A few months ago my manager called me with an idea: He was in contact with a, mostly unknown, female vocalist who was looking to sharpen her sound. Up to that point, she had been signed to a small indie label and made music that was an interesting mix between old torch songs and something kinda of Portisheadish. That’s actually a terrible description but, regardless, it was actually pretty good.
Basically, the idea of bringing her and I together was for her to get a different type of production that may help her get wider appeal and give her “An Edge”. This idea struck me kind of funny because it’s not like I’m a particularly mass appeal kinda guy, I make sample heavy underground hip hop. A sub-genre that never has equated to ‘wider appeal’ but upon, checking her music out, I figured why not.
I sent her some beats and she immediately started writing to them, apparently they were good for that. Within two days she had written like five songs, I saw this as a good sign, we made a date to go to the studio and just see what happened.
So, the day came and the plan was as such:
I would go to a studio and meet her, along with two other guys. The two other guys were engineers and musicians who also happened to own the studio we were using and it was their job to serve as middle men between the singer and I. Her voice, my beats, and them pretty much producing the track.
When I arrived I was greeted by one of the studio guys, he was friendly and had also grown up in NYC so we had some shit to talk about. The other studio guy showed up and he was very nice as well. The singer was running late so we started dumping the beats I had brought with me on to pro tools, just so we’d have something to work with. The studio guys bobbed their heads and complimented the tracks as everything was getting sorted.
Finally, the singer arrived, she was adorable. I think all three of us guys (who had never met her before) we all taken back. She was sweet and cute in a way that you would think
anyone could make her a star. Since I’m an honest wifed up guy, my first thought when seeing her (which would normally be, ‘I would like to have sex with this person.’) was ‘This girl is insanely marketable.’ And, after I heard her sing, that thought only intensified. She was flawless on her takes and precise, her lyrics were even interesting.
I began to feel like we may be on to something and this chance I took was a great idea. Fast forward one hour and my mood had changed. Within that time period, the beat I had given them had been turned on it’s ass and sounded like a completely different genre. The only thing left from my original piece was a quiet sample of a guitar floating in the background (seemingly to appease me) and half of a horn loop being used completely differently then I had intended. The original drums had been mostly kicked to the curb in favor of live drums that sounded like lounge music played by a bar band. The majority of the samples had been replaced by soft guitars and rhodes progressions. Any edge I could have possibly brought to the table had been eradicated. All this was going on while the two guys working on the music were frequently turning back at me saying shit like, ‘Dude, awesome track..’ , as if my beat was even a part of what was going on in the song at this point.
As the singer laid her vocals down perfectly and all the sequences started coming together, my initial disgust with what had gone down started to wane because I could see what was happening. My beat was just a template, she simply used it as a means to write a new song and the music itself was unimportant. These two engineer/musican guys were there to bring the pop feel to the table. As much as I didn’t like the music that came out of it, their musicianship could not be denied. They knew what they were doing and they executed it perfectly, I just wasn’t in on it. But, right then, I got it; this was the creation of pop music. I honestly had never given it much thought, it was taking something rough and shining it down to a dull glow. Finding a happy shmedium is key to making pop music; It has to be simple but not too simple, predictable but not too predictable, catchy is the most bland way possible, and, most of all, play towards the lowest common denominator.
Here was a girl with a great voice, style, and mind for what she’s doing and two highly skilled musicians with endless knowledge of music and music theory. And there you have me, a hip hop producer who plays no instruments, can’t read music and is completely removed from anything that’s been played on the radio in the last 5 years. Yet, if she and I had just recorded a song over my beat it would be more compelling then the song that came to be. Sure, the final product was amazingly produced and arranged. The attention to detail was immaculate; chord changes, breaks and layers of instrumentation unlike anything I’d ever worked on. Had the singer and I made the song, it would have been pretty simple, basic sequencing and song structure, but it would have sounded unlike anything else out right now.
For better or for worse.
In reality, the actual final product was not bad, it was just typical and it wouldn’t stand out. For as well as it was made and good as she could sing, it just seemed like it was coming off the assembly line. The bottom line is that the song was corny and no matter how good the ingredients are, if dinner tastes like shit, it tastes like shit.
This whole event got me thinking about music and how it gets made and why music is the way it is now. It’s pretty clear that regardless of skill or talent, pop music is gonna be pop music, major labels are not gonna take risks. The sad thing is, I feel like there’s lots of lesser known music that would be huge if just given the exposure. Plenty of indie acts make catchier music then any popular pop act with a production machine pumping the pistons in the background.
The problem is that radio and major labels would rather play it safe and simple. They know that if you push a song enough, it’ll catch on simply by not going away. It’s them that dictate everything we hear on the radio or see on tv. I’m the first person to admit that most people are complete and utter morons when it comes to music but maybe it’s not totally their fault. Maybe if they were exposed to shit that wasn’t so mind numbingly average, they’d actually like it. For every John Mayer, there’s gotta be a better yet lesser known version of him trying to make it. but when placed on a larger scale his music is deemed to far out there.
But says who?
Probably a focus group of idiots and a 65 year old white guy who runs a record label. What happened? In the 60’s and 70’s, we had people like the Beatles and Stevie Wonder on the pop charts; Ugly motherfuckers had a chance to make it in music simply based on the merit of their music. Now it’s pointless to even try to make it big in music unless you’re the total banal package and this all brings me back to this singer girl I worked with.
Talented. Beautiful. Marketable.
Yet, with all this working for her, I’m willing to bet it’s not gonna pan out. It has nothing to do with her but the machine simply doesn’t have the time, it’s got bigger fish to fry. Miley fucking Cyrus probably wants to make a rap album.
(little update: i wrote this a while back and since then, the girl singer was part of a label war, got signed to a good indy, that indy folded and now she’s back to the drawing board. shit is real, huh?)