Songwriting, Creativity, and the Music Industry

Phillip McIntyre. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 2: Popular Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

Songwriting is at the very heart of the contemporary music industry. Songs are written, performed, recorded, listened to, bought, downloaded, and litigated over. They can make and break artists’ careers. For example, the Gerry Goffin and Carole King classic “The Locomotion” was the song that not only launched Little Eva in the fifties but also Kylie Minogue in the eighties. It demonstrates “the power of a strong commercial song to shoot a newcomer to stardom,” and that power extends to maintaining artists at the peak of their game. That power is the essential element that greases the wheels of the music industry’s fortunes. As Jimmy Webb asserts, “songs are the raw material that power the reactor of a large part of the entertainment business.” In fact, without these potent symbol systems, there would be no music industry at all. From the early days of the industry when the focus was centered on the publishing houses right through to the later establishment of the recording industry as the dominant industry player, the rights of ownership attached to songs have remained paramount.3It is the buying and selling of these rights that has ensured that songs remain central to the industry’s processes. This centrality continues to be crucial even as the music industry now appears to be going through another of its periodic upheavals as the digital age works its magic. As Debbie Kruger writes,

For many the digital age has transformed the writing process, and especially for those songwriters who create songs for other artists to perform, that process involves the ability to create a fully produced studio demo. Steve Kipner calls himself a “record writer” rather than a songwriter. Even those who began in their earliest days simply singing out ideas to their bandmates and bringing a song to life in rehearsal are now engrossed by the possibilities of Pro Tools. Fortunately, whatever the method, the songs continue to come.

While there have been other musical forms used by the music industry, as Tim Wall argues, it is the song that remains the dominant one. It was established “as the dominant compositional structure as early as the late eighteenth century. Most major styles of twentieth-century popular music—including ballads, ragtime, jazz, big band, rock & roll, rock, soul, reggae, punk, metal, indie—have either reproduced this structure or been based upon some modification of it.” This continues on into the twenty-first century with hip-hop, gabba, jungle, and a proliferation of other genres and styles.

When Lou Barlow, former songwriter with Dinosaur Jr., now with Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion, was learning a song recorded by Shania Twain, he came to the realization, as many other successful writers had done before him, that there was a common element to the songs he was involved with.

The way [this] song is written really isn’t that different from the songs I write. There really is a formula to writing songs, and it’s still really satisfying even in its cheesiest forms, like insanely slick modern country. But if I were to strip that song down and play it at an acoustic show, I’m sure someone would come up to me and say “Hey man, what song is that? That’s really good!” You could put that song over on anybody … I spent a lot of time in those days creating stuff on 4-track that I thought was subverting the basic song form, not going for the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorusbridge form. But despite all that sort of ambitious thinking, in the end the song wins out. And everyone always loves a great song, even the people with the most experimental tastes … I didn’t even know what a middle-eight was until a couple months ago. “That’s the middle eight? You mean the third part of a song?” I just always thought the song should go where the lyrics go: If you’re being righteous through the verse and the chorus and you want to back off a little, that’s what the third part is for. Or if you want to take it totally over the top and start screaming your head off, that’s where the third part comes in.

Barlow was also impressed with the “inner logic” of the Brill Building writers (legendary New York City songwriters such as Carole King and Neil Sedaka who worked in the Brill Building) and is happy that writers from widely divergent genres work with essentially the same form. “I just realised how many songs you can play with G, C and D. It’s really endless. From Tom Petty to Hank Williams to the Stooges, it’s all there.” This idea, that there are primary forms in Western popular music, is reinforced by the writers from the KLF, a collective of British House musicians. They argue that “the complete history of the blues is based on one chord structure, hundreds of thousands of songs using the same three basic chords in the same pattern.”

John Braheny, in his book The Craft and Business of Song Writing, outlines the various forms currently in use by popular songwriters. These not only include, amongst others, the ternary form derived from the European popular music tradition and favored by prewar composers such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter but also the verse/chorus forms and its variants typical of many African-derived musics. Contrary to what critical theorist Theodor Adorno argued, Braheny asserts that,

[T]here are no absolute rules or formulas for songwriting. For every “rule,” you’ll find a song that broke that rule and succeeded … instead of learning “rules” you need to be aware of principles, the freedoms and restrictions of the medium for which you want to write, and have at your command a wide range of options with which to solve each creative problem.

The domain of songwriting thus appears to be governed more by formalized convention rather than the precise rules that characterize other domains such as, for example, math. The use of convention rather than precise rules as a central aspect of popular music writing highlights the fact that a songwriter, in terms of the argument being presented here, must draw on the specific domain of songwriting, the forms and conventions of the popular song, itself a subset of the domain of music, in order for that songwriter to write songs. For the Western contemporary popular music songwriter working predominantly in the Anglo-American popular music tradition, the assumption is that the Western harmonic system, the language of music, song structure and lyric construction, and all the associated conventions are significant parts of the symbol system they manipulate. Without access to this knowledge, this domain of songwriting, it would be difficult for a songwriter to contribute their ideas to the complex system that throws up popular hit after popular hit.

Songwriters therefore must develop what Pierre Bourdeu calls a habitus, in this case a songwriter’s habitus. Acquiring a habitus can be seen as the development of:

a “feel for the game,” a “practical sense” (sens practique) that inclines agents to act and react in specific situations in a manner that is not always calculated and that is not simply a question of conscious obedience to rules. Rather it is a set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions.

This description has some close similarities to the ideas suggested by Donald Schon on the acquisition of a practitioner’s skill base. He suggests practitioner’s skills become “internalized in our tacit knowing” and argues that “we are often unaware of having learned to do these things; we simply find ourselves doing them.” In this process, the ability to write, as John Braheny argues, almost becomes automatic. Paul McCartney’s perhaps apocryphal story of the writing of Yesterday is a case in point.

“Yesterday” came out of the blue, I’ve no idea where from. I dreamed the melody. I woke up and I had the melody in my head. It depends how far you want to go with this; if you’re very spiritual then God sent me a melody, I’m a mere vehicle. If you wanna be a bit more cynical, then I was loading my computer for millions of years listening to all the stuff I listened to through my dad and through my musical tastes, including people like Fred Astaire, Gershwin, and finally my computer printed out one morning what it thought was a good tune.

So how do songwriters, the central operatives upon which the music industry relies, go about acquiring this tacit knowledge? For Bourdieu the acquisition of a songwriter’s habitus is “the result of a long process of inculcation … which becomes a ‘second sense’ or a second nature.” More prosaically, research indicates songwriters learn about the domain of songwriting through a number of fairly common methods. These include both formal and informal education processes such as, in no order of priority: having access to poetic skills seen as akin to lyric writing skills in the formal education process; having access to elementary music lessons as part of the compulsory schooling system; receiving semiformal instruction from musicians engaged in private tuition; learning songs as part of learning an instrument; learning songs for performance; engaging in a degree of autodidacticism through access to peer information and ad-hoc mentoring within a form of oral transmission of domain knowledge; absorbing their familial musical influences; and absorbing the information stored in multiple numbers of songs through their access to popular culture transmissions as fans of popular music themselves. As an example of how one songwriter acquired his domain knowledge, George Gershwin:

began his professional career in “Tin Pan Alley,” a location in New York City where aspiring composers and songwriters would bring their scores to a publisher in hopes of selling the tunes for a modest amount of cash. As a “song plugger” for the Jerome Remick Company, George was exposed to thousands of songs, which gave him a better idea for what songs had a successful quality.

Once a songwriter has access to this stored information, that is, the accumulated field of works (a concept developed by Pierre Bourdieu in his book Rules of Art) of songwriting, they move on to manipulating this symbol system to add to and contribute to the wealth of the extensive popular song tradition. As Paul Zollo asserts, “this is precisely the way songwriters learn to write songs, imitating and emulating that which inspires us until our own styles gradually emerge.”

In the course of the varied styles developing out of the manipulation of this conventional symbol system known as the song there have been some corresponding changes in the conditions and positions held by songwriters. For example, what songwriters such as Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael did in the earlier part of the twentieth century is different than what songwriters do now. As Bob Barratt explains, “in those days music publishers printed music regularly, few singers wrote their own material and hits were somehow easier to pick. The successful songwriters of today, however, frequently wear more than one hat, doubling as singers, musicians, record producers or even managers.”

Apart from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the songwriting and producing team who were instrumental in many of Elvis Presley’s early hits, who claimed “we didn’t write songs, we wrote records,” one of the prime examples of this type includes John Fogerty, formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Fogerty, who wrote, arranged, and produced all of their hits, also managed the band, and after his band’s accountants involved him in an offshore banking scheme, and after losing the ownership of his songs, he lost the veritable fortune that he’d worked long and hard for. He was then sued by his old record company for writing songs that sounded like, of all things, himself. Fogerty now advises songwriters to “pick their friends very wisely.”

The things that may go wrong don’t come from far over the horizon, from some unseen force over there. It’s usually the people right close to you that are going to be able to do you harm. That’s what happened to me. I don’t mean that you should be cynical. I mean you have to put your face somewhere. But I guess the best advice is to choose your friends wisely. Otherwise you spend a lifetime paying for the wrong decisions. But I don’t want you to come away from our meeting here thinking I’m a cynical person. I’ve learnt a lot. It’s a lot harder to trick me now. One of the saddest things that happened to me, let’s say, was that I wrote all these songs and somebody else owns them because they … it’s what’s called the publishing. They own the copyrights. They choose how those songs are used. You may have seen one or more bad movies that my songs are in. That’s another specific thing you could tell young songwriters. Don’t give away your publishing. Keep the ownership for yourself. Still I would say don’t go around poking everybody in the eye either, because if you’re confident and you know your own worth people will come to you. You don’t have to beg. And I think that’s very important for all artists really. Don’t get talked into doing things that you don’t really want to do.

Prince was another songwriting polymath who produced, arranged, composed, and performed on his own albums and released a string of international hit singles in the eighties. The following decades saw a significant number of producers, especially those working in the variety of genres that typify electronica, carrying on this tradition.

For an outsider, the industry could thus appear to have become more complex, though no less predatory, for songwriters than it seemed to be in the halcyon days of publishing. But despite this apparent complexity, there are certainly ways to understand its current structures. While the music industry can be seen to revolve around recording and live performance the publishing arm of this industry still remains central to songwriters’ incomes. So how does this system actually work?

In the early days of the industry, the emergence of “scoring meant the emergence of a new music-making figure, the composer (who no longer had to take the stage; composition could now be separated from performance), and a new money-making figure, the publisher; composers needed someone to get their work to market.” With the advent of recording, this neat arrangement between songwriters and publishers persisted, but while publishers were concerned with the rights of the composer or songwriter, the record companies concerned themselves with the newer rights that subsisted in the material or mechanical object that carried fixed versions of the song. Publishers thus work to promote the song and collect royalties for the songwriter, while the record company works to sell a material object, that is, the recording of the song. In creating that record, the record company has to be granted a license to use the song in this way and must pay a royalty to the publishers in order to do so. Noting that for legal purposes songwriters and performers are generally treated as separate entities, matters become more complex when the songwriter is also the performer on the recording. This situation became the norm after the massive success of Lennon and McCartney in the sixties, a success that was aided by their publisher Dick James.

Dick James, a songwriter himself, was a struggling publisher when Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, approached him after a recommendation by George Martin about publishing Lennon and McCartney’s songs. James set up a company called Northern Songs to house the songs, and Dick James Music then went into partnership with Lennon and McCartney. James signed Lennon and McCartney to a publishing deal and set about negotiating a good royalty rate with EMI, the Beatles’ record company. But while the Beatles did well, the deal proved to be advantageous to Dick James in the long term. He virtually had a controlling interest in Northern Songs, and when he decided to sell the company, there was little either Lennon or McCartney could do about it, and one of the greatest songwriting catalogues of the twentieth century slipped from the original songwriter’s hands. James went on to sign Elton John to his publishing company.

At the time Elton originally signed with him it was normal for the publisher to take the writer’s songs for the life of copyright. Elton’s contract to supply Dick James Music with songs would eventually come to an end. But all the songs he’d given the company during the period of his contract would remain the company’s property until seventy years after Elton John had died. Elton didn’t want to wait that long and in 1986 he went to court to get them back. Elton based his case on the fact that Dick James had operated the standard sixties scam of dividing the royalties in half twice, sub-publishing songs to his own subsidiary companies in other countries on a 50-50 basis. But Elton didn’t sue for the money skimmed from him in this fashion, he sued for the return of his songs which had been assigned to Dick James for “life of copyright.”

In order to gain some understanding of how situations like this might occur, as Alan Siegel, Tim Whitsett, Lee Wilson, Donald Passman, and Shane Simpson variously explain, it can be seen that as a songwriter you could own 100 percent of a written song. However, if you engage a publisher, a separate business entity, to publish, promote, and administer the song, the royalties earned from the song will be split in two. There is a writer’s share, usually 50 percent, and a publisher’s share, also usually 50 percent. If there is more than one writer, the writer’s share is split between the writers according to whatever agreement they have in place. The publisher’s share goes to the publisher to administer and promote the song. The publisher will usually have the rights in the song assigned to them, that is, the ownership of the song, for a certain period or term. This means the publisher can control the use of the song for this period and may be entitled to maintain ownership in the song for the life of the copyright.

However, if a publisher does not do the best thing by the song and does not actively promote it, a reversion clause will allow the song’s rights to be returned to the songwriter. With these conditions in place, the publisher is then able to issue licenses for others to use the song. The publisher is, in essence, obligated to try to get other people to do cover versions and place the songs in movies, in TV shows, and any other places where income can be derived. The publisher should thus actively sell the song for the songwriter. This is their job. They do not, and should not, just collect and administer royalty income.

Sometimes a record company will also want to act as a publisher. This is fine if a copublishing deal is undertaken. This means that the publisher’s share, and only the publishers share, can be split fifty-fifty with the writer. In practice, this arrangement means that the writer earns 75 percent of the total royalties on the song, and the record label, as copublisher, collects 25 percent of the total royalties. For their share they must act as a normal publisher would, administering and promoting the song. Conversely, a songwriter might wish to self-publish. In this case, the writer also acts as publisher and receives 100 percent of all income. However, they must administer and promote the song themselves as well as registering their own publishing company with the relevant collection agencies.

In either case, performance royalties are paid to the owner of the rights in a song whenever the song is played in a public place. Organizations such as BMI and ASCAP in the United States collect all of the income in the form of fees from radio, TV, plays in restaurants, juke boxes, retail outlets, hold messages, mobile phone ring tones, bands playing the song in their live set, and so on. The performing rights organization then, “splits the income fifty-fifty between publisher and songwriter, and pays each of them separately.” Synchronization royalties are also paid when a song is used in movies or videos, but most often a negotiated flat fee is paid here. The Harry Fox Agency in the United States, “provides licensing services to thousands of publishers, issuing mechanical licenses to record companies and collecting mechanical royalties on the publisher’s behalf.” A good publisher will thus actively promote the song so as to maximize the income from these various sources.

In summary, a publishing deal is like taking on a business partner. One partner, the publisher, finances and administers the business, while the other partner, the songwriter, manufactures the basic product for sale, that is, the song. Often the publisher will also loan a songwriter money in order for the writer to keep writing and keep the wolf from the door. This loan is known as an advance, and this money is repaid by the songwriter using the money they collect from royalties. An advance, like any other loan, must eventually be paid back from profits. But like any other business loan, it can help finance an operation. Another way to look at this relationship is to see it as a form of patronage. As Edward Samuels argues, copyright, which underpins this system of patronage, will continue to be important “for as long as we want to encourage the making of creative works.” With songwriters having to wear multiple hats, this patronage can certainly be advantageous because, even with the best will in the world, “even if you have the right attitude it’s difficult to be both a songwriter and a publisher because of the time required for each.” It not only takes time, but it also costs money to tour, it costs money to record, and it costs money to manufacture, promote, and distribute songs. The field of popular music, the social organization that understands and works with the symbol systems of popular music, wants and deserves to be paid for the activities they undertake and the services they perform.

Howard Becker, for one, argues that there are myriad activities to be undertaken for an art work, in this case a song, to come into existence. From inspiration to idea, then on to the execution of that idea, and finally to its manufacture and distribution, the song is subject to a reliance upon a complex network of many players or workers. Becker suggests that in order “to analyse an art world we look for its characteristic kinds of workers and the bundle of tasks each one does.” Bourdieu also claimed that this collection of workers, along with the objective social relations they engage with, could be analyzed by looking at various “arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation of goods, services, knowledge, or status, and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate and monopolise” various forms of capital. From Bourdieu’s perspective, this capital is not just financial but can be symbolic or cultural capital that allows songwriters to not only sell or lease rights but trade on their reputations within this contested space or field. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also argues that a field is seen as being necessary as it is the function of the field “to determine whether the innovation is worth making a fuss about.”

With these propositions as guides, evidence can be found that a song’s existence depends on the field for contemporary Western popular music. This field can be seen to consist of not only the publishing industry but also the other branches of the music industry to which it is intimately connected, that is, the recording industry, the live performance arena, and the various functions of management, promotion, and distribution. Who is financed to write songs and how and why certain songs receive promotion, publicity, and remuneration are dependent on a set of critical factors songwriters must learn in order to write songs. As Braheny argues, “unsung thousands possess the talent and craft to write great songs, but without understanding the business and the knowledge of how to protect your creations and get them heard by those who can make them successful, those songs are like orphans.” A knowledge of the music industry, as it applies to songwriters, is thus essential. For example, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, who’ve sold over 52 million records, strongly suggest from their own early experiences that knowing what to look for is “the essential factor in achieving artistic and commercial success. These publishers [who looked at their initial efforts] were not able to articulate technically what was lacking in our song—but long experience gave them an intuitive feeling of public taste, an instinct that something was wrong.” It wasn’t until they took on board the ideas of the field, a process of being socialized into its norms and enculturated into its practices, and developed a songwriter’s habitus themselves that Kasha and Hirschhorn began to receive their share of success as songwriters within the industry.

In this sense, each person that constitutes the actors who are operative in this field, and this includes producers, engineers, managers, other songwriters, artists and performers, agents, promoters, film music agents, film directors and producers looking for songs, road crews, tour managers, A&R execs, sales reps, retailers, radio programs and music directors, music journalists, and so on, can also be seen to operate as cultural intermediaries. The notion of cultural intermediary was introduced by Bourdieu to make a necessary distinction between this idea and that of the related notion of gatekeeping, a term “widely used to describe the process by which selections are made in media work.” Gatekeeping, as Keith Negus argues, is too simplistic a notion. He is of the opinion that “most creative ideas and products will not only be filtered but also mediated by the field.” Rather than simply letting or not letting songs pass intact through the system, the very act of making those decisions has a direct effect on the way songs are produced and created.

As cultural intermediaries, recording industry personnel are constantly contributing to the production of and then reorganising, circulating and mediating the words, sounds and images of popular music to audiences across a range of entertainment media and cultural texts (recordings, videos, advertisements, broadcasts, books, magazines, computer games and various merchandise).

In the case of Bruce Springsteen, this mediation could be taken a step further. Jon Landau, who had an exclusive management arrangement with Springsteen, also had a hand in the creative process that led to the writing of Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark single. Sensing that the Born in the USA album was not complete, Landua wanted a particular sort of song written, and after much argument, he sent Springsteen away to write a song based on the themes and ideas Landau was suggesting. As Springsteen’s manager, Landau’s reasoning was that the album being recorded “needed it, that it would be artistically incomplete until such a song existed.”

While this is an acute example, cultural intermediaries are usually less overt in their manipulation of the process. For example, it could be claimed that without the decisions being made about what gets played on radio, in particular, and the increasingly necessary relationship with television, the ability of songwriters to continue to operate in this creative field would be significantly curtailed. There is also some evidence to suggest that certain radio music directors will have a direct effect on songwriting. Furthermore, the press, as an ancillary to the music industry, are also vital, and with the proliferation of Web-based media—Web sites, e-mail, blogs, commercial entities such as MySpace, and so on—songwriters are also finding alternative methods of engaging with the field and, ultimately, the audiences for contemporary Western popular music.

MySpace, in particular, has recently been touted as a successful alternative way for new songwriters and artists to expose their work to an audience and reach a wide and numerically viable number of them without incurring the costs of touring a significant number of territories or engaging directly with a record company. This Web site is, however, demonstrably only one link in an increasingly complex promotional and distribution chain that uses both traditional and nontraditional means. Two of the more prominent beneficiaries of this process in operation recently can be seen in the case of Sandi Thom and also the Arctic Monkeys.

Thom undertook a virtual tour from her basement flat in the United Kingdom when she Webcast her performances on a hosting company, Streaming Tank’s, Web site. She promoted the gigs on MySpace. She was signed to Windswept Pacific Music publishers and a small Scottish record company called Viking Legacy and, at the time of the song being released, employed a PR company to promote it. After the mainstream media in the United Kingdom, including The Times, BBC 2, Virgin, and Capital Radio, got involved and pushed the story and thus sales even further, Thom was signed to Sony, who re-released the song and single. It went on to top both the Australian and U.K. charts.

The Arctic Monkeys had a similar although more rock-oriented experience. This young band from Sheffield in the United Kingdom had had many of their song demos circulated by fans, which were freely available to them on the band’s Web site. This audience interest was capitalized upon by the band, and they become a popular live act in the north of England. When the British press and BBC radio began pushing the band, along with a Webcast being placed on the Internet, the Arctic Monkeys had secured a large enough audience to enable them to tour successfully across the United Kingdom. The songs, also embedded on a limited number of EP CDs and vinyl singles, were available for download from the iTunes music store and promotion on their MySpace site ensured they sold well. Their first album release became a highly anticipated event. This strategy had worked remarkably well for the band. However, rather than this being a radical replacement model for the operation of the industry, it can be seen as yet another example of an inventive and adaptable way to become a crucial part of that industry. Once the band had attracted the attention of industry players, the cultural intermediaries who could further their success, they played the game well enough to be able to choose who would finance their operations. The band had signed to Domino records and then licensed their songs for certain other territories across the world to EMI Music publishing. They took on a tour of the United States in the same way bands had done for years before them. They even accepted three NME Music Awards in 2006, placing them alongside the then-current mainstays of the industry, such as Oasis and The Strokes. The difficulty all of these rock bands faced was how to stay part of an industry and maintain a romantic artistic ethos and distance themselves from that industry at the same time. The rock world, in particular, has taken on board the romantic view of creativity, which, despite it having little evidence to prove its veracity, continues to be a central belief in a heavily contradictory music world.

This problem has occasionally plagued Paul McCartney. One of the more central figures for change in the songwriting world of the twentieth century, McCartney has survived inside the same industry, negotiating many songs through this field of cultural intermediaries despite these apparent paradoxes being in play. He also has now eschewed the traditional form of record company-dominated sales approaches and engages with his audience through his own extensive Web site, e-mail fan lists, Webcasts, DVDs, and CDs. His shows are performed as one-off events and then made available as mp3 downloads from companies such as iTunes with hard copies being available from http://Amazon.com. The latest was an iTunes exclusive release titled “Live At The ICA Festival,” which was recorded at his 2007 show at the iTunes Festival in London. Although he still has affiliations with the EMI subsidiary Parlophone, McCartney’s latest financial partner is Starbucks, a company just starting to be known for its affiliation with the music industry.

What is significant about these recent examples is that despite the route to success being most often circuitous, and now often virtual, the fundamental need to engage with the field of popular music for these songwriters is still important because, despite the recent emphasis on a new way of doing business, promotion and distribution as primary business strategies remain an essential part of the process of bringing a song to an audience. Others have also realized this.

Operating out of the United States, Jodi Krangle, for example, has dedicated herself to producing an e-zine called The Muse’s News. This e-zine is for and about songwriters and deals with music reviews, spotlights new artists, and contains songwriting book reviews, promotions of songwriting contests, and market information. It promotes new online songwriting and music business courses and Web sites that inspire, has articles on cowriting for example, and contains classifieds and useful services as well as a list of handy contact information delivered straight to the songwriter’s desktop. Not only has this online dissemination of information been crucial for some songwriters, but many now exist in a virtual online world that has replaced the more traditional one. Mark Wells, one of the songwriters for independent Newcastle, N.S.W, band Supersonic, finds the band’s Web site invaluable:

Absolutely. It’s a quick easy reference. You can make one quick phone call to a member of the music industry anywhere and refer them to your website. And they can find out exactly what you’re all about very quickly and very easily. The postage bills have gone down! I mean it’s basically the equivalent of sending out a package that you’d take two days to send down, all the hard copies of the bio, CD and everything. You can have it all locked down on the web. Email tends to be the thing to do now. Everyone wants to correspond by email. It’s a way of confirming and solidifying performance arrangements and communicating with people all throughout the music industry at all levels. I think it seems to be a universal kind of communicator.

In addition to these uses, this technology has also been useful for Supersonic in terms of engaging with an audience:

As an independent band, without the backing of some kind of promotion and distribution company, it’s very difficult to get your music out there when you combine the internet with regular live performance across the country as well as radio airplay on some of the community and noncommercial radio stations that’s when it becomes most effective for us because it enables everyone to be able to easily access our material.
It can also be contended that the audience for popular music may also be recognized as a significant constituent and active set of cultural intermediaries of this field as it has the ability to regulate the life of a recorded song and partially govern the longevity of a songwriter’s enterprise. What an audience buys and thinks can have a direct effect on the decisions songwriters make, the chords they choose, the structures they’ll tend to use, and the lyric content that attracts that audience. With the reconceptualization of audiences from that of passive receivers of information to that of active participants in the process, in not only using songs for purposes that the writers or manufacturers may not have intended but also in participating in the act of making meaning, it can be seen that the audience itself can be considered a vital part of the creative process.

These contentions seem to run counter to the common-sense understandings of creativity, which are predominantly focused on single individuals. But, despite its widespread adherence, the essentially romantic beliefs held by actors within the music industry (and this belief system is adhered to by audiences as well) is nonetheless a rather difficult position to invest with a rational explanation. The creation of songs and who is entitled to exploit them has been a binding force in the operation of the music industry for some time, and yet, as Roy Shuker asserts, knowledge about this area of creativity, how it happens, is quite sparse. There is precious little written in an academic sense about the way choices are made when songs are created and the relationship between those choices and the music industry itself. Despite this lack of work Keith Negus and Michael Pickering suggest that:

creativity is one of the most important yet unexplored issues in the study of popular music. Its significance is routinely noted, usually in passing, and its value often taken for granted. Its conceptual status in music studies is that of an unquestioned commonplace. Most of all, it is raised in reference to what is taken to be in opposition to it, to what is held as restricting or obstructing its realization and potential … What it involves in its own right or what meanings it is made to carry are seldom subject to any critical attention.

The dearth of rationally focused research into the way songs are created from those researching popular music may have more to do with the music industry’s underpinning and self-sustaining belief in a predominantly romantic artistic ethos than anything else, but the fact of the matter is that “popular music depends on the collaboration of creators and bureaucrats [and] the tensions between them, a tension usually read ideologically as art v commerce, is built into the system.” The major problem, as Coombes argues, is that:

perhaps no area of human creativity relies more heavily upon appropriation and allusion, borrowing and imitation, sampling and intertextual commentary than music, nor any area where the mythic figure of the creative genius composing in the absence of all external influence is more absurd.

The research world tends to agree. Most often creativity is thought of in a common-sense way with the ideas underpinning it persisting despite problems with the basic assumptions. These widespread views could be labeled either the inspirational view or the romantic view. Either way, there is such a deeply held belief in these views that a scientific investigation of creativity appears to be not only wrong-headed but almost sacrilegious. However, Margaret Boden for one contends that:

these views are believed by many to be literally true. But they are rarely critically examined. They are not theories, so much as myths: imaginative constructions, whose function is to express the values, assuage the fears, and endorse the practices of the community that celebrates them.

Both positions, the inspirational and the romantic, have lead eventually to the stereotypical view of the quasineurotic artist existing in their garret waiting for the muse to arrive or inspiration to strike.56 These views have held sway in the music industry for some time and underpin many of its concerns, including the present issues surrounding copyright. But these conceptions of creative persons and their creative activity are difficult to sustain when one examines in any empirical way how artistic work, or any innovative work for that matter, actually does occur.

Embedded in the research are significant counter propositions to the inspirationist and romantic positions. This research has come from a variety of disciplines. It includes work from sociology, including those concerned primarily with art and cultural production, the field of literary criticism, postructuralism, and the media studies arm of communication and cultural studies. Psychology, whether in its neuro, cognitive, psychoanalytic, behavioral, or social variants, has produced a significant body of work in this area. On their own, each of these schools of thought provides an apparently feasible set of explanations for creativity, but each may be seen as narrowly focused on specific aspects of the phenomenon. What becomes apparent in looking at this research over time, however, is a fundamental move away from viewing creativity as an individual level phenomenon. As Peter Wicke argues, “the shift from a hierarchical model of music—with the composer at the top and all the other participants merely following the instructions he has set down in the score—to a collective organised form is the crucial conceptual change.” The more recent advent of what has been labeled the confluence approach to creativity, owing a partial debt to Morris Stein, sees creativity arising out of a multiple set of factors, including personal, societal, and cultural ones being in play within a complex, recursive, iterative, and active process.

Following Bourdieu, it can be argued that popular music songwriters, while having the ability to make creative choices, are not absolutely free in making those choices because they must engage with a pre-existing set of structures. A songwriter draws on, via their habitus and cultural capital, the specific sets of knowledge pertinent to the cultural practice of songwriting that exists within the traditions of the field of contemporary Western popular music, that is, its field of works. They must also enter an arena of social contestation, what Bourdieu calls a field, competing with each other to have their songs heard and become successful. As exemplified previously, it is the interplay between the spheres of an individual’s habitus, the field they operate in, and the accumulated knowledge that exists in the field of works that actually makes songwriting practice possible.

This conclusion, to me, seems to be remarkably similar to that proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity. This model accepts that songwriters work within a system that shapes and governs their creativity while they contribute to and alter that system. Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t ascribe sole responsibility for creativity to the productive individual, but neither does he assert that creativity is beyond the locus of individual producers and located solely within the determinations presented by the societies and cultures they inhabit. Instead he argues that:

for creativity to occur, a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the domain to the individual. The individual must then produce a novel variation in the content of the domain. The variation then must be selected by the field for inclusion in the domain.

To put it simply, “each of the three main systems—person, field and domain—affects the others and is affected by them in turn … The starting point on this map is purely arbitrary.”

According to this set of hypotheses, when a songwriter engages in a creative act they operate within the tensions of agency, the ability to make choice and structure, determining factors set up by their biological imperatives, their cultural inheritance, and the operation of the creative system, which includes themselves, the domain, and the field of popular music. In this act the creative agent of the songwriter, as seen in the descriptions set out previously, then must necessarily draw on the specific domain of songwriting, which is a subset of the domain of music and at the same time a subset of the domain of language and speech. That is, the specific domain of songwriting for a contemporary Western popular music songwriter includes such things as the language of music, the Western harmonic system, song structure, and lyric construction, with all their conventions. Musicians, producers, engineers, publishers, tour managers, audiences, and so on are the individuals who make up the network of interlocking roles that constitute the field of songwriting. It is the social organization of the field that decides whether what the person has produced is admissible as part of the domain. It is the social organization, or field, that decides whether the song is acceptable as a song in the first place and, secondly, how creative that song is in relation to all other songs.

From this perspective, creativity is socially and historically specific, for what one period decides is creative another may see as simply bizarre. Each new song that is accepted as being creative via its social validation by the field must then become part of the domain. It is in this way that a culture changes and moves on over a period of time.

Furthermore, if Bourdieu is correct in asserting that agency and structure are interdependent, by suggesting that the interplay between these two spheres makes practice possible, Negus may also be correct in assuming that “the industry needs to be understood as both a commercial business driven by the pursuit of profit and a site of creative human activity from which some very great popular music has come and continues to emerge.”

If it is the case that creativity is indeed systemic, some reappraisal from within the industry by those who both deal with and promote songs may be necessary, especially given the emphasis on songwriters as romantic artists in the latter part of the twentieth century. While this change in focus may present problems in terms of marketing, as the audience also believes in the romantic nature of songwriting and creativity, a systemic approach to creativity may in fact be more accurate and ultimately reveal many more pragmatic opportunities for success than the romantic and inspirationist understanding of songwriting currently allows. The corollary is that this change may also take away the basis of the ideas, centered as they are in romanticist aesthetics, that underpin the questions of artistic authenticity, which are themselves so central to many songwriter’s understandings of themselves and their creative process.