DEVELOPING A COLLABORATIVE METHOD FOR COMMERCIAL SONGWRITING & PRODUCTION
By David Laycock, MA Music Production, Leeds Beckett University
Here is an overview of the Final Individual Project for my MA in Music Production at Leeds Beckett University. It's been a very full on year but I couldn't recommend this course enough! I have benefitted from amazing tutors and guest lecturers as well as meeting some amazing musicians and producers amongst my peers.
Here are some of the main people, hit factories and books that inspired my project.
From Motown to Max Martin through the 'Hit Factories' of the 80s and 90s, the road to songwriting & production success is strewn with colourful and inspirational characters, with various pitfalls but handsome rewards. The academic writing of Dr Joe Bennett (who has written a great breadth of work on collaboration) and the informal and very readable The Manual :How To Have A Number 1 The Easy Way, by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond (best known as The KLF) provide signposts along the way. Phil Harding, with his vast body of work from PWL to Lamont Dozier (Motown legend), has provided a definitive starting point (with his Collaborative Writing & Production lecture) but also further insight with his feedback on this project. Liquid Audio is walking in the shadows of giants but hopes to emerge with a hard earned studio tan!
Motown, Phil Harding, Dr. Joe Bennett, PWL (the home of Stock, Aitken & Waterman), Max Martin & The Manual.
“If you throw four or five excellent ideas together, eventually something truly stunning will come out of that, or something truly original”
Brian Higgins - Xenomania (the writing & production team behind Girls Aloud, The Saturdays and many more)
"I CONTEND THAT SIX PROCESSES ARE AT PLAY IN A CO-WRITING ENVIRONMENT – STIMULUS, APPROVAL, ADAPTATION, NEGOTIATION, VETO AND CONSENSUS."
Dr Joe Bennett from Collaborative Songwriting – The Ontology Of Negotiated Creativity In Popular Music Studio Practice
This very idea above all others has fascinated me throughout my work and so I am going to frame this overview of my project around the six processes. Hope you enjoy...
Below you can hear the ideas first sent out to top-liners (vocalist, lyricists, melody writers). These were the Stimuli to give them a creative spark. Each 'loop' was given a working title (to give thematic direction) and accompanied with some general information regarding what I was looking for:
1) Mamacita (Slow Down) was influenced by Justin Bieber's Sorry and Luis Fonsi's Despacito.
2) You Got Me was influenced by Bang Bang (Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj) and Power (Little Mix).
3) Controversial was influenced by Charlie Puth's Attention and Sexual by Neiked ft Dyo.
4) (Too) Close for Comfort was influenced by Clean Bandit's Rather Be - play it to find out where it got its title!
The Top-Liner Team
I began to get a feel for which loops were were most inspirational by communicating with my top-liners, but I could also gauge this by which loops first came back to me with vocal ideas. With all these new (and very exciting) ideas received, I was then also in a position to carry out part of the approval process, by selecting the ideas that worked best. Next the adaption could begin...
Cut And Paste
With all these new ideas from the top-liners in place, I began re-order them into my interpretation of suitable strong structure based on my research of form in popular music. Verses became choruses, choruses became bridges and in the following example you can hear how I chopped 2 top-liners' chorus ideas into 1. Just follow the link below and listen to the 3rd track on the player, Too Close For Comfort. Just a quick shout out to Mike McLellan who did a great job re-writing the synth riff on this one and hence avoiding the inevitable copyright infringement case with Clean Bandit!
MORE ADAPTION AND APPROVAL WITH SHAZ STACEY
8th Aug 2017
I had a little track in reserve that I wanted to try with a top-line, so I decided to employ the services of session singer Shaz Stacey. I had sent her the track in advance to develop some ideas and I very much approved of what she had done. We just made a few little lyrical tweaks on the day. You can listen to Shaz recording the vocal here and hear the finished track by clicking on the button below. This one got a lot of positive feedback. Hope you enjoy!
JUST A LITTLE NOTE...
As it turned out, That Thing came together much quicker than any of the tracks I had started earlier in the process, and it would be easy to conclude that this method of writing and production was more efficient. In a way it was quicker to get a good finished product with a single top-liner in a face-to-face writing and recording situation. This isn't the full story though, as the track for That Thing was actually a very laborious process completed many months earlier. In fact it was almost finished when Shaz Stacey put down her top-line. This doesn't take away from the validity of what we made here, and you will hear more about this track at the mix and analysis (feedback) stages covered in this overview...
....AND ANOTHER THING!
I just want to take you back briefly if I may, to the Dr Joe Bennett quote from earlier. I apologise as I missed out the bit in brackets. It just didn't fit the page quite as nicely!
"I contend that six (non-linear and interacting) processes are at play in a co-writing environment – stimulus, approval, adaptation, negotiation, veto and consensus."
The non-linear part is rather relevant though, as this process doesn't start with stimulus and work its way through to consensus in a linear fashion. It loops back and forth. Stimulus can be created and approval can be required at any point (approval also being part of the quality control processes but more on that later) and as we move through our process to the negotiation stage, our negotiated ideas still require approval and so on.
Apart from approving the work of the top-liners in creating melodic ideas, I also began to approve their actual performances on the demos, selecting one of them based on this evidence (or two in the case of Mamacita, which I decided to make a duet) to be the lead vocalist on each track.
ARRANGING & MIXING
And so we find ourselves down at Skinboat HQ, a friends studio, with Chris Marsh making the mix magic happen! Having heard the version of That Thing that was played on BBC Radio Sheffield (I haven't told you about this yet but I'm coming to it!), Chris (who I had asked to come onboard due to his technical expertise in programming and mixing), had liked (approval) the track and had offered to give it a final mix. As it turned out Chris ended up doing some re-arrangement/programming prior to mix day, and we spent the day negotiating and approving arrangement and mix together - a highly productive day! This, added to all the negotiations in the collaborative writing process with my 3 top-liners and other contributors, made for a whole lot of negotiation!
You've already had a link to the final version of this track but click on the button below if you just can't get enough!
Back to Chris Marsh. Chris didn't want anything to do with mixing 'A 1000 Ways To Want You'. A number of people didn't want anything to do with this track, although I did get a lovely drum track from Mikey Howe, and this certainly wasn't the end of the line for this particular tune! I ended up mixing it myself in the end and you can hear it on the main player by clicking on the link below.
Other tracks weren't so much vetoed as left behind. I intended to pursue them all, but maybe this would have been in vain. I have read throughout this project of much more developed ideas than these being shelved by highly successful music production teams (Motown, Stargate and many more), as only the creme de la creme floats to the top! Still, veto has to be carefully assessed, as it turns out that some people actually really like 'A 1000 Ways To Want You'. Click below to see what you think.
The Final Appoval
Consensus is hard to reach (and for much of this project I found it quite hard to spell!).
As in VETO, opinions can vary vastly, and it had to come down to me to make the final decisions on what made the cut. This of course raises concerns of quality control, with the inevitable question being,
"who are you to make the final decision?".
Further to this,
"are the previous processes of approval all for naught if some dictatorial final decision can overrule them?"
Well is some ways yes, this does defy the process somewhat, but if the inbuilt systems of quality control are maintained throughout (approval, veto, consensus), then a best compromise can be hoped for, and without somebody making a final decision the process would become overlong, drained of creative energy and ultimately create stale tracks that could potentially miss both their creative and commercial targets!
It had been established early in this project that I couldn't possibly hope to have a 'hit' to evidence the the success of my method, or at least the validity of the product such a method might produce. I therefore decided to seek feedback from industry professionals and casual listeners alike.
Here is a collection of some of the feedback the tracks have received:
As well as being one of the main inspirations behind this project, Phil kindly agreed to give feedback on my tracks as I produced them. On That Thing he said:
"That Thing sounds great - really lively production - great groove" adding "I'd be very tempted to add harmonies to the main chorus hook" - which I did, to great effect!
He was also very positive about one of my other tracks at the demo stage:
"I think the top lines on Mamacita are good enough ideas to move forward with"
Great for me to get 'approval' at this level. More compliments for A 1000 Ways To Want You, proving that it does have a potential audience despite the naysayers:
"This sounds really good to me - I think you're doing some great work and need little guidance from me."
He went on to give some great advice about structuring breakdowns and I was generally very pleased with these positive and constructive words!
As That Thing was the first track ready to go, I decided to upload it to BBC Introducing to see what interest it might garner. As it turned out, it got played on BBC Introducing Sheffield on the day I uploaded it, and again the following week. Here is what Christian Carlisle, the shows host had to say:
"…to kick off the show - what a track! From Liquiid. That’s a new track from him called That Thing. He’s made us wait a fair while for that, but it was totally worth the wait. Definitely getting the Basement Jaxx vibe going on there."
I will touch on the "made us wait" comment in the conclusion. Here is what he said in the following show.
"…a re-spin for Liquiid, it’s called That Thing. Can’t get enough of that one at the moment.", "Looking forward to hearing more."
Matthew Hogarth at Sentric, a big online publisher was very positive about That Thing saying:
"The track's really good" and
"The track definitely has sync potential. Be great to get you onboard here at Sentric" - Just what I wanted to hear, although I believe that the Sentric model has a lot of writers on their books, with not necessarily all making a lot of money!
Chris Youd at Make My Day, a relatively small publisher and label was more constructive, even critical including comments like these, some of which were brought up by other contributors:
"Needs a bit more high frequency sparkle"
"Lead vocal could be a little bigger in the mix - its a great performance & should be centre stage. It could do with a little more air too."
"Bridge (leading into chorus) - string sound a bit thick in the mid-range (& masking the vocal)"
This was all very useful and got fed back into my systems of negotiation and adaption!
“Can the bass go up in the first one, or add some sub?"That Thing
“Mamacita sounds great - plug it, it’s very now!”
“A consideration could be further pushing the dynamics between sections, heightening the difference between softer sections and hard hitting chorus” That Thing
“I think the build up/ development at the start is really cool and I love the vocal sound” A 1000 Ways To Want You
Dr. Jim Parker
Research Fellow & Music Aficionado
Internet Security Expert, Musician & Producer
Tim 'Ten Yen' Hudson
Songwriter, Artist & Producer
Guitarist and singer
“Could do with a bit more bass and oomph to give it presence, as I think it runs the risk of technically being clean, but lacking bottom
end.” That Thing
"It's just those super high reflections off the reverb that ping out. If your ears are tired, they are the ones I find you ended up putting too much on as you can't hear it."Mamacita
“As a man who only listens to music on a laptop these days, the clubby kick doesn't punch through” That Thing
“This second track was my fave of the two, particularly the last minute or so. Sublime!” A 1000 Ways To Want You
Track and Hook
Late in my project research, the very kind Dr Tom Attah suggested a book I might read. The Song Machine by John Seabrook gives a great insight into the world of modern pop music creation and just by chance validates my own approach to song creation. According to the book, producer Christopher 'Tricky' Stewart approached a girl singing along at the top of here voice at a Gap Band Concert. Her name was Ester Dean, an untrained singer who was nailing every song. He invited her to his studio, put her in the vocal booth and magic happened. She went on to co-write songs for Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera... the list goes on! Here method saw her 'get in the zone' and then blast out hook after hook. Working with award wining producers Stargate she helped create numerous tracks for Rihanna's album Rated R. Although my method uses multiple top-liners similar 'cut and paste' methods were used with Ester Dean's ideas to to create these hits!
This method is referred to in the book as the Track and Hook method, and my decision to get top-liners to send me '2-3 chorus ideas' rather than anything that resembled a 'verse',
gave me many more 'hooks' to play with!
The Story So Far...
This has been a complex, enlightening and all consuming project so far. I started this section with the title 'Conclusion', but so far I haven't truly found one! I have simply reached a point somewhere quite near the start of understanding and honing this process. At has been far from easy but an absolute joy! I have had the help of some truly talented and inspirational people for which I am very grateful. I have been stressed, inspired, elated and exhausted and wouldn’t have changed a minute of it! Songs are what made me want to be involved in music in the first place. Pursuing an instrument (bass guitar) was essential to making me who I am as a musician, but have never truly sought to master this to the nth degree. In some ways it became a distraction from my true passion - POPULAR SONG!
Research, process, quality control, all these seemingly mechanical processes, appear a world away from the romantic definition of creativity and 'the artist', but for true creativity to be achieved they are intrinsically linked. They are simply reflection and improvement, guided by both vision and hard evidence! I intend to use them to continue in my pursuit of my passion for creating music.
A little note on quality control systems...
I refer to one of Christian Carlisle's comments from earlier in this overview:
"…That’s a new track from him called That Thing. He’s made us wait a fair while for that, but it was totally worth the wait. "
This doesn't make perfect sense out of context, but I have previously sent tracks to BBC Introducing, and have noticed a pattern. From the batches of tracks that have been sent at any one particular time in my sporadic output, only one has been selected for broadcasting. This suggests to me that a still more brutal quality control policy could be enforced, further filtering only the very best results from each batch of songs I create. As I mentioned in the ‘Veto’ section of this project overview those production houses with the highest quality output operate in this way.
Some of this information unfortunately wasn’t even clear or available to me at the point of completion of the main academic body of this project so I keep learning more and more each day.
I have learnt that the bulk of my method actually works. The process gives me the hooks that a modern pop song requires. There are plenty of variables that I can work with such as personnel, systems of selection, popular trends etc.
I have learnt that I will try to do more of the work with the top-liners face to face. I have to admit that the actual hook creation went well without this but I think the actual recording of final vocals could be much better managed and streamlined.
I have relearned something that I once knew and chose, almost through submission, to forget. This is that I am ultimately responsible for my success or failure. This process makes this fact a central tenet. Not that I planned to not take responsibility, as I have long believed that a project should have a leader, someone who makes the final call. What I had allowed to happen by my own failure to assert myself amongst strong-willed creatives around myself, was to allow the process to become an equally weighted democracy amongst writers. This in my opinion is a surefire way to guarantee compromise and its resultant mediocrity! Now that I believe my resolve is stronger and more focussed I can take what I have learnt forward, and so forward goes the ever-evolving process of adaption and improvement!
Without the thoughts of so many amazing people this project would have no real perspective. Hopefully i’ve caught most of the major players on my thank you list!
Phil Harding, Tim Speight, Richard Formby, Mark Wityszyn, Tom Attah & Jo Webb for their specialist insights.
James Bagdonavicious, Anna Jaichner, Kelvin Dobson, Shaz Stacey, Chris Marsh, Mikey Howe, Jo Webb & Mike McLellan for their creative magic. I am lucky to be surrounded by the super talented.
Tim Hudson, Jim Phillips, Matthew James, Jim Parker, Jason Wall, Ian Laycock & Matt Sutton for so many useful perspectives and opinions.
Katie, Eliza & Georgie for your love and patience x