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Sounding Off

Terry Bracey
Published August 2008

Jack of all trades, master of none - the truth of today's music?

If you were trying to build the perfect house, you would want to employ the finest architects, bricklayers and carpenters, together with the best in electricians, plasterers and plumbers — in other words, the top specialists in their specific field.Sounding Off

About The AuthorTerry ekes out a living as a broadcast engineer but is also distinguished by his long and unblemished record of songwriting failure. To find out why, check out www.soundclick.com/terrytronix

The movie industry follows this philosophy: everyone has their speciality and sticks to it. Nobody thinks any the less of Brad Pitt because he doesn't write the screenplay. Steven Spielberg hasn't lost any credibility because he doesn't operate the camera, and no film editor has been looked down upon because they failed to light the set. So why is the music industry different? It often expects its artists to write, sing and perform their own material — but what are the chances that artists can be found who excel in all these aspects of music making?

It wasn't always this way: spin back several decades and things were quite different. Writers would present their songs to producers, who would employ arrangers and session musicians to back singers to interpret songs. Each was a master in their chosen discipline. Nobody cared that the songwriters couldn't play or that the studio musicians couldn't sing or that the singer couldn't write. The producer's aim was simply to assemble the very best in writers, arrangers, session players and vocalists. This was the thinking whether recording a Frank Sinatra album or a pop/soul epic masterminded by the likes of Phil Spector or Leiber & Stoller. No wonder some of those old records still sound so good.

So why, today, are artists denigrated because they don't write their own material? What's wrong with just being excellent at interpreting a song? It didn't seem to do Elvis any harm.

Regrettably, today's artists are often expected to both write and sing original material, even when they are clearly inept as songwriters. Consequently, what we often now hear are well-sung poor songs. On the other side of the coin, many a songwriter is cajoled into recording their own material even though they clearly have little vocal ability — and then we end up with good songs, badly performed.

Pity the poor songwriter who is forced to record and perform their songs when all they really want to do is write. Equally, pity the poor singer who is forced to write to maintain their 'credibility', even though their efforts often have to be tweaked by an army of song doctors to make the results anywhere near acceptable for recording (hence all those songs credited to seven writers).

So where did it all go wrong? Perhaps the blame lies with the Beatles. Before they came onto the scene it was generally accepted (with one or two notable exceptions) that writers wrote and singers sang. The Beatles, though, could actually write as well as perform — but they set a standard that few could match. Nevertheless, the seeds were sown. The result was that good singers were gradually starved of decent original material as the airwaves became full of singer songwriters, whose vocal performance often masked the quality of the song.

The problem is now endemic. Publishers, who once allowed songs to sell themselves, now seem to believe the only way to market material is through singer-songwriters. This moves the emphasis onto vocal ability, looks and youth, often at the expense of songwriting talent.

So is the situation irredeemable? Maybe not: one day, some far-sighted publisher may just realise that there's a wealth of hidden songwriting talent out there, even though it may be languishing in the form of ugly, vocally challenged, ageing individuals with poor presentational skills — but that's enough about me!

Still, that doesn't stop some hopefuls every now and then, more by luck than judgement, stumbling across the odd ditty that just may have commercial legs. In recent times, there's been a surge in solo singers who really know how to deliver a song. They would surely welcome the opportunity to get their hands on good material, to the benefit of writers, artists and, most importantly, the listening public.  

Published August 2008