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Editorial: You Were Born to Write Songs, Not Twist Knobs

*Photo: The Chainsmokers at Ultra Music Festival

Note from the Author: Hey TrapStyle fam. I’m Sky Stack, founder and content creator over at Pariah Reign. I’ll be sharing my ideas with you on TrapStyle’s site from time to time.

This article is written for a very specific type of producer. This is written for a producer who wants to go mainstream, and is questioning where to put focus. This article by no means diminishes the role of engineering in making good music. It’s massively important for songs to sound great. However, engineering tracks yourself should only be a focus after you’ve mastered songwriting. Until then, outsource, and focus on what’s important–the music. Return to what matters, and write songs.

This week, The Chainsmokers broke the internet with a video posted to their Facebook Page. While playing in the Phillipines, The Chainsmokers were deafened a roar of voices singing along to their explosive single, “Closer”.  Check it out below: it’s definitely a site to behold.

After the video went live, it filled my Facebook News Feed to the brim. Aspiring EDM producers were sharing the video left and right, hoping that they would attain that level of impact. “Goals af”, one would say. “THIS WILL BE ME”, another rang in. Wild-eyed electronic musician lit up with the idea of this massive singalong. It’s a fantasy to be known around the world, connecting with people near and far. It’s every musician’s dream to have such wide-spreading music that the voices of a foreign country can drown out a festival-sized sound system.

But unfortunately, most of them will never get there. Or at least, not if they don’t focus on the right things.

Pareto’s Principle: The 80/20 Rule

What 20% of actions produce 80% of the results?

Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto stumbled across an interesting concept in 1896. Pareto noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. He observed that 20% of the pea plants in his garden produced 80% of the total pea pods. He wrote a paper discussing the idea that a small percent of inputs controls a large percent of outputs. The minority owns the majority.

Entrepreneurs latched onto this idea and purposes it into the 80/20 Rule. The 80/20 states this: figure out the 20% of actions that make 80% of the impact, and do them. Prioritize what works, and eliminate, or delegate the rest. It’s important to focus on the key actions that produce results because time is limited. Unlike money, we can’t pick up an extra 20 minutes to our day, or 10 years to our lives. We have to maximize our efforts because time is short–and what better way than to focus on what moves the needle.

I’ll refer to songwriting as the 80/20 of wide-stream music success. While it is not everything, substantially increasing your musical capabilities can make a large impact on your career.

The Plague of the Clean Mixdown

Are you a musician or an audio engineer? (Hint: You can only pick one, for now.)

I love to poll aspiring producers on what they would like to improve on in the near future. The most common answer, aside from the usual social media and booking minutiae is this: getting a clean mixdown.

I’ll say it here, for all to read. It is not important for you to know how to flawlessly mix your music. It is important for you to write flawless music. Not yet, anyway. If you are a producer, that means that you are a musician–not an audio engineer. Sure, because your music exists digitally, you should have access to a larger vocabulary of processing, sound design, and effects. But, if it is more important for you to compress a snare than write good music, you are losing the game. You should be just as much of a musician if you are using FL Studio, a guitar, or a trash can because the talent is knowing how to compose, not necessarily knowing the deepest technical aspects of the craft.


Why Engineering Isn’t As Important As You’re Lead to Believe

  1. You lose creative flow by switching between composing and mixing. The processes used to create and edit are conducted in different parts of the brain. As you switch between the two processes, your brain has to play catch-up, and reorient itself into thinking in creative terms or analytical terms. Because of this, your efficiency for creating a track is stifled when you jump between the two. You can also get lost in edit mode, spending hours trying to EQ a sound while the rest of your project is unfinished.
  2. You can hire out mixing and mastering. And it’s cheap, too. Why learn to be okay at something when you can hire someone who’s already great? Services like Fiverr can make mix and master extremely affordable. Also, if you know producers who master their own work, chances are they would master your tunes for a price.
  3. Sound design is less relevant due to good preset packs. Because of the abundance of sample pack companies, the emphasis on learning good sound design is much less important today than 3 years ago. Think about it: when everybody has access to good sounds, the difference lies in what people do with them. Thus, songwriting becomes much more important than sound design. The top producers of this era will rise because of their composition abilities, while the rest will lie at the bottom with still-perfect sounding saws and chords.
  4. You can learn engineering as you go. You’ll pick up new ways to make and process sounds as you get further along. Don’t feel bad about sending your stems out to someone else while you start.

 Get Your Own Arena Sing-Along

Since pulling out on the scene in 2014 with “Selfie”, The Chainsmokers have been on a spree of music that drifts into pop-culture. From “Kanye”, to “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Roses”, they constantly slay the charts, for a variety of reasons–but one stands out.

The Chainsmokers are less like typical DJs, and more like traditional songwriters playing in an electronic medium. Looking over the uber-successful acts of the last 5 years–Porter Robinson, Skrillex, Diplo, Kaskade, Kygo, Galantis–the prowess of songwriting emerges. In fact, both of the members of Galantis are successful Top 40 writers–one co-wrote “Toxic” for Britney Spears, while the other co-wrote “I Love It” for Charlie XCX. It’s no wonder they took off so quickly–they’ve already mastered songwriting.

It’s almost as if these producers are playing a different game not by making good electronic music, but rather good music that happens to be electronic. If sent back in time 50 years, The Chainsmokers would still break out with guitars and drums instead of Ableton Live and CDJs–because the vein of songwriting, of expressing human emotion via music, is constant. The traditions of songwriting from The Beatles, country superstars of the 80’s, and even mid 2000’s pop, are alive in the veins of the top electronic producers in the game.


Leveling Up Your Songwriting

I write a lot about a close friend who recently graduated from ICON Collective. Having not attended the school yet, I draw on his experiences and trust the lessons he’s learned. One night when we was visiting from LA, we walked around downtown Boise and chatted about the experiences he was going through at school.

“Yea man, so I’m in a songwriting class,” he said.

I looked at him, surprised and a little confused.

“We have to write, sing, and record a song every week for a grade. All we can use is a piano and our voice. No processing, no effects, nothing else. If you’re out of pitch, you’re out of pitch. You can’t hide behind anything.”

I cocked and eyebrow. “How is it helping your music?”

“You have no idea how much it is helping.”

Out of the four quarters in the ICON Collective program, songwriting classes were mandatory for two. Half the year was spent learning how to compose, arrange, and progress songs.

Create music that’s accessible to non-EDM listeners

Remember when every hardcore band was trying to be harder than the band next to them? There were (and I guess still are) massive pissing contests in metal music about who is harder, more brutal, more metal. Likewise, electronic producers do the same–making the most brutal dubstep drop, heaviest trap beat, or most repetitive tech house groove–so niche, that only appreciators of electronic music could enjoy. While it is great to master a niche craft, it does not guarantee the radio play, the wide acceptance, or the overseas arena shows that many producers want. If you really want this type of success, stop pursuing the trappiest song ever. Instead, make something that’s phenomenal, and lowkey enough for your mom to like it. Good music doesn’t have to be extreme. It just has to be extremely good.

Make vocals a highlight, not an afterthought

I recently saw a Facebook status that went something like this.

“Need: Someone to drop bars on this tune. Must be in by end of today.”

In a world where EDM rap verses recycle Drake lines into a Blue condenser, those who can properly do vocals and lyrics have a major advantage. Producers like Slushii, PRXZM, Disco’s Over, have skyrocketed their careers by deeply paying attention to the words said and how they’re sung. Record an actual vocalist–not just a friend who sings. Use good recording habits like actually recording double-tracks and harmonies to make vocals appear full and beautiful.

Understand the core of good songwriting.

Go back and research the best songwriting practices throughout the last 50 years of music. The basics like chord progressions, song structure, and vocal arrangement do not change. Go onto YouTube and watch everything songwriting related. Country, alternative, bubblegum pop–it doesn’t matter. There are hundreds of hours of lectures, demonstrations, and seminars that are free if you have the hunger to find them. Consume everything on music theory that you possibly can. Learn about chord relations, inversions, developing melodies, counter melodies. Discover chord tones and passing tones–when to play, and when to rest. If you expect to be an expert musician, become an expert on music.

Create imagery, summon emotions

If you watch the music video for “Closer”, it’s almost impossible not to be tracked back to a time in your life. The creative message is so clear: a young, scorching love that burned bright before going down in flames. It’ll remind you of a summer romance, or perhaps the one that got away. Being able to create strong emotional responses in people is at the core of great songwriting. If every note feels as if it’s bursting with feeling, every chord overflowing with soul, the music will hardly go unnoticed.

[The following are a few suggestions from the same friend who graduated from ICON Collective]

Find a songwriting partner

“Look in the Billboard Top 100, and find me a song that is written by one person–not that every song in the top 100 is “good” but technically speaking…it is.”  It’s true. Remember that both members of Galantis are part of songwriting teams for pop music, and the both of them write together. Swedish House Mafia wasn’t one talented musician, but three. The DIY attitude of electronic music has almost exclusively killed working in duos, to it’s detriment. Compose, bounce ideas, and revise with a talented friend in order to see your potential skyrocket.

Learn to play and sing

Play the piano (don’t program the midi) and sing (you don’t have to sing well) at the same time. These are the core elements to every great song. You’ll have a harder time trying to make them gel together if you separate the two–and time is money. Create a unified piece of work by actually having your body put the two together. You will know if it works or not.

Just f*cking keep writing…

Writing a song only takes a couple hours at most–a good one only takes about an hour. (See the Team Supreme Doc with Djembe Djembe talking about speed-writing). There are only so many combination of chords you can put together. Just trust yourself, actually feel what you are writing, and just don’t stop doing it.

Record everything

If you have an idea, get it down. Whip out your iPhone, open up Voice Memos, and bust out a line. In the busyness of modern life, it is easy to forget the little nuggets of inspiration. If something dope comes to you, make a way for it to stay with you.

Well, this has been fun! If you enjoyed this article, drop a hello to me on Twitter. I’ll look forward to contributing here on TrapStyle.com again!

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