Dave Stewart on What Sets 'Songland' Apart From the Reality TV Music Pack

Imelda Michalczyk/Redferns
Dave Stewart performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on Sept. 8, 2017 in London.  

Eurythmics co-founder, songwriter and entrepreneur Dave Stewart had a screening party Tuesday (May 28) night in the Bahamas for Songland, the new NBC talent show he co-created years ago and got rolling in 2016 when NBC put a call out to songwriters to apply. He tells Billboard he had a big screen, a "huge sound system, like a studio," some friends around and got out the martini shaker. "It's been a long haul," he agrees.

The show -- co-executive produced by Adam Levine, Audrey Morrissey, Ivan Dudynsky (also the director) and Chad Hines -- aims to put the spotlight on the creator of the song. The focus is on the songwriting process, the meticulous care of every word and melody -- the artistry the listener rarely thinks about while singing along, tapping, dancing, wallowing or partying.

The concept for the series is to showcase four songwriters each episode and open them up for constructive criticism by four judges -- three constants for the whole season in Shane McAnally (Kasey Musgraves, Sam Hunt), Ester Dean (Rihanna, Katy Perry) and OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, plus one guest artist. The judges hear all four songs, let one writer go, pair each of the other three with one of the producers, rework the song, and then the guest picks the one he or she wants to record and release right after the show ends (on BMG, to on all digital services).

It is an enormous opportunity for a songwriter. The guests include Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Meghan Trainor, will.i.am, Macklemore and Aloe Blacc. Last night, John Legend turned the island-esque message song "We Need Love" by Tebby Burrows into a timely ballad.

With Songland, the songs are A&R'd through the submission process, so they should all be great as it is. Songland simply takes them from great to potential hit -- presumably.

Here's what Dave Stewart told Billboard about his show the day after the series premiere.

What was your view of these television talent shows before you came up with this idea? Did you enjoy or hate them?

I'm from northeast England and so when I was like six, seven, eight years old, there were talent shows. They were a bit more like America's Got Talent. Somebody was a comedian, somebody was a magician, somebody was a singer. We had these talent shows on the TV a lot growing up. And they were well-watched, probably some of the biggest shows.

Eurovision Song Contest is massive too there.

That's a whole other thing. It was very complicated to watch because everybody is singing in their own language, whether in Spanish or in Greek or whatever. So whatever country you're in, you're rooting for the country, but a lot of the other countries couldn't understand what they were singing. So it was a tricky one for me to watch. I get pretty obsessed with lyrics. But it had massive viewership because that's a competition between countries.

But then the Eurythmics were managed by Simon Fuller for a period in the late '90s. And I knew Simon Fuller before that and he created Pop Idol, which became American Idol. So I was around a lot. And even though that wasn't my cup of tea, and the singing competitions are not really my cup of tea, but every now and then there would be somebody you could tell they could be an artist. Then mainly you saw younger artists who decided to go on there but they actually wrote songs.

Yeah, and I'm sure it was frustrating for them that they had to do covers.

Exactly. So you'd see them and you'd go, I think they probably do write songs and if they happen to get anywhere near winning, they happen to have a good voice as well. There's a few of them that appeared that are doing incredibly well and have turned into full blown artists.

But with our show, we already know they've written their own songs and what I do like is that they come on and play their own song, whether it's on the acoustic guitar or piano or whether they have the house band playing with them or whether they've made the tape and want to sing along with it. That's the way they've written the song. So millions of people will just see the artist and hear them the way they wanted it to be.

So even if they don't get through to be the person chosen to be recorded and released that show, they've already kind of won in a way because before they might have been sitting in their bedroom or a bathroom or in a pub locally or wherever they can, now they've been seen by millions of people. Somebody is going to connect with them because we obviously went through a whole process of choosing songs and songwriters, and all of them that end up on the show are good.

You could have gone in so many different directions for this. You could have a whole season where a songwriter is workshopping his or her songs. You could have had songwriters that aren't singers or songwriters that once had a crack at a recording career. What made go with this format and a winner each episode?

We do have on the show some songwriters that aren't singers. In one episode, they do manage to see the song in the form it came in and you do see it crafted on the spot in the panelists chair and the songwriter. They also go in the studio, working the song with one of the panelists and you see them performing again the new version and then you see the artist, whether it's John Legend or Kelsea Ballerina, or Macklemore, you see them actually perform it. It was a lot of brilliant editing and crafting and honing so you do see all of that happen with all of the songs chosen.

What's your hope from the viewer that they learn about the craft of songwriting?

In 1964, I was learning the guitar and out of radio was coming the most unbelievable songwriters from Bob Dylan to The Beatles. It was just a boom. I come from an era of amazing songwriters writing for Frank Sinatra, writing Motown songs, so I was lucky enough to hear all of it from when I was five years old and my dad singing along to Frank Sinatra songs and playing great musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein right through all the Motown and soul music. Then suddenly Britain exploded with The Beatles, and then when I was 16 in 1968, I was just surrounded by amazing office coming over from America [and Canada] -- the Neil Youngs and Joni Mitchells.

So what happened with me was as we went through the '70s and '80s, and still amazing songwriters, and then bands like Nirvana and Low and Oasis in the '90s and the 2000s were all a bit foggy, and weirdly enough it coincided with the Internet, right? Suddenly you got lost in melange of hundreds of thousands of people uploading songs per minute. And, then record labels go 'it costs so much money to launch an artist, but we're not selling any records. So what are we gonna do? We have to somehow make sure that every artist has a sure-fire hit.' So they would go to the same songwriters over and over again to try and make sure radio accepts that artist's song and they have a hit, and we knew who those songwriters are because they've all been named as the No. 1 songwriters, while [artists who write were] disappearing slowly. Occasionally one would come out of the blue like Lorde or Billie Eilish but mainly it was becoming a team of songwriters or these tried and tested hit-makers. And I was thinking, "Where are all these kids in dad's garage in Cleveland, Ohio, or some girl coming from Nebraska or wherever, singing their own song about something really personal that's happened to them? How do we get that popular again?"

Because if you think about the times when I was talking about, Neil Young releasing After The Gold Rush, they were very popular -- James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. That was popular music, pop music. Even though in retrospect it was personal. The Beatles. John Lennon. It was all in the pop music genre. They divided all the genres up -- indie rock, indie folk, and pop music got whittled down to a certain sound. And in this show [Songland], you see all different kinds of people come on and sing their songs -- 99 percent are really personal to them -- but they don't know how to get that across or get in the room with people and get everybody to pay attention. The panelists are not critical in a way that "Oh you're out; you're no good." They're more like professors at some university and helping them on some of the song, but people don't realize how a song changes so much in the production too. In the end, you hear it and you go, "Wow, this song sounds completely different." It's the same song but wow, I can imagine John Legend singing that now.

The Wrap story from 2016 is circulating again on social media about the lawyer warning songwriters on his blog about the Songland contract they were required to sign. I did a follow-up piece on the amended contract back then, which stated the songwriter did retain rights to their song. Remember that?

Yes of course. Any shows you put on TV -- if you go on The View or anywhere -- and you perform a song, you sign a release form so you can perform the song and they can show it, but songwriters jumbled that up with giving away the rights to that song because of the way that particular guy had worded it.

The lawyer.

Yeah. He'd written it in a way to scaremonger people. And actually it was nothing to do with the songwriting contract; that was just to do with the NBC being on the television. So all of the artists coming on and writing songs and collaborating or co-writing with Ryan Tedder or whoever, they own their song or if they've cowritten it, they own that piece of the song. It was always like that. I think if somebody like an official lawyer goes, "Look at this piece of the contract," artists don't often understand the mumbo jumbo written by a legal person but they were actually talking about something totally different than the songwriting.


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