By Hans Ebert
Listening to “Work”, the new recording by Rihanna, and then hearing a brilliant Remix of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” recently in a club, one had to wonder whether, like everything else, if writing songs for a living and trying to make this a financially viable career, there’s a need to rethink one’s modus operandi.
Forget, if possible, about the absolutely thankless task of dealing with music publishing companies and trying to get very basic answers to logical questions like, “Can I have my Royalty statement?” The arrogant ways in which too many music publishing houses work, and the total disregard for their clients and artists- the songwriters they have signed and whose songs they are supposed to market- have not changed in decades and never will. These are accountants reporting to those strange people speaking in legalese. Once signed to them, you’re Django Chained. You’re under lock and key no matter how unsuccessful. They don’t want you or your songs, but they will not set you free. You’ve become just another dumb Kunte thinking that being signed to a worldwide music publishing house will lead somewhere.
Try going it alone and it’s even worse as, IF anything of note happens, and you’re not Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, or a producer from the Max Martin assembly line, getting what’s rightfully yours often means your weekend lawyer pitted against an army of Frank Underwoods only there to make the life of anyone who takes them on bloody miserable.
Of course when finally sees the chump change received for millions of streams and the odd legal iTunes download of your music, one often wonders whether a career as a gardener might be more profitable. Numbers in their millions, especially when it comes to the streaming of music, might dazzle the senses, but it gives a completely distorted picture of the truth. Never forget that Lady Gaga’s first cheque from Spotify for the streaming of her music was $187. And this was at the zenith of her career. Can collection agencies help? They might try, but most have staffing problems and, again, don’t have the legal firepower. All they have is an Oliver Twisted begging bowl.
But when you’re truly a soul man about music, and still haven’t given up on the dream of being the next Lennon and McCartney, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin, or just someone wanting one song to be as big as something Ed Sheeran might write, one perseveres though always mindful about giving up the day job. It’s not just tough out there to have your music heard amidst all the clutter, the recent huge hits show that there’s a formula in place- and pretty much a closed shop unless you’re best mates with Simon Cowell and he insists that OneDirection records one of your songs.
Sure, Motown had a formula in place as did Phil Spector, but this had to do with producing an unique sound. The actual songs themselves, whether from the writers from Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building, Motown’s songwriting teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Corporation, and tunesmiths like Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, Leon Russell, McCartney, Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Cat Stevens, James Taylor etc, were always fresh, creative and strived not to fall into being formulaic pop.
For these songwriters and artists, it wasn’t a conscious effort to be different for the sake of being different. It was the artist within them sharing their thoughts through words and melodies. If these emotions struck the right chord with you, the listener, you bought the record, and it became part of the soundtrack to your life.
Was this because it was a simpler and more innocent time? Hold that thought. Personally, I think it had everything to do with less clutter, and a Less Is More approach to music. One had more time- or made the time- to absorb everything about a record- the cover design, the session musicians, the magic of making love sound romantic through a phrase, and with everything held together by The Song.
The Song- they’re all there on Rubber Soul and Revolver, Pet Sounds and the hugely underrated El Mirage album by Jimmy Webb, Elton John’s Madman Across The Water, almost every Leon Russell album, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Each of these records were completely different to each other, but still lived in perfect harmony with every other record in your collection whether it werethe Mothers Of Invention, Vanilla Fudge or Pink Floyd.
There weren’t all these different genres to cheat people with all these meaningless Billboard charts. It was simply music. The labelling of music was the beginning of the end. It fragmented everything, and forced music fans to take sides. And through technology and excessive access to everything, nothing today stands out for any length of time.
Today, it’s all about “Work” by Rihanna and the extremely clever viral effect it has caused through what is very much a celebrity endorsement marketing approach. But it’s working. The question is, what’s really working? Is it the song? Is it the fact that it’s something new from Rihanna? Or is it the huge promotional push it’s receiving from celebrities like Kendall Jenner?
And if you don’t have these million dollar babies in your corner, what do you do? Appear on The Voice? American Idol? America’s Got Talent? And then what? Remember the names of the winners over the past five years from any of these television karaoke competitions?
As the rancid and sordid and murky tale involving singer-songwriter Kesha and her mentor and manager Dr Luke alleging rape and every kind of abuse unravels along with information about all the contractual disputes and legal decisions handed down that are holding this artist to ransom out of sheer vindictiveness, it only shows that the music and entertainment industry is not a happy place.
It’s a controlling place with very few good people. Kesha is hardly a huge name. So, why not let her go, and have her break free from the man she alleges raped and abused her? How does Dr Luke benefit from holding onto an artist who will never ever work with him again?Even if the allegations are fabricated, why hold this moderately successful artist to a contract? Sue her for defamation of character and libel, but surely, there will be no more music coming out of this partnership?
And why isn’t Sony Music, the parent company in this sorry mess, on auto glide and insisting on playing by the rules? Does it have anything to do with Dr Luke being a protégé of the extremely successful and powerful producer-arranger-songwriter Max Martin, the Go To man when artists, especially and almost exclusively, young female artists, need a breakthrough hit record? Or a female artist who’s career is going South desperately needs a comeback hit- a hit that carries the name and weight of Max Martin- or one of his hand-picked writer-producers?
Max Martin has written and produced hits for almost everyone. It’s even been suggested that he played a much greater role in the actual approval process of Miss Adele’s “25” than he’s been given credit for. After all, Damon Albarn and, especially Phil Collins, is said to have written and produced a complete record for the grande dame of sad songs that never saw the light of day. Word is that Max Martin was brought in to remake the record bullet-proof and protect Sony’s golden goose.
Is the music Max Martin writes and produces great music or formulaic pop that’s then forced down the throats of a gullible and star-struck public- they’re not music fans- too busy to think, but easy to be hoodwinked through bibs and bobs on social media? Bibs and bobs which make them feel they’re instant music aficionados- but also putty in the hands of people like shrewd radio programmers who work in cahoots with artist management and music companies? Payola didn’t end with Alan Freed in the Fifties. The stakes today are much much higher.
Max Martin- and no one can take away his track record- writes and produces to a formula. It’s a very old formula that originated in Scandinavia decades ago- Max Martin is Swedish- and was also the sound behind the success of K-Pop and acts like the Wonder Girls nymphets with their anthem called “Nobody”. Do you see a pattern forming here- and it’s not Girl Power?
It’s instantly catchy Pop or Bubblegum music that has helped the careers of everyone from Britney Spears to Katy Perry- and just as instantly forgettable.
It’s like Rihanna’s “Work”. Who wrote it? Does anyone care? Most of the talk is about the “risqué video”. And this is where I have a problem: the lack of importance placed on a song- and how it’s crafted and what it says. Instead, all attention is paid to the celebrity or celebrity-in-the-works that a music company and its many partners have decided to get behind. It’s only about fattening up another golden goose and finding the next Big Thing.
So, with all this happening, armies of people involved, and “going viral” becoming an exacting science with no room for error, where and how does a bona fide songwriter make their songs heard- and make a decent living? Change direction mid-stream and try to be a junior member of the Max Martin Hit Making Squad?
At least, this would ensure some form of payment as one be working for Max Martin, and it would appear no one, not even Taylor Swift and Miss Adele messes with him.
Do you sit and wait for at least one of those music competitions on television, but which this time are only for unknown songwriters? But this will never happen because the audience wouldn’t know any of the songs. Karaoke sells.
Thinking about it, there’s a reason why my longtime friend Simon Fuller- he will be named Entrepreneur Of The Year in LA later this week- might still be part of the programme he created (American Idol), but has walked away from working on any of these type of shows.
Their time has come and gone. And though he manages the careers and businesses of the Beckhams, Carrie Underwood, Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and Adam Lambert, there’s very little interest in him returning to music and being involved with it as much as he once was. He no doubt knows it’s a business that’s more trouble than it’s worth.
Around five years ago, Simon was very excited about a new project or programme, or something or another he was going to produce with the legendary Chris Blackwell that would ensure songwriters be fairly paid for their work after, apparently, discovering that the collection agencies, especially in the UK, were allowing too much “monies owed” to fall through the cracks. This idea died a quick death. It was probably too late to pop the genie back in.
And though all of us still with a song in our hearts, that gypsy in our soul and still believing in writing that one song that will live forever and become our legacy, many are honest enough to approach this art form with trepidation and cynicism. And maybe even a little resignation.
Having this music heard by the “right people” is a full-time gig that might never happen. And even if one were to forget words and music for beats and auto-tuners, it still doesn’t mean anything. You’re still struggling- and the struggling isn’t getting you anywhere other than going around and around and around in circles and writing songs your friends will tell you should be number one with a bullet. Could, would, should. It’s become too much hard work.
The glory days of songwriting have come and gone. All the great songs have probably all been written using those handful of notes at our disposal. Maybe that’s why we’re still waiting for something new and another “Royals” from Lorde. It’s been a long time between hits for her, a songwriter Bowie described as “the future of music.”
Don’t give up your day job. That’s the most upbeat I can be about an art form I will always love- and all the great songs I carry with me through this journey of life, thanks to all the great songwriters in whose songs there’s that undefinable something that we’ve made our own.