Tag Archives: Songwriting

Digital revolution fosters more hurried, less skillful creative process

Published 10/12/2017

By Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. She’s a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire. She runs a music label, Roaring Girl Records; founded the new Sawdust City Music Festival in Gravenhurst, ON; is a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall; and sits on the board of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA).

I love looking at drafts of artwork. I love early versions of novels, songs and poems. I love sketches of paintings. I recently saw an early oil sketch of John Constable’s “The Haywain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

You can see the skill, of course, but comparing it with the final version that hangs in the National Gallery, you can clearly see the thought, decision and composition that he worked through to arrive at the end result. I almost prefer the sketch.

There’s an art economist, David Galenson, who talks about the process of creation. He differentiates between the flash of lightning versus the arduous creative process. We hear a lot about the first type, what he calls “conceptual innovators”. The songwriters who wrote a song in minutes and it went to number one. The painters who sat at a canvas and with deft strokes completed a masterpiece. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and the muse visiting with ideas of brilliance. But the notion that this is how it always transpires pays short shrift to the actual grueling and painstaking work and revisions that most artists’ work undergoes. These are the “experimental innovators”.

Leonard Cohen took six years to write “Hallelujah.” Bruce Springsteen took six months to work on the lyrics to “Born to Run.” Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write Gone with the Wind and our own Alistair Macleod wrote his stunner No Great Mischief in 13 years.

Creating art is the use of skepticism for what’s come before, and the application of curiosity, which leads to the imagination arriving at something utterly new, through skill. In an increasingly hurried world, it’s important to use long-term thinking. Governments, funders, publishers and labels need to remember that most artists need time to develop, grow and realize their visions.

For instance, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, when asked about the pressure the publishing industry puts on writers to write quickly, said, “Quality work takes time. As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.”
Our current social climate has been moving further away from time and skill. The notion that anyone can record an album in their bedroom and upload it for free is in theory a democratizing one, but it begs the question: Just because you can, should you? There’s a whole “amateurizing” movement which is exactly the same concept – a democratizing idea, but put into practice, what does it amount to and how does it translate to the consumer?

When I was in Grade 7, I was in a string quartet that would play for weddings. The cellist had put the group together and managed the bookings. She was the most inexperienced member of the quartet musically, and didn’t practice enough. For the last wedding I played with that quartet, the bride had requested Pachelbel’s Canon – which is right at the top of the Wedding “hits package”; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. The cello part has eight notes in it – the same pattern, over and over. She didn’t ever get through the sequence without a mistake, and the piece came off as pretty amateur affair. I tried to be diplomatic after the wedding and suggested that perhaps “we,” as a quartet, should practice more before we accepted any further payment for our services.

Her response was that the bridal party seemed perfectly fine with it and didn’t notice the mistakes. But this is my problem with that: we were hired to notice. We were hired to be the experts, the arbiters of taste and skill. When this contract gets fuzzy, quality suffers. Trusted tastemakers have been eradicated by shrinking budgets and replaced with algorithms.

I’ve had some wildly sub-par service with Uber and Airbnb, and read some pretty poorly written “news stories” and blogs that just regurgitate press releases – or what’s known as “citizen journalism” – and I wonder when we got so afraid of skill and expertise.

True tastemakers are becoming endangered. There has been a vast and exponential growth in output and content in the last 20 years. While reviewers and consumers are drowning in choice, paid arbiters of taste are being laid off and replaced by amateurs.

One of the purported benefits of the digital revolution, that we’re all by now very aware of, is targeting. Because of the vast amount of data collected from all of us, we can target our exact audiences. We can be precise, allowing niche-market music to find its consumers.
The trouble is, niche isn’t easy. Because the streaming system is built on market share, the miniscule fraction of a cent you get per stream decreases wildly if your music isn’t in the mainstream. The less it’s streamed, the less it finds its way into the playlist algorithms, and then the less it’s ever played again. Niche becomes an ourobouros, a worm swallowing its own tail. Not only that, but because it’s financially such a small part of the market, it’s sometimes erased altogether.

But fostering niche is important. Why? When you look at language, there are words that are rarely used. They’re not mainstream words. They are able, however, to capture a sentiment absolutely and completely. Did you know that the word groak means staring silently at someone while they eat? That’s not a word you use on a regular basis, but I’m glad it exists.

When we limit and hinder access to these words we actually limit thought. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, a novel that gets more timely by the day. His job was to get rid of words from the dictionary to limit and control thought, creating “newspeak.” Things like spell check and text predictors are speeding up this process.

I believe algorithms threaten to limit and control as well. The calculations are based on decisions you, and those with similar taste profiles, have already made. This is limiting to imagination, and to those surprise discoveries, and against-type choices, that radically change thoughts. And changing thought patterns is one of the most powerful things about art.

So, what key piece are we missing here? We can find it in the artistic process. It’s the key to creativity: imagination. Imagination leads to skepticism, not in doubt but in curiosity. It allows us to not accept absolutes and givens, and to envision new perspectives, solutions and realities. We can employ the tools “skepticism” and “curiosity” to take ownership of our decisions, and unlock new and exciting thoughts, discoveries and inspiration.

News, music, book suggestions, products we might like popping up in our targeted ads is easy. But easy isn’t always good. We need to be more skeptical than ever, and reclaim the power of being our own tastemakers.

Drake: More than a rapper

Published 03/29/2017

By Howard Druckman

After the 2017 Grammy Awards, where “Hotline Bling” won for Best Rap/Sung Performance, and Best Rap Song, Drake said, “I am referred to as a black artist, like last night at [the Grammys], I’m a black artist… I’m apparently a rapper, even though ‘Hotline Bling’ is not a rap song,” during an interview on Apple Music’s OVO Sound radio. He said he finds himself pigeonholed in categories like rap, even if “Hotline Bling” is arguably a pop song.

Truth is, Drake is remarkably eclectic in his musical tastes. On his new “playlist” (but really, it’s an album) More Life, he samples Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long,” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Devotion,” South African DJ Black Coffee’s “Superman,” Australian artist Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Building a Ladder,” and even a snippet from the Sonic the Hedgehog video-game theme. He’s exploring genres like afrobeat, grime, even Arabic music, and more of the dancehall, trap and other Caribbean roots he first explored (and took worldwide) on VIEWS.

But Drake is a keen listener to, and promoter of, all kinds of music. For example, when he curated the musical accompaniment for a Sotheby’s S|2 gallery exhibit of work by African-American artists from the last 70 years, among his choices was seminal 1930s acoustic blues originator Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues.” Even more astonishing than the choice was that Drake said he listens to the song before every show, because “that’s how I get set.”

In another example, the basis of “Hotline Bling” was a sample of the 1972 Timmy Thomas one-hit-wonder, slow-jam plea for peace, “Why Can’t We Live Together?” It’s music Drake reportedly fell in love with after his right-hand-man producer Noah “40” Shebib played it for him. In an interview with Nardwuar, who played him a personal message of thanks from Thomas, Drake responded with, “I just want to thank him for making incredible music in the time that he was making music. And just for doing something that’s timeless, because it’s really difficult – not only for something to resonate with you years later, but be good enough to actually take a piece of it, and be able to make something else from it. That takes a really special creation.”

Perhaps the most remarkable example was a short-lived online leak of Drake singing a verse of the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico’s 1973 version of singer-songwriter Jackson Browne’s sadly beautiful ballad “These Days,” which he penned for her in 1967. Drake teamed up with Barf Troop’s Babeo Baggins to do it, for a covers EP. “Basically ‘These Days’ is my favorite song,” Baggins told Fader. “I just shared it with my friend, he had never heard it before. He connected with it too, he thought it was a really great song.” Drake’s unlicensed version has long since been removed from the internet, and hasn’t been released by Baggins, but you can hear Nico’s version here.

Maybe it’s because he was listening to his dad’s record collection as he grew up. Maybe he’s just musically open-minded. Maybe he’s easily bored and needs to explore. Maybe all three. But whatever the reason, Drake connects with all kinds of music, which only makes his own that much stronger.

Noble Work

Published 10/28/2016

By Andrew Berthoff

Since the Nobel people announced that the brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, not a few people have asked me what I think. Friends know my background in and love of literature as well as, of course, my professional life in communications and marketing in the music industry, so I guess it’s a logical question.

What do I think?

I think it’s great for the noble and honourable craft and art of songwriting and music creation. I love that it elevates SOCAN’s noble and honourable calling to fight for the rights of music creators and publishers. For that reason alone, I love it.

But, I suspect like Bob Dylan himself believes, the award is inappropriate – mainly because he likes to keep his craft and work simple. It is what it is. He insists “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 20 minutes. It flowed forth naturally, the muse striking with urgency and ease, as it miraculously, magically and rarely can.

Songwriting and music composition is almost always hard, hard work. There are the rare examples of instant classics, just as some Picasso masterpieces might have been made in minutes. But the vast majority of songs and compositions take figurative blood, sweat and tears – and measurable time.

Perhaps if Dylan took himself super-seriously and was precious about his work he might have a different opinion about receiving – never mind accepting – the Lit Nobel. That he’s so self-effacing and elusive about his art makes the honour that much more complicated.

I tend to think that giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter is a brilliant and probably calculated PR stunt. It surprises and delights. It gets people talking. Like great art itself, it elicits a reaction, which doesn’t have to be positive in order to be successful. The controversy raises interest and awareness. By selecting the elusive and capricious Dylan, they must have anticipated that his response (or lack of one) would add intrigue and controversy to their choice.

But the stunt might come at a cost to the Nobel “brand.” There are not a few acknowledged literary masters who have taken umbrage, even more strident than what was seen following the debatable Peace Nobel awarded to Barack Obama after his relatively few years of work. In subjective prize-giving like this, inevitably it’s the list of who has not received the award that makes it questionable. The inference drawn is that Bob Dylan achieved more in literature than, say, Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.

While the credibility of the Nobel Prize might have taken a reputational hit that I don’t much like, I love the fact that the credibility of songwriting as an esteemed literary art-form has been elevated.

Just as they added a prize for Economic Sciences in 1969, perhaps a better solution might be for the 115-year-old Nobel organization to add a new category: Music. That makes sense, and would allow the prize to expand. As with novelists, playwrights and poets in contention for the Lit Nobel, all genres of music creation could be in line for the music prize.

And I would fully expect that future Nobel Prizes in Music will go to SOCAN members like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.