How many performers and songwriters does it take to create a recording? For those who grew up in era dominated by bands, there are two common answers to this question. The first is that a band will contain more performers than writers. The Beatles, the Clash and the Smiths are examples of four-piece bands that had songwriting duos at their core. The Who, the Kinks and Oasis are bands who had solitary writers. The other answer is that the performers and the writers are coterminous. The Doors, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, U2, REM and Elbow are examples of bands that split songwriting credits equally between their performer members.
Neither of these methods is currently in vogue. This is, in part, because bands are a dying breed, at least when it comes to mainstream success. Instead, it is solo performers who dominate the singles charts. These artists sometimes come together in collaboration or for battles, as signalled by the terms ‘ft.’ and ‘vs.’ that litter performer credits. The charts also feature duos, trios and some girl groups. There are, however, very few ‘traditional’ groups who play recognisable instruments. The other phenomenon is that there are now very few artists who write their songs on their own. They instead work in conjunction with producers and with professional songwriting teams.
We can witness both trends by looking at the Top 40 selling recordings in Britain in 2016. 12 of the songs were by solo singers acting alone. 11 more were by singers working in conjunction with producers/DJs/EDM acts, and one of these acts worked with a three-piece funk band. One was by two singers collaborating. Four were by singers working in conjunction with rappers. One was by a rapper working alone. One was by a four-piece girl group, another by a five-piece girl group working with a rapper. Five were by producers/DJs/EDM acts working without guest vocalists. One was by a four-piece dance-rock band, another by a four-piece pop-soul band. Finally, there was one song by an old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums indie/rock band: Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’. Overall, the average number of credited artists on a hit record was 2.4. If you takeaway all the ft. and vs. artists this drops to 1.75.
In contrast, the average number of writers per recording was 4.6. Only three of the songs were written entirely by outsiders. This appears to be an old idea, as two of these three songs were cover versions. Shawn Mendes ‘Stitches’ was the only recently composed song in the Top 40 for which the artist did not receive a songwriters’ share. Conversely, only four of the songs were self-contained, i.e. the artists received no help from outside writers. Mike Posner wrote his hit ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ alone; Gnash and Olivia O’Brien co-wrote ‘I Hate U, I Love U’; and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots wrote their two big hits. Notably, the four members of Coldplay did not write their song on their own; they required help from five other songwriters. The reason why they are the only ‘old-fashioned’ band in these charts is because they move with the times.
Overall, six of the songs featured the artist(s) composing in conjunction with one extra writer; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus two writers; four songs featured the artist(s) plus three writers; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus four writers; two songs featured the artist(s) plus five writers; five songs featured the artist(s) plus six writers; one song featured the artists plus seven writers; and one song - ‘Let Me Love You’ by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber – was composed by the artists plus nine other songwriters. What is more, this plethora of credits cannot be put down to sampling. Only two of the songs have obvious composer credits for sampled works, and there are two more that might feature sampled writers.
What does this all mean? Well, as my previous blog entry indicated, the money continues to be in the publishing. This economic bias accounts for the massed ranks of writers and for the growing number of solo performers. It also means that to achieve a top-selling song you have to move amongst the elite. You need to find professional songwriters to write with and you need to find successful artists to collaborate with. The digital age was supposed to bring with it a new wave of independence. Within popular music we have instead witnessed the growth of an internet jet set.