In 2016, just one solo-written song made the year-end Top 10: “Stressed Out,” by 21 Pilots, written by Tyler Joseph. In 2015, there was also just one solo-written track (Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen”), while in 2014 there were two, including “Counting Stars,” by One Republic (written by Ryan Tedder), and the biggest song of that year, “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.
This is a snapshot of an overwhelming trend in the music industry over the past decade: the near-complete decline of the solo singer-songwriter pop hit, and the near-complete dominance of songs written by committee.
According to analysis of BuzzAngle data, the average number of credited songwriters in the U.S. market’s Top 10 streaming hits of 2018, per-track, was a whopping 9.1. A major influence on this surprisingly high figure is the growth of hip-hop at the top table of U.S. commercial music, which is rich in samples, and where multiple producers and lyricists often attain shared credits for songwriting. In addition, there has been a definite rise in collaborations by two artists sharing one song — a naked attempt to mine one another’s fan bases on social media — which leads to further fragmentation of songwriting credits.
The last Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 to be written by a single writer was Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” in January 2018, although that’s a debatable fact — technically, the chart-topping “Perfect” was a co-write, having been rerecorded as a duet with Béyonce. This means the last inarguable Number One to have been penned by a single writer was “Happy,” which hit the top spot in March 2014 . . . five years ago.
Some prominent figures in the music industry have reservations about this trend, worrying that it risks diluting the singular vision of artists. Daniel Glass is the founder of New York-based Glassnote Records, whose roster includes “100 percent songwriter” artists such as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix and Jade Bird. (While Phoenix’s and Mumford & Sons’ songs are usually credited to multiple band members, neither band typically works with outside songwriters.)
“Fans adore singular songwriters for their authenticity, and it can make a real difference in the connection they feel to the act,” says Glass. “Collaboration is good; Adele is a great example of a true artist who collaborates with other writers but keeps her own ‘voice.’ But this trend for songwriting by committee today, what I call the ‘petri dish’ approach of six to 12 writers, is concerning to me. To be frank, it quite often results in songs that we won’t still be singing and loving in 30 years.”
He adds, “A good analogy is the perfume industry: Chanel No.5 was created by a single master perfumer [Ernest Beaux] and has retained its magic and popularity for nearly 100 years. Truth and authenticity stand the test of time — things created by ‘petri dish,’ typically, do not.”
Times could be changing, however. Perhaps the hottest new act in the UK. right now, singer-songwriter Sam Fender, is a rarity in the modern music industry: a major label priority act (for Polydor in the U.K. and Interscope in the U.S.) who entirely writes all of his own material. The 22-year-old Fender, who grew up in the North of England, in North Shields near Newcastle, recently won the coveted BRIT Critics Choice Award, previously collected by mega-selling global artists like Adele and Sam Smith.
Fender’s manager, Owain Davies, says that the artist’s status as a singular songwriter is a “huge” contributing element in his early success, not to mention Fender’s warts-and-all musical depictions of life in a blue-collar town. “I have nothing against co-writes and the importance of them in our business, but Sam’s lyrics shoot straight from the heart — you can feel that,” says Davies. “It’s a massive factor for sure. These are deeply personal stories.”
Mike Smith is the Managing Director of major pop-music publisher Warner/Chappell in the U.K. His career signings to date have included huge hitmakers like Calvin Harris, Mark Ronson, Blur and Arctic Monkeys, who all largely write their own material. However, a big part of Smith’s professional world is now also taken up by songwriting committees and multi-writer pop collaborations. Why does he think the “100 percent songwriter” has become such a rare breed in 2019?
“There’s nowhere to hide in the music business these days,” says Smith, referencing public streaming numbers that display the popularity of songs on the likes of Spotify and YouTube. “Your only guarantee [of success] is to try and make the best possible piece of music. That’s why a modern record company A&R person will continually send something back and forth until they know they’ve got it to be the very best it can possibly be.”
But Smith also admits, “I dearly look forward to more 100 percent writers coming through, because I think that’s where you get real idiosyncrasy in songwriting.”
Perhaps it’s wise to leave the last word on the subject to a stickler for “100 percent” writing of his own material: Noel Gallagher. “I think as a solo artist it’s important that it’s coming from you, otherwise what is it?” Gallagher said last year. “It’s someone else’s melodies and someone else’s words. If that’s what you’re doing, then fine, make a living — but don’t have a big mouth about it.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”