Paul Ryding

All the Answers to the Big Questions Facing Today's Hitmaking Songwriters

From NBC to the MMA to the 30 people behind “Sicko Mode,” songwriters are at the center of the cultural conversation -- and navigating more complex challenges than ever before. Here are answers to the 12 key questions facing today’s behind-the-scenes hitmakers.

It was a historical accident that hitched the term “singer-songwriter” to the picture of a soloist cradling a guitar or perched at a piano, crooning self-reflective lyrics. There have always been performers -- from Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers to Hank Williams and Chuck Berry -- who happened to write a lot of their own material. But it was seldom the element that got top billing. The novelty, in the 1960s and early 1970s, was the wave of solitary troubadours who followed on the heels of Bob Dylan. But when “singer-songwriter” became a genre label, it sowed confusion for anyone who might fill both those functions but didn’t have that kind of sound. Was Stevie Wonder a singer-songwriter? Of course he was, but the role wasn’t coded to encompass him.

In this decade, that deadlock finally seems to be giving way. Digital music-making, the visibility of star writer-producers, and a greater scrupulousness about allotting writing credits is making the collaborative process more transparent to audiences. The tale of “Old Town Road” may include Lil Nas X fooling around with a beat (based on a Nine Inch Nails sample) he bought online, but most people would agree that he's still the song's primary writer. More obviously, although Billie Eilish doesn’t sound much like Joni Mitchell, she’s clearly a singer-songwriter, famously inventing all her creeping, bleeping tunes at home with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. And much more than during the maximalist stadium-pop period earlier this decade, fans now seem to treasure that fact.

The singer-songwriter image may be shifting, but the appetite for authenticity has only grown. At a time when stars are expected to be present and engaged on Twitter or Instagram, listeners want to feel addressed just as candidly through the music. Social media put a premium on spontaneity and fostered a fear of the fake. With “Thank U, Next,” for example, Ariana Grande pulled off the trick of dropping a pop single almost like an off-the-cuff tweet, even though hers was one name among six in the writing credits. Likewise, it might seem counterintuitive to call Beyoncé a singer-songwriter even as she has developed from a more conventional pop star to a willful auteur. But while she may never write solo, studio collaborators such as Cool & Dre, Ryan Tedder and Detail have testified to how she edits, augments and rearranges the material she’s given to express her own vision. Singing and songwriting are just two of the thousand jobs she does, alongside dancing, styling, bossing and slaying. And meanwhile, high-profile producers such as Jack Antonoff (Bleachers) or Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) double as writer-performers in their own  rights, between co-creating songs and albums with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift or Lorde.

The folkie baggage of the singer-songwriter term once made it seem a long way from hip-hop, but rappers have always been wordsmiths, measured by their “realness” -- hence the taboo on ghostwriters. Guitar-pickers like Ed Sheeran declare their debts to rap, while crooning (through Auto-Tune) has become common in hip-hop, thanks to the still reverberating legacy of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, an album so inward-looking you could call it his Blue. As the genre’s dominance solidified this half-decade, it became more artistically expansive, taking a downbeat, introspective turn, almost like ’60s rock swagger giving way to the classic singer-songwriter era.

Plenty of artists still do mine that troubadour territory, often within the rough boundaries of indie rock. Young women in particular still have stories and ideas to impart through direct address, among them Courtney Barnett, supergroup boygenius (Julien  Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus) and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. Current identity politics have raised the stakes for what such voices represent, just as being able to hear the stories behind the songs of a composer-performer such as Lizzo redoubles the pleasure listeners take in them.

Meanwhile, country may be the format that has stuck closest to the old Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building model, in which singers relied on material supplied by professional songwriters. There were always exceptions, but now they’re mushrooming. Artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton and the Pistol Annies spotlight the value of songwriters being the ones behind the microphone, and Music Row is starting to actively seek out such multihyphenates — especially among women whose radio prospects might be slimmer, but who can be longer-term assets as career artists as well as in-house composer-lyricists.

In 2019, then, it’s time to dim the lights on the coffeehouse stereotype. It's time to liberate the words "singer" and "songwriter" from their mystified yoke. Just as the culture has mostly moved beyond the knee-jerk “they don’t even write their own songs” critique, it recognizes that music-making doesn’t respect rigid roles. It's a messy and multifaceted thing. And it’s not only about melodies and lyrics. In the days of Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew, Detroit’s Funk Brothers and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, studio musicians contributed crucial hooks and licks to hits on which they’d never see royalties. Today, they’d have a case for a songwriter credit. They were, as much as anyone who had ever slung a metaphor, the voices of a generation.    -- CARL WILSON

For decades, publishing royalties were largely divided between mechanical rights (derived from physical album sales) and performance rights (from public performances and radio/TV broadcasts). Both of those income streams are becoming more convoluted in the digital era. While mechanical and performance royalties respectively amount to $631.4 million and $2.8 billion in the United States annually, Billboard estimates, that revenue comes from more sources than ever.

Furthermore, unlike royalties paid to master recording rights holders, where there is only a single owner, publishing rights can be held by multiple parties who contribute to a song in different ways and claim different fractions of the composition. Such “splits” make tracking revenue even more complex. And as the number of credits on songs grows ever higher (and more unwieldy), that data is all the more crucial in issuing proper payouts.

In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity. A cottage industry of businesses unearthing songwriters’ royalties has sprung up, including rights-management startups like Songtrust and STEM that collect revenue for independent creators. At the same time, Session (formerly Auddly) and Create Music Group’s SPLITS app are looking to simplify the process of establishing reliable data on the contributions of different creators when songs are written, avoiding potential conflicts down the line. The intent is to get songwriters paid and avoid “black box” money -- royalties that can’t be correctly identified or matched to publishers. That is, so long as the creators use them. “If songwriters actually get in front of it,” says Songtrust global head of business development Molly Neuman, “this black box eventually might not exist.”    -- COLIN STUTZ

Reality TV stars, actually. Seven years ago, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart failed to convince network executives that songwriters could anchor a music talent competition. Even after he joined up with The Voice executive producer Audrey Morrissey in 2014, NBC asked if there were enough songwriters out there. “Everyone was used to the fact that songs just appear and they’re hits,” says Stewart.

Then NBC put out a casting call -- and thousands of applications poured in. Early last year, the network finally greenlighted a pilot for Songland, which puts four aspiring songwriters in front of a panel of producers -- OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, Rihanna co-writer Ester Dean and country hitmaker Shane McAnally -- and a chart-topping guest artist, like John Legend or Meghan Trainor. Contestants perform their songs, the artist chooses three for a potential single, the writer works with one of the producers to fine-tune it, and the artist records and releases the winning song. “People are super intrigued about stories and where they come from,” says McAnally.

By the time Songland gained traction at NBC, songwriters turned artists like Julia Michaels and Charlie Puth had risen to fame. Now authenticity rules in pop, and Dean thinks Songland’s focus on original material will more likely produce stars than a vocal competition where contestants perform covers. “When these songwriters sing and are living in their truth, you’re seeing a true artist,” she says. (BMG will distribute recordings and administer publishing for the songs created on the show.)

Tedder, who’s also a producer on Songland, believes the show’s spotlight on creators could even influence industry debates about royalties and payments. “This show attaches faces to songwriters,” he says. “That makes it that much harder to ignore [us] when it comes to how much we’re compensated.” Songland’s May 28 premiere drew 5.5 million viewers (according to Nielsen), and with nine episodes to go, Stewart says Songland could be a new tipping point for songwriters emerging as bona fide stars. As for McAnally, he’s grateful for one more basic achievement: “My mom finally knows what I do.”    -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY

Julia Michaels: Honing your craft and knowing your sound and who you are really helps. I wasn’t prepping for it, but when I wrote “Issues,” it felt too personal for me to give away. Knowing people helps too: I’d been working closely with Republic with another artist, and the label had been trying to poach me. One day I sent them “Issues” and was like, “Want to put a song out? Let’s try it!” And it did way better than I ever anticipated. (Michaels will release the EP Inner Monologue Part 2 on June 28.)   

Gabe Saporta: In the ’90s, some of my favorite bands would only sell 100,000 or 200,000 albums -- they weren’t household names by any means, but they lived comfortably. When the digital revolution decimated the value of recorded music, those prospects for middle-class artists went away. A lot of talented kids who would have been artists or started bands saw that and moved to Los Angeles to become songwriters instead, because that was how you could still make money. But we’re seeing a reemergence of those middle-class artists as [digital streaming platforms] have cracked the monetization code -- a young artist has a better shot to make it now than they’ve had in 20 years. It might be just as hard, if not harder, to break through to top 40 status, but it is no longer a binary proposition. The songwriting world will always be there. I see songwriters who are frustrated they didn’t get the chance to be an artist. It’s about the connection: People like songs, but they fall in love with artists. (The former Cobra Starship frontman is co-founder of management company The Artist Group.)   

“There’s definitely a lot more collaboration, and that’s not a bad thing,” says Claude Kelly of the industry’s current creative environment. The veteran writer -- he has worked with Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Bruno Mars, among others -- can work out “a piece of a song, send it to Los Angeles for someone to finish, then send that version to London to have it tweaked. But,” he adds, “when you start to see 10, 12, 15 names on a song, you lose sight of who really was behind the work.” In recent years, it has become common for managers -- including Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber), Brock Korsan (Nicki Minaj, Drake), and Cardi B’s former manager Klenord “Shaft” Raphael, though the details of their contributions are unknown -- to show up in their clients’ writing credits. One possible reason? “The room in which a song gets written is a very sensitive place -- everyone in there is emotional,” says Kelly. “So it’s a good place to exploit people.” He has seen managers assert that “me being here influenced the work” -- and, in the process, claim a chunk of the publishing. “If you can get your name on a big record because you were in the room, it’s like having a paycheck for the rest of your life,” says Kelly. “Maybe [the artist] couldn’t afford to pay the management fee, but they’ll give you a little bit of publishing. It has [become a form] of payment, as opposed to being earned by the people who actually wrote the song.”    -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

Astrid S: I have four people [in my inner circle] I send songs to. Usually we discuss and make a plan for how we want to finish it. If the people around me don’t like a song even though I love it, I don’t see the point in putting it out, because maybe they wouldn’t work for it and be inspired to make it happen.

Christine & The Queens: I always have to have the plot before I write the song -- [there’s a] narrative arc. Then I finish the record by writing songs that could match that. It’s like telling a story with 12 or 13 songs. The album kind of shapes my songwriting. It’s like a small movie every time.

Carly Rae Jepsen: When I’m ready to whittle down songs for an album, I throw these listening parties with my friends or bandmates or family -- whoever will lend an ear. That sometimes helps identify what is connecting. I don’t always listen [to their feedback], but generally it seems like the top six to eight [songs] always arise out of that experiment.

More and more, it seems. Just look at the average number of songwriters for a Hot 100 No. 1 in a given year during the past decade -- since 2009, it has more than doubled. Why? The prevalence of writing camps and increasingly collaborative approaches to music-making (see: the stat-skewing 30 writers on Travis Scott’s 2018 hit “Sicko Mode”); the use of samples and interpolations to give a song an extra edge; and changing attitudes about what constitutes a songwriting contribution all help ratchet up the credit count.

Labels and publishers’ practice of assembling dozens of writers to churn out potential hits has long been standard in many genres. But as pop gets more personal, with stars like Billie Eilish and Halsey releasing disarmingly intimate music, some hitmakers are rethinking the value of camps. “They just feel... corporate,” says Benny Blanco (Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran). “You hear someone say ‘writing camp’ and you’re like, ‘Ew.’ ”

Perhaps that’s why more artists are taking them into their own hands. After weeks of sessions for her 2018 album Always in BetweenJess Glynne fled to the English countryside with a group of handpicked collaborators, saying “it was the most productive week I could’ve had.” Late last year, Ariana Grande recruited friends like songwriter Tayla Parx for her soul-baring Thank U, Next LP. “They used to call me the ‘camp queen,’ ” says Parx, who attends about five a year but prefers those in which the artists participate. “If it’s just a bunch of famous names put on by a bunch of suits, pass. You need a why.” Ingrid Andress, one of Nashville’s most sought-after songwriters, agrees. She used to participate in around a dozen camps per year -- “a Demi camp, a Bieber camp, a Why Don’t We camp -- so, so, so many camps” -- but now also gravitates toward regular collaborators and more personal settings. “It’s more efficient,” she explains.

Still, Ross Golan, songwriter and host of the podcast And the Writer Is..., says intimate retreats won’t replace megawatt camps entirely. “Look at the biggest songs in the world,” he says, citing the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” and Post Malone’s “Better Now.” “These aren’t intimate, edgy confessionals, they’re straight-up pop records.” (With four to six writers on each.) And if big artists decide to be more revealing, they’ll often still call upon a team of professionals. “If you want to be like Billie Eilish, you have to talk about your life,” he says. “Songwriters know better than anyone how to help you do that.”    -- MEGAN BUERGER

Institutional sexism! Women comprised only 12.3% of writers behind songs on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts between 2012 and 2018, according to a now-notorious University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report released in February. Fifty-seven percent of those songs lacked any female writer. The statistics aren’t surprising to electro-pop artist-songwriter ROZES, aka Elizabeth Mencel, who says she’s usually the sole woman invited to the writing sessions she attends. “Girls get frustrated with that process and end up writing by themselves, which is harder,” she says, and also makes it difficult for female writers to locate each other. She finds that male writers are more eager to support other men, too: “They get all the bro hookups.”

There are efforts to change this, however. Bebe Rexha hosts an annual Women in Harmony pre-Grammy brunch to connect women in the industry. Alicia Keys joined several industry leaders in late 2018 to launch She Is the Music (in partnership with Billboard), which hosts all-female songwriting camps and has assembled an online database of female creators. ROZES wrote her new single “Call Me” with an all-women team at the first of those camps last year. “It’s my responsibility to pull women into the room for my projects,” she says. Songwriter Priscilla Renea (Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey), who attended a recent Mary J. Blige-led She Is the Music camp in Nashville, is a 2018 alumna of the annual ASCAP EXPO She Rocks Showcase, which spotlights female singer-songwriters. “[Female] production duo Wildcardz [said] hearing me at the EXPO inspired them to take the leap, and now they’re doing sessions,” she says. “The conversation needs to change from ‘there’s not enough of us’ to ‘where are my sisters?’ ”

While there have been small improvements -- Renea says she no longer gets mistaken in the studio for someone’s girlfriend, for example -- Mencel notes there’s still a way to go before the impact of these initiatives reaches the charts. “I haven’t really seen the bright side yet,” she says. “But something like She Is the Music shows me that it is around the corner.”    -- TATIANA CIRISANO

National Music Publishers’ Association president/CEO David Israelite, among others. Songwriting is one of the most regulated businesses in the United States -- mechanical royalties are set by the government -- so its future depends not only on what happens in the studio, but in Washington as well. Last year, the industry united to lobby for the Music Modernization Act, which will set up an organization to collect and distribute mechanical royalties (among other provisions), though there’s now some disagreement over who will run it and how it will operate. At the center of this debate, and others, is publishing’s man in the capital.

It took years to pass the MMA, and now there’s some question of who will run the Mechanical Licensing Collective the law calls for: the NMPA-backed group or the other applicant.

We have a very strong bid that represents the vast majority of copyright owners who are going to be served. But the law makes clear that anyone can apply, and we’re happy for the competition. The Register of Copyrights will make a decision on July 8.

One of the bill’s compromises was that streaming services would get a safe harbor from legal liability in exchange for funding this new organization -- but there are rumors that the services don’t want to spend much.

The services agreed that they would fund this and we would run it -- but it now seems they don’t want to fund it properly. The law provides a way to resolve this: If we can’t agree, we go to the Copyright Royalty Board to set the budget.

And that’s hardly the only conflict that publishers and songwriters have with streaming services.

Right now we have three conflicts. We’re fighting over the implementation of the Music Modernization Act. There’s the CRB appeal -- now waiting to be scheduled in the D.C. Circuit Court -- that will determine whether the [royalty] rates set in January 2018, which were to go up over 44 percent, will stay in effect. Spotify, Pandora, Google and Amazon are appealing that increase, as well as the way bundled products will work -- and they could potentially get a loophole that could essentially allow them to pay nothing. Third, the Justice Department has said it will review the consent decrees for ASCAP and BMI, and they’re trying to get Congress to regulate the collecting societies.

You’ve tweeted that Spotify treats songwriters the way Uber treats drivers. Why focus on them?

It’s very clear to us that Spotify and Amazon were the driving forces behind the CRB appeal. I singled out Spotify because their free offering pays terribly and they’re the biggest company, so they’re the most important.

Did passing the MMA cost you some leverage there?

We gave up that leverage when we settled with Spotify in 2016. We could have gone after them -- and maybe sued them out of existence -- but they have a model that’s crucial to our future. I think we need to find a way to become good business partners. We need them. But not as much as they need us.    -- ROBERT LEVINE

When a jury ruled in 2015 that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” infringed on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” legal experts warned the decision would inspire a wave of similar lawsuits. But copyright lawyer Barry I. Slotnick says that hasn’t happened: “It’s an odd case. I don’t see it as good law, but everyone [involved in the song] acknowledged that ‘Blurred Lines’ was an homage,” so the verdict wasn’t a shock. The lack of a sea change in court partly has to do with the idiosyncrasies of musical copyright. “If I say that someone infringed my book, my painting, my movie, the judge and the jury can look at them side by side,” says Slotnick. “But music requires musicologists. Because some circuits in New York and California have the most copyright cases, and because so many of them [don’t] relate to music, they have a body of law that transcends other circuits but may not be on point with music. Until this body of law gets some appellate decisions under its belt, you’re going to see some odd cases.”    -- GAVIN EDWARDS

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.