October 12, 2022

What Do We Teach Our Future Songwriters?

Recently I listened to mega-popstar Beyoncé’s latest studio album Renaissance, a collection of well-crafted pop bangers featuring a vast litany of musical offerings from some of the hottest songwriters and producers on the planet. Indeed, a quick look through the album credits on allmusic.com reveals more than 100 people are credited as either composer or producer on the 16-song album, a testament to the importance of collaboration in today’s music industry.

As astonishing as this is, it’s not the first time this type of model has been applied to music making. In fact, this ‘assembly line’ approach, where specialized composers, producers, arrangers, and lyricists provide the repertoire for a performing artist, was the norm during the Brill Building and Motown boom of the 1960s and lasted until the rise of the singer-songwriter era which emphasised artists who wrote all of their own music.

At the heart of this discourse is the issue of authenticity. Authenticity is the notion that an artist is writing from a place of personal expression, that the views expressed directly in the lyrics (and semiotically in videos, album artwork, fashion etc.) are a direct reflection of the artist, about how they see the world and what they have to say. Of course, the more composers and producers that have their fingers in the proverbial creative pie the harder it becomes to argue that authenticity is at the core of the artistic experience. This is, however, not a fatal flaw in music making. Sometimes audiences themselves do not place much emphasis on authenticity and are satisfied listening to expert performers delivering the music of expert composers with little to no consideration of the true nature of the personalities behind the music. Historically speaking, our expectations of popular music artists to be ‘authentic’ comes and goes in waves.

To bring this back to the title of the essay then, what do we teach our future songwriters? Based on the emphasis of craftsmanship in popular music today, the direction for educating our current students seems clear. But what of tomorrow? History tells us that the importance of craftsmanship and music-making based on tried and tested models of creativity will eventually give way to something else. As educators, if our goal is not to produce songwriters and producers who are expertly trained in successful models of music making, where then should our efforts lie? If craftsmanship lies at one end of the creative spectrum, at the other is the notion of artistry. Unlike craftsmanship which embraces tried and tested models of music making, artistry embraces the experimental and the unknown… the uncharted course where the outcome is uncertain. This approach encourages, in fact requires, risk-taking… the act of committing to a course of action unsure of what the outcome will be. Failure is a natural part of this experience. Perhaps then our goal should be to produce artists who will accept failure as part of the process and learn to embrace their own sense of identity, whether that be as master craftspeople or experimental artists.

Regardless of the direction our students choose for themselves, one of the biggest hurdles they will most likely need our help with is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of not being good enough. Fear is that inner demon that nearly all artists wrestle with, not just the fear of rejection from an audience, but also fear that the finished work won’t be any good. This is one of the reasons that so many people start but never finish pieces of art, for so long as it remains unfinished it can never be seen as a ‘failure’, rather it is always a ‘work in progress’. Regardless of our students’ musical directions, we can teach them that that fear is not the enemy, but rather it is our compass. Fear tells us what we care most deeply about, it tells us what we are truly excited about. Fear shows us the direction towards that thing we want the most, and then stubbornly stands in our way. So, what do we teach our future songwriters? Yes, we teach them craft, and yes we teach them artistic exploration, but we also teach them about fear. We teach them not to run away from fear, but to run toward it. We teach them to do this every day. We teach them that the battle with fear must be fought whether one is a master craftsperson or an experimental artist, and that the best way to overcome fear is to show up, every day, and just do the thing without judgement. We teach them that if they do this every day, eventually fear steps to the side.

Words by: Dr Jeff Wragg

BIO: Dr Jeff Wragg is Programme Manager at MAINZ (Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand) in Auckland. He has taught classes in songwriting, composition, production, and popular music history. His research interests involve experimental popular music, classical crossover, and sampling. He has published articles in Popular Music and Organised Sound and also releases music under the moniker Massenai.

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