What is a Song?
Over the past several years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to write with some incredibly talented songwriters in Nashville, Los Angeles, Stockholm, London, Seattle, Toronto, Sydney AU, NYC, backs of tour busses all over the USA, and even on beaches in Florida. It’s one of the most fun things for me to see and hear the way that music is made in different scenes all over the world. I’ve learned so much just by putting myself in different settings, outside of the Nashville writing studios that I’m used to. But the most interesting thing to me in all of it is how songs come together, and how each “scene” views the different songwriting roles.
The Nashville Lyric
For starters, Nashville is known as the town where it all “starts with the song”. Coming onto the map through the story songs of classic country music, and now, giving birth to artists of all genres, it’s all about the top-line in Music City.
What is top-line?
Top-line is essentially anything that is NOT the instrumental part of a song. It is the lyrics, and it is the melody. Historically, a lot of the way that Nashville songwriting splits were viewed, is that the lyric was worth 50% of the song, and the melody was worth 50%.
For the standard Nashville hitmakers, they have mostly, until now, came to writing sessions with just their acoustic guitars. It wasn’t so much about finding the guitar riffs, drum beats, or other sounds that would compliment the top-line. They sort of just left that up to the producer to figure out. And a lot of the time, whoever is responsible for those musical pieces, isn’t ever really recognized as a songwriter on the song, thus, not receiving a songwriting royalty share like the other writers. I am not saying this is bad or good. I am just reporting on what I’ve seen in Nashville.
Pop Songwriting and the “Track Guys”
If you take a trip to L.A. or Stockholm, however, you’d find writing studios with people spending hours just making musical pieces, beats, hooks, and not even getting to the top-line until the last minute. In pop music, the melody and the track (the music bed) have become the most important thing. If you listen to a lot of modern pop music, it doesn’t really have that much lyrical content at all. It is more about catchy hooks, melodies, and instrumental riffs in the track.
I’ve spent hours in sessions before we ever even got to the top-line, just making sure the music is amazing before even thinking about what the vocalist will do.
Bands are a good example of this. Nirvana’s hit “Teen Spirit” is a prime illustration. They went in as a band and cut the whole piece of music to it, maybe with some mumbly melodies for reference. And then Kurt Cobain went into the vocal booth and scribbled down some lyrics last minute, because it was time to record the vocals, and he needed something to say of course. A lot of bands have the songwriting role shared and split equally between all band members, even if one member is largely responsible for the top-line.
In many instances in the pop and hip-hop worlds, the track creators get just as much songwriting recognition and credit as their top-line counterparts. Again, this isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is. This can explain the large number of songwriters on any particular pop hit nowadays, which is very common. Billboard published a great article about this: How Many Songwriters Does it Take? In these spheres, you could say that the track is the most important thing. There are even publishing deals given to songwriters who could be called “the track guys”. What they contribute to the session is a bed of music that inspires a certain melody or lyric.
The Swedes and Their Melodies
If you study the work of Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin, you’ll hear that his melody and phrasing are his unfair advantage. I’ve heard from multiple writers who have been in rooms with him, that to him, the melody and phrasing are It. The lyric has to sing well, and fit in a very methodical, repetitive pop phrasing for it to work for his songs. So you could say that the lyric has to defer to the melody in his writing – that the melody is the most important thing.
Looking at the work of another one of my songwriting heroes in Nashville, Tom Douglas, his songs are all about the lyric. The melody has to be good, but it is very much just a support role to what he is saying in the words. This is the case with a lot of country songwriting. The same can mostly be said of Christian Music as well, as it is largely based on the lyrical content.
In Nashville, it’s fair to say that the lyric is the most important part of a song.
Your Strength is Important
I think the big thing that we can all take away from this is the fact that, no matter what your music-making strength is, there is probably a place for you somewhere. Maybe you’re one hundred percent a lyricist, and don’t have a melodic bone in your body. Or maybe you’re the next up-and-coming EDM track-maker, and don’t put much thought into lyrics. Either way, there is a place for all strengths, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking your skill is “lesser than” someone else’s. All pieces of the songwriting process are equally as important.
Even Splits. It’s not Songwriting Socialism.
We have a policy in Full Circle Music, and that is, we always share the songwriting publishing splits evenly (unless there is a rare scenario that warrants otherwise). I feel this is important because it makes a statement that each songwriting skill is equally valuable. In a lot of circles, it has been the case that publishing is only given to the topline writers, and the “track guy” is left without any split of it.
The point of this piece is not to point out a faulty system within any party in particular. It is merely to shed new light on a different angle that says, each person in the process is valued and important. It’s not songwriting “socialism” or “communism” where publishing is just evenly distributed to all. It’s in fact the argument that each of us have our days when we bring more to the table than others. I’ve had days where I’ve left a session feeling helpless, like I couldn’t contribute anything good. And I’ve had others where I’ve felt like all my ideas were on fire!
We’re only human. We will inherently have our ups and downs, and my case for even splits is based on this idea.