Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Songwriters Try Remote Collaboration in the Social Distancing Era
In January, the Atlanta-based hip-hop producer TM88 received an urgent call from the rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who was craving a beat reminiscent of his hit “XO Tour Llif3.” Over the next few days, the two men spent hours on FaceTime perfecting a track together. “He’s like, ‘take that out [of the beat], do this,’ I’m doing it, sending it back,” TM88 recalled recently. “I’m telling him what I don’t like about the lyrics. The whole time I was babysitting my daughter.” The result was “P2,” the closing track on Uzi’s blockbuster Eternal Atake (and one of the most popular songs on the album).
Two months ago, writers and producers could choose to work this way — though most opted not to. While the technology to accomplish tele-songwriting has been available for years, most hitmakers have relied on a more old-fashioned model, hunting for musical inspiration in a room with their peers. But due to the rise of COVID-19, in-person songwriting sessions have been largely brought to a halt. (Though not entirely — writers say some prominent artists in L.A. are still calling for in-person sessions, ignoring calls for social distancing.) That means writing over Zoom or FaceTime is pretty much the only option available for those who are still hoping to create music collaboratively in real time.
Not everyone is going this route. “A lot of people are just sitting it out right now,” says Poo Bear, Justin Bieber‘s closest writing partner since 2013. Others are re-learning how to work in solitude. “I’ve written a lot more by myself,” says Luke Laird (Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church).
A third faction is following the lead of millions of office workers around the world and trying to get the job done over video apps. “There’s no way to replicate that human connection in the room,” says the songwriter Dan Henig (Monsta X, Chelsea Cutler). “But even with lag and choppy sound, you can find connection and common ground. It’s not the same. But that’s what we have.”
The aspects of Zoom or Facetime or Google Hangouts that can be annoying for civilians — faulty audio, everyone talking over everyone else — can be deadly for songwriting. “There’s the delay on Facetime — you’re playing the beat, and they’re bobbing their head, but it’s completely off,” says Jazelle Rodriguez (David Guetta, Cheat Codes). “Writing [songs] is a lot about listening and reacting in real time,” adds PJ Harding (Noah Cyrus, Chromeo). “If you’ve got a one-second delay, that’s a vibe-killer, a deal-breaker.”
Different video apps have different weaknesses. Neil Ormandy, who co-wrote James Arthur’s global hit “Say You Won’t Let Go,” has had the most success with Google Hangouts, though “it’s a little glitchy.” “With Zoom, because the microphone shifts [from person-to-person according to who makes noise], that’s tough in a session,” says Joe Kirkland (Dua Lipa, Blackbear). “In a room you can talk over each other and hash out an idea. [Working remotely,] you have to wait for everyone to get their idea across.”
Because of these potential hurdles, most of the writers who spoke for this story say that they mainly attempt remote sessions with people they already consider friends. “You’re speaking over each other, or someone’s trying to sing harmony but it’s not in real time so it doesn’t sound great,” explains Mags Duvall, who recently signed a publishing deal with Big Family. “When we’ve known each other for a long time, that’s not as awkward.”
Another challenge of working remotely is that it tests the limits of writers’ skill-sets. “A lot of people are used to having an engineer or a producer who knows how to track and record,” says Antonio Dixon (Beyoncé, Ariana Grande). That means that if they want to add background harmonies to a track, for example, they may not be able to do that on their own.
But the songwriting world is not completely unprepared for stay-at-home restrictions. For more than a decade, writers have been starting hits on the Voice Memo app and slinging them from one collaborator to the next in emails and texts; the demo gains detail and density as it caroms around the internet. This way of working is especially common in rap, R&B, dance music, and parts of Top 40 pop.
“It’s not the same. But that’s what we have.”
This approach can be both convenient and environmentally conscious. “I’m from Australia originally, and the last three or four years I’d been coming over to L.A. maybe three times a year, doing writing camps in Korea, Indonesia,” Harding says. “That’s increasingly not great for the environment. So I’d been looking into this in the last few years — how can I still be productive without doing as much travel, releasing as much as carbon into the atmosphere?”
Some writers collaborating remotely for the first time are enjoying themselves. Poo Bear, who is currently stuck in the Bahamas, has found that FaceTime sessions with Bieber in Canada offer a “refreshing” change to the routine. “If anything it makes you pay even more attention,” he says. “I’m listening harder, making sure I don’t miss anything.”
Others are less enthusiastic. “Some people like it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do,” Laird says. “I did a session last week via FaceTime, and it’s fun for catching up, but the writing process is hard. People are home; sometimes there are kids around; it’s totally different from going to the studio.”
Nate Cyphert (Florida Georgia Line, Carly Rae Jepsen) comes down somewhere in the middle. “Knowing that I can do this is good,” he says. “But I don’t want to do this forever.”
Forever, as Prince liked to point out, is a mighty long time. But it is easy to imagine that even after COVD-19 dissipates, the pandemic may well have long-term impacts on the professional songwriting industry. Writers used to working in big groups may realize that they don’t need as much help as they once thought; fewer collaborators means less paperwork and more publishing income. “We’re used to seeing seven and ten writers on songs,” Cyphert continues. “Maybe this will spawn a bunch of 100 percenters [when one writer is responsible for a whole song] or more 50-50s [a pair of writers] — the way it used to be.”
And some writers predict that months of quarantine will make remote collaboration, which seems strange to many of their colleagues now, commonplace. “The industry will grow to where remote sessions become more normal,” Henig suggests.
On the one hand, this could expand the possibilities for many writers in exciting ways, freeing them to hop into a remote session with an afrobeats writer in Lagos or a K-pop writer in Seoul. Duval, who is now based in L.A., had already been doing remote sessions with Nashville-based writers before the pandemic. “It evens the playing field — anyone can be anywhere,” she says. On the other hand, as the professional songwriting community acclimates to remote collaboration, this might make in-the-room writing sessions look increasingly quaint.
For the moment, remote sessions are starting to pick up out of necessity. Several writers who tentatively dipped a toe into the world of Zoom-writing last week are preparing to cannonball into the pool, scheduling multiple sessions.
“You don’t always have the ideal situation,” Laird says. “You just make the song happen however you can.”