do write songs like they used to . . .
Now it is possible for any musician who invests in computers and composition
programs to produce a professional sounding song.
and Top of the Pops have become fashion shows. Most acts in the
singles charts are the models the ones that survive as household
names are the supermodels. This leads some people to the conclusion
that image is more important than the music: the quality of music
does not have to be strong, because it is supported by the image.
Manufactured bands are now created by image alone. Singers and instrumentalists
are often a group of drama students picked for their good looks
and ability to project their personalities. Sometimes but
not often even session singers get selected for stardom.
Does this mean that writers of songs with musical merit are being squeezed
out of pop? No. The competition for good quality pop songs is increasing
because now there is no pressure on the songwriter to perform the
songs. To some extent there has been a return to the origin of popular
music in the 1930s, in that the songwriters and singers are separate
entities. Now, unlike the 30s, songs are no longer shared between
singers. A song is either bought by, or written specifically for, a singer/group,
supporting the image upon which they were founded. This targeted sale
of the song also provides a huge cash influx for the songwriter, who has
neither to perform, to do magazine interviews, nor to do the endless circuit
of childrens TV shows.
is possible for any musician who invests in computers and composition
programs to produce a professional sounding song. It is no longer necessary
to spend hours recording in expensive commercial studios. Record companies
are losing their grip on music over the internet (very difficult for them
to enforce publishing rights) and now on the production of songs as well.
To counteract this, the record companies include a more holistic approach
in their portfolio of ways of milking money from the music business.
The main secure footing in the industry now is the building of acts from
the foundations, so that the record companies own everything. In its simplest
form this involves auditioning for singers (not ugly obviously
one dark, one blonde, one redhead . . . one quirky, one sophisticated,
one innocent, one wild, oh yes and shouldnt we have one ethnic
in there?) then sending them to fashion consultants and choreographers.
Add one songwriter followed by plenty of publicity, release the single
and claim all of the profits. By following this process, they have discovered
a new way (very similar to the old way) to grind the money machine.
This fertile financial ground has produced a new income for the composer.
Detailed harmony, thick texture and good structure are required in the
songs. These elusive qualities can be trapped by the composer and remoulded
to suit the record companys tastes in return for a good sum of money.
That good sum of money has itself brought songwriters out of the woodwork
and so the standard of songwriting has risen with the competition.
Although the rise of dance music and Metal bands in the charts seems to
leave very little room for the traditional song, combined with the machinery
of the great record companies, they survive in a more commercial form.
The most important thing to remember is that the singles charts are not
the most accurate measurement of popular (rather than pop) music. Singles
are not bought by people who can afford albums. They are weekly pocket
money buys, for pre-teens and early teens who feel the need to own some
of the glamour they see in the video. Record companies realise this and
have written songs for the singles market for the last forty years.
Pics Starsailor and Frank Sinatra
A look at the album charts will show a much lower percentage of pop artists,
with everything from dance to Frank Sinatra compilations. The chill-out
compilation albums do particularly well in this area and are an excellent
example of old songwriting techniques applied through modern recording
methods. There are also a number of new bands which have gained popularity
over the last two years writing very individual songs that are easy
to listen to such as Coldplay, Travis or Starsailor.
It is not uncommon to hear people who defined their musical taste by the
lyrics and melodies of the 30s, 40s and 50s saying that
"they dont write songs like used to". However the place
of the traditional songwriter and the traditional song is not under threat.
The styles of music which are now available and the means of creating
them have diversified. Now, more than ever, the business of writing music
is booming and as with any other trade, money and success are encouraging
more people to apply their talents. Songwriters will still be writing
songs like they used to . . .
© Ewan Macaulay 2002
Composer and music journalist
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