Too Many Cooks
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Should Artists Be More Singular and Self-Reliant?
MAYBE there is a lack of necessary talent and skills...
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but I am finding so many albums overloaded with producers and writers! Albums throughout time have been stuffed with engineers, producers and songwriters and I wonder, really, whether there is any need. This year has been no exception. Take a record like Isolation by Kali Uchis. It is a fabulous album and one that I feel should be regarded as one of 2018’s very best. Whilst I love what Uchis does and think she has a great sound; her album has twenty-two producers! There are fifteen songs on the album and it seems like there are far too many people working on it. Some might say this marks a lack of ability from the artist but I actually feel Isolation – ironic in title! – would be stronger is Uchis took more control. Tommy Genesis’ exceptional eponymous album has about thirteen producers and it looks really offputtng when you see it. I know being a ‘producer’ in today’s music can mean an artist who collaborated and had minor input but I would like to see more focus and streamlining in music. Although some of this year’s biggest albums – from the likes of IDLES, Kamasi Washington and David Byrne – had a few producers on them; it is still a much more muscular and focused look. Maybe three or so producers is not so bad and it offers perspective and range. I would argue a single producer would create a more cohesive and tight record but that is my opinion!
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What bugs me is how busy and crowded records are. If an artist wants to collaborate with a few different musicians then that is fair enough. It is this idea that those collaborated are producers and warrant that sort of credit. You have these albums that arrive and the central artists is buried in a sea of producers and writers. Even modern-day icons like Beyoncé have endless producers on her albums and it seems unnecessary and ridiculous. Many might say the records are as memorable and celebrated because of the different voices but who is to say the artists themselves could not have handled the responsibilities? It is more an issue with solo artists but I hate seeing song credits and having an army of writers and producers. Not to sound like an old man but all the best and most enduring artist of the past had very few cooks in their kitchen. They might have had a producer and sound engineer but, when it came to the writing and creative side, there were very few others involved. I know icons from across time have suffered this bloated approach to music – including Pop legends like Madonna – but it seems to be happening a lot today. One reason why the mass of producers and writers piling in annoys me is because it takes something away from the artist.
IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
If there are so many others calling shots and having their say then it is much more of a group effort than a solo project! I admire those who seek out new producers and can collaborate with others but that can be done economically and without packing too many into the studio. There is this argument between getting the sound right – even if that does involve a lot of other people – and ensuring the central artist has their role and does not have a minor role. Look at the best albums of this year and, largely, they are slim and muscular when you look at the producers and writers. Most genres are culpable and I was shocked a while back when Ed Sheeran released Galway Girl – an awful racket! – and there were nine writers listed! I mentioned this a while back but how can you have NINE people writing a song?! It is almost like they all pitched a few lines or a few words each! Given that it (Galway Girl) is not a Pink Floyd epic or Bohemian Rhapsody; one wonders why it takes so many people to write such a thing! Ed Sheeran is someone who does not have too many others write his songs but on his last album, ÷, I counted eight producers! It is very rare to hear the unique and personal voice of an artist if you have so many different people pulling their own way.
I am trying to think of an occasion when an album has been so chocked with names and it has stood the test of time. Maybe the likes of Madonna are rare exceptions but I feel the best and most resonating music is that which is largely controlled by the artists themselves. It is good to have a couple of co-writers but is modern music defined by a raft of other bodies! Look at two very good and different Pop albums. The stronger effort, Robyn’s Honey, had about five producers and the co-writing credits are quite slender. A less challenging and nuanced record (but still very good) is Rita Ora’s Phoenix. There are, would you believe, twenty-eight producers listed! Each of the twelve songs, bar one or two, are crammed with co-writers and it makes me wonder why so many people were needed! I have listened to the record and the lyrics are not that demanding; the production is solid but hardly the work of Tony Visconti! Do we truly need SO many human beings to make such easy music? The only way I would ever feel comfortable reading a list of producers so long is if an artist sampled others and was crediting them. Maybe there is that thing where modern artists and producers are keen to be associated with a big name like Rita Ora – or being a producer or writer requires very little input. The albums I have listed – full of writers and producers – have all been acclaimed and proved popular but that is not to say they would be weak if fewer people were involved.
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Rita Ora’s new album, Phoenix/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
I am not even narrowing down the argument to mainstream Pop. From credible Rock bands to Hip-Hop and Rap artists; it seems to be the way things are going. That is also not to say modern music is purely about a lack of focus and clarity. So many artists are capable of writing all their own songs or keeping things very uncluttered. It is not only writing and production credits that can make the eyes water. Look at the music that has come through this year and, again, the best tracks are those with few voices in the mix. This is more of a modern problem but we have so many tracks that pile artists together. I have streamed some songs that have had about five or six other names on them! You open a song on Spotify and there is this endless scroll as we see all the other featured artists. When you hear the song, the contribution of others is little more than the odd grumble, word or interjection. I will bring in a few different articles (penned in various different years) that speculate why so many artists bring so many different people into the mix. Last year, the BBC published an article that explored the nature of the modern hit:
“A new study by Music Week magazine shows it now takes an average of 4.53 writers to create a hit single....
The publication analysed the 100 biggest singles of 2016, and found that only four were credited to a single artist - Mike Posner's I Took A Pill In Ibiza, Calvin Harris's My Way; and two separate hits by rock band Twenty One Pilots.
Ten years ago, the average number of writers on a hit single was 3.52, and 14 of the year's top 100 songs were credited to one person, including Amy Winehouse's Rehab and Arctic Monkeys' When The Sun Goes Down.
The best-selling song of 2016, Drake's One Dance, needed eight writers - but even that pales into insignificance compared to Mark Ronson's Uptown Funk, which took 13 people to create, leading Paul Gambaccini to brand it "the most written song in history".
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(To be fair, Uptown Funk originally listed a mere four writers, but others were added when it was noticed the song bore a resemblance to The Gap Band's 1979 hit Ooops Upside Your Head.)”.
According to Mike Smith, managing director of music publishers Warner/Chappell UK, it is simply that the business of making music has changed.
"Think back 20 years and an artist would take at least two or three albums to really hone their craft as a songwriter," he told Music Week.
"There is a need to fast-forward that process [which means record labels will] bring in professional songwriters, put them in with artists and try to bring them through a lot faster."
All this unfettered creativity sounds idyllic, but there is a downside. If you have 13 writers on a song, each of them gets a slice of the royalties when it's purchased or played. And the money doesn't get shared equally, which means lesser-known writers who contribute a line or a lick to a hit song may only get 1% of the profits....
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And then there's the issue of homogenisation. If the world's biggest artists all employ the same writers, could your dad actually be right when he claims "all music sounds the same these days"?
For Scottish pop band, Chvrches, that's a real risk.
"People don't make albums any more," synth player Iain Cook told BBC News in 2015. "They make 11, 12 songs, and they put them out as an album but they feel like a greatest hits, or a playlist.
"And maybe out of those 10 or 11 songs, those co-writes that you do, there's a global number one. But it's not yours."
Singer Lauren Mayberry added: "When I listen to our record, I listen to it and think, 'that has a strong identity'”
That is a lot of information to take in but a few points comes through. The lack of identity and using the same writers for different artists; having this rather factory-like approach to creativity – is this what popular music is about? This article (from 2008) looks at the lucrative business of collaborating and investigates the issue of cuts and royalties.
“I sometimes get asked by songwriters what percentage they should ask for when they collaborate with other writers and artists. Some writers that write the so-called "top-lines" (vocal melody and lyrics) feel that they should get more than 50%, claiming that that's pretty much the whole song and the rest is production and arrangement.
I usually respond with the question: "Do you ever want to work with this person again?" If the answer is yes, I strongly advise equal splits all the way. Do you think Lennon and McCartney would have written half the classics they did if they'd spent their time arguing about who wrote what, and trying to get more songs than the other onto each album?”
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Other genres, like Hip-Hop, are a bit more complicated to navigate and explain:
“When it comes to hip-hop (and sometimes R&B) the question of songwriting splits can become even more intricate. Look at the credits of some of those records and you'll see up to ten names on one single track. Sometimes it's due to all the samples they've used, but often it's because producers set up a groove and invite a crew of people to jam on it. Then the publishers tear their hair out, as it's difficult to give a writing credit to "Vernon from Prospect Park" and "Al from around the way" without having any more information than that”.
I will bring in one more article, from 2015, that seems to define the modern-day songwriter and how music has become much more of a machine and business than ever:
“So they note down a few useless, illiterate lyrics and the ‘music guys’ come in and build a song around them. It’s remarkable how many professional songwriters are people who had a go at being performers and didn’t sell as many records as their talents might have merited. I see that Dan Wilson, once of powerpoppers Semisonic, has been working with the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and John Legend, and co-wrote Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. And one of my favourite songwriters, Gary Clark, who wrote and sang ‘Mary’s Prayer’ for Danny Wilson and many other songs that should have been hits, now lives in the US and shapes whole albums for the likes of Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem. As they say, it’s a living”.
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I do realise there are plenty of musicians who do not rely on an army of others to create their songs and we have genuine artists who can write, produce and perform without the need to lean on hired guns and professionals. I do get a bit tired seeing songs crammed with other voices and these credits that take forever to read! The artist gets all the credit and their voice is the main focus but, if you strip away these big albums and songs; do we really have enough of the artist standing out?! I think so many popular albums and acts depend on hired songwriters a legion of producers to make something that should come from their own mind. I think more artists should either tighten when it comes to collaboration or they should shoulder more of the songwriting/production duties. I think music is much more connective and deep when we get more of the artist’s say. Having too many cooks add their ingredients creates this hybrid and synthetic experience that is more about money and formula than it is creative expression. It should not matter how many people create good music but we have a generation coming through who idolise artists and what they are putting out. If we are saying the way to get a big album in the charts is to work with a dozen other people then that seems wrong to me! We should be encouraging artists to be self-reliant and trust their own voice; not have to rely on so many others and, at the very least, work with a very small team. I do not think it is a coincident that the best and more striking music, past and present, has been created by artists...
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WHO do not rely on so many others to make the magic happen.