For every great artist, there’s often a greater songwriter at work behind the scenes.
That’s because a significant amount of artists, many of them mainstream, show up to sing their songs and build their brands but do not compose the material.
In the rap and rock worlds, not writing one’s own material is more unusual. Artists in these genres pride themselves on their creativity, which is why many of them take a two-year break on average in between record releases.
Rapper Eminem, for example, writes all of his own lyrics and contributes to beats for his songs. Meanwhile, rock band U2 has always written its own lyrics, in addition to composing all of its musical arrangements.
When it comes to rap and rock, people seem to value genuine creativity and emotion, which is why it is important for these artists to write their own material.
Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule.
The Strokes is just one band that has a hired writer — JP Bowersock. Since he is acknowledged in their record sleeves, Bowersock is what the industry calls a professional songwriter. Still, other artists employ “ghostwriters” instead.
A ghostwriter is essentially the same as a professional writer, except the ghostwriter is paid a premium price to never receive any credit for the work he does. For the most part, labels hire ghostwriters to try to drive sales for smaller artists that the label thinks have the potential to make it big.
Labels do not want to advertise that a band receives assistance because it might tarnish a group’s “hard-working” image. At the same time, labels want to help a band hit its stride and be more radio-friendly, which is why hiring an experienced, hit-making ghostwriter is such an appealing option.
The world of mainstream music, however, is where hired songwriters are most prevalent, as no listeners really seem to have a problem with it.
Rihanna is a wildly successful pop superstar whose singles consistently find their way to the top of the charts. From her debut hit “Pon de Replay” to recent chart toppers such as “We Found Love,” she has managed to establish herself as both a household name and Grammy-winner along the way.
But she has not written any of her songs — not a single one in her entire catalogue.
Rihanna and her record label, Def Jam, have employed a vast amount of professional writers to aid the singer in her quest for stardom.
Sure, she supplies the voice, but her writing team — which includes Jay-Z, Dr. Luke and Makeba Riddick — is the creative force that actually gives her something to sing about.
But Rihanna is the only one who gets the fame and recognition. The writers merely sit back and figure out how to keep her in the limelight with the next song.
It’s just like with Hollywood: Writers and producers sit back and brainstorm on projects while actors sit in the spotlight waiting for the next interesting idea to come along. A movie is nothing without a good plot or script, much like a song is nothing without a good arrangement or melody. Yet time after time, movie studios market actors more than they market actual plots and creative teams, just as record labels market individual artists rather than their writers.
Thanks to branding, artists can be both adored or detested for how they’re marketed. Some enjoy the brand, and others do not. And because of branding, many artists have to play it safe and stay true to their genre. It is rare, although not unheard of, for artists to abandon one scheme for another.
So far, only a few artists have been daring enough to do so. When it does happen, it polarizes fan bases. Just ask Linkin Park, who dropped its nu-metal sound in favor of a mashup of arena- and pop-rock that alienated many old fans while also managing to draw in thousands of new ones.
Because of these risks, some artists turn to writing songs for other musicians if they want to experiment and flex their creative muscles. Jay-Z has interests outside of rap, which is why he writes for Rihanna. Similarly, Katy Perry showed her country twang when she penned “Bullet” for singer Jessie James in 2009.
The bottom line is that the music industry is a place where many things tend to happen behind the scenes.
So the next time Rihanna’s “We Found Love” plays on a radio station, remember: It probably wasn’t her who found love in a hopeless place.
Nick Mindicino is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Industry Ballads” runs Fridays.