The Illusion of Songwriting

Oct 23, 2022
7 min

It surprises people to find out that their favorite artist doesn’t write all of their material. Learning about the illusion of songwriting gives insight into how that process works. Do note that this information comes from the perspective of an independent artist.

The Misconception

A common misconception among the "average listener" — which the video Another Legendary Rapper Exposed for Ghostwriting represents — is that an artist is solely responsible for the sound of a song. As a result, a stigma surrounding Industry Plants is formed (since those artists — in colloquial terms — receive help and grow in an unnatural manner). The Definition of an Industry Plant addresses how common being signed to a Record Label is among popular artists. It also showcases why the stigma on Industry Plants — resulting from the above misconception — can be flawed and unwarranted when an artist doesn't make any false claims. To understand whether a claim is false, you need to know the truth. Since this article focuses on claims that artists make about songwriting, it's important to understand common songwriting processes and industry techniques.

How to Record a Song

Recording a song isn't as straightforward as one may believe. First, there has to be a motivation for the song to be created. More on this later. Once the song is "written", the recording process starts. In modern times, an artist usually does NOT record an entire verse in one take. Punch recording is a technique you can use to overwrite a portion of a previously recorded track, during playback, without touching any of the recording before or after that portion. This means that you are able to record a line, pause, and then record a line right after, then piece them together. As an example, Lil Tjay uses punch recording as integral part of his flow in songs such as Hold On (at 1:31).

Punch recording is the backbone of the DMV HipHop sound.

Oftentimes, rappers who claim to "freestyle their songs in the booth" use punch-recording. Is this a false claim? Using the colloquial definition of a freestyle (off-the-top), one can argue that the claim is NOT false, since the artist is coming up with lines on the spot; regardless of how many takes are required. Using the music industry definition, one can argue that the claim is NOT false, since a freestyle is simply rapping without structure. Yet it's inevitable that an average viewer will argue that punch-recording is NOT equivalent to a freestyle.

In the above case, the sole determinant on whether a false claim was made lies on the interpretation of the determiner. However, the interpretation of the determiner depends on their knowledge of underlying information related to the claim. In simpler words, a claim can be truthful but still misleading. This is significant because this complicates whether an industry plant's claims are in good faith. If they aren't, then stigma against them is warranted.

What is Comping?

Once the song is recorded (or during the recording process), a mixing engineer can improve an artist's vocals by comping. This involves the selection of the best parts of several takes and then seamlessly stitching them together so that the end result — unbeknownst to the listener — is a perfect blend of multiple different passes. Comping allows an artist to record an unlimited amount of takes until a "perfect" take is acquired. This includes each word's timing and even length (through vocal stretching tools). You can also edit out every breath in the vocal. This why the concept of “iron lungs” (a verse without taking a breath) on a Master Recording is silly.

A comped vocal in Reaper
Example of Comping (without stretching)

Knowledge of processes such as these illustrate the difference between an Artist’s Master Recording and Live Recording (which can also have effects applied). These processes are also significant when it comes to the claims an artist may make. In an effort to look “legendary”, certain artists state that they simply walk into a booth, record a verse, then walk out. Others state that a song was recorded in X takes. While there may be truth to these claims, they are often misleading to the unknowledgeable (average viewer).

THE Songwriting Process

When it comes to music, songwriting is the most varied process of all. As a result, the concept of "The Songwriting Process" is a fallacy. Sure. There are techniques and music theory that one can use to create music. However, the reality is that anyone can make a song in any way at any time. In the context of this article, focus is placed on the people involved in the songwriting process, rather than its technical aspects.

What is an Executive Producer? An executive producer is NOT the same as a beat-making producer. Instead, the executive producer (of a song) is responsible for dictating the song's sound such that the purpose of the business is fulfilled. This may include the scheduling of studio time for musicians, organizing albums, or even creative decisions (selecting songs, sounds, input, etc). In a similar manner to a CEO, the scope of an Executive Producer's role will depend on the project.

What does this mean? An executive producer CAN be an artist, and an artist can be an executive producer. This can lead to an "Average Viewer" becoming confused when a transition is made. As an example, Travis Scott was "Exposed For Not Writing or Producing Sicko Mode". What happened? Well, Travis Scott used to produce for Kanye West (who used to produce for Jay-Z). As a result, the claim that Travis Scott produces music (as a beat-maker) was made. As Travis Scott grew in popularity (as an artist), so did his expectations. Due to time constraints, it wouldn't be a surprise for him to compensate for these expectations by becoming an executive producer. This doesn’t mean that every song he makes is written by someone else, but rather that some will be.

The above scenario is only significant because the idea that "Travis Scott" makes his own music has been pushed to the public. Is this a false claim? In a similar scenario to rappers who claim to freestyle punched-in recordings, Travis Scott's claim of making music — in this case — is as truthful as a CEO's claim of ownership to the value their company created. In other words, it's up to the viewer to determine whether the claim is false, but that determination lies on the amount of knowledge the viewer has. In any case, being misled is not an enjoyable experience.

Using Other Songwriters

How does an artist use other songwriters? When it comes to the songwriting, one of three scenarios often occur.

  1. A reference track (used to reference with the master) is created by a songwriter and then given to an artist to be the vocal. For example, Quinton Miller for Drake, Cyhi for Travis Scott, Kevin Garret for Beyonce, Jozzy for Don Toliver, Wondagurl)
  2. Artist is a songwriter and writes (by themselves or with another songwriter). Do note that writing doesn’t necessarily involve writing anything down.
  3. A previously released track (from say the 1900s) is taken, modified and re-released under a different artist.

In any case, it's unclear to the viewer what has happened during the songwriting process. While credits can be referenced, they never paint the full picture. It's not uncommon for credits to be purchased and/or include insignificant contributors (i.e from a word or ad-lib). In addition, the usage of samples result in the original writers being attributed (in addition to new ones). Nonetheless, credits of musical works are available on websites such as AllMusic. Credits (alongside other attributions) can also be present in the location of a content's description on certain platforms at the discretion of the uploader.

Producers are credited as songwriters.

Credits also fail to show ghostwriters, which are writers who are NOT credited. However, it's not uncommon for the public to confuse a ghostwriter with a lesser-known writer (that was credited). In other cases, some call writers whose input is inaccurately stated a ghostwriter. The concept of ghostwriting isn't restricted to artists, or even music in general. Authors of books can use ghostwriters. Then, there are the "ghostwriters" of the corporate world who perform work for another person — under that person's name — for an exchanged benefit. Ghostwriting is a possibility whenever status is involved, because it represents an exchange of money for credit (or perceived skill).

Motivating Usage

Finding a reason for an artist to use multiple songwriters is simple. In any case, the BEST businesses in the world are NOT run by one person. Why would creating music be any different? If you are attempting to be the BEST in the WORLD at XYZ, you will accept and hire help that is offered. It’s common sense. Right?

An artist is a human. This means that there may be a psychological reason for them to involve other people in their work. In the same manner that one plays video games with friends, an artist may involve theirs to engage in a form of entertainment.

When using multiple songwriters is NOT the artist's choice, it's the record labels. These entities see artists as investment vehicles, so their contracts enforce this accordingly. From the record label's perspective, there is no reason NOT to use multiple writers to create a song, if the practice is more profitable.

Motivating Offers

Why would an artist offer someone their song? The reality is that most people pay attention to artists who have social proof (a fanbase, followers, attractiveness, etc). When you don't, your option is to submit your music to the industry for a chance to be heard by millions (and earn money) or release it on your own merits. Hi Mom! Offering your music to others allows you to expand your network among the industry. This provides you a much better chance of becoming an artist than releasing music on your own accord.

Motivating Resentment

The biggest artists are only being “exposed” because they make misleading claims about their song's creation, which causes their fanbases to believe in the unreal (such that it has become the standard for “real talent”). Is it possible to achieve a “legendary” status of music while writing everything on your own? Perhaps. Likely? No.

"Pray the fakes get exposed."

— Drake

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