‘Stay Another Day’: A music composition and production formula to create a successful Boy Band
Phil Harding, producer and PhD candidate
ABSTRACT: Is there a music composition and production formula for a Boy Band? This question is rooted in the trans-cultural context of the 1990s, and it is important for musicologists, entrepreneurs, composers and producers to research this. My study is based on the phenomena of Boy Band success of the 1990s and I am looking at an empirically and theoretically grounded formula proposal that started then and could be contextualized today with ethnographic reflection. In this paper, I will use my own knowledge and experience in the Boy Band genre; I had success as a producer and composer in the 1990s with ‘East 17’ and ‘Boyzone’. I will then contrast this with the views of the managers of those bands – Tom Watkins and Louis Walsh. This will raise some questions around the compositional techniques and the music production technology used today both in professional studios and home recording facilities. What interactive media do composers and musicians in both regional and international contexts use for the collaboration process? Do composition and even recording sessions need to take place in the same room any longer? Pop act ‘The KLF’ (Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond) wrote ‘The Manual (How To Have a Number One The Easy Way)’ 1. This presented the idea of a formula to have a guaranteed No.1 hit single in the UK charts in the 1980s/90s. This will be explored alongside an analysis of data towards my proposed formula for a successful manufactured Boy Band.
Phil begins with a brief autobiographical statement about his work with SAW and others in the 1980s and 1990s. He intends to argue that Boy Band music is just as ‘creative’ as any other music style – it just has a different context.
As Bill Drummond of the KLF put it in The Manual: “Stock Aitken and Waterman – ridiculed by the media, they have only their royalty statements for comfort”. We hear about the background of Boyz Unlimited and Tom Watkins’ involvement, with some amusing quotes from Tom about the project.
This leads us to Phil’s ‘Song Format Formula’. He refers to this as a ‘framework’ into which you can slot component parts. The intro, Phil says, is key. 4 bars of music, 4 bars with vocal hints of the chorus, and sometimes a 2-bar ‘link’. He plays some examples in the form of an ‘E17 intros megamix’, and points to the ‘drama’ in each one. Phil now discusses hook placement, and describes an extra post-chorus hook placement, playing us ‘I Found You’ by The Wanted to demonstrate additional titular hooks.
Note no link into the second chorus. In the J-pop market, he notes that sometimes middle 8s are often dramatically different, sometimes even changing in tempo (for example, to a ballad version). He observes the recent shift from the outro fade to the dramatic ending.
The next section is what Phil calls ‘Hangman songwriting techniques’ and there is an interesting discussion of syllable count in a couple of songs. There is then a discussion of production techniques, where a male pro session singer maps the whole vocal arrangement. The band then copies one part at a time. The band members are often 5dB lower than the session singer in the mix. Phil talks us through the different tracking and thickening techniques that are used (e.g. vocalists singing unisons with softer or harder approaches to create depth to each harmony part). The band members would track each part twice, usually solo’d with the single session singer harmony part. He notes that this is all pre-Autotune and Melodyne, and observes that these tools improve workflow because vocal inaccuracies can be fixed in post production. Most boy band songs, he says, have between 50 and 100 vocal tracks in a recording. Session players rarely come into the studio, and work remotely from stems.
[JB note – a thoroughly enjoyable presentation, with some remarkable insights into the production of boy band music. It demonstrates extremely well the truism that popular music production is a team effort].