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They do write songs like they used to . . .
Ewan Macaulay

... Now it is possible for any musician who invests in computers and composition programs to produce a professional sounding song.

MTV 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 1930’s, in that the songwriters and singers are separate entities. Now, unlike the 30’s, 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 children’s TV shows.

Now it 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 shouldn’t 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 company’s 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 30’s, 40’s and 50’s saying that "they don’t 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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