What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording? Part 3: Journey From Note to Recording
By Jerry Flattum - 02/03/2005 - 05:37 AM EST
What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording?
Part 3: Journey From A Note To A Recording
"I’m Looking for A Great Song."
By copyright standards, a song is copyrighted once it is fixed in tangible form. Tangible form can mean notes and lyrics scribbled on paper or any kind of recording. The Copyright Office makes no qualitative judgment as to good or bad. They don’t care about arrangement or quality of recording (as long as they can make sense of what they hear).
A song can be any string of notes underscored by gibberish. It doesn’t even have to meet the criteria of what is normally understood to be a song: a melody, a lyric, chords and some sense of structure. You can write one note with one word and call it a song. Of course, any reasonably intelligent person working in the registration department of the Copyright Office will challenge a single note with a single word. Most likely, they’ll call it an idea, and ideas are not copyrightable.
Assuming you manage to con the Copyright Office into thinking your gibberish is a song, you are still faced with the challenge of selling it. When a songwriter sells a song, it is commonly understood to mean they sold a melody and a lyric. Harmony and rhythm are not necessary. A song—melody and lyric—can be sung a cappella.
When A&R execs say they are looking for a "great song," they usually go on to define it further by saying they are looking for a great melody and a great lyric. Bottomliners will go even farther and say, “What we’re looking for is a great melody.” They don’t even need a great lyric. The lyric can be la-la and do-dah. All the melody has to do is stick in the head. If you can whistle it after the first listen…that’s good enough. Of course, no one is saying how long it has to stick there. Would an hour suffice? Or, long enough to make them buy the recording?
Following this narrow definition of a song, it is then believed that anything after the melody and lyric is fluff. The singer, the arrangement and the quality of recording all fall into the fluff category. If this is true, then why even bother with the fluff? All the label or publisher has to do is fix the great melody in some tangible form. The listener doesn’t need to buy a recording. Notes on paper will suffice. The melody can be played by anything capable of producing notes. A great melody doesn’t even have to follow the rules of any tonal system as long as the string of notes sticks in the head.
Mythical tales abound of how a songwriter walks into a publisher’s office, sings a song, and the next thing…it’s a hit. Ah, if it were only that easy. But what such a mythical tale fails to reveal is songwriting integrity. You can hum a melody, scribble a lyric, and call yourself a songwriter. Technically, no one can argue.
In turn, you do not need to write an operatic aria with a melody so complex only a diva could sing it, just to call yourself a songwriter. Many songs have ridiculously simple melodies and third grade level lyrics. Rock and roll, along with country, folk and the blues, has always fallen under attack for songs that utilize only three chords. Or, rock and roll is not singing, but screaming. What good is it if you can’t understand the words? By contrast, some people hate jazz. They don’t care how beautiful a melody might be, how well the song is performed and what state-of-the-art studio it was recorded in.
No doubt there are stories where songs poorly recorded and rejected were later accepted after a fully produced recording was made.
So, with all these prejudices and preferences at play, how does someone know if a song is great or not? If you hate jazz, how do you know when a jazz song is great or even sellable?
In turn, how does anyone know when they hear a broadcast quality recording, or, if it’s a great recording at all?
Going back to the classic A&R quote, a great melody doesn’t have to have chords. It doesn’t have to fit a genre. A great melody is a great melody. According to this standard, Beethoven never had to compose an entire symphony. All he needed to do was hum the first 4 notes of his 5th Symphony and he still would’ve had a hit—something that sticks in the mind—something you can whistle.
But how would music history have turned out if those first few notes of Beethoven’s 5th were played on a harp? Those first few notes don’t have nearly the same impact played on a harp as they do played by an entire string section. Could Beethoven have sold a “demo” version?
The singer, the arrangement, the performance and the recording are equally as important components of a song as melody, harmony and rhythm.
Ultimately, a song ends up as a finished product, an underlying component of a recording. It is a recording that sells, not the song. Start switching things around, like giving the song a different arrangement or engage a different singer, and the song might not sell at all. Take a Reba McIntire song, give it to Limp Bizkit, and see what happens.
So what kind of recording is needed to sell a song? How is this different from selling an artist?
Answering that question depends on how you define what a song is or what it is you have to sell. Is it a melody hummed by a songwriter who can’t sing while a music publisher follows along with a lyric sheet? Is it a song recorded as a piano/vocal demo, sufficient enough to communicate its potential? Or is a song a fully produced, fully mastered recording made in the finest recording studios by the most astute producers and recording engineers in the world, performed by superstars?
The Song Does NOT Remain The Same
Songs do not exist in a vacuum. A song is not a static commitment of lyrics, melody and chords to paper. Even a song recorded as a piano or guitar/vocal demo is in a raw state. It’s true that some songs work in this raw state, but rarely.
A song dynamically changes with each recording made in the process of bringing that song from inception to market. And, some songs are born from production, rather than production added on later. The production IS the song.
Before recording technology was born, sheet music was the only way to “communicate” a song. Someone had to read the music, play the piano or guitar and sing. At some point—and a very interesting historical one at that—recording devices replaced pen and paper. Other related historical changes were developing around the same time. Music was becoming big business. Vinyl records replaced sheet music as the primary means of selling songs. Broadcasting was born in the form of TV and radio. But vinyl recordings were not recordings of songs; they were recordings of performances, with a “song” buried within that performance.
Even in the days of Tin Pan Alley, sheet music sales were likely to increase depending on the artist that introduced the song, usually on the vaudeville circuit or Broadway stage. It was a picture of the singer on the sheet music cover, not the songwriter.
Is it true that a song can be so great it doesn’t matter who sings it or how it’s arranged and produced? Are singers just pretty faces and voices selling what otherwise is a great song?
Radio stations eventually grew like wild fire. As the fire spread, artists (and their songs) could reach wider audiences faster. A listener didn’t have to wait for the truck to roll into town, delivering a vinyl recording or printed song sheet. All the listener had to do was turn on the radio.
What the listener heard was magic.
They weren’t listening to a song, a singer, or even an arrangement. What they were listening to was an experience. In the 40’s, driven by Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman, teenyboppers were born. When Elvis and the Beatles hit, the experience became mass hysteria.
Of course, Frank, Elvis and the Beatles get all the credit. No one talks about the developing technologies that were shaping the music industry. Well, that’s not completely true. Everybody knows the Beatles recorded the Sgt. Pepper album on an 8-track.
Using the late 60s as an example, bands like Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix and Santana were identified mainly by their “sound.” You could hear a new recording by most any of these groups and instantly know who it was.
Was it the underlying song that ultimately sold the band, the artist, the recording? Or was it the band Led Zeppelin that sold albums, not songs? Could any other artist or group have introduced “Stairway To Heaven” to an unsuspecting world? What did the demo for “Stairway To Heaven” sound like? Is “Stairway To Heaven” a classic song or a classic recording?
Let’s fast forward—pun intended—to the Digital Age. We already know that not just bands but even genres are identified by the “sound.” Mute the bass drum track in Disco and you won’t have Disco. Or, try playing heavy metal on an accordion, to be even more absurd. And, in days gone by, dance music had long been labeled as a “producer’s medium.” Ironically, the role a producer plays in country music is no less important.
So, a song is not a just a melody put to lyrics. It’s a “sound.” Change the sound of the song and you change the song. Here’s an interesting experiment possible only in the imagination. Make a “demo” of a techno-dance song played strictly on piano sung by solo voice. Next, take that demo to a music publisher. Ask the publisher to imagine a techno-dance arrangement of your piano/vocal demo.
The next often-heard argument is that the piano/vocal demo or live performance only needs to be “good enough.” Good enough means the publisher was not put off by a bad performance and could hear the “potential” of the song. The publisher then gives the piano/vocal demo to an arranger. With a new arrangement, what do they hear? The melody doesn’t change. In the land of tonal purity, a C# is a C# regardless if it’s played on a cello or sung by a country singer. But what about the “sound?” Why would an arranger choose a cello over a country singer? What about the “feel” or genre? What about the “energy?” What about the listener?
A Review of Music Industry Basics
Music is basically sold in four flavors: a song, an artist, an individual musician and a band. Songwriters might not be performers or part of a band. Artists sing and perform but might not play an instrument or be part of a band. A musician needs a song, an artist and a band. A band is usually self-contained, meaning a self-contained package of song, artist and band.
What is being sold and to whom determines the kind of recording needed.
Producers, recording engineers and studios are next in the line of basics. Following this is the host of business personnel that handle the chores of manufacturing (CD/DVD replication), copyright and royalty administration, advertising and promotion, marketing and distribution, touring (live performance), and…broadcasting (radio, TV, movie theater).
Now, in this basic chain or process, different kinds of recordings are used before commercial release and after. Historically, the ones used before commercial release are called “demos.” A demo is a tease or a promise. The purpose of a demo is to secure a publishing or recording contract. The publisher or label awards a contract based on the belief that the song, artist or band featured on the demo will develop into a finished product. This is the traditional view.
Everything changes in the Digital Age. The “word” is that a commercially released recording can now be produced, recorded, mastered, marketed and distributed all in the digital domain by a single person working in a home studio environment. In addition, labels and publishers are no longer involved in artist development. They no longer listen to demos. They want finished product.
It’s a distribution deal they’re interested in. They’ll take care of replication and distribution, but the finished master is produced independently (inde label, artist or band). And, recordings made for commercial release are fully produced and mastered in state-of-the-art recording studios and mastering houses under the auspices of the best producers and recording engineers in the world.
Major artists recording in major studios with the best engineers do not need to concern themselves with the issue of broadcast quality. They walk out of the studio and magically their music is converted into commercially released CDs (and DVDs) and ready for radio airplay.
And top songwriters—those who write for others—need not be concerned with the quality of the recordings they make. Such songwriters have teams of producers, engineers and A&R reps that take, for instance, a flimsy four-track recording of a basic guitar and/or piano/vocal demo to its ultimate climax: A commercially released recording.
Some songwriters are never concerned with how a song is arranged, produced or recorded. But what about the independent songwriter/musician who has no links to major studios or artists, and is using a home studio to produce demos?
Some songs are rejected not because the song is bad, but because the recording is of poor quality.
It seems incredible that a home studio setup can produce the same level quality of recording as commercially released recordings produced and engineered by the best producers and engineers in the world working in the finest studios available. Is this the new expectation? Does this expectation apply equally to songwriters as it does to artists and bands? Is it even possible?
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series on broadcast quality recordings, SongCatalog.com is an online example of this new demand for broadcast quality recordings. They are a connector between music suppliers and the advertising industry. Advertisers are looking for music to license “as is.” They do not want to hear demos. For a fee, SongCatalog.com is open to anyone. The only requirement is that you are licensing a broadcast quality recording, not selling a song.
But this new demand for broadcast quality or “finished product” is in stark contrast to the often-heard claims made by A&R execs that all they need in order to hear a great song is a piano/vocal or guitar/vocal demo, or a melody sung a cappella.
Now, allegedly, when a songwriter walks through a major label executive’s door, the recording they have in their hand is ready for replication and distribution. Absolutely nothing further needs to be done to enhance the quality of the recording or the package it's contained in. It’s ready to ship to radio stations and stores (all over the world).
Radio programmers and storeowners look at what they've got coming in from the major labels. They've got recordings coming in from Britney, Madonna, Michael, Eminem and Outkast. Over in the corner of the station or store is a box full of independently produced CDs by unknown artists.
Let’s say the radio DJ’s pushed the computerized playlist to the side and against radio station policy, decided to play your CD. Radio listeners start phoning in by the droves. You are the next Beatles.
But wait...do you HAVE to be the next Beatles? Can't you just be good? Do you HAVE to sell a million copies first time out of the gate?
What about all the other music that is not produced by major labels? There are millions of independent songwriters, artists and labels recording their own CDs and mp3s and making them available for sale and play on the Internet…literally, millions.
You say, “I don't need to sell a million copies. I'm happy selling a few 1000.”
Well, there ya go. You've now sold a few 1000. You didn't care about being a superstar. You didn't care about winning awards. You don't care about living in a mansion and having everybody know your name. You’re happy selling a few 1000 copies.
Let’s say you sold those copies—copies of CDs containing 10 songs—for $20 each. You made 20K. How much did it cost to produce that CD?
Ah, but wait... home studio equipment manufacturers and tons of websites with tons of articles inform you that you can make a CD from home that will rival the best of the best.
So you buy pro tools, a couple of digital audio workstations, a slew of outboard gear and a refrigerator full of TV dinners.
Now, with all your talent and skill, and the resources in front of you, you will make a recording that rivals the best of the best.
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