It’s an open-secret that the vast majority of billboard hits are written by a handful of middle-aged European and American songwriters. As Nathaniel Rich’s article for The Atlantic, “Hit Charade,” points out, if you turn on the radio in the car or shop at a store, you will almost certainly hear at least one song penned by this elite group of all-male writers, who attend songwriting camps and seminars with the intent of writing the most profitable pop hit.
Top-40 artists such as Taylor Swift, One Direction and Rihanna mostly perform songs that are written by these writers but published under their own names. While this may seem like a simple and valid issue of dishonesty, I believe that the true problem lies somewhere else: relegating music to this small group of writers greatly narrows the true potential of music.
Since the 1800s, music has moved into a patron system. We are all patrons — having intentionally or unintentionally paid for the music we’ve loved through streams, purchases or concerts. But the relatively new system of churning out hits has pushed most of the music industry’s profits to the top one percent. Independent musicians and writers have been stifled by the increasingly unfair economics of music pop culture, where pop stars and their writers can earn millions a day while most musicians take on jobs to pay the rent.
The songs pop writers make are extremely formulaic and money-driven, and thus present a very narrow world view. They almost always use abstract emotional lyrics about relationships. They emulate and appropriate popular styles, drowning out original writers and the ethos behind the genres. Indie-rock, folk and hip-hop have all been genres of music which have been appropriated and mutated by this hit machine. While independent music isn’t necessarily always better, independent music includes many more individual voices and stories. Independent, non-commercial music has also had the strong tradition of representing the voice of the oppressed.
These ghostwriters are also problematic on an individual basis. For example, Kesha’s producer, Dr. Luke, has been accused of sexual and emotional abuse. Many producers sign performers into exploitive decade-long contracts which give them very little independence and an unfair share of the profit. Many other of these pop writers have also been sued for stealing songs from independent artists.
And as female artists such as Grimes and Bjork have noted, pop songs written for female performers are overwhelmingly written from the male gaze. Although a female performer singing a song written for them is singing as a girl, the song itself assumes patriarchal expectations about the female perspective.
By relegating what we listen to to this handful of writers, we are saying that we accept their shallow and exploitative vision of the world. Music is too valuable for it to be disproportionately represented by a patriarchal, rich and profit-driven handful of voices. Instead we need to get out of our comfort zones and listen to original artists we would not normally listen to, and lend them our patronage, attention and respect. A great place to start would be this very college, which has debatably the best college concert season in North America. So take a chance, spare $5 or $10 and go to that SAO concert you weren’t sure about. It may very well change your life.