The Amount of Solo-Written Hits Has Slipped from 51% to 2% in the Last 40 Years

That’s the somewhat anecdotal, but still troubling conclusion of a recent analysis by ‘Billboard.’

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If you really want to pinpoint the problems with American popular music, you have to look beyond the bad songs and silly pop stars to the systematical ways modern music is being constructed in the industry. Just like much of life in the modern world, the business of making music is becoming streamlined, automated, and governed by cost controls instead of quality controls in an environment that no longer allows for risk or experimentation.

The germination of any song is when an artist or songwriter puts pen to paper. The romantic notion of songwriting is one of an artist finding themselves in the throes of inspiration—whether it’s love, heartbreak, anger, or joy—and wanting to share those feelings with the world. For many years, this was how the greatest songs were written: etched on cocktail napkins at bars, scribbled on hotel stationary at 2 a.m., or written on a legal pad on a back poach accompanied with a guitar and a cup of black coffee on a brisk morning.

Today, the more likely scenario for how a song is written is scheduled meetings in cubicle farms, or collaborations on Skype with individuals who are credited as songwriters, but are better described as producers or programmers. Ideas are thrown out in collaborative form, and then workshopped in a group setting. Before you know it, who had the original idea for the song, or what the inspiration behind it was is lost in the process.

In a recent article in Billboard, just how pervasive songwriting collaborations have become was spelled out in stark statistical form. On October 24th, there were only two songs on the Billboard Hot 100 that were written by one person. This is compared to 1975 when 51 of the top 100 songs were written by one individual. 41 songs in 1985 were solo writes, 32 songs in 1995, and just 14 in 2005. Clearly the era of the solo written hit is coming to a close, if it hasn’t already.

Some of the reasons for the shift are more obvious than others. The use of samples has caused the need to cite multiple songwriters for a given project to skyrocket. The advent of “360 deals” with record labels, where an artists signs into an agreement to share revenue with a label not just for the music, but for songwriting, merchandise, touring, etc., has resulted in an explosion of performers receiving songwriting credits for the songs they record, whether they were seminal to the composition or not. Under the long-practiced ‘third for a word‘ rule, anyone participating in a song receives equal songwriting credits as the other participants.

Sometimes the inclusion of a hot songwriter will be the basis for a label to invest more time and effort into promoting a song. If a songwriter has a proven track record and works with a performer, it may entice a label to sign the performer. To this end, trying to get a well-known songwriter onto your original composition can’t hurt.

The other big player is producers who insist they’re owed songwriting credits, sometimes for doing very little on a song beyond tweaking a chorus, or changing the chord progression. Others will take an idea from an artist, and virtually rewrite it to ensure it will become a hit.

Swedish producer Max Martin

Swedish producer Max Martin

As Billboard states, a handful of Swedish producers have moved into American popular music, including country music, and among other things, gobbled up songwriting credits from some of today’s biggest stars. Producers Denniz Pop, Shellback, and principally Max Martin are all over the place these days in popular music. Saving Country Music has been hounding the presence of Max Martin in popular music ever since he first showed up in the country realm on Taylor Swift’s 2012 record Red. Martin turned out to be the executive producer of Swift’s pop breakout 1989, and received ample songwriting credits in the process. Martin is also said to have worked with Adele on her new record.

Recently, high-profile articles on Max Martin’s presence in music has proliferated the knowledge of how the power and influence over popular music is slowly being placed in the hands of a chosen few. The New Yorker and Consequences of Sound have published stories on Max Martin and his dominance in the music marketplace.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with soliciting a little bit of help with your song. Even the great Hank Williams would sometimes get an assist from Fred Rose on a song or two. But the serious concern is that with so many hands in the creative cookie jar, the nugget of human emotion that is supposed to be the start of a song, or any creative expression, is getting lost.

In truth, the greatest songs of our generation are still being written by only one person. The problem is, barely anyone is hearing them.