Why Solo Songwriters Are No Longer Today's Hitmakers
The past 40 years of the Hot 100 show that music-by-committee is the way to get a hit.
If Billy Joel were breaking into the songwriting business today, he might need to make some room for collaborators. Pop hits penned by just one writer are now almost completely anachronistic: On the Oct. 24, 2015 Billboard Hot 100, just two songs were authored by one writer: "Hit the Quan" by Richard Colbert (aka iLoveMemphis) and and Twenty One Pilots' "Stressed Out" (by Tyler Joseph). The trend downward is staggering: 10 years ago, single writers (or singularly-credited entities) wrote 14 titles, which itself was down sharply from mid-October 1995 (32 such songs), 1985 (41) and 1975 (51).
According to Hit Songs Deconstructed's recent report, "Who's Writing the Hits?," roughly 90 percent of Billboard Hot 100 top 10s in 2014 were written by two or more writers, and nearly half were written by at least four. "If you plan on writing a hit song, you'd better find a writing partner," Penn advises. "Preferably, four or more."
Why so many cooks in the songwriting kitchen? Of course, samples are part of the story, but New Yorker writer John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, says "I think the Swedes have a lot to do with it," referring to the hit-factory model spawned by Denniz Pop (Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys) and Max Martin (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, *NSync, Taylor Swift). "I think one reason there were so many single writers back in the day was because of the money -- you can make an incredible amount of money in a short time with a hit song -- and people were reluctant to share credit. But the Swedes, with their [modest] culture, don't mind sharing credit as much. The track-and-hook method of songwriting is at the basis of a lot of these changes -- a track is almost a canvas with some background painted into it, and different people add hooks and a bridge and a chorus and slowly it becomes a song, rather than springing fully formed from the imagination of Burt Bacharach, sitting at the piano.
"A Bacharach melody is not inviting people to get involved with it," he concludes. "But track-and-hook creates a template for a lot of different cooks stirring the broth."
A version of this article was originally published in the Oct. 31 issue of Billboard.