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La La Land: The future of songwriting from Laurel Canyon” a back deck conversation.

The future of songwriting from Laurel Canyon” a back deck conversation.

LA LA LAND  usually takes you on an adventure to an obscure or unusual or famous place in Los Angeles for a music event that may not be available or even known to the general public.  Today I am going to take you to a place in LA that is chronicled in song, story and bus tours, but  is not really available to the general public. The event is not musical – it is a backyard deck for a conversation about the music industry with a star songwriter at her home.

The location is Laurel Canyon,  one of the most mythologized neighborhoods in LA, just up the hill from the Sunset Strip and former home to music superstars like Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, David Crosby and Jackson Browne. In fact, Joni Mitchell even created an album about it – Ladies of the Canyon. Most of the rock royalty of the 70’s are gone from The Canyon, but it is still an active music scene, although more internal now. The homes on its winding streets house not only musicians, but TV and movie stars, producers and people who can afford to pay the price for seclusion, nature and The Canyon’s A+ Wonderland School District. A good example is Eva Longoria, who is listing the home she bought in Laurel Canyon from Tom Cruise for sale at $14 million.

Singer Songwriter Shelly Peiken met me at the Country Store, Laurel Canyon’s cultural hangout.  Shelly is a double Grammy-nominated songwriter who is best known for co-writing the #1 hits “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)” by Christina Aguilera,  and other hits by Meredith Brooks and Brandy. She has also written for or with Britney Spears,  Keith UrbanCeline DionNSYNCMiley CyrusEd Sheeran, and many more. Her recent book, Confessions of a Serial Songwriter about all of that is both funny and insightful – I highly recommend it.

A strikingly beautiful woman, I didn’t recognize Shelly in her gym sweats with her hair up and sunglasses on her nose at the Country Store’s coffee counter. But we connected and sat down at one of the outside tables to talk. Unfortunately,  traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard was so noisy that we moved up to her house for some quiet conversation. She took me to the back deck with a breathtaking view of LA and the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.  We poured tea and kicked back for a rambling conversation about the future of the music business, especially of songwriters.  

Shelly is the founder and president of SONA – Songwriters of North America – an organization formed to ensure that the law protects musical artists, especially songwriters.  Shelly explained that three factors (of many) that  have come together to threaten the ability of people like her and other artists to earn a living.  The first is the rise of singles over album sales, the second is streaming, and the third is top-lining.

Leaning forward intently, Shelly reminded me that when she started writing songs in the 80’s, physical albums were how most people collected music and how most songwriters  made a living.  A songwriter back then, she said, that a song on a 1 million-selling album would return $90,000 to its songwriter(s) even if it did not make it to radio play – which enabled musical content creators (as we now call them) to make a middle class living.  When the market sifted to downloads and singles sales that went away and with it the living of many songwriters: no hit single, no income.

The second factor, she said, is streaming. Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have not made net profits, but their revenue is growing;  Spotify filed for an IPO this very morning, based on $3.09 billion in annual revenue. Much of those earnings is paid to record labels and copyright holders – usually labels.  That is not great for songwriters because of ancient court-enforced decrees give the labels 95% of the fees from streaming; songwriters get less than 5%.  A case in point, the hip hop artist/songwriter Rhymefest  received $60 for 76 million streams of  his song “Clique” recorded by Kanye West,.

If that wasn’t bad enough, trend number three can take a big cut of  the 5%; it’s called top lining. There was a time when songwriters wrote songs for or with artists and got songwriting credit and payment from the label.  Today, the label will assign a songwriter to specific producer who will give him/her a backing track called a topline, (which has often been sent out to many other songwriters) and tells the songwriter to write melody and lyrics to it.  This can be good or bad for songwriters artistically, but there can be big downsides financially.  “Toplining has seeped into the zeitgheist of the culture and I find it a little demeaning,”  Shelly told me.  “ The melody and lyrics are considered the décor to the topline.”  She said the financial problem comes when the producer claims co-writing rights for the topline and takes as much as half of the fees – sometimes understandable, often not.  Not all producers do this, but enough do that Shelly said it has had an impact.  

Shelly pointed out that more music is listened to than ever before, but it doesn’t help the creators of the songs. “Who is making money are the streaming services – and I am not a streaming hater” she said,  “it is a fantastic way to get your music… my beef with this is that the streaming services would not even be in business if not for the songwriters.” She added that even with song writers getting only 5% of the fees, the tech lobby is fighting to reduce even that. This was a heady conversation to have on a deck overlooking Los Angeles in Laurel Canyon.

Shelly recently wrote in her blog that she is in a “gap”,  a downtime space between projects and activities where the creativity for the next phase can bubble up.  She will continue to write music, maybe improve her guitar skills, mentor songwriting students.  But she made sure to say that what’s ahead for her includes advocacy and hard work with Congress to right the music industry ship and stop it from throwing its creators overboard.  Maybe the future of songwriters will be decided on a backyard deck in Laurel Canyon.  I couldn’t think of a better place or a better person.

Patrick O’Heffernan

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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