch my wings in terms of performance. I got places and did things I never would’ve gotten without the Matrix songs. I had my best touring experiences off the Liz Phair record. By far. I played “God Bless America” for the White Sox when they won the World Series that year, on an opening game. Or, I played this amazing Nike concert where this kid who had terminal cancer and couldn’t see anymore got up and played drums on “Why Can’t I?” in front of 5,000 people. There was just a lot of cool experiences…holding the main stage at Bumbershoot. Being big enough to turn a large audience in your favor that maybe weren’t as familiar. It was an amazing time for us. Crazy stuff. Insane amounts of radio. That whole world. I would’ve missed that! For the listener, all they’re hearing is what’s in their house, on their stereo. But for an artist, that was a ticket to ride to faraway places that I really enjoyed. And I grew from, my god! In a weird way, that was the making of me as a performer. Those Matrix songs—another thing important about Liz Phair—is vocally I stretched in ways I never had before. I don’t think anyone had ever heard me sing like that before, or even thought I could. The Guyville stuff is pretty low and it’s a totally different perception of me.
A lot of artists are not that great performers the way you’d think on American Idol or something, and a lot of people are just performers, who can do a great vocal delivery but don’t have much in the songwriting. I was an artist and just had never learned how to do the other thing. I learned to do both and it was a pure joy. Other than the pissed-off old fans in the audience who’d cross their arms and glare daggers at me from the stage, there was so much joy in being able to perform the Matrix songs purely for the vocal. It was like flying.
Were there really people in the audience you could see crossing their arms?
Oh fuck yeah. It was like…it was like an un-wished-for wedding, with one side of the aisle of old fans and one side of new fans and neither would speak to each other. It was challenging like, every night, ‘What can we play? Who’s out there? What would we be able to get away with? Should we play more of the old stuff or new stuff?’ And these poor new fans had no idea where I come from, they just heard one song on the radio. And some of them were like, 12! And that was really tough too, because my lyrics are clearly adult-oriented. I used to get upset like, why are you bringing your nine-year-old to my show? Did you do any research?
Speaking of which, I wanted to ask about your own family or your own kid’s reactions to your lyrics…
There’s only one part of my extended family, my godbrother, him and his family are hilarious and they love my music, which is awesome. But they like to torment me, they’ll just put it on during dinner and make me listen to it. Or they’ll like, only speak to me in my lyrics back, they did that one time. I’ll be like, “That’s funny guys…OK, that’s funny. OK, it’s not funny anymore…’
But most of my family life doesn’t really have anything to do with the music. Like my son, he knows what I do and he knows a little bit about my history but he doesn’t even come into it, it’s weird. I compartmentalize life in a lot of ways. Many sections. They don’t often intermingle. Like, when I go home I’m Elizabeth.
Which is funny because your audience is so compartmentalized, too.
You get what you give, right?
Did the Matrix or any label people object to any of your lyrics?
I think the only time we ever got into word fights was I didn’t want to say the word “underwear” in “Favorite.” It took a week of Lauren [Christy] like, wearing me down. I was like, ‘I can’t say it, I can’t say it.’ So it wasn’t like I was coming up with these tawdry lyrics they wouldn’t allow. That was the biggest word fight, and she won.
What word did you want to use?
I didn’t know! I couldn’t win the fight because I couldn’t come up with an alternative. Can’t say “panties!” I just couldn’t get around it. Every time I think about it I’m just like, I can’t say that word. It’s too corny. I still have trouble with that song, and it’s too bad because I like to sing it…melodically. [laughs] But it’s not my writing style.
And the label didn’t give you shit at all about putting—
Not at all. And we put “Hot White Cum” on that record! There was a definite moment where I was sitting in Ron Laffitte’s office after hours and I’m looking at him and I’m like, “Can we put whatever we want on the rest of the record?” And he’s like, “Now that we’ve got these songs? Yeah!” And I said, “Can we put ‘Hot White Cum’ on the record? And he got this twinkle in his eye and he was like, “Fuck yeah.” [laughs] I guess they’re thinking like, controversy, can’t hurt.
So, “Hot White Cum.” Did you just want to write a song about cum— [laughs hysterically]
—or did you want to write about something no one had done before…
No, there was none of that. That’s a me song, that’s all me. I was having really good sex and I wrote that song completely spontaneously. I knew it’s funny. There’s a lot of songs I’ve written—and I used to do it more—that were funnier and never saw the light of day, where people would be like, “Cute, Liz.” All the way back to Girlysound.
Like “White Babies.”
When I write a song I’m not thinking about marketing at all. There’s no marketing brain in me whatsoever. It just makes sense to me. It isn’t until later when it’s gonna go on a record that I start to get hives and freak out like, “Fuck!”
Does that happen?
That always happens. It’s what makes me different as an artist but it’s also what causes me great difficulty in life. I’m slow on the uptake, I don’t put two and two together. I can’t see far…I’m very in the moment. It’s always a later thing where I’m like, ‘Oh what have I done. Oh, oh my god.’
What causes the anxiety for you? Is it people learning the song’s about them or that people will be evaluating it…
That I’m saying such things in public! [laughs] It’s alwayslater that I realize that I’ve said such things in public. Always later. I never learn. I never ever learn. And there’s always a fevered night where I think like, ‘God, god, god, god.’ And the broader implications of everyone hearing it become crystal clear. It’s a bad night, it really isn’t funny! It’s a really bad night.
Was [‘Liz Phair’ follow-up] Somebody’s Miracle supposed to be more subdued in that way, or had you finally reached some pinnacle of…publicly embarrassing yourself, as you put it?
It’s mostly just the kind of songs I was writing. There may have been some of that because I’d just come off this arduous ordeal where I’d had to answer for the eponymous record and I had all these pissed-off fans that I didn’t want to lose, because I didn’t feel any different. Obviously I’d grown up and I’d done different things but I’m a very consistent person in that way. My personality’s always the same except I guess I did less drinking. You know what I mean? Like I’d grown up but I remember feeling a bit bruised and I didn’t want to do something controversial, I remember that. But I also was just writing those kinds of songs.
I feel like that record didn’t set out to piss anyone off and it still got the same cold shoulder.
Well maybe I’ll put this down to gender. Ready for this? People react to me anytime they react to my music, they can’t separate the two. They’re always judging me as a person. They can never just look at my music. And I’m not sure someone like Maroon 5 gets that. You know, “They’re a band, look what they did this time.” But women get judged for their personal decisions, like they can’t just take a record as the record, it’s like “Why did she decide to do this right now?” No one says of Paul Simon, “Why did he decide to make that? He politically said this earlier and now he’s going back on it…” There’s too much that people put on me as a woman,and they don’t separate the person from the music, and I do think that is kind of sexist. They think of me as a role model and I can’t think of a male solo artist who gets that kind of personal judgment like that.
If Adam Levine did a song called “Hot White Vagina” it might be an item for like, a week.
It wouldn’t be like smarmy, smug writing. It would be like “What’s up with that?” It’s a double standard.
I don’t think people would use terms like “career suicide.” I think to have a sex song without regret in it…
You mean like Lil Wayne’s “Pussy Monster” which I fucking love?
That song’s amazing.
But there’s no difference between that and “Hot White Cum!” Maybe his song’s better because he’s just awesome, but it’s the same spirit. Obviously I love it, too, it’s one of my favorite songs ever. But it’s the same thing. You better not write it that I think my song’s as good as his. But it’s the same exuberance, which is what rock and roll is about. Like, “I’m having awesome sex. Listen to this awesome, kind of funny songwriting but I mean it.”
When Guyville first came out, that was a shitstorm. Indie did not invite that right away. No sir. It was a brutal campaign, because half the people were like, “There’s so many worthy bands, she just came on the scene, nobody’s heard of her. She’s blonde, she’s white, she sells sex, she’s getting all the attention.” I was eviscerated multiple times in the indie world until it became…better than what I did later. [laughs]
After Pitchfork gave ‘Liz Phair’ a 0.0 out of 10, the Somebody’s Miracle review said they wasted the zero on the first one.
I’m all for funny hating, I don’t mind. But what I do mind is this fucking box that I can’t win. To be honest, to stick up for myself, you guys are idiots. A hundred years from now, it’s going to be cool that a woman like, said what she thought. It’s cool what I did, it just is, like as a large fact. Falling down, faceplanting, whatever I was doing, it was still rare. And the fact that they couldn’t see that, the fact that they were trying to…well I don’t know what they were trying to do. But they were missing the big picture. I wonder what would’ve happened if Girlysound, which had all these silly songs, if that had come after Guyville instead of before, would it be destroyed as well? Even though now it’s like all the rarities, I wonder what would’ve happened.
Now I’m making a much more, straight-ahead, the-way-I-ought-to kind of record, but not because I’m trying to garner any appreciation, it’s just because that’s what’s up in my creative world next.
Does it bug you that it will probably be regarded as some kind of “comeback” regardless of what the quality is?
No, I’m pretty much at peace. I’m pretty old now. I don’t see how I could be hated more and I don’t see how I could’ve been lauded more.
Do you know when it’s coming out?
No, much too early for that. We’re just kind of getting our sound for it.
What’s your favorite album of yours?
I don’t have one, I truly don’t. I’m not a favorite-picker, I’m not a hierarchical lister. I don’t have favorite records of all time, I’m an omnivore. I’m constantly chewing up new real estate. This winter I got super into jazz. I actually am against favorite-picking. Is that a word? Like a lateralist?
Do you have any regrets about ‘Liz Phair’?
No, not really. I like that record. I’ve always liked that record. When I listen back to it I usually think, “God that’s so good, what were they pissed about?” I don’t understand what it is to latch onto an artist and then expect them to…see I can’t even articulate it, you’ll have to do that. I wish I could’ve made them feel better; I don’t have a desire to upset people. I have a desire to free and to be provocative, but I came from a visual arts background and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Being challenging is what being an artist means to me. I wish something else could’ve been the focus, like people perceived it to be dumbed down, and I felt bad that’s what we ended up talking about all the time. But there’s more to that record: “Friend of Mine,” “Little Digger”…I thought “Firewalker” was a beautiful song. I’m sorry that’s what the conversation ended up being about all the time, but I don’t know that I could’ve controlled that. Except by not working with the Matrix, and I wouldn’t have given that up for anything in the world.
Uploaded on Feb 24, 2009
Music video by Liz Phair performing Why Can’t I?.
This interview was published two months ago by nousey.
Why does today’s pop music sound the same?
Because the same people make it.
Experimentation is being pushed to the margins as labels rely on successful producers
Pop music is in trouble – it all sounds the same and people will do just about anything to avoid having to pay for it. Long gone are the days of Top of the Pops (and Jimmy Savile), instead replaced with 24-hour music TV and YouTube. We’re also waving goodbye to the traditional singer-songwriter and bands who write their own material – the assistance of successful co-writers and producers being too lucrative to ignore. With Universal’s bid to take over EMI approved by the European Commission, music is also fast becoming a monopolised business.
Universal will soon welcome to its label EMI names including The Beatles, David Bowie and Coldplay, in total acquiring close to two thirds of all recording artists signed to EMI since it began in 1972.
They’ll join Universal’s stellar roster which already includes the likes of Rihanna and U2. Not satisfied with one industry shake-up alone, Universal has also recently secured a music distribution deal with UK high street clothing retailer Primark .
The venture, which will begin as a trial in selected stores, will enable customers to buy some of Universal’s best-selling albums in Primark stores nationwide. Although digital music sales continue to grow, physical album sales still account for the majority of albums sold in the UK this year. The consequences of the venture, were it to be a commercial success, could be significant as Primark has more UK stores than market leader HMV; 242 to HMV’s 220.
‘Pop’ originated from the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s but typically refers to chart-friendly music. A pop single tends to be between three and five minutes in length, and they have long been built around a golden formula of hook and big chorus.
But the music sitting at the top of the charts today shows signs of unusual conformity, and with reason – it’s all written by the same people; the same few people, in fact. The majority of hit singles are written by producers who know what they’re doing and who have done it, successfully, before.
For Taylor Swift’s new album RED, for example, a host of co-writers were brought in to develop Swift’s sound. Adele’s ‘Set Fire to the Rain’ was co-written by Fraser T Smith who also worked on James Morrison’s ‘Broken Strings’ and Taio Cruz’s ‘Break Your Heart’, and who has in the past worked with Britney, Kylie, Leona Lewis, Keane and Ellie Goulding. Then there’s Greg Kurstin who wrote Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)’ and who had previously won three Ivor Novello awards for his work with Lily Allen (now Lily Rose Cooper). 90s-pop-star-turned-songwriter Cathy Dennis has written 8 UK number ones including S Club 7’s ‘Never Had a Dream Come True’ and ‘Have You Ever’, Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’, Britney’s ‘Toxic’ and Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’.
It should come as no surprise, then, that three of the most commercially successful songs this year (Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, Maroon 5’s ‘Payphone’ and Katy Perry’s ‘Part of Me’) were all written by the same group of people. Maratone, a Swedish music production company formed in 2001, comprises Max Martin, Alexandra and Shellback; a group of musicians who, if they wanted to, could take credit for the careers of most household names in pop in the past decade. In 2010 they collaborated with songwriter and producer Dr Luke on Katy Perry’s record-breaking album Teenage Dream which became the second record in history (after Michael Jackson’s Bad) to produce five US number ones.
It all sounds the same because, when you’re in an industry which is in trouble and you find something that actually works, you stick to it. Co-writers provide the modern-day music industry with the financial crutch it needs; after all, it’s the hits that keep the lights on.