FEATURE: Too Many Voices in My Head: Is the Modern Collaboration Culture Less About Quality and More Concerned with Figures, Money and Backing Labels?



Too Many Voices in My Head


Is the Modern Collaboration Culture Less About Quality and More Concerned with Figures, Money and Backing Labels?


THERE was a time in music when we had…

some memorable duets and collaborations that genuinely stood out. Whether it was a rare hook-up in the 1990s or a girl group like En Vogue mixing it alongside Salt-N-Peppa on Whatta Man; if you get the chemistry right, it can lead to something exceptional. If you think about the best duets of all-time then they have one thing in common: it is the perfect pairing of artists and adds something a single artist can’t. Listen to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush on Don’t Give Up or Queen and David Bowie on Under Pressure. These are fantastic songs where different artists are joined and seamlessly gel; challenge one another and help create a simply wonderful moment of music. There have not been that many great cases of duets in the last few years. I don’t know whether demands have changed or what but it is a shame that we do not see great artists joining together to perform something focused yet ambitious. All those great duets and collaborations are notable because they are unexpected and different to what you are used to. I guess we all have our fantasy list of artists we’d like to see get together and make some magic stir. I do think there is something to be said for economy and rarity when we consider collaborations. Whilst it is nice to see a perfectly-judged unity and an unexpected partnership, I do think there is a bit of fatigue in the modern industry.

Rather than put artists together to create something inspiring and quality-heavy, it seems a lot of artists are coming together simply so they can boost their profiles or get streaming figures up on Spotify. Every week, I collate a playlist of new songs and use Spotify for guidance. You would not believe how many songs from the lists I look at – usually New Music Friday – weld together artists. It is fantastic when you discover a genuinely moving pairing but, more often than not, it is a case of artists you have not heard of all bustling together in a song that is overloaded and has no sense of focus. I am not suggesting we only should have solo artists and bands recording but I do feel like there are too many collaborations and songs where you have four or five artists together. It is more common in genres like Rap and Hip-Hop but it happens across the board; where you have a song where each artist takes a couple of lines or you get an artist that only adds the odd word or thought – making me wonder what the point is and what they are actually adding. My article has been influenced by Ed Sheeran’s new album, No.6 Collaborations Project. It is an album where Sheeran collaborates with everyone from Eminem and 50 Cent (Remember the Name) to Put It All on Me (ft. Ella Mai).

Where it does not have the same raft of people in the mix as a lot of songs around right now, I do think collaboration albums are a bit of a bad idea. Unless the song really calls for it, very few tracks are elevated and bettered by having more voices on them. Unless there is a fantastic song that specifically calls for several voices, I do think you need to be savvy and sure when it comes to bringing names in. I have listened to Sheeran’s record and, whilst a couple of the songs are quite affable, the album is rather safe and there are no extraordinary moments; songs do not really sink in and you sort of wonder why many of the collaborators were asked to come along. One of the problems is hearing someone rather bland and safe as Ed Sheeran performing on the same song as 50 Cent. It is quite extreme and the dynamic connection is not really there. He could have made the songs pop on his own or added some unknown voices in the background but bringing these huge names together makes everything seem like a case of flexing and using his fame rather than thinking about the music. The Guardian shared some positive comments and argued why Sheeran, more often than not, succeeds:  

The sound skews noticeably towards the R&B-influenced end of his oeuvre represented by Sing and Shape of You: if there isn’t a song here quite as undeniable as either of those, then both the Khalid feature Beautiful People, which sets an indelible melody line and chorus amid soft-focus synths, and Put It All on Me, which features Ella Mai and an insistent guitar hook draped languidly over a breakbeat, runs them close...

IN THIS PHOTO: Ed Sheeran/PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Surridge 

Indeed, it occasionally cleaves a little too closely for its own good: South of the Border sounds perilously similar to Shape of You. The latter also sees the appearance of what you might call the shameless Sheeran of Galway Girl, a man abundantly aware that the general public’s notion of cool seldom chimes with that of record labels or indeed rock critics. Charged with writing a song for the Cuban-American Camilla Cabello, he manages to last barely a minute before breaking out the Latin language of love: “Te amo, mamá.”

It’s not the only moment that doesn’t work. You can see the logic behind the Eminem and 50 Cent collaboration Remember the Name – the jaunty musical backing is clearly designed in the image of The Real Slim Shady – but there’s something jarring about Eminem rapping about sticking nails in his eyeballs next to Sheeran repping Ipswich.

But elsewhere, Sheeran succeeds in pulling off his patent trick of simultaneously stunning you with the pitiless commercial efficiency of his writing while retaining a certain ordinary-bloke humanity. For all the bragging about his achievements when the genre he’s dabbling in warrants it – put him in the studio with a rapper and it won’t be too long before he starts filling you in on the eye-popping financial take-home of his last world tour ($340m, in case you’re wondering) – there’s a tang of affecting authenticity about the parade of neuroses on display elsewhere in the lyrics. This ranges from social anxiety to fretting about the onset of male-pattern baldness: a reminder that, while Sheeran undoubtedly pioneered the valuable pop commodity of #relatability, he did it by default rather than design”.

If you are a big artist then it is tempting to brings some other artists in because you can pick whoever you want and go a bit nuts. I am one of these romantics who loves when artists are joined because they are passionate about the song and there is this mutual respect; no desire to boost the label or any marketing aims. All the greatest duets and collaborations, to me, seem to be based on the desire to make the song the best it can be. Maybe that is naïve to an extent but there are mouth-watering possibilities when it comes to big artists and what sort of song could come about if they got together. I do get a feeling that most of the collaborations we have now have no other aim but to raise the profile of other artists or to make money. How often do we see collaborations where the design and desire it the art itself?! This article from Rolling Stone talks about possible motives behind Ed Sheeran’s latest album:

It turns out that Sheeran shares a label with many of the artists he’s a fan of; No. 6 Collaborations may be an accurate reflection of Sheeran’s streaming habits, but it’s also a deft piece of brand synergy, showcasing a wide range of names on Atlantic Records. The guest list is culled so that nine of the singers or rappers here are in some way connected either to Atlantic, the industry-leading label according to one recent market-share estimate, or its parent company, the recently renamed Warner Records. Sheeran is throwing a party, and the bar is generously stocked, but most of the booze is staying in the family.

The Atlantic clan includes Bruno Mars, Meek Mill, PnB Rock, Cardi B and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, currently the label’s breakout star and the third most-streamed artist of 2019. The electronic producer Skrillex, who also appears on No.6 Collaborations, releases music through the label Big Beat, which is also under the Atlantic umbrella. The unpredictable rapper Young Thug puts out his music jointly through 300 Records and Atlantic. The grime star Stormzy — who scored his first Number One in England earlier this year and then headlined the country’s flagship music festival, Glastonbury — is signed to Atlantic UK. And the rising Argentinian trap artist Paulo Londra, who has amassed over a billion streams worldwide, is signed to another part of Warner Records, Warner Music Latin.

The rest of Sheeran’s duet partners appear to be roughly split evenly between Warner’s two primary competitors. Sony Music Entertainment shows up on No.6 Collaborations in the form of Travis Scott, Khalid, Camila Cabello, and H.E.R., while Universal Music Group lends Sheeran the services of Eminem, Ella Mai, Chris Stapleton, and Justin Beiber.

For Sheeran’s label-mates, especially the rappers and Londra, the inclusion on No.6 Collaborations is a chance to reach Sheeran’s more adult-contemporary-leaning fanbase, who would probably not seek out hip-hop or music in Spanish otherwise. And it’s also a nice jolt for their global profiles — Ed Sheeran is the most popular artist on the planet on Spotify, with over 65 million monthly listeners around the world”.

I can agree with a lot of the words in the article above. I do not think it is cynical to suggest that a lot of collaborations join label-mates and it is designed to get more attention and money the way of certain artists. Sheeran is not the only culpable artist and, indeed, so many modern-day collaborations are designed with money and statistics in mind rather than any notions of quality and originality. I do like it when you have artists joining together that create this golden moment and there is nothing in mind bar making something truly exceptional. I listen to the new songs coming out and there are so many names fused together and it makes me wonder why. It is subjective when it comes to saying which collaborations work and which don’t but I hate the phenomenon of crowbarring artists together just so that the line-up looks cool and they get some big streaming figures. I realise there are some great songs from solo artists and it is not like we are getting buried in collaborations. I do think the ones we have are not particularly great and I do wonder whether artists are coming together for the right reasons. These songs with so many names on them…what are they actually achieving and what is the actual point?!

I think it is great artists want to record together but I have this uneasy feeling that a lot of the motive revolves around backing label-mates or letting your ego reign. It has been a while since a truly classic collaboration has come about and maybe this is a sign of the modern times and different motives. I congratulate artists like Ed Sheeran and what he is doing but I think albums like No.6 Collaborations Project are less about merit and exploring new ground but, instead, it is quite cynical, ill-engineered and bland. When you stuff so many names together and come up with something ordinary that raises questions about motives then that does not look great. I still have these fond memories of the classic duets and do wonder whether those days are gone and we are going to be subjected to endless songs with faceless names all together singing rather listlessly. A great, supreme duet or collaboration can really hit the senses and remain popular for decades but I think there is little chance of that happening today. Instead, we have these insipid collaborations that do not stick in the mind and they are, let’s face it, sound pretty dull. Maybe there is a classic duet or collaboration around the corner and we will see a modern-day classic but, unfortunately, it seems like that possibility is…

A long way away.