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Great songwriting requires great songwriters. The Brill Building songwriting factories knew the qualities in great songs. Today, the digital revolution and the downloading of music has hurt the artist, but the quality of songs has been declining long before this as performers were expected to write more of their own material.


 
Home / Economics /
Swan Song For The Songwriters
Making a living as a songwriter

The beginning of the end of the dedicated songwriter came before the digital music revolution arrived


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 material.   I 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 own songs.  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 tunes. 

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 follows.    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:

Songwriters Hall of FameIt has some kind of hook that grabs you, such that you continue to remember the song long after it's played.

catchy songsIt makes you want to sing or hum along with it.   If you can't sing, at least sing along in your head.

quality songwriting 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 covered.  A 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 songwriters.  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 television network. 

The songs should have been better then than they are now.   The 60's was the time of the Brill Building songwriting factories.  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 songwriter.   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 listen.)   For 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 songwriters.  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 filler.  When 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 famous?   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 nothing.  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 getting exposed. 

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 living.   It 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. 

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