The unsung contribution that songwriters make to some of the biggest hits by global superstars is the focus of a new project involving academics from the University of Huddersfield and Birmingham City University in England and the University of Lüneburg in Germany.
The three-year project, Songwriting Camps in the 21st Century, is being led by musicologist Dr Jan Herbst, a Reader in Music Production at the University of Huddersfield. He will work closely with partners Professor Michael Ahlers, from the University of Lüneburg, and Birmingham City’s Dr Simon Barber, who co-hosts the popular songwriting podcast Sodajerker.
The study is being funded with grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Songwriting camps tend to be two to five-day meetings, sometimes held in remote locations to foster collaboration without distractions. The camps often see songwriters join with other figures from the music industry – such as producers and engineers – to exchange ideas and collaborate on writing new songs.
Some of the ideas can lead to songwriters linking up with the world’s biggest acts, but there are concerns that fledgling songwriters often don’t receive the same co-writing credits as established names.
These major artists write many of their own songs, but some of the help they receive from other songwriters to create their ‘sound’ is often unheralded. This has prompted Dr Herbst and his partners to look into how songwriting camps work.
“Historically we know a lot about Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, Leiber and Stoller, and Lennon and McCartney – real teams that wrote together almost in factory-like environments,” says Dr Herbst. But the career benefits of songwriting camps have never been thoroughly researched so far, he says.
“We aim for a holistic overview of the phenomenon,” he says. “We want the views of all stakeholders – from the publishers to the record labels to songwriters, looking at the creative, legal, and financial aspects. We are looking at it from all different perspectives to understand it.”
Dr Herbst acknowledges that songwriting is a precarious profession: “It is easy to exploit songwriters. Artists who write with them are empowered, because they can pay the songwriter a one-off fee or pay them very low royalty rates. And to keep the impression of authenticity, there cannot be any outside contributors, and so songwriters can be bought out rather than appear in the credits.”
He says: “There are legal and copyright issues at play, and the record labels and publishing companies also come into it with their own interests. It can become complicated, and it has implications for how songwriters are evaluated or invited to work with others.”
Dr Herbst adds: “We also want to assess diversity among songwriters. Is it promoted at all? We’d assume that higher diversity contributes to creativity, but there might be reasons that prevent this.”
Songwriters seem to have mixed views on the value of songwriting camps. Noel Gallagher – formerly chief songwriter with Oasis and now with his own band, High Flying Birds – told Music Week: “I don’t get it… Two guys do the beats, another one does the topline, another does this, that and the other. Five people to write a song? If five people write a song, they should be in a band together.”
However, Susan Cattaneo, a songwriting professor at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, says: “Co-writing is a great way to get more of you out there as a songwriter. The more songs you have out there, the more chances you have of being heard.”
And Grammy award winner Evan Bogart insists: “The energy in the room writes the song. In my experience, it’s not any sort of ability you bring to the session, it’s about the combination of the energy in the room. You never know where or who the brilliant line, melody or musical idea is going to come from.”
Take a look at how one songwriting camp in Berlin functioned:
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