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Ghostwriting - to cheat, or not to cheat?

  • 05 December 2013, Thursday
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Ghostwriters have always formed part of the music industry. With this in mind, we would like to explore how ghostwriting can become problematic. Is it ok to use a ghostwriter and not admit it?

The fact is, whenever someone has written a song, their name should always be connected to the composition. This is a global rule. However, in the USA for example, a songwriter can sell their song so that their name doesn't appear on the track credits at all. This means that artists can take credit for someone else's work, potentially giving fans a very misleading picture.

The difference between writers and performers has already been recognised in the payment of musical royalties, meaning that the two different roles are established and recognised - not every artist is a writer and a performer, nor do they have to be. You can find out more about this system here.

The main issue is credibility – how much of your favourite musician’s persona is real, and how much is just a commercial act? It is also important to remember that the situation varies depending upon which musical genre you look at. We’ve become accustomed to expect different codes of conduct for each one.

Pop - shameless ghostwriting?

It is very unlikely that anyone ever thought that Britney Spears (for example) wrote all her own songs – in fact the response to her latest album has even suggested that her fans are actively against hearing her “most intimate, hands-on album yet.” It is quite normal for teams of promoters, writers, composers, arrangers and musicians to work together on establishing a pop artist's career. Theodore Feldman is an example of a professional ghostwriter, who has written music for a huge range of artists and labels, including: Justin Bieber, One Direction, Justin Timberlake, Motown Music, EMI/Capitol Records, and Sony Music Entertainment. Clearly ghostwriting has been accepted as a permissible part of a pop star's career for a long time. The singer has to look good, dance, and sing in tune (or not sing live at all), and everyone's happy.

Alongside this accepting attitude there is also a lot of respect among music lovers for popular artists who do pen their own lyrics and melodies. This music is often on the alternative, folk or rock end of the pop spectrum, with examples like The Beatles and Bob Dylan (who also used session musicians when they needed to), Fleetwood Mac and Radiohead.

Hip hop and Rap - ghostwriting and the loss of integrity. 

There is a widely held belief that hip hop is genuine, or at least strives to be that way. The whole aesthetic and origin of the genre comes from the idea of personal lyrics about personal experiences and beliefs. There have, however, been several high profile cases where hip hip artists have admitted to not penning their own rhymes. Will Smith's 'Gettin Jiggy With It' was written by Nas, and Jay-Z has announced that he is "paid a lot of money not to tell you" who else he's written for.

Is it understandable that hip hop artists sometimes need a little help? Is it ok to offer fans outstanding delivery and performance to justify this? Can we even believe a heartfelt performance in hip hop, when the words are not original? These questions are being asked more and more frequently, especially given the increased opportunities anyone with money has to pay for someone to write them lyrics and kickstart their (not necessarily very genuine) musical career.

This is not a new phenomenon - legendary early rap groups like The Sugarhill Gang were also accused of using other people's rhymes. Master Gee talks about how Big Bank Hank used Grandmaster Caz's rhymes in an interview: "He didn’t write the lyrics. He’s a hell of a performer, totally awesome when it comes to performing lyrics, and his voice is so classy. As far as the lyrics go, he didn’t write them. You gotta give credit where credit is due."

This attitude implies that you can accept sharing - it's part of the culture. However, it’s not cool to hide this fact, or pretend that you are writing your own songs if you’re not. In our current musical environment where hip hop stars are so dominant, the call for openness becomes even more important.

EDM - 'ghost-producing'?

The interesting thing about EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is that it is not usually lyric based – the realm of ghostwriting has expanded into ‘ghost-producing’, as it emerges that huge DJ stars like David Guetta probably don’t produce their music alone.

Superstar DJ David Guetta is most frequently mentioned as someone who's likely using ghost-producers. On his first three albums, almost every track credit lists French house pioneer Joachim Garraud as co-writer and producer. A notable DJ in his own right, Garraud wasn't even mentioned in the marketing, which was odd.”

London producer Ben Gomori also wrote an extremely interesting article about ghost producing. He fairly explores the needs of producers such as Timo Garcia and Maceo Plex, both successful in their own right, and experienced ghost producers. They needed to increase their own income by working anonymously on other people’s projects, and see the pros and the cons of the issue – of course some artists can come up with great ideas that they don’t know how to realise. Equally, the industry is deceptive if it allows artists to get a good name that they haven’t fully earnt.

What emerges most strongly is Gomori’s personal passion for the art of electronic music production. He implies that if you are not willing or able to learn and adapt to modern production technology, you don’t really deserve to become famous for being a  ‘DJ’ or a ‘producer’.

What do you think? Is it acceptable in any type of music for huge stars to have minimal involvement in the actual craft of their trade? Or is it a case of ‘people just want to hear good music’, and don’t actually care who made it? Should all ghostwriters be acknowledged, or is it ok for them to accept payoffs to keep silent?

It’s a complicated issue, and we’d love to hear your thoughts!

problematic. Is it ok to use a ghostwriter and not admit it?

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