How Widespread Is Ghostwriting in Music and How OK With It Should You Be?

Last month’s Meek vs Drake bunfight left a question mark hanging over the link between authorship and authenticity.

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Aug 19 2015, 10:49am

In 2012 Damien Hirst responded to complaints that of the 1440 existing instances of his famous spot paintings, he’d only painted five himself. “It amazes me that I still get asked these questions,” he said. “You have to look at it as if the artist is an architect, and we don’t have a problem that great architects don’t actually build the houses.”

It’s a defence most of us would understand. We accept that Obama doesn’t write those zingers we see endlessly shared on Facebook. We don’t mind that TV presenters are reading from an autocue they’re seeing for the first time. But in music, there’s still a question mark hanging over the link between authorship and authenticity, and last month’s Meek vs Drake bunfight — easily the most blogged-about rap feud of the year — shone a harsh light on that question mark.

A decent ghostwriter wouldn’t have stood for the ludicrous mixed metaphor in the previous sentence. It’s easy to see the appeal of bringing in outside help, but it’s also easy to see why many consider it unethical. By the time Meek was accusing Drake of having been pissed on in a cinema it was clear things were getting out of hand, but the debacle did raise one question: if diss tracks routinely throw up all manner of unsavoury accusations, what is it about Meek’s original accusation — simply, that Drake didn’t write his own raps — that struck such a nerve?

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“Credibility is key in hip-hop,” says 1Xtra’s Music Manager, Austin Daboh. “In R&B, for instance, the majority of the stories are about love and sex, they can relate to anyone. But 50 Cent rapping about being shot nine times: that’s personal. Rap lyrics should be hyper-personal and hyper-localised. So I can see why ghostwriting would be a problem for some people.”

Still, tales of ghostwritten tracks are legion, to the point where many view ghostwriting as an apprenticeship for upcoming MCs. Nas wrote on songs like "Getting’ Jiggy Wit’ It" for Will Smith, Method Man contributed to ODB’s debut album and Jay-Z, famously, has written for both Dr Dre and Bugs Bunny. A couple of years ago Killer Mike talked to XXL about his own experience of writing for other artists. “I wrote the record for them from their perspective,” he reasoned. “To me, that makes sense, and that’s more than appropriate.” He identified a distinction with pop — “when it comes to pop hits or radio records, it really doesn’t matter who is writing it, ‘cause it’s almost like a commercial or a jingle.”

In 2015 that assumption, that people don’t care about credibility in pop, may no longer be true. If you look at the pop acts who’ve blown up since Lady Gaga pushed songwriting to the fore six years ago — from Taylor Swift and Lorde to FKA Twigs and Halsey — you’ll find that more fully-rounded auteurism is filling holes that ten years ago might have been populated by artists expected merely to turn up and sing a few songs. The inclusion, as bonus tracks on 1989, of voice memos purporting to be Taylor Swift’s early song ideas, shows just how important songwriting is to her brand. (And these days the more traditional type of one-man enterprise like Jake Bugg or Ed Sheeran is expected to deliver radio hits — which may partly explain why both those artists, and many of their peers, also work with co-writers.)

Noisey recently spoke to one UK pop manager who was unimpressed by this turn of events. “I saw a popstar on TV once going, ‘I’m writing my new album myself’, and I just thought, you stupid fool - you’re a decent popstar, but you’re not a writer. If you’ve got Max Martin writing you a song, why turn it down? The fact is that performing and writing are different talents, but they’re both talents.” He added, slightly presumptuously: “You’re a journalist. You wouldn’t claim to be able to crochet a duvet.”

But pop’s move towards a more rockist interpretation of credibility isn’t open for debate: it’s already happened, and you can understand why some artists are keen not to credit writers, or to insist that they are credited even if their sole contribution was managing to record their vocal while not falling over.

“You can have an instance where a backing track is played in a session, you’ll write to it, then the person who played it goes, ‘Oh, five people made this backing track’,” explains Fraser T Smith, who’s worked with Adele, Sam Smith and Lily Allen, as well as a number of UK MCs like Kano and Tinchy Stryder. This is how, say, 21 people were involved in Kanye’s "All Day". “You’ll especially find that sort of situation in hip-hop and dance music. What was once classed as production is now classed as writing,” Smith adds.

It's one thing to have a song like "All Day" where you quietly credit all your collaborators, but for it to truly be ghostwriting - there has to be some degree of misinformation. Depending on your definition of ghosting, adding your name to a song’s credits can be as significant as taking someone else’s name off. Both have the same purpose: passing off someone else’s work as your own, which will benefit either your credibility, your bank balance, or both.

Fraser T Smith, our UK pop manager, and Austin from 1Xtra each told Noisey that ghostwriting was far more prevalent in the US than in the UK, so let’s speak to someone in the US to find out what’s going on. On the blower is Chris Anokute, an A&R executive who’s worked at Island Def Jam, Capitol and Universal Motown. He currently manages Bebe Rexha, the artist and writer responsible for the Rihanna hook in Eminem’s "Monster". “Well,” he begins. “I’ve never been in the position where we as a major label would hire someone to ghostwrite. That’s just illegal! Nobody’s going to do that!”

But — and this is a big but — he does talk of ‘work for hire’ arrangements, where someone’s involvement in a song is bought out. This is roughly equatable to not having to give 20p to the plumber who fixed your toilet every time you take a dump.

“How it works is that we’d just pay you out for the songs, and we’d own the rights,” explains Anokute, who’s worked on music for Katy Perry, Rihanna, Joss Stone and many others. “It’s a business transaction. I remember once there was a 19-year-old from Finland; they’d written an incredible song. We offered them $10,000 for the song and they signed the song over to us. It wasn’t credited to them, because it was a work for hire arrangement.”

Tracks like that can then be credited however one pleases. Anokute gives an example of how those writing and production credits you see on liner notes and Wikipedia, and which many take as gospel, are open to manipulation. “We don’t have to credit any producer on any album,” he states. “It’s not the law, it’s a courtesy. Imagine I’m Berry Gordy at Motown Records. I hire Smokey Robinson to produce a record, I pay for the master, I can put it out as ‘produced by Berry Gordy’.”

I ask Fraser T Smith what would happen if one of his songs ended up in the hands of — to pluck a name out of the air — Beyoncé. He’s presented with a hypothetical scenario: she wants the song, but wants Fraser’s name taken off. “No,” Smith says. But is there room for financial negotiation? “No.” How about $5m cash? “No. Hand on heart. That sets a terrible precedent.” But he does make a concession. “I’m in a very fortunate position, having earned money from songs over the years. If you’re asking what I’d have done fifteen years ago, that’s a different question.”

And that’s a real question that faces a lot of producers, particularly in the electronic sphere, where ghostproduction is as problematic as ghostwriting is for the Drakes of this world. Chris Anokute explains: “There’ll be some kid from Sweden who’s a genius on Ableton Live, and some DJ will give them $50,000 for 20 beats. They want to get into the business, so they say yes. But nobody puts a gun to your head and says sign over the music. You do have a choice. You can say no.”

When Martin Garrix was accused of using a ghostproducer on "Animals", he responded with a livestream that went on for nearly two hours during which he showed, in mind-numbing detail, every step of the song’s creation. The plot then thickened when Garrix admitted that although he hadn’t used a ghostproducer for his own tracks, he was signed to Spinnin’ Records after he’d ghostproduced another hit on the label.

Chris Anokute is not a fan of all this. “DJs need to stop having ghost producers,” he states. He says one huge DJ and “artist” is particularly shameless. “He doesn’t even know how to operate the equipment. He’ll have 3-5 ghost producers in the studio, every time I see him. Doing all the work. I know this for certain. For $5,000 a track he’s taking all the rights; he makes $1m then none of the kids get paid. But he gets the credit because he’s the face, the DJ, the brand.”

That might sound lazy, but there’s an even quicker and cheaper way for aspiring artists to fill up their SoundCloud accounts. Sites called things like EDMghostproducer, ProducerFactory and Precision Writtens offer tracks and verses for prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. You can tell them what you want, and they’ll make it. If your lack of musical ability is matched by a total absence of ideas, no problem: you can just buy an off-the-shelf track from their catalogue then chuck it on Beatport under your own name.

A couple of years ago Chicago-based house publication 5 Magazine ran a detailed story about ProducerFactory which opened with the line, “This is what rock bottom looks like”; a follow-up post delved even further into the company’s offering.

“Buying an 'off the shelf' song — one which everyone can hear in advance, and thus knows was written by someone other than you — is so numbingly stupid,” Terry Matthew, 5’s Managing Editor, says today. “I would be shocked if they made any money off of it at all. I came across one of their file storage sites that they mistakenly let Google index and discovered that alongside the ProducerFactory contracts, they were making marketing materials for what appeared to be the family business selling farm equipment. I hope they stuck to their day job, too. There’s no shame in selling tractors.”


The website of EDMGhostproducer

Over at Precision Writtens, a professional ghostwriting agency who specialise in hip-hop, a chap called Alex King (whose emails, appropriately, have someone else’s name in their signature) is almost endearingly bolshy. “We set up because we saw a chance to make money,” he tells Noisey in one email. “Whatever people can do to beat out their competition and get ahead, they're going to do it. It's that simple.”

It would be putting it mildly to say King doesn’t have much time for naysayers. “Dumb people can argue all day about whether or not ghostwriting is right or wrong because it really doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that ghostwriting is the future of hip-hop because either you get a skilled team of writers behind you, or you get run over by another MC who does.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this line of argument doesn’t impress everyone. “We should be wary,” Fraser T Smith adds. “There shouldn’t be a precedent where you can always get someone to write your verses. There should always be artists like Kendrick Lamar who are purist about what they do, why they do it and how they do it; who’ll raise the bar and who younger artists can aspire to be.”

Still, if someone’s losing their shit in a club, does it matter who wrote a song? You’re not going to go up to the DJ and demand hard copies of all pertinent legal documents before you have a little bop. Terry from 5 Magazine draws an analogy with doping in sport. “Many will say there’s no harm other than what the player is doing to himself,” he says. “Others will claim it disrespects the game, but more importantly has a corrupting effect on everyone that comes into contact with it. I don’t like being sanctimonious but you just can't disrespect something people love like this and expect to walk away unscathed.”

A different matter is how Drake will walk away from the recent accusations. “I don’t think any of this should take away from Drake,” says Austin from 1Xtra. “I mean I’ve heard the reference tracks, there’s no doubt there’s some similarity, but we don’t know timelines, we don’t know the studio process. There are people who’ll look at him with a side eye but I think once the dust has settled, Meek will brush the dust off his shoulder and so will Drake.”

At the heart of this topic is one question: is it right, or justifiable, to mislead fans about what those fans should reasonably expect from an artist? But behind closed doors that sense of authenticity is often replaced by a question of believability. That’s the difference between whether an artist is responsible for their output, and whether an artist can convincingly be portrayed as having been responsible. We’ll never know how much music exists in the gap between those two points. Maybe, in ghostwriting as in so many other aspects of life, the only real rule is this: if you’re going to do it, don’t get caught.

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