Song-engineering by committee


When a song is composed by a committee of songwriters and producers, it’s not so much written as it’s constructed. In this process, each participant is like a structural engineer working on a building project and they bring a specific element or skill set to the table- the sum total of which is intended- instead of documenting a moment in time or an emotion- to increase the likelihood that the song they are working on will be a bona fide success.

However, the technical methodology deployed to make a song so designed into a “hit” often outweigh the criteria required to imbue it with attributes traditionally associated with popular music, such as meaning, depth or longevity. This is mainly for two reasons- a) a committee of modern songwriters who pool their efforts to create one song generally don’t give much thought to investing themselves in the process emotionally, and b) it is illogical to apply the same criteria to writing a song as one would to constructing a building.

After all, the group mission really isn’t to be expressive, but to create an object- in the form of a song- that will appeal to a specific genre or consumer constituency while apparently possessing the attributes of something expressive in the form of a song. In this instance, the simulation of expression- or stimulation of dopamine- is the best the committee of song-creators can hope for.

The songwriters may work together and think as a team, but their mission isn’t about expressing themselves emotionally as a team, or making space for their own individual expression. They can’t communicate a single unified emotional idea, since the communal vision is diluted both by the sheer volume of participants and unique, individual agendas that pertain to things other than artistry. There is no room for a singular, personalized vision in an aggregate such as this- just some clever tag-lines and wordplay.

Traditionally, a great song with multiple writers comes from the synergy of gifted individuals who have, to some extent, invested in one another’s processes, instead of from a committee of pros who are approaching the process specifically as an enterprise to generate something that will produce quantifiable results. The shared synergy is something that is developed from intimacy, intertwined lives and relationships- not from an interaction defined by transience and short range results.

Ideally, a lone songwriter writes from the core of his being. His work is uniquely personal because it emanates from him alone and is an expression of his experience or his present emotional state. The work of artists such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Bob Dylan exemplify this mode of song creation.

Similarly, a group of writers in a band work from their shared experience. Bands like The Eagles, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and ABBA exemplify this approach.

A hired gun writer comes in to deliver a hit song and perhaps even to connect with and create something bespoke and personal for an artist. Writers such as Diane Warren and Desmond Child have been exemplary in this regard. A large contingent of writers, on the other hand, come together mainly to minimize risk, heighten deniability and guarantee, if not full bore success, then at least the potential appearance of success.

The flaws of song engineering by committee are in-built and systemic. And like any systematic approach to making art, it is never a guarantee of success- especially not over the long term. This conceptual approach comes from the corporate world, which is the only environment where it is a good bet. The only people who are guaranteed any payoff with this approach is the committee of writers/producers who are always paid for their work, whether or not it ultimately succeeds.

And like the Replicants from the movie “Blade Runner”, the fruits of these labors, no matter how successful or potent they may be at their inception, tend to have brief lifespans and are all but forgotten as quickly as they appeared.