TROUBADOURS, PIRATES AND THE DIGITAL POLICE:
Songwriting, publishing, production and distribution in Y2K
by Jerry Flattum
Editor's Note: This article is divided into 5 sections and contains numerous links to the organizations mentioned.
Thereís one more year to go before songwriting as we know it, ceases to exist. Once all the computers crash, that spells Armageddon for electronic music...and everything is electronic. So itís back to troubadours wandering the countryside playing acoustic guitars and mandolins in beer-soaked taverns. And the only way your music will ever get recorded is if people remember the melody.
After days on the road, you drag your weary feet into "Tuckís Tavern." The keeper-of-the-tavern has a pretty good ear, and upon remembering your melody, starts singing it accapella and before you know it the whole place is singing rousing refrains of your humble little ditty. Some bloke sittiní half crocked on a stool, pulls out a mandolin, lays down a few drunkiní chords, and then claims the song as his own. Next thing you know, itís the War of the Troubadours: who can play the most songs and claim them as their own, or even who can improvise the wittiest ditties on the spot. Then word will spread across the land (by horse) and thatís how youíll get your fame. Welcome to the future of songwriting and music publishing.
On the other hand, some 13 year-old whiz kid from Iowa just might solve the Y2K problem with some simple code or software or something. If so, then prepare yourself for the New Millennium; and you got one year to do it. I get this impression (from too much media) something magical is going to happen when the numbers turn a flat two grand. I think the stars will realigned and music will become something any of us have yet to hear. Or, maybe theyíll misalign, become a flurry of comets like in a big Hollywood movie and the only music that will remain is music from an alien planet. Are ya ready?
A Holistic Perspective:
A New Approach to Songwriting Itís easy for songwriters to get lost or overwhelmed when trying to grasp the vastness of the music industry. Itís enough to hit the charts yet alone grapple with the legal implications of copyright law or how global distribution systems will affect royalty rates. But the more informed you are, the more youíll understand the social and global implications of what happens as a result of your creative endeavors as a song maker. A holistic approach--seeing things from all sides--might help integrate your thoughts as you survey the contents of this article.
With a more open, or holistic perspective, a songwriter can better understand the future of songwriting from a micro-level to a macro-level, from inception of idea to commercial release. The more a songwriter understands how the creative process is connected to the business process, the greater chance of success and the less chance of rip-offs, burns, and bad deals. Seeing things holistically also means increasing your awareness and understanding of the world around you, informing the song creation process and opening new channels for inspiration and discovery.
To elaborate a bit further, a micro-level revolves around the creation of melody, lyric, harmony, rhythm, structure and style. A macro-level encompasses instrumentation (band and/or digital), recording, performance, business, society and culture. The task of persuading a publisher or record company to release a song commercially is as much a part of the songwriting process as the writing of a catchy melody or witty lyric. Also, the performance and marketing of a song is as crucial to a songís popularity as the memorability of its melody. So talent and skill is only part of the songwriting process. Itís not enough to produce a super demo. Once itís finished, then what do you do with it and what did you create it for?
For songwriters, the new millennium might look something like this: Imagine everything and everybody connected in a vast digital network, like billions of synapses connected by billions of circuits in the brain. Music is streaming in all directions through a maze of channels with digital robots controlling the flow and rate. Approaching the speed of light, people from all walks of life will be crossing digital global boundaries, forming new bridges with each modem handshake. From this, new songs will be born and new forms of music will merge from old ones.
A New Definition of Songwriter
The definition of a songwriter in Stephen Fosterís day is a far cry from the definition of a songwriter today and the kind of songwriter entering the next millennium. Today, song creator, or song designer is more accurate. Todayís songwriter plays many roles: musician, arranger, recording engineer, producer, performer and even entrepreneur. From Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths to techno-pop programmers, songwriters have clearly undergone a renaissance, but nothing like they will experience as they collectively journey across the new millennial frontier.
New Songs/New Techniques
From the 2 minute single in the 50ís to CD full-length dance cuts, from four simple lines of lyrics to elaborate rap, writers, artists and producers will undoubtedly break many rules as the world turns the millennial corner. With technological change, the art and craft of songwriting itself will change, something, perhaps, like the subtle re-placement of a hook or as dramatic as total abolishment of the verse/chorus structure. Even the terms verse and chorus are antiquated. Most of the changes will take place in the realms of sound, production and delivery--with a heavy emphasis on digital.
From lyrical fragments like "ooh baby, baby" and "yeah, yeah, yeah" to the enchanting poetics of a lyricist like Sting and many others, pop lyrics cover the full range of literacy. Each style of music has itís own language, reflecting the culture from which it was born. Words like "ainít" still send grammatical shivers up the backs of many English language experts, but when used in blues, country, R&B and rock, no other word could be more dramatic. Not all lyrics are gothic poems set to music, thatís for sure. What may appear to be offensive language continues to fall under the watchful eye of the Parental Advisory Program. Freedom of speech is one issue, but so is the protection of children from slanderous, libelous or offensive language parents deem unsuitable. Songwriters need to be ethical in their use of language. Artistic expression carries with it a responsibility. Artists and writers are leaders, and what they say can affect generations.
New Artists/New Influence
No matter how hard critics try, they just canít predict the next rising star. Shoot back to the 1920s for a moment, and thereís nothing in pop music that forecasted a Marilyn Manson or Boy George would ever top the charts, yet alone flapper music hinting anything of rock and roll, now past middle age. Music videos? CD? DVD? MP3? Stephan Foster, break out those old piano rolls. Speaking to the clouds for a moment: "Imagine Bach, working out your arrangements on a Roland JX-305 Groovesynth. And by the way, thanks to satellite transmission and a global distribution system, your last concert was seen by 1.3 billion viewers and the live recording sold millions worldwide...which people purchased off the Internet...one hour after your concert was over." Now thatís influence.
Astronomical changes are taking place in the music industry, changes that will affect every beat and lyric bit Demographics are shifting. The over 40 crowd is rivaling the youth market in music buying. Latinos are the New Americans, and along with a new found political voice, Latinos will influence pop and world music in ways they never did in the past. And sadly, the deaths of a number of prominent artists and industry leaders will leave legacies behind and the future in the hands of the bold and brave. Just to mention a few who passed on to the Great Stage in 1998: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Carl Perkins (founder of Rock and Roll), Frank Sinatra, Bob Merrill ("People"), Phil Medley ("Twist and Shout"), Junior Wells, Carl Wilson, Tammy Wynette, Sonny Bono, John Denver, and even Owen Bradley, who started the "Nashville Sound."
If you think troubadours is a farfetched concept, try pirates: the millennial songwriterís number one enemy. All the top industry organizations agree piracy is a number one priority in the Internet Age. Meanwhile, thanks to the Net, selling music online to buyers 5000 miles away might be easier than trying to push a few self-produced copies at your local record shop...ah, CD shop, or, DVD shop, whatever. It might be wise to be aware that each song, collection of songs, track or sequence you sell in no matter what format, i.e., CD or digital download, it will all be coded with a standardized number. The industry will be able to track and protect your piece of music as it travels from creation to market, from licensing agencies to consumers, from retail stores to digital downloads all over the world. (More on Piracy later).
From the Highest Authority
Whatís the word about pop musicís future from the highest of authorities? General consensus, is that things are lookiní pretty good musically. Give or take a few pirates, industry voices like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and dozens of others say sales are up, new music is up, world music is up, technology is up...lotís of up. However, initiating standard digital security measures does have the industry on edge.
Letís survey the industry and see what else songwriters have to endure besides getting their demos to the right people and paying rent.
Making the Connection
There are no right people. As soon as you send your demo to Frankie at Careless Records, he ups and takes a new position in Venezuela. With global expansion riding the Millennium wave, it seems rec execs will be available...only in transit. Not only are execs ridiní in the fast lane, but even their corporations are transforming like insane chameleons. Corporations across all industry sectors are converging and diverging, downsizing and expanding at such an alarming rate, its impossible to tell who owns who and what telephone number you should call if you want to get hold of one of those execs in flight.
Currently, a handful of majors have already gobbled up just about every inde in sight, but that wonít stop the new wave Internet-entrepreneurs. Besides hanging from a helicopter outside a 26-story window of a top A&R execís office, the Internet promises to be an excellent resource for making the right connections, artistically and business-wise.
But even with the freedom of the Net, songwriters are still going to have to be pretty savvy to cut through channels cluttered with digitally transferred demos. It will be even more difficult to compete with the distribution power of a global network like Sony or BMG. I didnít say you couldnít do it! I just said itís going to take some savvy, thatís all.
A New Set of Tools
Songwriters have a whole new set of tools at their disposal. From sound effects processors to digital recording software packages, songwriters face the additional challenge of conquering the hi-tech arena while trying to write the next Billboard chart-topper. In fact, it is fair to say, that most music today isnít written, itís produced. The sound shaping tools of hi-tech recording studios combined with vast libraries of digital and sampled sounds are equally as important in the creation of a song as the use of the old guitar or piano. Keep that holistic perspective open.
How Musicians Are Connected to the Net: What is MIDI?
Introduced in 1983, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the system that allows different electronic devices to talk to each other, and what a conversation we got going in 1999. The MIDI revolution has savagely unleashed a plethora of technological gadgetry so overwhelming that many musicians are being driven digitally delirious. One argument against the use of MIDI is that too much time is being spent on developing technical proficiency rather than creating music. However, the principle selling point of the MIDI revolution is that through MIDI a musician can have complete control over the entire music creation process, from composing to finished master recording, and can then link directly to the Net.
Sounds Of The Future
Technology is significantly altering the very sounds we hear and creating an entirely new palette for expression. Reproductions of traditional sounds, usually in the form of samples, have become a universal feature of synthesizers and other keyboard workstations. Sound synthesis--the art and science of creating new sounds--is taking what we hear far beyond the traditional sounds that have, in some cases, been around for centuries. Sound synthesis is capable of taking reproductions of these traditional sounds and altering them in ways impossible by the original instrument.
Layering one sound on top of another--a feature now standard with digital keyboards--was taken to new heights via MIDI. Not only could proprietary sounds for each brand name keyboard be layered via on-board multi-tracking, but with MIDI sounds from different manufacturers could be layered, without the use of multi-tracking. Almost every other sound effects device is standard MIDI-capable, and the possible number of sound altering devices combined with MIDI and a plethora of keyboards makes the sound palette expand beyond imagination.
Working in the digital realm means staying current. Some analog gadgets and devices still stand on their own, like tube amps. But the industry forces music producers to upgrade their equipment faster than they can get to the stores. Not only did songwriters just discover they could burn their own CD, now they can burn a whole lot of Ďem with CD-RW. And just when most songwriters finally figured out what the CD-RW letters stood for, MP3 and DVD entered the scene and threaten to blow CD technology away.
MP3 means MPEG Audio 1 layer 3, and although the file size is limited, allows near perfect quality sound. It is the ideal format for uploading and downloading on the Internet and offers unprecedented opportunities for reaching a global audience. Entire albums or even just individual songs are available for free, and 100ís of MP3 websites are springing up as fast as you can say the word "link." Most MP3 files on the Net are unlicensed and illegal. Later in the article, a number of industry solutions are explored as an answer to MP3 piracy and unrestricted distribution.
Digital versatile disc (DVD) is a high-density disc with about seven times the capacity of a CD. The extra capacity in the disc will be used to achieve a high-quality, multi-channel surround sound that is superior to CD. In addition, DVD can include text, graphics, video and interactivity. DVD audio discs require new players, but most, if not all, new DVD players will also play existing CD collections.
Super Audio CD
Sony/Philips are separately developing a high-density disc format called Super Audio CD (SACD). The SACD is similar to the DVD but offers a different sound system, also of very high quality. Like DVD, these discs will also have seven times the capacity of the CD, with the same inclusion of multi-media capabilities.
How these formats will develop over the next few years will undoubtedly continue to be astounding. To be sure, the idea is to store incredible amounts of music data with lightning speed while maintaining perfect quality sound in the smallest space possible. Chances are, whatever speed and capacity we are at now, will change by the time most readers finish this article. Hopefully, as industry experts vehemently advocate, manufacturers will establish a compatibility standard for disks and playback devices.
No more LP, no more 8-track, no more CD...enough already. How about virtual reality, where the consumer can tap directly onto the brain waves of the songwriter as the music is being created, and here it before it even gets into digital form! Whatís the royalty rate for tapping into someoneís brainwaves?
Remember Sheet Music?
Does anyone still have those old pieces of sheet music grandma used to keep in the piano bench? Does anyone still have a piano bench!? Well, the image of the days of song pluggers standing outside Macyís in New York with a few dozen recently printed song sheets under their arms--is but a faded photograph. Very few people sit around the piano singing songs anymore. Everybodyís got their own Walkman now.
Printed music is still important, of course. Classical scores, band arrangements, musicals and other musical manuscripts are used by schools, regional theater and pit orchestras in Vegas. Even pop arrangements are committed to manuscript--although not necessarily published--when string and horn sections are used. Session players are prepared to go either way, reading hand scribbled charts or playing by ear.
Very little sheet music is available in retail stores, with the exception of specialty stores that focus on selling published sheet music. Very simply, printed sheet music is just not the way music is distributed to consumers anymore, with the exception of professional musicians, marching bands, orchestras and the like. Stocking sheet music is a bulky enterprise and recent attempts at providing in-store digital kiosks for auto-printing of music was the first place publishers and retailers started trimming the stockpile. Storing sheet music in digital form is unbelievably more efficient than hardcopy storage. Afterall, part of the computerís function was to eliminate file cabinets.
Digital storage of both printed and recorded music offers the opportunity to buy on-demand, without printing or manufacturing unused copies. Being able to purchase printed or recorded music in digital form also does not require a staff, just a well-designed user-friendly website. Digital storage of sheet music means music never has to be out of print or out of stock. The most space a single piece of music will eat up is the number of bytes it takes to store on a server. Music scores are closer to graphics than text files, but color is not required and graphical representation of notes and scores are not big memory eating graphics. With digital capabilities of storing 100ís of hours of audio files, which eat up tons of memory, storing printed sheet music is not a big deal. If Iím not mistaken, the entire contents of the US Copyright Office can fit right in a guyís back pocket --just hope he watches where he sits.
In fact, all forms of the song "writing" process are now possible via digital means. The notes are entered into a keyboard or sequencer digitally. A software program reads the sequenced music and stores it on the computer. Another software program coverts the file into a score. Whatís frightening, is that not a single note of that sequence needs to be played on an instrument. The digital keyboard or workstation is really just a means of inputting data, something that can be done just as well by sliders and buttons.
Every record company and publisher stores their catalogs digitally. Every licensing organization maintains their catalogs through various computer systems and databases. Sales orders are processed electronically. Even copyright registration is done electronically. The music is made available to the consumer through electronic means, and the consumer downloads the music onto a disk. The music never once hits the floor!
Read on for Part II - STATS
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