Are we in a golden era of songwriting? Will this time be looked back on as a historically great one for our art form?
Lord knows we’ve got numerous advantages our predecessors didn’t have…
How about our instruments? With the advent of quality Chinese instruments you can now get a guitar, mandolin, banjo, whatever that’s a pleasure to play and sounds great for a fraction you used to have to pay to get the equivalent quality.
How about our recording costs? Also way, way, way down. You can record albums using Pro Tools or many of its competitors for literally hundreds of dollars rather than the previous tens of thousands of dollars.
How about distribution? Thanks to the Internet we can now reach listeners all over the world. No longer do the Music Industry Gatekeepers control our access to our fans.
So, once again, are we in a golden era? I’m not so sure myself. In spite of all the advantages I’ve mentioned I can’t really say that I’ve seen the level of our art form go up. Yes, there are more songwriters but better songwriters? I’m not so sure.
Maybe it’s just a case of they’re out there but the clutter prevents us from hearing them or maybe not.
What do you think?
6 thoughts on “Golden Era of Songwriting?”
If it is a Golden Era one would never know it by listening to the drivel that we’re exposed to by the media (IMHO). I can hardly sit through a music video these days much less listen to the radio. It seems that flash and name are winning out over substance, at least with the media.
On the other hand, technology changes have enabled me to listen to new music and purchase just those selections I like as opposed to having to purchase an entire album. It’s also made it easy and cheap to back-fill my music library.
Substance is losing in the mass media, which is why I do not listen to national commercial music. There are some excellent songs by local artists, especially in this San Francisco Bay Area, but it is hardly a Golden Era; too many local writers are emulating the national style of non-substance!
I think that all those technological advances you mention – instrument quality, recording software, distribution methods – have nothing to do with songwriting. They are convenient tools to allow our songs to be heard, but not to make the song any better.
Three areas of technology which have certainly helped me become a better songwriter have to do with computers: 1. Online rhyming dictionaries allow me to compile extensive lists of potential words to use in my songs far more easily than looking them up in books. 2. Word processing and spreadsheet programs allow me to visually represent my lyrics so that I can more easily check length of line, presence or absence of rhyme (color coded as I write the song) more efficiently than writing on paper. 3. The internet offers instant access to potential content of the lyrics much more easily than having to consult books or simply by pulling stuff out of your head or relying only on your own experience..
Instruments are tools, you’re right about that. More quality tools in the hands of more craftsmen should help the craft,right? My first guitar wouldn’t stay in tune and had ridiculously high action. Try writing a song on a guitar like that!
Recording software aids many songwriters today. I use recording software to record rough audio sketches of my songs. It’s the initial canvas I use for my work. And how about all of the songwriters that use beats and loops for inspiration? It’s not the way I write but that doesn’t make it less valid.
Speaking of inspiration, how can world wide distribution not help to inspire songwriters? Also being able to hear songwriters from all over the world should help us to get a better handle on the over all state of the art form.
But let’s for the moment, accept your premise, Bob, and discount these modern advantages as providing no benefit to songwriters and substitute your points; Online Rhyming Dictionaries, Word processors and Speadsheets (?) and Access to online content…
You still didn’t answer the basic question of the post. “Are we in a golden era of songwriting?”
I was thinking of the quality of the song – lyrics, melody and chords. A super guitar may be fun to play, but if you don’t have the ability with the language, the facility with the music, a $10k guitar is not going to make your songs any better.
Your point about the digital sketchpad – I thought about that a bit but then discounted that, perhaps because of the way I work. I never record anything until after the song is done. I figure, if the melody is memorable, I will remember it. Back in the old days, we could use cassette recorders or reel to reel tape. The digital recorder makes it a bit easier, but does not improve the song. I do use Band-in-a-Box sometimes for melody creation, because it frees me up to create a melody while looping the chords over and over again, but still it is not a qualitative improvement over strumming the guitar and creating the melody.
On the other hand, the online rhyming dictionary (especially for near-rhymes) is a lot better than the 10 or 12 rhymes I can think of off the top of my head and a lot more convenient than searching through dictionaries with my aging eyes. And I have at least 4 online dictionaries that I use regularly – they supplement each other nicely. The word processing software combined with the spreadsheet is really handy for arranging each line of each verse, one under the other and it keeps me honest about number of syllables in a line. And finally, many of my songs have been inspired by chain searches on the internet. I hear something interesting, I look it up, it leads me to something else, and so on until I find something that really intrigues me. Then I gather vocabulary and details in a way I could never do before the internet was around. It frees me up from my own mental limitations and knowledge.
As far as the Golden Age of Songwriting – I see two trends occurring simultaneously. There is the music mafia – the people who control commercial taste – the kind of crap that has nothing to do with good or interesting music, but which ends up in all the awards shows as the industry’s “finest”. Most of it is mediocre music with super production and lots of spectacle. But there is music that is distributed via the internet, by-passing the gatekeepers of the industry. Some of it is good, some of it is not. But the democratization of the process of music creation and distribution is probably a good thing, even if it means that you have to wade through a lot to find the good stuff.
I have heard a lot more interesting music in clubs and house concerts than on music awards shows. And those people will probably never reach the big stage in a million years. But that doesn’t mean the songs are not good.
Interesting subject, Jim. For the most part, I would have to say “No.”
While I welcome the trend of digital recording to the ordinary person’s desktop, because it enables a poor musician such as myself the opportunity to actually acquire a bonafide recording studio, this movement in and of itself has had a reverse effect in that it has really watered down the talent pool. Put bluntly, this has enabled every hack in the world to be able to record their drivel, no matter how lame it might be.
Add to this the fact that social networking such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have enabled the distribution of the lion’s share of this junk on a world wide basis, and we have a real recipe for the degradation of talent in the industry. No one is held to a standard of excellence any longer, myself included. Add to this the advent of TV shows such as American Idol and The X-Factor, which I refer to as the worlds biggest high school talent show, and we have a real menu of undesirable junk from which to gather a modicum of talent, all relative to the prejudice of the likes of Simon Cowell (who cares), J-Lo, and Brittany Spears–Please!!!
What makes it worse, is that with the dissemination of so much no-talent material, it makes it infinitely harder to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Who has time to scroll through so much information without sensory overload.
One would hope that in some manner or fashion that the cream will still rise to the top and in many cases it has. I look at talents such as The Lumineers or Phillip Phillips and see that indeed there is still some decent songwriting going on.
But on the whole, I think the advancement of the industry has made the overall assessment of talent much harder than it has in the past, although it affords the opportunity for previously undiscovered talent to have a channel to exposure.
Don’t get me started on rap and hip-hop–that’ a whole different discussion.
Those are my thoughts. Will it keep me from writing and trying to make some waves? No, but it accentuates the increased difficulty, whereas the original idea was to enhance the talent pool. I think the opposite has been the actual effect.