Way back when I was a little boy, not
more than 7 or 8, I had a fascination with songwriting.
In those days, the music was played on vinyl records.
The label was located in the center of the disc, and
I regularly held up the record, not to see the listings of
the songs, but to see who wrote them.
The songwriter was always listed in parentheses after
the name of the song.
I was particularly fascinated with
recording artists who wrote most or all of their own
compared John Denver, who wrote by himself most of his own
songs, with Barry Manilow, who co-wrote many and mixed that
with covers, with Glen Campbell, who wrote none of his own.
At that time I was still in second grade.
In music class, we regularly sang children's songs.
I thought it would be awesome if I could compose my
Although I didn't yet know how to play a musical instrument,
I recorded, a cappella, my first album when I was 9.
Half of the songs were composed by me.
The rest consisted of John Denver or Barry Manilow
Even after I began learning how to play
the guitar a year or two later, it was always more important
to me to be able to compose my own tunes than it was to
become an accomplished musical virtuoso.
Plenty of people were competent musicians but how
many could write memorable songs?
In fact, by the time I was ten, the thought was
pretty much solidified in my brain that the best musicians
were not usually the best composers.
Eddie Van Halen and Steve Howe were better
guitarists than Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond, but who wrote
the better songs?
There's a common perception that each
generation is revolted by the music of the generation which
The swing-music lovers didn't embrace rock music.
Rock aficionados didn't take to punk.
But the reverse isn't true.
Latter generations listen to music from earlier eras
and borrow from it.
I grew up listening to records from the 1950's,
1960's, and 1970's.
As I came of age in the 1980's, I was bombarded by
popular music of the day on the radio and bought and/or
recorded the stuff I liked.
Less stuff appealed to me in the 1990's and even less
in the 2000's.
If I heard a song when I was 10 and loved
it, I still love it today.
Whatever grabbed me at some point in my life
continues to grab me now.
Similarly, what I thought was cheesy once I continue
to think of as cheesy now.
I have found that most of the songs I listen to over
and over again come from the 1960's.
Music that reflects my own personal youth experience
(80's and 90's music) barely gets listened to at all.
I never subscribed to musical fads.
I subscribed to songs.
A good song is a good song, whether it was written in
1955 or 1995. So
what does a good song mean when everyone has different
tastes? Is it
possible to objectively say one song is better than another?
It would be deceiving to base a song's
quality only on how high on the charts it placed.
A great song can be ahead of its time and little
appreciated at the time of its initial release.
There are plenty of great songs that never cracked
the Billboard Top 40. Some
qualities in great songs:
It has some kind of hook that
grabs you, such that you continue to remember the song long after it's played.
It makes you want to sing or hum along with it.
If you can't sing, at least sing along in your head.
The words and music -- or just music, if it's an
instrumental -- are of such high caliber, they are not
dependent upon the particular version you're hearing.
This is why you can find innumerable versions of
Pachbel's Canon in D, some done with full orchestras, others
done on just piano, others with guitar.
This is why so many of the Beatles' songs have been
merely good song or chart-topping song (the two are not
necessarily synonymous) could rely on fads of the time.
When the fad passes, so does the song.
The song "Jump" from Van Halen's 1984 album
comes to mind.
It climbed to #1 on the charts in 1984, but I've rarely
heard it since. "Jump" wasn't a great song.
Great songs transcend eras and artists.
The reason that 1960's tunes get the most
attention from me is that those songs were written by better
This is not just my opinion.
Songs from the era are heard on the radio, even to
this day. They
get re-recorded by present-day artists and were often
re-recorded back then by several artists in the small span
of a few years
-- "The First Cut Is
The Deepest" and "Angel Of The Morning," for instance.
I don't see the hits from the 1990's and 2000's (and
to a lesser extent, the 1980's) getting that treatment.
Has anyone bothered doing covers of Phil Collins'
songs? Is it
likely Britney Spears' hits will be re-recorded by new
artists in 20 years' time?
The music industry changed
sometime in the 1970's, when solo singers and bands were
expected to compose some or all of their material.
Before that time, while you had some groups and artists
writing their own stuff (Sam Cooke, the Beatles, the Rolling
Stones), most didn't. I can easily rattle off a
dozen 60's songs off the top
of my head made famous by groups who didn't write them.
Think of "Happy Together" (Turtles), "You've Lost
That Loving Feeling" (Righteous Brothers), "Where Did Our
Love Go" (Supremes), "Dancing In The Street" (Martha and the Vandellas), "Leader Of The Pack" (Shangri-Las), "Love Potion
Number 9" (Searchers), "Downtown" (Petula Clark), and "I'm
Into Something Good" (Herman's Hermits).
And those are hits culled from just the two years of
1964 and 1965.
It wasn't frowned upon for 50's and 60's bands to get their
material from outside sources.
In some instances, the bands didn't even play their
own instruments on the recordings.
More competent studio musicians did.
The Monkees were a very apparent testimony of this
phenomenon, only getting slack because they weren't formed
by themselves, but at the behest and supervision of a
The songs should have been better then
than they are now.
The 60's was the time of the Brill Building
The famous songwriting teams of Leiber & Stoller,
Goffin & King, Greenwich & Barry, and Bacharach & David all
came out of the Brill Building.
Because bands weren't ridiculed for not being
autonomous, they could freely seek their future hits from
the catalogs of songwriting pros.
Today, bands would lose their street cred if they
weren't recording their own material, so although the bands
may show off a good stage presence and all be accomplished
musicians, none of the band members need be a truly gifted
Bands attract fans based on their unique sound and
persona, not necessarily because of stupendous songwriting.
There are still corporate-manufactured
bands, like Menudo and the Spice Girls, where attractive
faces sing whatever songs they're ordered to.
These groups exist in every era, and they need
songwriters to pen their material, but since songwriters are
no longer being groomed and nurtured by firms the groups'
producers respect, it becomes harder for an individual
songwriter to get his songs into the right hands.
The digital revolution hasn't helped
songwriters fortunes either.
Songwriters, like the recording artists, are paid a
royalty on each unit sold.
As of 2008, they received a 9.1¢ mechanical royalty
rate per song sold. The
songwriter is also entitled to a performance royalty if his
song is played on the radio or television.
The problem is that sales of physical
CD's are dropping.
Music lovers download songs today, many times for
free, and neither the artist nor the songwriter collect a
royalty from those downloads.
You needn't shed too many tears for the artists.
If millions of listeners are downloading, for free,
an artist's songs, then the artist is building a fan base he
can later monetize through live concerts and strategic song
placement. This is an enviable position to be in, as most
non-famous artists have trouble getting people to listen to
their music. (I can't pay people to give my music a serious
the artist, the recorded music changes from a revenue stream
to a cost of advertising his products and services.
But what about the songwriters?
They can't turn all
those free downloads into another source of income.
The songwriters' income is the royalty, and
it's always under pressure of being squeezed.
The Digital Media
Association (DiMA) wants to continue paying songwriters the
radio performance royalty rate, a lower rate than the
mechanical rate, if a song is streamed.
But songwriters calculate, probably correctly, that
streaming music will eventually replace downloads and would
like a royalty more in line with sales.
Meanwhile, the Recording Industry Association of
America (RIAA) is trying to reduce, in real terms, the
mechanical royalty rate the songwriters collect by setting
it as a fixed percentage of the wholesale media price, a
price that is continually dropping.
Everyone knows the argument that
downloading hurts artists and, by extension, the
We've heard the arguments so often we don't listen anymore.
Why should we when we've been ripped off on music for
far too long?
When I was a kid, the cheapest place to find record albums
was the Quonset Hut for $5.99 (about $18 today).
The more typical prices would have equated to $22 or
more in today's money.
This was a lot to pay for albums mostly packed with
CD's were introduced, they retailed for a higher cost than
the vinyl records which preceded them, when the cost to
manufacture the CD's was negligible.
Record companies didn't care that we had to
re-purchase all of our favorite albums on the new medium at
full, not an upgrade, price.
And the music promotion corporations don't care
about fleecing fans on a live concert.
The U2 summer concerts in Ireland in 2009 cost
between €299-379 per ticket, a lot more than what I paid to
see them in Syracuse in 1987.
At those sky high prices, no downloader feels bad
about grabbing U2's tunes for free.
And if the artist is not so rich and
The downloader justifies his actions by telling himself
he'll share this artist's song with others and build the fan
base. As proof,
the downloader could cite the independent band Dispatch, who
had no formal promotion or radio play.
Nevertheless, Dispatch was able to sell out concerts
in places they'd never been due to their music being
downloaded for free on Napster in the early 2000's.
You can't change human nature.
People will always rationalize getting something for
Websites like Myspace and Bebo lure visitors with free music
for which they never pay royalties.
The artist is supposed to feel grateful his stuff is
As a result, less songwriters make a
living at what they do, so they start doing something else,
and the quality of music continues to go downhill.
Not anyone can perform a heart transplant or win a
martial arts competition, but anyone can write a song.
Just not anyone can write a great song.
With the growing commodization of music, it now seems
more important to sell a group and its image with passable
entertainment written by an "anyone songwriter" rather than
truly fantastic songs that future generations would listen
to and re-record.
Back in 1957, Doc Pomus, half of the
great songwriting team of Pomus & Schuman, was able to give
up performing to devote himself full time to songwriting.
A songwriter today would have to give up full-time
songwriting and take up performing
in order to make a
shouldn't be long now before a computer program is developed
which will write the generic corporate-sponsored music most
of the public will swallow and make all songwriters
dispensable once and for all.