Richard Rodriguez Navi Pillay
Errico is a New York-based recording artist, writer, music supervisor
and lecturing professor. He has shared the stage with Raul Midon,
Jonny Lang, Guster, Soulive, Bob Weir, Amos Lee, Ben Folds,
Dido, Warren Zevon, Dan Wilson, Derek Trucks and many others.
For more on Mike, visit his website: www.errico.com
Outside my songwriting
classroom at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music,
the industry is in full disruption mode. This semester alone,
publishers continued to weigh new methods to take back control
of their copyrights; a controversial judgment regarding “Blurred
Lines” spurred debate on what copyright even is; Congress
heard arguments regarding how artists and songwriters are getting
paid; Pandora and Spotify and Grooveshark and Rdio all made
headlines; Tidal launched (Jay Z even came to Clive to talk
about it); Apple readied a new streaming service . . . friggin’
Starbucks jumped in, and I’m just going to stop there,
because you get the point.
At times, I’ve
wanted to triple-lock the classroom door for the brief 14-week
period so we can focus on the art. But that hasn’t been
easy, and in our final meeting, I left my students with a series
of rhetorical questions, all of which added up to:
this going on, what is the future of songwriting -- we’ve
been talking about all semester?
In songs, we
get new, and repeated information doled out to us in an engaging
way that makes it stick in our heads. We learned language like
this? -- ?we sing the A,B,Cs -- —?and in many ways pop
songs are like nursery rhymes for adults (“A, B, C/ It’s
easy as 1, 2, 3/ As simple as do, re, mi/ A, B, C/ 1, 2, 3/
Baby you and me, girl”-- ?The Jackson 5). They both seek
to satisfy us on a basic, neurological level.
But, in watching
the industry dissemble and recombine, I’m reminded of
how much the delivering technology has also been at play.
length was affected by the amount a wax roll could hold
• Song intros were a certain length so DJs could give
call-out letters, traffic and weather
• Song length has been a determining factor in radio airplay
(too long = no play)
• The LP limited the amount of material that could be
released; the CD expanded it, in some cases beyond what an artist
had to say. (One of my students pointed to Red Hot Chili Peppers’
Stadium Arcadium as a release that suffered from having
too much available space to fill).
• From a fidelity standpoint, the .mp3 was a huge step
down, but it was a function of the pipes that could get the
music to the listener. Larger pipes mean things like Tidal are
possible, but only after the technology has been figured out.
Whether or not the service takes root, song quality is affected
(depending on what you’re listening on, of course).
There are many
more examples of technology influencing song form, of course.
But it’s crazy to witness the hangover from previous technologies
that now are being declared dead. For instance, if the CD is
dead/dying rapidly, why are people still making 10-song buckets
of three-minute songs? Well some aren’t, that’s
true, but the rethinking has not yet taken hold in a full-fledged
way. Most of my students are making five-song EPs, which is
also a holdover.
Truth is, songs
have a financial incentive to change what they look and sound
like. For instance, Spotify, the clear leader in the streaming
space, pays after 30 seconds, so an honest question is:
A) Why write
beyond that? And . . .
B) Are you,
in fact, screwing yourself six times over for writing a three-minute
song (:30 x 6 = 3:00 song)?
disruptor’ would just cut everything back to :32 or so,
and see huge positive results in his/her own streaming royalty
statements. Labels would love it for the same reason (more money).
If a critical mass were to adopt song forms of these lengths,
would Spotify payouts to creators suddenly rise sixfold? That
would probably crush the business model, wouldn’t it?
I mean, it can’t make a profit as is, and songs are clocking
in at around three minutes. Are streaming services just skating
by on all that non-monetized listening time?
pays higher rates at around five minutes? -- ?because of course
it does. It makes the company money to not have to pay out for
four entire minutes of a song. Taking this into account, are
streaming services, through their business model, incentivizing
a change in song form?
are playing with these ideas already, of course, and we’ll
all see if it remains a stunt or becomes the new normal.
A personal favorite
was Vulfpeck, an indie band that released Sleepify,
a collection of silent tracks they persuaded their fanbase to
stream while sleeping. Spotify paid out $20,000 in royalties,
but pulled the album for unspecified reasons. Meanwhile, John
Cage’s “4:33,” a pillar of modern music, is
available on Spotify, in several versions. It’s silent,
though Cage argues that there’s no such thing. (His book,
Silence, goes into it in depth.) I have never understood why
no one took the Vulfpeck issue seriously enough to consider
the Spotify takedown an act of censorship, which, by definition,
it is. Instead, it was branded a stunt. This, while people pay
to see Duchamp’s urinal in the Philadelphia Museum of
By the way:
Are there other silent tracks on Spotify? Yes. Are there other
clever artists utilizing loopholes in the streaming service
business model? Yes. Am I going to blow up anybody’s spot?
art form isn’t new, but neither is the concept of streaming,
which was happening with elevator music in the 1930s, and was
theorized decades earlier. But now that streaming has taken
off, will song form react?
• Will it just be
three choruses and nothing else? •
Is it the return of the ABAB song form, where the sections
have a balanced weight and there are no sections dedicated
to “setting up” another section?
• Pre-choruses?! Who’s got time for a “pre”-anything?
• And bridges? Bridges to what, exactly? Who has time
for a bridge? You’re either there or you’re not
there. Why get stuck in transit from one section to another?
So, if “Gangnam
Style” had been 1:10 instead of 4:13, what might have
happened? Would it not have been as ‘good?’ I don’t
know, but: How much of “Gangnam Style” can you sing
back right now? It’s probably not 4:13 worth. Psy left
money on the table. At billions of views, that’s a lot
Or, what if
song development happens in the aggregate and is defined by
the atmosphere that surrounds it? A song is no longer a portrait
-- ?it’s more like a single feature on an ever-shifting
face. (Mr. Potato Head did come to mind, but that sounds judgmental.
Still, that’s the idea). I checked out turntable.fm (RIP)
because I was interested to see this idea in action. The platform
introduced a kind of gamification of DJing for a room, but the
icons looked like South Park characters, which made an interesting
technology feel like a Fischer-Price toy.
Flux app also interested me. In it, the groundbreaking guitarist
created a bunch of musical ideas that constantly shift and recombine
so the listener never hears the same song twice. The app was
funded on Kickstarter, and I like Adrian Belew, but there were
several things about it that came up short to me. It’s
all him, for one, and that’s great, but chocolate ice
cream for all three meals is a problem. And the fact that you
never get that critical repetition extracts a major power of
the song? -- ?the ability to join in. We like repeat choruses,
still. Even now. When it’s a good ride, we want to go
another possibility: Maybe the job of a songwriter is to finally
listen to all the jerks who say “music is a loss leader,
man,” and realize that our job is not done by simply writing
a song. We now have the opportunity to create the environment
in which our songs function.
You know who
was great at that? KISS. Gene Simmons and Peter Criss (drums)
performing in clouds of glitter during cover shoot for Alive!
But a live show
doesn’t scale like a startup does. It’s a good model,
but in that band someone still had to spit blood and/or fire
every night. Are there other options that can scale? And is
that new environment something that takes into account the way
we experience music, and a way we will also pay for it?
From pop Broadway
musicals, to cruises that gather groups of likeminded fans,
to festivals, to immersive theatrical experiences like Queen
of the Night (and I did see St. Vincent there the night
I went), to soundtracks for books, films, videos, on-demand
channels . . .
no doubt, people are out there, looking hard for these answers.
But in the midst of it, my rhetorical question still nags: Does
the song still have primacy, or is it part of a team of media
ideas, and not a solo act in itself?
know. My students don’t know. But I think we’re
all going to find out, together.