Not everyone has the opportunity to become famous, and songwriters are painfully aware of this fact. Popular singers monopolize the attention of the public, while songwriters work unacknowledged in the background cranking out hit songs. The intensive creative process undertaken by songwriters is rarely addressed by the music industry in favor of parading around the finished product. NBC’s new show “Songland” brings the process of songwriting to light and finally gives songwriters the recognition they deserve.
At first glance, a TV competition show concerning the process of songwriting might not seem very compelling. However, the anticipation of the competition, the introduction of up-and-coming songwriters and the famous guest stars make for an intriguing program.
On “Songland,” the judging panel holds three songwriters/producers: Shane McAnally, a Grammy-winning songwriter, Ryan Tedder, producer and lead singer for OneRepublic, and Ester Dean, producer for Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. The fourth person on the panel is the star musical guest and has included John Legend, will.i.am and Kelsea Ballerini.
In the program, four songwriters perform their original songs in front of the panel with the hopes that their song will be chosen by the musical guest. If chosen, the musical guest will record the winning song and include it in their upcoming album.
After the initial pitch, in which one of the contestants is voted off, songwriters have the opportunity to collaborate with the producers. The relationship between contestants and producers is reminiscent of the coach pairing on “The Voice,” with each producer guiding and rooting for their mentee. After a seemingly brief revision period during which the vocals and beats from the original songs are tweaked, songwriters perform their perfected melodies. Having witnessed what the songwriters have to offer, the musical guest selects the song they believe best fits their musical aesthetic and future album plans.
John Legend stars as the musical guest on the introductory episode of “Songland.” The four contestants represent a variety of different nationalities, ethnicities and musical genres.
Max Embers, a German immigrant, presented a song titled “Back Home,” which detailed his struggles with homesickness. With his solemn yet upbeat song, Embers made it through to the second round where the true nature of the songwriting industry was made strikingly visible. Embers’ coach, Ryan Tedder, stripped the song of its original lyrics and melodies and replaced them with pop-inspired beats that he believed would most closely coincide with John Legend’s musical taste. This situation was obviously difficult for Embers because the song he had poured his soul into was changed with a wave of the hand, purely to make it more digestible for the star and ultimately the listening public.
Sam James, another of the night’s contestants, gave insight into the difficulties of pursuing a career in songwriting. James had spent the past 10 years playing in bars four to five nights a week, in addition to working his day job. His situation reflects the reality that most songwriters must have an additional job besides songwriting in order to have a livable income.
Ultimately, the winner of Episode 1 was Bahamas-born Tebby Burrows, who works for a marketing firm by day and writes songs at night. Her emotional song “We Need Love” calls out injustices and inequalities, specifically concerning race. Because Burrows was chosen to have her song recorded by John Legend, she received recognition and opportunities that would have been previously out of reach.
The season’s second episode ushered in another group of four relatively unknown singer-songwriters hungry for recognition and ready to compete for the attention of artist will.i.am. Two of this week’s contestants were under 20, so their appearance on “Songland” was critical for their budding careers as songwriters, a profession where who you know determines whether you will succeed. Charisma, a 16-year-old from India, presented an upbeat pop ballad titled “Invincible” while Ray Goren, an 18-year-old who has been touring the country in his pickup truck, delivered a soulful ballad called “Oh Lord.”
Goren was kicked off the show in the first round, but will.i.am offered to be featured on the track as a way of giving the struggling songwriter a lifeline in the form of a powerful connection. Throughout the episode, will.i.am acknowledged the financial difficulties experienced by songwriters in the music industry and his decision to choose the remaining three contestants’ revised songs for the Black Eyed Peas album reflects his desire to give songwriters credibility.
The third episode of “Songland” featured country star Kelsea Ballerini as the musical guest judge. All four artists were men that presented original pop compositions, so it was necessary for the contestants and their collaborative producers to revise the songs to match Kelsea’s high pitch and country persona. The revising process portrayed on the show is much shorter when compared to actual song editing procedures, but “Songland” does provide a glimpse of how songwriters often sacrifice the originality of their works to meet the music industry’s standards for success.
For her next single, Ballerini chose the song “Better Luck Next Time,” an upbeat pop song with a country hook, written by Darius Coleman. Also, as a side note, all the winning songs are available to stream after the episodes.
“Songland” is not a perfect representation of the world of songwriting, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. It portrays how stoic songwriters pour their hearts and souls into a song, just to watch another artist get credit when the song reaches its utmost potential. By including a diverse array of relatively unknown songwriters, the show inserts representation into the cookie cutter music industry. “You can be fifth place on the Voice and still be more famous than the most famous songwriter,” says Tedder, one of the show’s producers. “It’s time for songwriters to have a voice. We will be a lot harder to ignore once we do.”