A song performed live is a song at the end of its life cycle. It’s a fully formed idea that’s been recorded, rehearsed, and likely rehashed over and over and over again until it either becomes a permanent part of an artist’s live catalog or is discarded in favor of another. And while some performers may take some time aside to explain the origin story behind a given song, you won’t likely get the full “birds and bees” breakdown in the middle of a concert.
You will, however, find that story told and retold in countless different ways at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ (ASCAP) I Create Music Expo. This year’s 13th-annual edition, hosted at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood, amounted to three days of wide-ranging panels, in-depth seminars, one-on-one sessions, and promotional booths, with hitmakers and aspiring singer-songwriters, executives, A&R people, lawyers, and lyricists all co-mingling as convention-goers are wont to do. And while much of the ASCAP Expo boiled down to business—how to market and make money off music—there would be no business without the songs themselves.
“I feel like we all got into music because we want to enjoy our lives and have a good time making this thing that’s magic,” said Stefan Johnson, who produced Zedd’s smash hit “The Middle,” during the Mix It Up: Hit Producers Talking Tracks panel.
There is no one right way to make that magic. Every producer, songwriter, and artist has her or his own process. There are, however, some relative truths that can become worthwhile rules of thumb. For one, the origin of a song matters. You can hunker down and force out a song, but for J Kash, who’s written for pop stars like Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez, he believes “that good songs do come from inspiration, so it has to sound inspired.”
“The point is to chase inspiration and to chase thought,” David Garcia, a noted hitmaker in Nashville, said during the opening panel entitled We Create Music. “You can have a really well-written song, but if at the end of the day, you press play and you sing it back and you don’t feel anything, what’s the point?”
And just because an existing song made you emotional, it doesn’t mean you should try to replicate it in your own work. There is a danger in chasing trends, one that was expressed perfectly by Canadian-born producer Greg Wells, who was himself channeling a tweet from Kanye West.
trend is always late
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 18, 2018
“A hit song, that’s a term that applies to something that’s already happened,” Wells said. “The fact that you know it’s a hit means it already was a hit.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that a song idea, even if it’s subpar or derivative, deserves to be dumped. Being a hoarder of one’s own creations can pay dividends down the line, with bits and pieces of old songs being subsumed into new ones. For Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, a song is often the result of “organ harvesting,” which she described during a panel with 19-year-old King Princess as, essentially, taking parts from old ideas and repurposing them as new ones.
“I think the point for me is just to be generative as much as possible because you just, you never know when you’re gonna need that bridge or you never know what something is going to end up becoming,” she said.
As helpful as that piecemeal process can be, great music doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, complexity, whether pertaining to the structure of the song itself or the equipment with which it’s produced, can be the downfall of a piece of music. “When you talk about writing a song, basic wins,” Garcia said. “The best version of the simplest idea.”
Meghan Trainor, who first came to the ASCAP EXPO in 2010 as an aspiring teenaged singer-songwriter at the behest of her family, echoed this idea, noting, “When I’m writing a song, I think simple is better. … Don’t stress over it over and over again.”
If there is one thing in a song to stress over, though, it’s the chorus. To hear the experts at ASCAP tell it, nailing that part of a song can make the rest of the process a veritable breeze. “If you have an amazing chorus, we’re halfway down the field,” Johnson said.
Writing good songs and turning those into great music can be quick and easy, long and grinding, fun and frustrating, and everything in between. What’s most important for any artist is, as Johnson put it, to “just stick through, persevere, give it all, trust your gut.”
Bringing that music fully formed to a live audience can and often does feed directly back into the songwriting process. That’s what makes a song part of a life cycle instead of a dead end on its own. “Performing live made my musicianship better,” Trainor insisted.
But for all the instruments and resources that are often required to flesh out a single thought into a magical musical experience, none of it is possible without people who can stomach the exhilarating and exhausting whims of an entertainment industry and still fill our ears with incredible art. “It’s a crazy job for crazy people,” St. Vincent said. “Probably none of us are in this room because we’re totally sane and there’s nothing broken inside of us. There’s a cavernous hole and we want to fill it.”
As unfortunate as that insanity may be in its own right, its byproducts (i.e. songs) are as much the reasons for an eye-opening experience like the ASCAP Expo as for the widespread love of music that makes its performance such a precious, valuable and worthwhile commodity the world over.
You can check out a gallery of photos, which were provided by ASCAP, below.