Today in Tedium: Back in November of last year, I published a piece here on Tedium about some observations I made during my years-long journey listening to every Billboard Hot 100 number one hit. Those observations were about the keys popular songs are written in and how key changes within popular songs have become almost obsolete. Though we thought those observations were rather innocuous, they caused such a stir online that NPR ended up interviewing me about the piece. After the debate subsided, some people asked if I noticed anything else during my listening. In today’s Tedium, I want to dive into why if The Beatles were writing music today, some of their songs would be credited to more than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. — Chris @ Tedium
The future isn’t a mystery
Want to receive the latest in business, entertainment, and internet culture right to your inbox every single morning? Not just the stuff everyone else is covering—these are the stories that drive the future, all in a quick and witty package. That’s what TheFutureParty newsletter is all about.
With every email you open, every story you read, you’re going to have the jump on the rest of the crowd. And you’ll be that much more prepared for the day—and week, and month, and year—ahead.
Join over 100,000 driven creative professionals who read the newsletter every day.
The idle songwriting question that exposed a deeper trend
Diane Warren had a question. Given that I’m a musician, when someone of Diane Warren’s caliber has a question, I’m all ears. Not only has she written 32 top ten hits and been nominated 13 times for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but she’s also won the Polar Music Prize – probably the closest thing to a Nobel Prize in music – which puts her in a small group that includes Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, and Joni Mitchell, among a few others. Warren’s question, posted to Twitter on August 1, 2022, was pretty straightforward:
This unspecific inquiry was in response to a Billboard article published three days earlier that listed the songwriting credits for each song on Beyoncé’s 2022 album RENAISSANCE. In that article, Billboard notes that the album’s third track “Alien Superstar” has 24 listed songwriters.
The backlash against this tweet was swift. Most of the criticism boiled down to the fact that the answer was simple. The song contained samples and interpolations of other songs. For clarity, sampling is when you take a piece of a recording and repurpose it for a new song, like how The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” is built around Diana Ross’s vocal from her classic “I’m Coming Out.” Interpolation, sometimes called a sample replay, is when elements of an older piece are rerecorded for a new song, like when Ariana Grande sang the melody from The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things,” on her 2019 number one “7 Rings.”
Because of decades of legal precedent, if you sample or interpolate older pieces in a new song, you must credit the songwriters from the source material. Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers were not directly involved in writing “Mo Money Mo Problems,” but they are credited as songwriters for having written “I’m Coming Out.” That’s the same reason Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II received a writing credit on “7 Rings” even though they’d been dead since 1979 and 1960, respectively. Beyoncé’s team was just following the law.
How could Diane Warren not understand this? She’s been around for decades, and her music has been sampled. The Twitterati concluded that the whole line of questioning was at best disingenuous and at worst racially motivated.
Almost 40 minutes later, Warren clarified, “Ok, it’s prob samples that add up the ammount of writerrs [sic].” She claimed that she didn’t know this because she doesn’t use samples in her work. She also claimed that despite the eye-roll emoji, the original inquiry was meant with no shade. Warren likes Queen Bey. She even wrote a song for her in 2011.
While I’m not here to weigh in on Diane Warren’s motives, I am here to say that the answer she received wasn’t completely correct. Beyoncé’s website does list 24 songwriters on “Alien Superstar.” But when you remove the sample and interpolation credits, you are left with 17 songwriters. That’s still a lot of people.
While Beyoncé stands in a class of her own for how many people get songwriting credits on her music, she’s representative of a larger trend. During the 1970s, there were 1.8 songwriters per Hot 100 number one on average. During the 2010s, that number more than doubled to 5.3.
Again, sampling and interpolation does not account for the entirety of this voluminous increase. If I toss out those credits, the growth remains substantial.
So what is going on here? Why does it take at least five songwriters to write a chart-topper today when it used to take one or two? Are musicians just less talented? Nope. If musicians were less skilled, we wouldn’t just expect the number of songwriters on hits to skyrocket. We’d also expect the number of producers to explode too. Less talented musicians should struggle across the board. That’s not the case, though. In the last 60+ years, it still regularly takes between one and three producers to make a number one hit.
So, if it’s not talent, then what is it? In my opinion, it comes down to three factors: money, the computer, and the changing definition of what songwriting is.
Imagine Elvis singing this—and getting credit for it.
Who gets credit, anyway? Or why Dolly Parton once turned Elvis Presley down
Dolly Parton was thrilled. Elvis Presley wanted to record her song “I Will Always Love You.” But there was a catch. Presley’s manager insisted that if The King recorded it, he would also have to receive a portion of her songwriting royalties. Parton refused.
This situation between Parton and Presley is hardly unique. It’s long been an open secret that popular artists can use their star power to get writing credits on songs they didn’t contribute to because they know how valuable it will be to the actual songwriter if they release it. This issue has become pervasive as musical copyright terms have gotten longer and the music industry has become more concentrated, corporatized, and financialized. A hit song can generate money for years to come. A songwriting credit is one way to assure that you’ll benefit from that financial windfall.
Between 1960 and 1980, artists had a songwriting credit on 48 percent of Hot 100 number one hits. Between 2010 and 2020, that percentage had risen to 95 percent. Part of this increase is due to a general trend since 1960 that artists need to write their own music to be taken seriously, but another piece of it is just people getting songwriting credits when they shouldn’t. Ed Sheeran’s 2017 number one “Perfect” illustrates this.
When Sheeran first released the ballad in September 2017, he was the sole credited songwriter. When he released a new version of the song with Beyoncé a few months later, she also had a songwriting credit. In terms of the actual composition, there is no difference between these two versions except the gendered lyrics in Beyoncé’s verse are switched (i.e. “Well, I found a woman, stronger than anyone I know” -> “Well, I found a man, stronger than anyone I know”). A change that simple does not constitute songwriting by any definition of the word.
But it’s not just contemporary artists who are grabbing a piece of the pie. Because copyright is absurdly long in the United States (i.e. life of the author plus 70 years) and courts have been receptive to musical copyright disputes, artists who are either dead or long past their prime are grabbing a piece too. In fact, George Washington University maintains a musical copyright infringement database that also shows a dramatic rise in settled federal musical copyright lawsuits over the last few decades.
When these cases are settled in favor of the plaintiff, more songwriting credits are added after a song’s release. This is why the number of songwriters listed on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” has increased over the years. To avoid a Mark-Ronson-style-courtroom-induced headache, artists will sometimes preemptively credit writers of older songs even if the similarity between the older song and their composition is purely coincidental.
This is distinct from there being a rise in songwriters because of more sampling and interpolation. For example, Hayley Williams and Josh Farro were granted songwriting credits on Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 number one “good 4 u” because the song bore resemblance to “Misery Business,” an earlier song the duo wrote for their band Paramore. Though there are similarities between the songs, I think it’s a stretch to say that “good 4 u” infringes on the copyright of “Misery Business.” Songwriters cannot own entire styles.
To reiterate, much of the reason songwriting credits have launched into the stratosphere is because we live in a very litigious world. Whether you’re a singer, songwriter, corporation, or ghost of music’s past, everybody wants a piece of the pie. But producers have also started getting more of that pie. While some of that also comes down to the money, it’s also due to how the computer has warped our definition of what songwriting is.
The real reason for the rise in songwriting credits might come down to producers
Historically, there was a clear distinction between songwriting and production. Songwriting was when somebody sat down and wrote lyrics to go along with chords and a melody. In effect, a song is an abstract object. The old folk song “Oh! Susanna” is the same whether I play it on a banjo or a piano. Production, by contrast, is a specific arrangement or recording of a song. Choosing to record “Oh! Susanna” on the banjo or the piano is a production decision.
Back in the day, songwriting and production duties were often segregated. This was cost effective. Not only was getting into a studio expensive, but you had to have technical know-how to create a professional quality recording. It made more sense for a song to be composed outside of the studio and then handed off to a producer to get it recorded.
This isn’t the case anymore. For a few hundred dollars, you can create a professional quality recording in your bedroom. Plus, since you’re working on a computer, it’s much easier to collaborate with people remotely. This has blurred the line between songwriting and production to the point where you can record a song as you write it. Because of this, things that might historically only result in a production credit, like crafting orchestration or a rhythm, now result in a songwriting credit. The creation of the 2018 top ten hit “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey, as recounted to the New York Times, illustrates these ideas.
“The Middle” started out as a collaboration between Australian songwriter Sarah Aarons and the production team Monsters & Strangerz. Aarons showed up to a recording session with some lyrical and melodic ideas that Monsters & Strangerz paired with an evocative synth tone. Aarons had to head back to Australia, so they finished the demo. They then sent it to the electronic duo Grey to continue work on. After fleshing out the production, Grey sent it to Zedd, who sought out a vocalist to replace Aarons’ scratch take. Many artists took a shot at the vocal, including Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello, and Carly Rae Jepsen, but Zedd was unsatisfied. He then flew to Nashville to let country singer Maren Morris take a crack at the vocal. She nailed it. After traveling around the world, “The Middle” ended up with seven songwriters. Many of those “songwriters” were doing what would have traditionally been called production. In fact, Aarons is the only person credited as a songwriter and not a producer. Had this song been created a few decades ago, I suspect there would be between one and three credited songwriters, much closer to the historical average.
This anecdote exemplifies a larger trend. Between 1960 and 1980, 48 percent of number ones had at least one common person get both a songwriting and production credit. Between 2010 and 2020, that percentage had risen to over 99 percent. Songwriting just isn’t what it used to be. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I mean that we are using the same word to describe two very different things.
Now that we have a firm grasp on how money, computers, and lexicography have conspired to increase the number of songwriters on hit songs, let’s return to the band that I brought up at the start of this piece: The Beatles. Imagine The Beatles’ classic “I Feel Fine” got to number one in 2015 rather than 1965.
In the real world, the songwriting credits were given to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In this fictional world, I think the outcome would have been very different. If Zedd and Grey deserve writing credits on “The Middle”, then producer George Martin likely deserves a credit on “I Feel Fine”. Similarly, Ringo Starr, The Beatles’ drummer, would likely get a credit because his swinging rhythm is so fundamental to the recording. That would increase the credited songwriters from two to four. But that’s not all.
The guitar riff in “I Feel Fine” is indebted to an earlier song by Bobby Parker called “Watch Your Step.” If Hayley Williams and Josh Farro deserve a writing credit on “good 4 u” then Bobby Parker deserves a writing credit on “I Feel Fine.” But it doesn’t end there. Parker told journalist Rob Finnis that “Watch Your Step” was a variation on Dizzy Gillespie’s classic jazz song “Manteca.” “Manteca” is credited to Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and Gil Fuller. We’ve now gone from Lennon-McCartney to Lennon-McCartney-Starr-Martin-Parker-Gillespie-Pozo-Fuller. Though this might sound ridiculous, we’ve seen throughout this piece that situations like this are somewhat common. In fact, this faux Fab Four tale is a great example of how we live in a world where there can be 24 writers on a song.
Thanks again to Chris for writing such an awesome piece.
Find this on an interesting read? Here’s the link—you know what to do.
And thanks again to TheFutureParty for sponsoring. If you love cultural stuff like this, that might just be your ticket.