How Streaming is Killing the Art of Songwriting

Image by Bas van Daalen from Pixabay

I’ve been listening to a BBC podcast recently, in which several songwriters describe what’s going on currently in the popular music industry. They say that the streaming revolution has changed not just the way that music is listened to, but has actually transformed the way that music is created — the art and craft of songwriting.

In the old days songwriting was usually undertaken by a single person, or a duo, or perhaps by all the members of one band. They relied upon their inspiration, their creativity; they had a personal connection with their work, which came from within themselves, and with each other. The same people then performed and recorded the music, so had involvement with the whole process. Some of the great songwriters from the 20th century who worked in this way were: Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, David Bowie, Sting, George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Pink Floyd, Pete Townshend (the Who), Ray Davies (the Kinks), the Doors, and Crosby/Stills/Nash.

In contrast to that, this is how the modern scene was described. A songwriter no longer has complete responsibility for a song. Several people work on it, who perhaps do not know each other and never even meet; parts of a song are merely sent around via the internet. The average number of writers credited on a top ten hit is now said to be nine, and only 3% of songs are written by one songwriter. This is a division of labour never known before the age of streaming. The composers therefore have no real emotional involvement with the song, and the same is true for the performer, who has no need to be involved in the composing process.

In the streaming age, it seems that listeners’ attention span is getting shorter. Many songs are skipped within 5 seconds, and a song does not count as a stream unless it is listened to for at least 30 seconds. To keep you listening, the songwriters therefore feel compelled to begin with a chorus, to have one hook follow another. The constant question is “how can we make it more instant?” The tendency is towards short songs, often under three minutes. There is no time for an introduction or a narrative, and a need for faster tempos. There is a compression of musical ideas, less instrumentation, simple chords all the way through, and repeated chord progressions. Peoples’ ears are being trained to accept a different kind of music; everything which traditionally might have made a song interesting is omitted.

So if you think that modern songs all sound pretty much the same, that’s because they are all pretty much the same, written to a formula that the record company thinks will sell. Everything is being produced to order.

Songwriters can be asked to do things which go against their natural instincts. A track can arrive with the chords already decided, and the writer is then asked to write appropriate lyrics and melody. One contributor said this is doing things back to front; if left to herself, she would want to write the lyrics and melody first, and that the chord progression would then follow. A colleague of hers compared this to trying to write a film script starting from the special effects.

Compare this to how a great song might have been written in the days before streaming. An instrumental introduction might set the mood, followed by a verse, which then built up to a strong chorus. The verse/chorus section would probably be repeated. Then would follow a bridge section with a new feel, possibly a key change, and an instrumental solo. Then the verse/chorus section would be repeated before the ending. All this could be achieved in a few minutes.

The songwriter or duo would have complete control over this process. Now there is so much music out there that there is a lot of competition for attention. Elements from successful songs are identified by record companies, and the songwriters are then told what to do. They will be reluctant to object and fight back, if they are dependent on the income.

Music has therefore become formulaic, and produced to order in an impersonal way, something like a factory conveyor belt, without any real emotional connection between songwriters and their work. It’s worth noting that the songwriters in the podcast were on the whole critical of the way they were being made to work. How can anything truly creative come from that starting place? As one of the contributors commented, however, it is usually with the unexpected that brilliance comes; one example cited was Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.

Stairway to Heaven was mentioned specifically as a song that probably wouldn’t be written now on account of its long introduction, harmonic structure, multiple sections, and its length. All this would go against everything in the modern songwriter’s brief. If that is true, then the same would probably apply to Bohemian Rhapsody, and other long songs of great quality, some of the greatest songs ever written.

If songwriting has become a matter of writing to a formula, musical maths, then the art of songwriting is in real danger. This means that some potentially great writers are not even being noticed; they have to work in isolation, and try to promote themselves. Obviously it is essential that songs should be financially successful; we need record companies to remain in business. In the old days, however, companies had to take risks, believing in and investing in the creativity of their signed artists. Proper songwriting was able to flourish.

All the problems I’ve described are partly the responsibility of the listeners; a generation is growing up which thinks that this is what music is meant to sound like, which knows no different, perhaps even likes things this way. All is not lost, however. Various contributors to the podcast were optimistic about the future. One of them said that we need to wake up from the hypnotic spell we’ve been under for the last few years. So the most important thing that needs to happen is that subscribers to streaming services should become bored by what they’re listening to, realise what they’re missing and change their listening habits. That would force record companies to change their instructions to songwriters.

Another contributor said that it is important not to give people what they want, but to give them what they don’t yet know they want. We therefore live in hope that truly creative music will win out eventually, that listeners will become bored by the endless repetition of formulas, and seek out original music of real intrinsic value. The great songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers appeared in the podcast, and said that songwriters should never be governed by anything other than their heart and soul, and that whatever that happens to be, you just do it, and hope that somehow you connect to the people. It would be great if the record companies could be more helpful in that process.

Image by Claudia Pascuzzi from Pixabay

I hope you have enjoyed this article. It’s not what I usually write about. My more frequent topics are: spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com

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