The question today is: Has production become more important than songwriting in today’s music? It’s not a new question, but it’s important to revisit from time to time. I actually saw a discussion of this on Reddit and it got me to thinking about it again.
Let’s first separate production from arrangement. Arrangement involves the musical part of the song; who plays what where and for how long, whereas the production is the more technical aspect; volume, effects, mastering and everything in between.
I’m all for good production quality mainly because I’ve done enough work in that area over the years to appreciate it when I hear it. And there’s nothing worse than a good song being quashed by a crappy recording or adolescent production. In fact, can you even hear the song if the production is so bad? Someone in the Reddit discussion had a great analogy, comparing it to a great novel being delivered to you in bits of paper with bad spelling and unintelligible writing. You wouldn’t know it was a great novel because the format in which it was delivered was so bad. I’ve heard enough bad recordings over the years to tell you that it’s a big distraction.
However, some people get so consumed by the tools, they forget the art. And these days, the tools are plentiful. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I am subscribed to newsletters that give me all kinds of updates on software, loops, presets and vst instruments and effects, enough to know that it can be utterly overwhelming. There are tons of websites dedicated solely to music production and I’m guessing that they far usurp the number of websites dedicated only to songwriting.
When you listen to pop songs these days especially, sometimes it’s even hard to distinguish between singers. Their voices are autotuned so extremely that they become part of the synthesis and almost non-human. I wrote a whole rant about autotune awhile ago, so I won’t go into that here.
Listening to music in the 60’s and 70’s, what you heard was often recorded “live off the floor” with all of the musicians in the same room with maybe only the drummer isolated in some way because the drums would “bleed” into everyone else’s mic. They would do take after take until they got it right, and that’s what you would hear on the recording. It was real. Sure, they might add some reverb and they would overuse faders at the end of songs, but that was about it as far as doing something to the actual sound of the recordings. Mastering was a big process and pretty much was only meant to bring out the best of the sounds that were already there.
These days, I can sit in my little studio with my computer and create all kinds of things by myself. I don’t need a drummer but I can have great sounding drums using loops or software that I drop drum (midi) patterns into. I don’t need a keyboard player because I can do it myself, even though I don’t really play that well, because I can “fix” it to sound almost perfect. And I have literally thousands of choices when it comes to loops and sounds because of virtual instruments and synths. I can also create my own sounds from scratch in the virtual world. The possibilities are endless.
Some would argue that different loops or rhythms can spark some songwriting ideas. I’m all for whatever helps you. But inspiration is not what I’m talking about.
Two of my favourite and more recent pop songs (okay yeah they are a couple of years old now) are “Happy” and “Get Lucky“. Sure, they are ripe with funky, punched up production, but they are also great pop songs with good lyrics (pop lyrics aren’t deep but the good ones are catchy) and memorable melodies which is why they’ve been so successful. So I challenged myself to listen to five of the most recent pop songs on the Billboard Charts to analyze the production vs. songwriting debate. Pop seems the best candidate for study since it has been known to rely heavily on production.
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. I’m already glad I decided to do this…it’s a great song. The drums are real, the bass is real, the brass section SOUNDS real but it’s harder to tell sometimes depending on the mix and how deep instruments are buried. This song relies heavily on Bruno’s vocals and I don’t hear much in the way of loops. It’s wonderfully produced but not for the sake of the song, which stands out on its own.
Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran. Ed Sheeran is a really good songwriter. He sits in his room with his guitar and writes and there’s no thought to anything but the song…that’s obvious. Some of his songs have more production than others, but this one starts with just his guitar, and eventually some percussion and piano enters the scene. So this song is definitely not overwhelmed by production or arrangement and stands well on its own.
Sugar – Maroon 5. The only thing I don’t like about Maroon 5 (and a lot of other pop artists and bands for that matter) is the overuse of autotune in their recordings. Nobody can sing that perfectly, and I don’t want to hear perfect, I want to hear REAL. They might be very good singers, and if they are, why not let us hear them? Okay, I’m on the verge of ranting now. The production and arrangement on Sugar is light and not dominant which is a good thing. Just back off the autotune, will ya?
Love Me Like You Do – Ellie Goulding. I’m not particularly impressed with this song. As far as production and arrangement, even that “big” sound can’t really save it. I think it’s in the top 10 because of the movie it’s from and on its own might not even have cracked the top 50.
FourFiveSeconds – Rhianna, Kanya West, Paul McCartney. I’m guessing that McCartney played the guitar, maybe the bass on this. I’m not a fan of Rhianna’s voice, but that’s not what this is about. Very simple, sparse production and arrangement, so that is not a big factor here. Again, it relies mostly on vocals, lead and harmonies.
Okay, so those are the top 5 as of the publishing of this article. Out of those five songs, production and arrangement are most dominant in three of them; Uptown Funk, Sugar and Love Me Like You Do. In the case of Uptown Funk, the song itself and the vocals are just so good that the neuvo-disco arrangement actually reinforces the overall sound. Great song. Sugar only suffers from that overuse of autotune. And as I said, in Love Me Like You Do the song is just weak to begin with so nothing would really ramp it up to make it better.
My conclusion is that the theory that production and arrangement have become more important than songwriting, is not true. Production is probably less of a factor than we make it out to be when it comes to hit songs. In fact, I would say that the best production is the kind you don’t hear, it’s doing the job of refining but not distracting and most of thee five songs reflect that. Arrangement, on the other hand, can do a lot to bring out certain characteristics of a song, but it can’t save it.
So ultimately, the song will always be the thing. Haven’t I always said that??