Hit songwriter Shelly Peiken takes techspoitation of artists to task in ‘Confessions of a Serial Songwriter’
By Bliss Bowen
“Hit songwriter” sounds oxymoronic, considering the process by which commercial pop songs are frequently constructed. But Shelly Peiken belongs to that echelon of “career songwriters” who’ve made a living crafting songs for other artists.
“I was actively getting up every day and writing and pitching to artists,” she recalls, estimating that she would write or co-write 30 songs a year. The sassy writer’s best-known cuts are “Bitch” (Meredith Brooks), “Who You Are” (Jessie J), “Almost Doesn’t Count” (Brandy), “What a Girl Wants” and “Come on Over” (Christina Aguilera).
A short list of other artists for whom she’s composed includes Aaliyah, Natasha Bedingfield, Joe Cocker, Natalie Cole, Miley Cyrus, Celine Dion, Selena Gomez, Gladys Knight, Lisa Loeb, Reba McEntire, the Pretenders, Britney Spears, Keith Urban, and the cast of “Glee.”
Now, 25 years into her career, Peiken has become choosier in her projects. As she spells out in her witty, compulsively readable book “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter,” she still joyfully sings along at the top of her lungs to songs she hears on her car radio.
But something fundamental has shifted in the way mainstream pop music is created, largely as a consequence of technological changes that continue to rewire the industry.
The thrill of connecting with a song that perfectly encapsulates the listener’s own circumstances — that three-minute rush that addicted Peiken to songs and songwriting in the first place — is rooted in very human experience.
She writes poignantly about how the Beatles and singer-songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon “were all able to reach a place inside of me with their self-examination, honesty, incongruities, longings and whimsical pleasures.”
But when songs are treated as templates with interchangeable parts, rather than as vehicles for meaningful personal expression, their capacity to connect deeply with listeners is undercut, which in turn shortens their shelf life.
That lack of relationship between co-writers — the trust-building collaboration Peiken dubs “SongSex” — affects the quality of music and disenfranchises songwriters from the process of song creation, she argues.
You write passionately about how individual songs transport you. What current songs or artists grab your heart?
Deerhunter. I think this girl Alessia Cara is really, really talented. Brandy Clark — I just love her.
As a hands-on mom, do you see kids seeking out songs they relate to, or do they relate to music differently?
I think that they love music and songs. But it’s more recyclable than — gosh, I hear myself say things like ‘than it used to be,’ and I want to shoot myself. But that’s what I have to compare to. I think we had more allegiance — but not for the sake of allegiance. The quality of artists’ work stayed pretty high, and we kept relating to them and they became a part of our blood, part of the soundtrack to our life. It will be interesting to see how many artists that are really big today are still really big in five years.
Nashville’s corporate tradition of “songwriting by appointment” sounds Victorian in comparison to the open calls you describe, with “topliners” — lyric and melody writers — sharing choice lines and hooks that a programmer then cherry-picks, piecing together the best parts of songs while claiming 50% of the songwriting credit. Are open calls unique to LA?
I think that’s more an urban world. I’ve heard writing to tracks is seeping into the culture in Nashville as well, but there is a community there that is so very, very into the idea that the song comes first.
“Lazer,” a producer, gave you a backing track to write words and a melody to; when you successfully pitched the song to an A&R rep, Lazer’s manager emailed you that he was using the track with a different “topline.” Seems like songwriters need creative prenups before they even sit down to write.
That’s right. But if I went on a date with a man and he said, ‘Look, I want to discuss the terms right now,’ I’d go home. It’s really a groove breaker, if you start discussing all that stuff at your writing session. I don’t want to, so I’m not going to write with people that I can’t trust to be monogamous at least with that song and that lyric. To not talk about it, just give it to somebody else? It’s like a whole new world.
What kind of feedback have you received for those chapters showing how professional etiquette has changed?
A lot of young people think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how it is.’ They don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s just a whole new world of manners and ethics, and it’s pretty wild.
With everyone scrambling to survive financially, the trend toward more and more co-writers seems counterintuitive.
You would think. But younger people who are coming into it all have other jobs. And unless they have a really big hit, and a decent piece of a really big hit or a few pieces of many, they’re always going to have to have another job.
We do have to change the way songwriters get paid for streaming. Because terrestrial is going away and soon it’s all going to be streaming, and we need to be paid for that. But even right now, if streaming were quadrupled, it’s not going to bring back the middle class, and it’s not going to change the fact that we need to have
a day job.
The biggest change in songwriters not being able to support themselves only by songwriting anymore is the fact that album sales are no longer. If you had a song that you wrote by yourself and published yourself — which was unusual; usually you’d write with somebody — there was a nine-cent statutory rate, which meant every album sold you’d get nine cents from; if that album went platinum, which it very often did, one album cut earned you $90,000. If you had one of those a year, you were fine.
Do you think the tech community has mischaracterized the creative community’s attitude toward technology?
They’re trying to make it look like we want to break the internet, like we want to take people’s music away. We don’t think music should be free; they think music should be free. But the thing is, and this is what I keep repeating, they’re making so much money off of that music they say should be free.
Creative people aren’t against streaming; we just want our fair share. If we’re going to go into business with a tech company, and the tech company is only in business because of our content, then they should share [the proceeds]. That’s not old school. That’s fair.
Shelly Peiken reads from “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter” and performs some of the songs discussed in its pages at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Il Moro Restaurant, 11400 W. Olympic Blvd., West L.A. Call (310) 575-3530 or visit shellypeiken.com.