Four hitmaking songwriters shared the secrets, techniques and frustrations of their craft as the 13th annual ASCAP Expo opened Monday (May 7) in Los Angeles, an event taking place as groundbreaking music licensing legislation advances in Washington, D.C.
The panel “We Create Music,” moderated by Billboard West Coast editor Melinda Newman, set the tone for ASCAP Expo May 7-9 with insights from composer/producer Tom Holkenborg, who has recorded as Junkie XL; Latin and pop songwriter Claudia Brant; singer/songwriter Jason Mraz; and songwriter/producer David Garcia, co-writer of “Meant to Be,” the country/pop crossover smash hit for Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line that has spent 23 weeks atop the Hot Country Songs chart and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“The power of this event is in the strength of our community,” said Paul Williams, president and chairman of the board of ASCAP, the performing rights organization whose 660,000 members include songwriters, composers and music publishers. Williams welcomed attendees to the event, staged at the Lowes Hollywood Hotel, which ASCAP bills as the country’s largest conference for music creators.
Williams called on attendees to support ASCAP in its advocacy for the Music Modernization Act, which on April 25 unanimously passed the House of Representatives and now goes to the U.S. Senate. One key goal of the bill is to improve compensation to songwriters in the streaming age, which has been “so unfair for so long,” said Williams. “That’s about to change.”
Williams joked that he referred to the opening session on the art of songwriting as the “blood on the keys” panel. Guided by Newman’s questions, the four participants shared stories of childhood dreams of music, years of struggling before success, regrets over a lack of formal music training, sources of inspiration and their gradual understanding of the business of music publishing.
“Money for my songs? Really? Wow!,” said Brant, recalling her introduction to the music publishing business when she emigrated to the U.S. from her native Argentina. With Luis Fonsi, Brant co-wrote “No Me Doy por Vencido,” which spent 30 weeks atop the Latin Pop Airplay chart in 2008.
Mraz, who has reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “I’m Yours” in 2008 and “I Won’t Give Up” in 2012, joined Brant and Garcia in acknowledging the limits of his formal music education. “I wish I had studied more when I was younger, when my brain was a sponge,” he said.
Holkenborg achieved an international dance hit in 2002 with a remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” — then shifted his career into film composing, where he has worked on the scores of movies including Mad Max Fury Road, Deadpool, The Dark Tower and others. “I do read music and I did have [musical] theory,” he said. But he noted in more recent years he has focused on “music philosophy,” or how the brain responds to certain melodic constructions.
Newman took the panelists through the mechanics of songwriting, leading Mraz to observe, “The opening line [of a song] can be a gift. If I overthink it,” he added, “I can never find it.”
Garcia described how a session can proceed with another writer. “Out of a conversation comes an idea, out of an idea comes a song. The point is to chase the inspiration.”
While opening lines are important, so are song titles, said Brant, recalling advice given to her by veteran hitmaker Desmond Child. “Just picture [the title] at No. 1 on the Billboard chart,” she quoted him saying. “How does it look?”
Holkenborg admitted that his transition to the realm of film scoring at first was “horrible,” as directors would speak about music in distinctly non-musical terms: “I listen to your score and it feels so white; I need it to be more blue.” But the composer described how the world of film music has been transformed by welcoming outsiders like himself, and he credited scoring master Hans Zimmer as his mentor.
In one of the panel’s most insightful exchanges, Newman asked what “essential skill” the songwriters credited for their success — apart from their songwriting ability.
“Stupidity and detachment,” responded Mraz to laughter from the crowd. He explained he meant the ability to “drop anything” to pursue a song — “anything to stay focused” — and the ability to remain detached from criticism and “constant, constant, constant rejection.”
Brant described a number of career goals she would pursue and how she would achieve them. “I’m very organized,” she said. And she spoke of her advocacy for songwriter rights. “What we do has a value, and it’s very important to stand up for it.”
Holkenborg flashed back to his days working in a music store, greeting a customer who would come in for, say, a set of strings and leave with his having sold them a bass guitar. “I know what people want, without them knowing it. I read people really, really well.”
Garcia suggested that, even if talent were equally distributed among all songwriters, “If Im the hardest worker in the room, then I will ultimately succeed.” Among all the variables involved in creating a hit, “I can control how hard I work,” he said. “If you work your tail off, something good will happen.”
ASCAP Expo continues through Wednesday with panels, workshops, master classes, keynotes and one-on-one sessions with the industry’s top hitmakers.
Among the event’s highlights: a conversation between St. Vincent and rising artist King Princess, moderated by music journalist, author and educator Evelyn McDonnell; a master class featuring Jermaine Dupri with Grammy-winning songwriter Johntá Austin; a session with singer/songwriter/producer Ne-Yo; and a conversation with Meghan Trainor.
Williams told attendees that Trainor, seeking to gain industry and knowledge at ASCAP Expo, “eight years ago was sitting in this room.”