US artistes utilise J'can song-creation method
American journalist and author John Seabrook has credited reggae producers in Jamaica for the track-and-hook method, the modern method of song creation currently dominating American writing camps.
'Track and hook' indicates the split between the writing of the beat (track) and the hooks (melodies). He distinguishes this method from the more traditional 'melody and lyrics', often referred to on older albums as music and lyrics.
"The (track and hook) method was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica," Seabrook writes, "who made one 'riddim' (rhythm) track and invited 10 or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song... it is common practice for a producer to send the same track to multiple topliners - in extreme cases, as many as 50 - and choose the best melody from among the submissions."
While this method of 'track and hook' has become a reliable source of hits, any artistic endeavour so mechanised is likely to have a downside.
"As a working method, track-and-hook tends to make songs sound the same," Seabrook writes. "As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sounding records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are still supposed to be unique, but because of the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together."
By way of example, Seabrook cites two 2009 hits - Beyonce's Halo and Kelly Clarkson's Already Gone, both produced by super producer Ryan Tedder. (Both stars wrote their own toplines, Beyonce paired with Evan Bogart.)
Halo hit No. 5 first, and when Clarkson heard the song, "She thought it sounded too much like Already Gone and feared the public would think she copied Beyonce's song, but nobody cared or perhaps even noticed. Both songs were hits."
In his most recent book, The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, released earlier this year, Seabrook notes that songwriting has changed. According to him, it's an impersonal, assembly-line driven process, a far cry from the romantic notion of a kid with a guitar that many seem to still harbour.
He (Seabrook) cites Rihanna's Rated R album, where a 'pop-up hit factory' of "A-list producers and topliners (the term for vocal melody writers) were summoned to Los Angeles for two weeks and installed in studios around the city."
'Pop-up hit factory'
These superstar producers and writers included Ne-Yo, the Stargate team and Ester Dean - one of music's most successful topliners - and also an actress best known for playing Cynthia Rose in the Pitch Perfect films. Stargate and Dean would become frequent collaborators, with hits such as Katy Perry's Firework on their résumé.
The songwriting labour is tightly scheduled. Producers/beat makers meet with topliners in the morning, with the expectation they'll have a completed song by lunchtime. A representative from the label - referred to here as a 'camp counsellor' - then creates new combinations, and the new producer-topliner teams work to write another new song by late afternoon.
Early in his career, Drake wrote for Dr Dre's Death Row Records' hit factory, where "dozens of young beat makers and topliners put in long hours".
"It was some of the most strenuous militant (stuff) I've ever done," Drake said. "But no usable songs came out of it. When I think of how he worked us, it's no wonder he didn't get anything out of it. It was just writers in a room churning out product all day long."
(Look out for part two, where our local producers weigh in.)