In 2019, songwriters and producers are putting themselves forward
From Benny Blanco and Jack Antonoff through to Metro Boomin and Murda Beatz, artists typically behind-the-scenes are more visible than ever.
Cast your mind back ten years, and have a think about how many producers or songwriters you could name that at the time, were writing the biggest hits of the year. Swedish songwriting powerhouse Max Martin is perhaps an obvious one, notorious for writing 22 Billboard Hot 100 number-one hits since 1999 (including Britney Spears' 3 and Kelly Clarkson's My Life Would Suck Without You in 2009), as well as his numerous protégés or "disciples", the most-recognised and infamous being the controversial Dr. Luke, who co-wrote My Life Would Suck Without You with Max Martin in 2009, as well as being a behind-the-scenes force in several other hits that year - Flo Rida's Right Round and Miley's Party in the U.S.A. the most well-known. Outside of that, there was prolific hip-hop legend Timbaland - who released his Shock Value 2 record in 2009, which included several charting hits alongside Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado and Katy Perry - and perhaps RedOne, whose vocal tag you would've picked up on Lady Gaga's Just Dance, Poker Face, Bad Romance and Alejandro.
Outside of that, however, the artists that were behind-the-scenes of the stadium-selling chart-toppers of the time were basically unknown and unrecognised within the general population. They received basically no press recognition outside of industry-specific magazines and publications and you could never catch them touring in a vein even remotely comparable to the artists they work alongside and represent, meaning that unless they went down the Timbaland-esque route and released their own records - with their name and sound in the forefront and the big names attached as features - you probably never heard of the people writing your favourite pop star's songs unless you were really clued in.
It's a shame though because some of these people are incredibly talented, and if you learnt their names and combed through their production and/or songwriting discographies, chances are you could come across something gold. Flo Rida's Kesha-featuring Right Round was one of the first significant production credits for DJ Frank E (Justin Franks), who in the time since has worked with everyone from Madonna and Sky Ferreira to Kanye and The Lonely Island, while it was also co-written by Bruno Mars, the year before the now-GRAMMY Award-winning stadium-seller would release his debut single Just the Way You Are. Kanye West's Heartless saw hip-hop producer No I.D. break-out commercially for the first time, ultimately leading to him becoming Jay-Z's go-to production wizard. Keri Hilson's 2009 solo break-out Knock You Down strengthened the production discography of Timbaland protégé Danja (M.I.A. - Bad Girls, Nelly Furtado - Promiscuous, Ciara - Work), T.I.'s Live Your Life welcomed Just Blaze's first #1 Billboard hit, while Whatever You Like - along with Lil' Wayne's Lollipop - began the rise of hip-hop producer James Scheffer, whose later repertoire includes Beyoncé's Sweet Dreams right through to A$AP Rocky's LSD.
This is just the start - the list is essentially endless - but ten years later, in 2019, times are changing.
2019 bids the arrival of typically behind-the-scenes songwriters and producers to the limelight, and they're arriving quickly. The increasing visibility of those behind-the-scenes through platforms including Genius, Apple and Spotify (who recently allowed users to view full credits for songs on the app, as long as the artist and their record label are transparent with them) and the increasing desire to 'know' the names behind your favourite music (perhaps a by-product of 'stan culture', and a super fan's passion to know anything and everything about an artist and their music) is bringing these once-invisible musicians forward and giving them visibility and distinctness comparable to the artists they often work with. Music press is picking up these names and their voices and amplifying them - hip-hop publisher The FADER one to note, going as far to feature Atlanta hip-hop engineer Kesha Lee and Australian ex-pat Alex Hope - someone we'll talk more about in a second) - while programs like the Spotify Secret Genius Program offer songwriting camps and other incentives to those the streaming giant consider the 'next generation' of songwriting and production.
In turn, increasing opportunities and coverage means that more of these behind-the-scenes names are becoming recognised and visible within the public culture sphere. Canadian producer Frank Dukes is quickly becoming one of the most celebrated producers in the public eye, with credits for The Weeknd, Cardi B, Camila Cabello, Lorde, Frank Ocean and SZA within the last 24 months placing him in a unique position where his co-writes and productions are almost as highly-awaited as the stars he's writing for. There's also Ali Tamposi (Camila Cabello, Selena Gomez, Liam Payne) and Ben Billion (The Weeknd, Beyoncé), both apart of the Spotify Secret Genius Program along with Dukes, both leading the charge when it comes to the visibility of behind-the-scenes songwriters, the latter gaining the attention of The FADER, Billboard and more. The increased presence of songwriters and producers such as Dukes and Billion means that after decades of domination, there's more variety in the public eye than your Max Martin-and-co power-songwriters, driving the talk away from a small, but dominative group of songwriters and creating a scene that because of this variety, feels more versatile and ranged in both appearance and sound.
Last year, Spotify started displaying songwriting and production credits to songs.
Building off the success of their songwriting projects and their increasing public awareness, many of these once-behind-the-scenes musicians are now launching their own projects, following on from the likes of Mark Ronson - himself returning with himself in the forefront in Nothing Breaks Like A Heart (featuring Miley Cyrus), and a full album of self-described "sad bangers" to come - to find international acclaim and their own name or alternate aliases. Benny Blanco is arguably the most commercially successful of these within the last twelve months, pivoting from a songwriter and producer behind Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Major Lazer, Katy Perry and more to an artist with his name and image in the public eye; his debut single - the Halsey and Khalid-featuring Eastside - hitting platinum in the US and 5x platinum in Australia. Julia Michaels is a comparable success story, her 2017 single Issues finding similar commercial and critical success following years of songwriting with Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and good friend Selena Gomez, who features on Michaels' own upcoming album Inner Monologue Part I. There's LA singer-songwriter Sasha Sloan, launching her own project amongst a dense songwriting schedule alongside LANY, Charli XCX, ODESZA and more, and BloodPop - a prolific songwriter and producer who made his debut with 2017's stand-alone single Friends (feat. Justin Bieber) following work with HAIM, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Madonna.
"I do think there’s been an increased visibility of writers and producers over the past few years. There’s actually a culture of music fans now that focus on collaborators and writers which is really exciting," says Brett McLaughlin, also known as Leland, on the rising status of songwriters and producers over the last few years. "Songwriting and producing is now almost becoming a brand, especially online, which I think has positive and negative effects. Fans are genuinely interested in the process of how their favourite songs came together. Now, building your online following while building your catalogue has become a thing which I can’t say was the case five years ago." Leland is a songwriter reaping the benefits of an increased public presence, building his strengths and name through work with Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez, Charli XCX and Allie X, the latter of which, a songwriter herself, worked on Troye Sivan's triumphant Bloom record alongside Leland and others, to launch his own name - the hook-fuelled and catchy Middle Of A Heartbreak being his most recent release.
It's evident that his refined strength in songwriting has helped the Leland solo project blossom and strive - with connections, developed skill sets, and their knowledge of the music industry and changing scenes putting them at an advantage that many without that songwriting and/or production history may not have. "Working ‘behind-the-scenes’ has helped me to be my own editor - I’m so heavily involved in editing songs for other artists that I’ve been able to remind myself to not be too precious with my initial ideas," continues Leland, explaining how his time as a songwriter helped him launch his own project. "I also play my songs for my songwriter friends for feedback which is so so valuable. Being a songwriter gives me a freedom, because if I write a song that my friends don’t seem to be into, I can always write another one."
Jesse Saint John is another musician finding success with his own projects following years of songwriting and vocal credits behind-the-scenes. Initially working alongside the cult-followed Brooke Candy, Jesse has become a go-to songwriter over the past four years, working with Britney Spears, Camila Cabello, Lauv and Australia-bound Kim Petras while also building his own project. "I actually think social media is making [songwriters and producers] more apparent. Instagram has made a lot of “normal people” famous and a lot of famous people seem really normal, so it’s natural that the lines blur and the songwriter can become just as known as the artist," he says. "I think it’s evening out the field a bit. The artist and the facade and the hype aren’t as important as the song now. It used to be that there were sure-fire artists that even if the song was meh, it still would be a hit. Now it’s so uncertain, so the songwriter value goes up a lot."
Like Leland, a friend and songwriting peer of Jesse, the rising musician launched his own project last year, most recently putting out WHAT DO U LIKE - a single that oozes with the experimentalism and precision of a musician that just sounds like they've been a front-runner within the pop machine for years. "I’ve always been doing creative direction and developing artists on more than just the songwriting front, so when it came time for me to do my artist thing it felt really natural," he says on his transition to being an artist in the spotlight, and how his experience behind-the-scenes helped launch his own project last year. "I’m just me; I didn’t have to make a huge leap into 'being an artist'. It definitely helped me get my music to the right people and gave me a little audience, just because I had already built up a reputation in music. There was definitely a little expectation of what it might sound like based on my work for other artists, but I wouldn’t trade that for complete obscurity."
Sasha Sloan is another artist reaping the benefits of this changing shift within music culture, with the LA-based singer-songwriting launching her self-titled project in 2017, years after setting her name as one of EDM's go-to songwriters, working with names including Kaskade and Steve Aoki. "Yeah, I definitely agree," she answers, asked whether she believes behind-the-scenes songwriters and producers are becoming more visible in the public realm. "Honestly, I think it has a lot to do with the internet and the platforms that have been created for artists. Today you don’t need a label to release music. Artists can put out whatever they want independently which allows for complete creative freedom. Every songwriter and producer is an artist so it’s just up to them if they want to put it out there for the world to hear."
Today, she balances the realms of behind-the-scenes songwriting and being an artist with her image at the forefront, releasing her Loser EP last year in the midst of co-writes with John Legend, Nao, LANY, Tinashe, Charli XCX and more. "I can’t speak for anyone else but personally, I’ve felt freer to be myself. I think every songwriter/producer turned artist has a different goal. Some want to be the biggest in the world while others just want people to hear the stuff they make for themselves. Sometimes the songs you write for other people aren’t a true representation of who you are as a creative so when another songwriter has an artist project I really get a sense of what they can do," she says. "I think being behind the scenes helped me grow as a songwriter. I got to figure out who I am and what I want to say which was huge for me. I also got to meet the right collaborators in a very organic way which made me feel more comfortable when it came to opening up in the studio. It kind of happened by accident for me but I’m really glad it worked out the way it did."
In Australia, we're seeing much of the same change. Once more recognised under her Paige IV alias, Melbourne singer-songwriter Sarah Aarons is now one of the world's most in-demand writers, scoring a Billboard #1 single with Zedd's The Middle while also working on tracks with everyone from Khalid and MØ to The Rubens, Peking Duk and Ruel. There's also Alex Hope, another Australian ambassador for songwriting with co-writes alongside Troye Sivan, Years & Years, Broods and more. While both these names have already left Australia in search of international acclaim (something they're definitely finding, Sarah Aarons just got nominated for a GRAMMY - just casually), they're influencing a horde of up-and-comers following their footsteps, like Melbourne radio host and songwriter Maddy Rowe - who has songwriting credits alongside Maribelle, Young Franco and Sam Bluer to her ever-growing catalogue.
Gold Coast-raised producer Mark Landon - better known as M-Phazes - is someone that has seen this cultural shift first-hand over the years, working as producer and songwriting for Demi Lovato, Amy Shark, Alison Wonderland, Eminem, Illy, Meg Mac and more - the list goes on - while also working on his solo project, following up his recent collaborations with Wonderland, Ruel and Daniel Johns with When We Were Young, a late-2018 tease at his future featuring Empire Of The Sun's Luke Steele. "I think there is definitely an increased visibility [of producers]. With things like social media and YouTube, people behind-the-scenes are making themselves more visible, and therefore, the general public and media are way less ignorant to how a song is put together," he says. "I think songwriters are starting to fight for fairer treatment - people like Ross Golan and Justin Tranter are spearheading huge movements towards writers getting what they are owed which is a great thing. I think the visibility is probably contributing to way more people realising they can get into songwriting and producing and not having to 'be the artist'."
While Landon admits that working as a producer and songwriter has helped "form relationships with artists" for his solo project ("Most of the people who feature on the songs I release as a solo artist are good friends and frequent collaborators of mine," he says), he's particularly excited about the effect of this shift on Australian music - something we've already seen the success of through people like Sarah Aarons and Alex Hope. "I think the door is wide open for Aussies to make it on the world stage as songwriters/producers, and there are great resources available like APRA/AMCOS - who are really helping young songwriters get their foot in the international door," he says. "Being Australian is almost an advantage over here in LA because most of the time, you’re viewed as someone with different ideas and a fresh outlook on music."
It marks an incredibly exciting time for music - both internationally and in Australia - and this shift is an inspiring by-product of a changing industry. Hip-hop producers - Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz, Mike WiLL Made-It - are putting out records with their productions in the limelight, enlisting big-name collaborators for guest features that typically, overshadow brilliant productions worth celebrating. It'll be great to see this happen in pop music too. For example, Jack Antonoff's intricate and bold percussion has become somewhat fabled through releases alongside Lorde, Lana Del Rey and St Vincent, and while his Bleachers project is an embodiment of the songwriter/producer in a solo form, imagine an album with Antonoff's productions in the front; echoing drums and gentle melodies pushing the limit while friends - Lorde, Lana, Taylor Swift - compliment his creation, not overshadow it. What a time that will be.