The Death of the Songwriter – attribution of creative ownership in popular music production #arpOslo2014

Screenshot 2014-12-05 18.46.19Here’s my own abstract and presentation from the Oslo conference. I was delighted to learn that in the audience was Jon Marius Aareskjold, a Norwegian sound engineer (and academic) who was actually involved in the production of ‘Irreplaceable’. We’ll be working together on a research paper about the track sometime in 2015.

Death of the Songwriter – ARP Oslo 2014 pdf version

ABSTRACT: The creation of recorded popular music has always been a collaborative process. Listeners enjoy an audio product that consists of a composition (usually with lyrics) that is arranged, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered. All of these activities combine in an object that creativity psychology would define as creative – that is, original and valuable (Boden 2004; Mackinnon 1963; Weisberg 1993). Sometimes creative contributions are fully demarcated but in practice there is often substantial overlap between roles, and individual creators frequently take on more than one role.

Drawing on the author’s research into creative behaviours in songwriting teams (Bennett 2012) and his experience as a forensic musicologist in copyright disputes, this paper discusses the challenges posed by collaborative popular music production, for copyright law and for the recorded music industry. The traditional binary allocation of creative activity across two objects (the ‘song’ and the ‘sound recording’) was developed many years ago and may no longer be truly representative of the way popular music is made. Creativity that is obviously derivative such as melodic quotation or audio sampling is a form of linear collaboration that makes authorial attribution particularly difficult, not least because of the complex interrelationship between moral and economic rights in copyright law.
Audio recordings of successful hits will be analysed to frame a discussion of the specific creative contributions that led to particular sonic outcomes; these will be contrasted with the Intellectual Property that subsists in the finished work. The paper proposes mechanisms by which the disparity between the extent of creative contribution and ownership of song copyright might be addressed.

Bennett, J., 2012. Constraint, collaboration and creativity in popular songwriting teams. In D. Collins, ed. The Act of Musical Composition: Studies in the Creative Process. Ashgate, pp. 139–169.
Boden, M., 2004. The creative mind : myths and mechanisms 2nd ed., London ;;New York: Routledge.
Mackinnon, D.W., 1963. The Identification Of Creativity. Applied Psychology, 12(1), pp.25–46.
Weisberg, R., 1993. Creativity : beyond the myth of genius, New York: W.H. Freeman.

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Songs inspired by real people: interview on BBC Radio Ulster

 

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Carly Simon in 1972; the You’re So Vain identity debate continues to this day.

Here’s me and singer-songwriter Katie Richardson participating in a short interview/discussion about songs that mention real people, as broadcast on BBC Radio’s Good Morning Ulster today. For the full ‘You’re So Vain’ debate see Carly Simon’s website.

Joe Bennett and Katie Richardson on BBC Radio Ulster, 8 May 2014 (MP3)

 

 

Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain #crassh3c #songwriting

Screenshot 2014-03-29 15.01.33

Discussion of the originality spectrum – is ‘newness’ defined by non-plagiarism from the Domain?

Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University): Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain
In music, two objects can be owned – the composition (sometimes including a lyric as a ‘literary work’), and the sound recording. The separation of song and recording is the basis on which the music industry distributes monies, but equitable IP distribution becomes more difficult when creative individuals’ contributions (of melody, lyric, arrangement, performance or production) overlap or are non-­‐linearly created. In the 1960s it became increasingly common for performers to write their own songs; from the 1980s, democratisation of recording technologies gave songwriters and performers the opportunity to self-­‐produce; and by the early 21st century most digital home studios had more production power than the world’s leading studios had enjoyed only 30 years earlier. 1 These changes in creative context mean that songwriters no longer need to notate their work as they did in the early 20th century; production, lyric, melodic, arrangement and performance elements can be created, edited and adapted at any stage of the creative process. Non-­‐linear creative practice in song production has implications for ownership and copyright that may challenge the historical privileging of melody & lyric in popular music’s legal hierarchy. 2 This paper will provide examples of creative practice, and discuss the legal, musicological and ethical questions that 21st century song production presents for the music industry and for future music creators.

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Understanding Collaborative Songwriting

“You Won’t See Me” – In Search Of An Epistemology Of Collaborative Songwriting

This research paper was published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production issue #8 – proceedings of the 8th Art of Record Production conference, Université Laval, Quebec (2013).  Full version

Université Laval, Quebec

This paper proposes an observational methodology by which we may gain deeper understanding of the creative processes used by collaborative songwriters. Almost every aspect of popular music production and consumption has been discussed and analysed in scholarly work, but the creation of the song itself has rarely been subject to scrutiny. This is perhaps due to the fact that very little of the songwriting process can reliably be inferred by listening to an audio track or reading a score. Therefore, two methods are proposed in combination – interview-based and participatory auto-ethnographic observation. In both cases the songwriters themselves generate the qualitative data. The aim is to construct a framework that researchers may use to provide answers to the question “how shall we know the mind of the songwriter?” The methods proposed here have been tested with more than 20 professional songwriters between 2009 and 2013, and a selection of these observed co-writes will be published as case studies in 2014.

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Download full text (pdf)

RMA Study day session 2 – Laudan Nooshin, Joe Bennett, Nikki Moran

(Chair: Ruth Herbert, University of Oxford)

Laudan Nooshin (City University London)

Between a rock and a hard place: discourse, practice and the unbearable lightness of analysis. Methodological challenges in studying creative process in Iranian (classical) music

Since the late 1980s, an important strand of my research has sought to understand the underlying creative processes of Iranian classical music, a tradition where the performer plays a central creative role and which is therefore often described as ‘improvised’, both in the literature and – since the mid-20th century and drawing on concepts initially adopted from European music – by musicians themselves. Methodologically, perhaps the greatest challenge is tracing the relationships between musicians’ verbal discourses – usually taken by ethnomusicologists as evidence of cognitive processes – and what happens in practice. Of course, the relationship is a complex one and the dual ethnomusicological methods of (a) ethnography and (b) transcription and analysis don’t always tell the same story. In the case of my work, there was a disjuncture between musicians’ discourse of creative freedom, albeit underpinned by the central memorised repertoireknown as radif, and the analytical evidence which showed the music to be highly structured around a series of what could be termed ‘compositional procedures’, but which are not explicitly discussed by musicians.

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Don’t Bore Us – Write a Chorus (Techniques for Songwriters)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 227, May 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Here’s a psychology experiment. Tell a group of mates that you’re going to ask them to sing the verse of a well-known song, and that they have to start singing as soon as you reveal the title. Get them to breathe in deeply and be ready, and then tell them the title is… All Right Now. Everyone will sing the chorus, even though you had asked them to sing the verse.

You’ll find this trick works with any title-based classic – try it with All You Need Is Love, Sweet Child of Mine, Smoke On The Water, No Woman No Cry or Blowin’ in the Wind. Why should this be? I think it’s because the title of the song has put the chorus into people’s minds, and these particular songs use the title in their choruses. Rock music history has proved time and time again that music fans like songs with big choruses more than they like chorus-less songs. Take Radiohead – a band that (I’m sure we can agree) has done some work that’s pretty challenging and ground-breaking, including lots of songs that don’t have anything you’d call a ‘chorus’. But if you look up their most popular songs on Spotify or iTunes you’ll find the chorus-heavy Creep right at the top of the list every time. Try the same with 1970s prog rockers Yes, or their contemporaries Genesis. At the top of their respective lists you’ll always find big-chorused tracks such as Owner of A Lonely Heart and Invisible Touch rather than the more complicated ‘album track’ material. Whether you prefer these popular singles or the less well-known stuff is a matter of personal taste, but the message from the download charts is clear – lots of people like big choruses based on a simple title.
We already know that well-loved choruses are usually higher in pitch than the rest of the song, meaning we tend to put more energy into singing them (see TG215’s ‘Rules of Thumb’). But we can learn from their other characteristics too. Have you ever thought about that word ‘chorus’? The original ‘Greek chorus’ was a group of singers who would comment on the action in the theatrical plays of ancient Greece, summarising the story for the audience or revealing the characters’ innermost feelings. In songs, the job of a ‘chorus’ – to summarise meaning for the listener – can be just the same. For a straightforward example look no further than The Beatles’ She Loves You; the verse provides background plot about the characters’ relationships, and the chorus simply chants a summary of the song’s meaning. Not all songs do this of course, but run the numbers: it’s amazing how often a chorus follows that ancient Greek wisdom.
So we know that many successful songs have big choruses based on a simple title, are higher in pitch, and summarise the meaning. Now reverse-engineer the logic. You want lots of people to listen to your songs? Write big choruses based on a simple title that are higher in pitch and summarise your meaning. Simples!
Or it would be, if we did not fear cheese. Lots of songwriters say that they don’t want their music to be thought of as ‘obvious’, ‘cheap’ or  – for some the worst crime of all – ‘commercial’. So we sometimes stay away from simple successful ideas like repeating the title in a chorus. Is this ‘cheesy’? Not many Van Halen fans would use that word to describe Runnin’ With The Devil, Jamie’s Cryin’ or Jump, all of which have title-heavy choruses. REM-lovers are pretty pleased with Everybody Hurts, and no Chili Peppers show would be complete without Californication.
There are techniques we can use to break these ‘chains of cheese’ that can push our creativity into unproductive self-doubt – and our songs away from popularity. If you’ve got a good title, try singing it over and over, trying out different notes and phrasing until you hear something you like. Push your voice so you’re singing towards the top of your range, and if it isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, try changing the key or underlying guitar chord and see what comes out. This will give you the pitch peak and might go some way towards suggesting a chorus hook. And while you’re chanting that title, perhaps a summary of the song’s overall meaning is starting to form in your mind. Look behind you. Standing at the back there’s a bunch of Greek guys in masks…

All You Gotta Do Is Sing – lyric processes in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 225, March 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

Lyrics are not poetry. And a poem is not a lyric. Poems have their own ‘music’, made by the natural rise and fall of the vowels, the rhythmic flow of the syllables and the breaks at the end of lines. As songwriters we can use melody to control how the audience receives our lyric. Melody has the power to give a few simple words a powerful emotional impact, in a way that neither a poem or an instrumental tune can achieve on its own. But how do we choose words that show our melodies in the best light?

To make a lyric singable, the vowels have to work properly. When a singer performs a song, the audience hears vowels more easily than consonants. Try singing the two-syllable word ‘calling’ over any two musical notes in the middle of your vocal range. Sing it out loud and long, and enjoy the feeling of those big vowels passing over your teeth. Now, using the same two notes, try doing the same with the word ‘quickest’. Doesn’t feel as good, does it? ‘Calling’ sings really well because the ‘aaaaa’ sound opens up your mouth and gives you a meaty vowel, whereas ‘quickest’ sounds unmusical because it contains more vocally restrictive vowels and tougher consonants, especially when you get to the ugly ‘st’ at the end of the word. And sure enough if you research the lyrics of any style of music, the word ‘calling’ is much more likely to appear than ‘quickest’, even though they’re both pretty common words. Songwriters tend to favour words with big vowels that avoid tongue-twisting combinations of hard consonants. As a rule of thumb, we should avoid sibilant words (with lots of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds) whenever we can.

And listeners prefer single-syllable words most of the time. Read that last sentence back and try to sing it. Whatever notes you choose, it all starts to come crashing down when you sing ‘listeners prefer single-syllable’, but the phrase ‘words most of the time’ sings really well. You can stretch a monosyllable out over lots of notes (this is called a ‘melisma’) – for example the word ‘fire’ in Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire is spread over three notes – but it’s impossible to make a two-syllable word fit a single note. Overdoing melismas when they’re not needed is generally considered a crime against music, but let’s not lower the tone with talk of Mariah Carey.

Let’s test our syllable-count theory on a couple of classic songs. The Beatles’ We Can Work it Out opens with the lines ‘Try to see it my way / only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong’. That’s 18 words, 17 of which are monosyllables. Hey Joe begins with ‘Hey Joe / where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (x2) / I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man (x2)’ – 39 words, 34 monosyllables.

If lyrics are not poetry, neither are they the same thing as prose. This means you can take serious liberties with the English language and get away with it, as long as it sounds good when sung. Having melody on your side means you can say things in a lyric that are grammatically incorrect, such as Paul McCartney’s famous line “…ever-changing world in which we live in” (from Live and Let Die). You can cram in some dodgy rhymes, such as Kurt Cobain’s ‘self-assured / dirty word’ (from Smells Like Teen Spirit).You can make up words, as in ‘Pompitous of love’ (from Steve Miller’s The Joker). Or just use any old sounds. Be Bop A LulaNa Na NaNo DiggityGoo goo g’joob. And if the phrase sings well, it might notmatter if the song’s overall ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense, such as Deep Purple’s Black Night or Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. To misquote Duke Ellington, if it don’t mean a thing, all you gotta do is sing.

For the songwriter, the best and most obvious way to make a lyric singable is simply to sing it and see if it works. A lyric that looks great on the page may not work so well when you shine the cold light of melody upon it. Even if you’re not a singer yourself it’s worth singing out loud when you write – regardless of the quality or tuning, if you hear the words in context it’ll become obvious where the tweaks are needed. And if your lyric doesn’t read like the finest English poetry, no-one in the mosh-pit is going to complain.