×
Skip to main content

‘Stay-at-Home’ Songwriting: How Publishers Are Using Remote Sessions to Keep the Music Flowing

Reservoir’s executive vp creative and A&R Donna Caseine is talking about remote songwriting in the age of COVID-19, but thanks to a patchy wireless connection, the conversation kicks off like one of those old “Can You Hear Me Now?” Verizon ads. The irony isn’t lost on her.

“This is what it would be like to do a virtual [songwriting] session,” Caseine laughs.

With coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders in effect in nearly every state across the U.S. and in countries around the globe, songwriters have been forced to adjust the way they work over a very short period of time.  While it’s a situation faced by workers in nearly every industry, the nature of creative collaboration can make songwriting sessions over platforms like Zoom, FaceTime and Skype a particularly tricky exercise.

“Music is so much about feel and energy,” Caseine says. “It can be challenging to get a rhythm going through a screen unless there’s already a rapport, and that’s especially the case if there are connectivity issues like spotty Wi-Fi.”

Related

In fact, several of the company’s songwriters have chosen to opt out of remote sessions altogether.

“Some writers, in particular our Nashville-based ones, are choosing to work solo, if they can,” Caseine says. “We may see more 100% written songs as they re-learn what it’s like to write without collaborators.”

Still, with many songwriters taking a serious financial hit, especially many who perform thanks to the total shutdown of the touring industry, those who have chosen to forgo remote sessions appear to be in the minority. Based on Billboard‘s conversations with executives at major and independent publishing companies across the country, writers from Los Angeles to Nashville to New York have shown a willingness to experiment with digital sessions in this unprecedented time.

“The first two weeks, I didn’t expect anyone really to be that productive or have a plan,” says Ralph Torrefranca, A&R director at Los Angeles-based indie publisher Angry Mob Music. “But starting this week, it seems like everyone has projects that they’re working on.”

Related

Though a few projects have been pushed back due to the pandemic, songwriters on the whole have been keeping busy, working on new projects along with those that were already underway when state-mandated shutdowns began rolling out across the country.

At Concord Music Publishing, the pandemic forced the company to cancel its annual synch camp in Nashville, leaving senior vp sync Brooke Primont and her team scrambling to figure out an alternative. After nixing the idea of moving it to the fall, they decided hosting a virtual camp would be the best solution.

“I’m hearing more and more about people doing online sessions anyway,” Primont says, “so it was sort of an easy decision to host the camp online when everybody is at home.”

Concord enlisted 74 writers and eight music supervisors to participate for the March 23-27 camp held over a variety of video-conferencing platforms. Primont says that themes of “togetherness and unity” were especially popular, with many of the commercial briefs coming from companies that are now rebranding and spearheading new campaigns in the wake of the virus.

For Judith Hill, the powerhouse singer-songwriter (and subject of the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom), this was her first experience writing remotely. “I didn’t really know how it was going to work or what to expect,” she says. “But once I did the first one, it was really cool…. And that’s how all of the sessions have been. It was just a really good week, actually.”

Related

In addition to popular platforms like Zoom and FaceTime, publishers and songwriters have been experimenting with alternative video-conferencing technologies. At BMG, Microsoft Teams — which the company’s publishing team had already been using for intra-office chat and video conferencing — has become the platform of choice, says senior vp creative synch Jonathan Palmer, who notes it is at least marginally more secure than Zoom, a platform many of BMG’s songwriters have continued using.

BMG has now built what Palmer refers to as “a few fully functional writer rooms … happening in virtual space,” with a team of 14 creative staff members at the company jumping in with briefs and generally being on call.

“We have a pretty robust workflow in terms of the briefs that are coming in,” says Palmer, though he admits no one is sure how long it will last given that the coronavirus has forced a pause in commercial production. “There’s a natural worry that we’re going to see a drop off in that activity in the coming weeks.”

Real-time audio quality has remained a consistent issue for songwriters who are used to working in traditional face-to-face sessions. One solution some publishers have turned to is Listento, a VST plug-in that allows writers to stream high-quality, real-time audio from any digital audio workstation via a browser link.

“My favorite setup at the moment is basically using Zoom in tandem with Listento,” says Torrefranca, who says several Angry Mob producers have been testing out the combination recently.

Related

Also a fan of Listento is Shani Gonzales, Warner Chappell’s head of international and executive vp U.S. A&R. Another tool she endorses is TeamViewer, an app that allows producers to control a songwriter’s computer and cut vocals remotely.

“It’s so simple and so genius,” Gonzales tells Billboard over email. She adds that some of the company’s writers have been drafting those closest to them to get the job done. “I’ve heard of some songwriters teaching their roommates, family members and significant others how to use the computer to help cut vocals,” she says.

Like Concord, many publishers have begun hosting or planning digital camps to keep their songwriters occupied as commercial sync opportunities continue to flow. Thomas Scherer, executive vp repertoire & marketing at BMG, says the company’s popular Sound Lab camps have already been adapted for a digital format that is ongoing, with songwriters from the U.S., Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands getting in on the act.

Over at Universal Music Publishing Group Latin, songwriters have been invited to take part in  #14daysyncsongchallenge, a remote song camp that calls for participants to write and produce a song to a brief in just two weeks. The publisher is now assigning partners for the project, which is designed to connect writers who haven’t previously worked together.

Some publishers note remote sessions could lead to a shift in the way songwriting is done even when it is safe to gather together again. “I think it’s going to change a lot of [songwriters’] mindsets and, honestly, ours,” Primont says. “The world is now unlimited in terms of who we can put together.”

Related

Torrefranca agrees. “Remote sessions are going to be something that [are] a lot more common for people that can’t travel or don’t want to spend the money to travel to L.A. and Nashville and New York or Toronto or one of the other [music] hubs,” he says.

Scherer sees another potential upside for songwriters in the long term: A greater proficiency in the technical side of their craft. He notes that some BMG songwriters have had home studios installed in response to the pandemic.

“After [this] whole crisis is over and we have the chance to go to a new normal, there is a chance for a lot of them to have a new skill set,” Scherer says.

There is no doubt that the current upheaval will make at least some songwriters more willing to engage in remote sessions. But, as nearly everyone Billboard spoke with for this story pointed out, no technology in the world can replicate the experience of being physically in the room with another person.

“There’s such an intimacy with songwriting, whether it’s two or three or four people or whatever — it’s [a] different energy when they’re all together,” says Endurance Music Group president Michael Martin, whose songwriters have been keeping busy with remote sessions. “I love it in our offices when the writers come in and they play you the song they just wrote that didn’t exist [before]. The energy of all that is so exciting.”

Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville singer-songwriter Chris Young has kept a relatively brisk pace during the shutdown — including remotely recording his popular podcast The Quad With Chris Young with his co-hosts — and is at this point intimately familiar with the limitations of the digital format.

“The biggest part really are things that you wouldn’t normally think about, like reading somebody else’s body language,” he says. “Being able to jump in and go, ‘Hey, what about this?’ immediately without having to wait for everybody to stop talking. [It’s] something that takes [an] adjustment.”

After the adjustment, it opens up possibilities, says Scherer: “What they experience now is, it actually works, we don’t have to be in the same room. It’s a new way to go into this magical process.”

Coronavirus