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Insta Hits: Producing Social Media Influencers

LYRE: Alina Smith & Elli Moore By Alina Smith
Published May 2021

Alina Smith (left) and Elli Moore at the LYRE studio in Los Angeles.Alina Smith (left) and Elli Moore at the LYRE studio in Los Angeles.

Influencers turn themselves into brands. Production duo LYRE can turn them into pop stars too.

I’m pretty sure my neighbours think I run some kind of illegal business out of my house. Or a James Bond‑style spy headquarters. I’ve noticed them glance furtively at the endless parade of Uber black sedans that pull up in front of my otherwise unremarkable suburban abode — or did before Covid, anyway. I’ve seen them raise brows at the BMWs that sometimes block their mailboxes, the glamorous women streaming in and out of the door, and the occasional well‑dressed manager taking calls in our front yard. The truth is, as much as I enjoy having this air of mystique around my place, there’s no secret spy bunker underneath it. What does reside inside, however, is a home studio known for hosting social media influencers.

When my music partner Elli Moore and I first moved to LA from Nashville five years ago, we came from the world of traditional music. My career originated in classical music, with my head figuratively (and sometimes not so much) smacked against the piano in my home country of Russia, and it spanned just about every musical experience you can imagine: from performing at the Student Olympics in China to sharing my songs round‑style at Nashville’s Bluebird. Elli had walked a deeply musical path as well. She began performing in musical theatre at the tender age of nine and signed her first publishing deal at 14. Together we’ve been focused on working with traditional artists like the K‑Pop band Red Velvet, the pop artist Betty Who and Pentatonix’s Kirstin Maldonado.

So when our first content‑creator artist approached our team — LYRE — I’m pretty sure I frowned at Elli and said something like “So, um, their job is to post stuff on the Internet?” Elli, who’s younger than me and was more social‑media savvy at the time, thought it might be a cool opportunity. “Let’s just take one session,” she told me, “and see what happens.” I never expected one session to turn into a five‑song EP, which morphed into projects with several new influencer artists, which ended with half of our calendar booked by content creators. But what I truly didn’t expect was just how much we would learn from the experience. There’s a palpable difference between how content creators approach music versus the way traditional musicians do. By adapting to it, we ended up growing and becoming much better at our craft. Here are a few of our key lessons.

Create For The Brand

Most songwriters will agree: writing for pitch is a balancing act between creativity and marketing expertise. Just a few months ago, when Elli and I wrote and produced a single for the Korean band ITZY, the A&R had us recreate the hook several times to fit the band’s image better. They wanted a harsher‑sounding lead synth and a more prominent 808 to solidify the girls’ ‘badass’ image. We all come to expect a certain amount of brand‑to‑music integration, but with influencers it can feel much more intense.

When we first met our long‑time collaborator Kenzie Ziegler, who was 12 at the time, her manager pulled Elli and I aside to explain what they were looking for. “Kenzie is a great dancer,” the manager shared, “so we want to make sure whatever she puts out has a strong groove we can do choreo to. Also, her audience is very young, so let’s stay away from anything relationship‑related and focus on empowering young girls.”

Kenzie Ziegler recording ‘Teamwork’ at LYRE studios. The track, and its music video, were used to promote Kenzie’s clothing brand, Justice.Kenzie Ziegler recording ‘Teamwork’ at LYRE studios. The track, and its music video, were used to promote Kenzie’s clothing brand, Justice.

“It was super‑tough,” Elli shared the other day over tea and Zoom. “Both of us came from being artists, so it can be hard to switch from that mindset to thinking commercially.”

At the time, I recall deciding to think of it as a challenge. Can I make a pop/EDM drop‑based track even though I’ve never made one before? Can I help this shy girl come out of her shell and showcase the best facets of her voice?

As soon as we focused on finding opportunities to grow in these new types of collaborations, it became really rewarding. I still think back fondly to the time we worked on one of our first songs with Kenzie — a song which came out as part of the promotion for the launch of Kenzie’s clothing line with the tween brand Justice. In those situations, you really have to nail not only the artist’s vision but the brand’s too. What’s the mood they’re trying to set? What’s the lyrical message? Is there a tempo they’re leaning toward? In this specific song, ‘Teamwork’, which we collaborated on with Brandon Paddock and Alan Notkin, the choices were made to keep the verse light instrumentally to convey a sense of vulnerability, and to create an EDM‑style dance drop to really lean into the girl‑power feeling that both the brand and Kenzie were asking for.

Learn Their Voice

When I recorded both Betty Who and Queen Herby (formerly of Karmin), I remember being completely blown away by their vocal control. Betty knew exactly how to extract that slow, almost saxophone‑like vibrato from her falsetto, and every single bar Herby rapped sounded perfectly crisp and in the pocket. My own partner Elli is a vocal maestro who will melt you with her smooth low end, snatch your attention with perfectly placed vocal fry, or completely blow you out of your chair with a formidable belt. I’ve always geeked out over getting to work with such well‑seasoned singers. But it’s the less‑experienced performers, like some of the influencers I’ve vocally produced, who have really forced my chops to level up.

One of the first things Elli and I do when working with an artist is check them out on Spotify. So, when we sat down to scope out one of our first influencer artists and didn’t find a Spotify profile, we looked at each other like “uh‑oh”. “I guess we’re gonna have to improvise,” Elli told me, and we did just that. On a whim, I decided to ask the artist to run a scale with me. I played notes on the piano, from E3 all the way up to F5, just to see where their timbre rested most comfortably and where it felt pinched or spread too wide. Then, after finding their voice’s sweet spots, we wrote a song with melodies hovering in those spots specifically. It’s a method we’ve been using for years now.

Of course, not all influencers are inexperienced singers. Some have had training or have worked with other producers in the past. But often I find that without spending 5‑10 years focused on developing their unique vocal approach, even those with strong natural gifts often don’t know what to do with them. This is where I step in.

When recording an artist for the first time, I’m listening for unique characteristics of their voice, not just pitch and timing. There’s an artist I work with who has a really nice ring to his baritone around C3‑G3, so I make sure to encourage him to lean into it. Another influencer I’ve recorded recently has a beautiful falsetto. Elli and I specifically write melodies to showcase that part of her range. It can feel like painting on a canvas with someone else’s voice! But what’s even more rewarding is when our artists internalise these techniques and start using them on their own. That’s when you know you’re not only a producer. You’ve also become a mentor.

Be Prepared To Write In Unusual Ways

When Elli and I write with our closest traditional music collaborators, Gino Barletta and Scott Bruzenak, there’s usually a set way things go. Someone throws out a concept and we chip away at it until that hunk of stone starts resembling a statue. Someone plays chords on guitar or piano/synth and the musical backbone begins emerging. Someone hears a hook over those chords, and boom: if the vibe is good, it’s usually a smooth ride from there on.

A writing session with Gabbie Hanna was filmed for a YouTube ‘making‑of’ video.A writing session with Gabbie Hanna was filmed for a YouTube ‘making‑of’ video.

But with influencers, writing can feel a little like getting thrown into an unfamiliar class and being asked to pass a test on the spot.

“Do you remember the first time Gabbie came to us with a song she wrote a cappella and asked us to produce a track around it?” Elli asks.

“Yeah,” I remember. “I was trying to act like this was all par for the course, but I was kinda freaking out inside because I’ve never produced anything around an ‘acca’. The chord structure, the groove, the main instrumental choices: it was all up to me. It felt like a lot of responsibility.”

“You killed it though,” Elli says with a grin.

“I adapted.” I shrug.

Almost every new influencer artist we meet comes with a fresh and unique outlook on writing. Our first song with Adelaine Morin was to help launch her campaign with the make‑up brand Tarte: a crisp pop/EDM jam named ‘Yellow’ to commemorate the warm colour palette of the make‑up they were releasing. The challenge was to work in the names of the eyeshadow colours into the lyric without it sounding like an ad.

Another artist we work with enjoys ‘pre‑vibing’, as he likes to call it, by sending us videos of himself rapping and singing to samples. It can be quite free‑form, but we make sure to really dig into the videos to find the golden nuggets there. Then, we develop those into a fully fleshed‑out song.

It’s funny to think how uncomfortable these new and unusual ways of writing first made me, because now, having been through this school of expecting the unexpected, I feel ready for just about any curve‑ball.

Establish The Vibe

When we were producing Kirstin Maldonado from the band Pentatonix, I remember being very impressed by her deep connection to the song we were working on. Kirstin didn’t write ‘Bad Weather’, but she chose it because the lyrics fit her artistic vision exactly as she saw it. We often observe this with traditional artists: they know who they are and they’re not afraid to make the musical choices to highlight that individuality.

“It’s nice when they know what they want,” Elli confesses. “But it’s also fun to help someone brand‑new figure out their style, isn’t it?”

“For sure,” I nod. “Challenging, but fun. I feel like I’ve had to learn to translate from non‑musical adjectives to music terms.”

“I notice you do that,” Elli points out. “The last time Guy was asking for something more ‘aggressive and masculine,’ you really leaned into those distorted 808s.”

“And that Serum saw. Don’t forget that,” I laugh. “I hear ‘masculine and aggressive’ and I’m immediately like: ‘Cool, he wants lots of Serum on this.’”

But while my approach leans toward interpreting the artist’s non‑musical concepts, Elli takes a different route. “It’s all about making who they are as a person shine through the song,” she says. “I make sure I talk to our influencer artists human to human and try to figure out what’s going on in their lives. Are they single? Dating? What do they do for fun? What do they like to wear? When I was a new artist myself, hardly anyone did this for me. People just wrote whatever they wanted for me without taking the time to figure me out as a person. So, I always make sure I do that for our artists as much as I can.”

Work Fast

One thing I’ve learned from working with content creators is that their timelines look vastly different to major‑label timelines or even those of indie artists. In my experience, labels often take 3‑6 months before the song comes out, sometimes longer. I’m pretty sure our song with Red Velvet didn’t come out for a year after they cut it. An influencer, on the other hand, might ask you to deliver a final master a week after the song was written.

“Remember when we got our first request like that?” I ask Elli. “I was like, wait, you want to include a snippet of this song in your YouTube video next week? I haven’t even finished tuning the vocal yet!”

It was pretty stressful at the time, but I did learn a lot of useful tricks to make our process more efficient. For one, when I work on a project, the first thing I do is make a ‘sound kit’ for the artist, which is really just a folder with my favourite drum and effects samples as well as some instrument presets saved as Ableton groups. This way, I can immediately establish the vibe of the track when we’re in an initial writing session, and have it match the overall vision of the project.

Another trick I learned is to always comp and tune vocals on the spot. Sure, the artist might have to relax in between passes, but there are huge benefits to approaching vocals this way. You know what the final vocal will sound like right there and then, so you can re‑cut anything that isn’t sitting right. And once you’re done with the session, you no longer have to take an extra day to comp — which means the song can be delivered to the artist sooner.

Alina Smith: Most new artists feel intimidated coming into the studio for the first time... I’ve learned not to move as fast with these new singers as I do with seasoned collaborators, to leave some room for the artist to mull over their ideas.

Create A Comfortable Environment

“I’ll never forget how uncomfortable I was in some of the sessions I had back when I first started writing,” Elli says. “I was 14, thrown into a room with older Nashville guys that have all been writing for 20‑plus years. I tried my best to belong in that room, but it was tough.”

“Yeah, it can be intimidating,” I respond, “when you’re new at something and everyone around you is moving at lightning speed.”

The reality is, most new artists feel intimidated coming into the studio for the first time. It’s a very vulnerable moment and you want to baby it. Over the years, I’ve learned not to move as fast with these new singers as I do with seasoned collaborators, to leave some room for the artist to mull over their ideas. And it definitely took me setting my ego aside because although, technically, I can write faster than a new writer, sometimes their ideas come with refreshing twists my mind would have never stumbled upon.

“I think the key is just to create a nurturing environment all around,” Elli muses. “It’s the little things that can make a big difference, like the candles we light, or the snacks we offer, or just the fact that our studio has a nice big window, letting in lots of natural light. Because when all the collaborators relax and just vibe — that’s when magic happens.”

Be Prepared To Be On Camera

At this point in, no producer or writer would be surprised by an artist wanting to take TikToks or selfies in the studio. But with content creators, the filming process can become a much larger part of the day than in a non‑creator session.

Lizzy Capri’s single ‘Time’ was also the subject of a making‑of video, titled ‘I Made A Song In 24 Hours’. At the time of going to press, the song has had over 600,000 plays on Spotify, and the video has received nearly 2 million views.Lizzy Capri’s single ‘Time’ was also the subject of a making‑of video, titled ‘I Made A Song In 24 Hours’. At the time of going to press, the song has had over 600,000 plays on Spotify, and the video has received nearly 2 million views.

“I’ve definitely used a guitar as a shyness shield before,” I tell Elli. “It makes me feel like I’m in my own bubble when an influencer and their crew have cameras in my face.”

“Being on camera definitely takes some getting used to,” Elli nods. “But it gets easier with practice.”

Over time, we’ve learned several ways to balance the filming aspect with the actual songwriting and production.

“I’m always running a voice memo,” Elli reveals, “because otherwise it’s easy to get distracted by the filming process and lose your train of thought on the song.”

“And I make sure I have supplies on hand to make the filming easier,” I chime in, “like a couple of different ring lights they can set up to help with the visual.”

“And, of course, sometimes there’s no crew,” Elli comments, “so the artists ask us to film them at the mic or just talking.”

“It can feel a little weird at first,” I nod along, “but this is just the way it is for them. Creating content is what influencers do, so when you help them capture the session, they’re always appreciative!”

Transition As They Crossover

Even though Elli and I have been working with influencers since 2017, we feel like recently there’s been a lot of interest in these artists from the traditional music industry. Our long‑time collaborator Gabbie Hanna got signed to a record deal at the London‑based label FrtyFve. Kenzie Ziegler has released several singles on Arista, some of which we have written and produced. One of our artists, Niki Demartino, signed to a well‑known management firm. What we’ve noticed, having now been through this transitional process with several artists, is that when new partners are introduced, some of the more unusual aspects of working with influencers begin taking second place and the process becomes quite similar to the way it is when you work with traditional artists.

“It’s usually several years into their music career before they make the transition,” Elli comments, “so they’re a lot more seasoned at this point, having been on the mic with us for so many hours.”

“They’ve also all written quite a bit by this point,” I say, “so the writing process transitions as well. They become more confident as writers and begin leaning into their unique ideas.”

And, of course, as the artists grow, you also have to grow with them as a producer. At some point, you might be setting aside some of your tried‑and‑true vocal techniques and letting the artist experiment with a new approach. There might be genre changes and requests for instrumentation that the artist has never used before. All you need to remember is to adapt and grow with them.

Working with influencers has come with a steep learning curve, but being on the other side of it now, I’m so glad we’ve had the opportunity to do so. The skills we’ve learned — from the efficiency born of tight timelines to the vocal comping prowess forced by the need to capture less‑experienced singers — are now helping us in all sessions, not only those with influencers. And, although we have become mentors for many of our artists, in the end, they taught us something as well: how to become better writers, producers, and people.  

Published May 2021