Ghostwriting article in Mixmag
An article about ghostwriting in dance music which I wrote for Mixmag, published Nov 2012 and since taken off line.
“First of all, I ain't even wanna make this shit
There's a lot of rap cats out here faking the shit
I'm a ghostwriter, I'm the cat you don't see
I write hits for rappers you like and charge 'em a fee
Yo don't get me wrong dog, it's the cheddar that counts
But fuck that nigga ****** 'cos his fuckin' cheque bounced”
Mad Skillz 'Ghostwriter'
When a songwriter pens a song for a recording artist, it's generally publicly acknowledged. In most cases, their name will be included in the official recording credits. There have, of course, been incidences where cynical record labels have paid off the songwriters to keep shtum and to waive all rights to recognition in order to make their recording artist seem more talented than they really are. As the Mad Skillz quote above explains, many big-name rappers have their lyrics written for them by a 'ghostwriter'; lyrics to which they will put their name after paying for the privilege. But at least these rappers actually perform the lyrics that have been penned 'in their name' (Dr. Dre being one of the most famous examples). Deceptive, yes, but at they are still bringing these creations to life with something usually resembling a modicum of talent.
Most of this is common knowledge. What isn't common knowledge, however, is that some of the biggest names in house and techno - and further afield in electronic music - have tracks entirely ghostwritten for them by other producers, with quite literally no input of their own whatsoever. I'd been hearing tales of some of the biggest names in trance music having production teams behind their names for years, but I naively thought that the underground house and tech scene was far too authentic, genuine, credible and brimming with passion and integrity for it to be prevalent there. How wrong I was. The list I've heard of the guilty parties – cited by both ghostwriters and industry friends and colleagues of ghostwriters – is pretty shocking. From label bosses from some of the biggest imprints in Germany and the UK, to upcoming producers on the London underground making a name for themselves on respected labels, to people in Manchester aiming to dupe the acclaimed imprint that asked them to remix one of their tracks, the practice is rife.
Aspiring 'producers' have been working with studio engineers for years to help realise the sounds in their head without having the requisite technical knowledge or training. It's how I started making music, and how countless others did – or continue to do so. The idea is that these are collaborative partnerships, however; roughly speaking the artist coming up with the lion’s share of the integral ideas while the engineer brings them to life. Obviously there are infinitely varying degrees of this set-up: from Loco Dice's very open and fruitful partnership with Martin Buttrich, to a small credit for the engineer on a record sleeve, to no mention whatsoever on a digital release under the 'composing' artist's name. At the very least, these engineers will still be publicly acknowledged by said artist when they are pressed about their skills.
Such relationships date back to the early days of electronica, and the disconnect that could occur between the musically gifted and the technically savvy. As the lines began to blur between producers, composers and studio engineers, so the permutations of division of labour in the process of making music increased. But ghostwriting dates back further still - with the earliest notable recorded incident way back in the 1700s, when a young genius named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was paid to ghostwrite for (in the words of Wikipedia) “wealthy patrons who wished to give the impression that they were gifted composers”. Not much has changed there. If it’s good enough for Mozart, it’s good enough for the contemporary crop of ghostwriters, right? Ghostwriting for an egotistical patron to help them look good in high society is one thing; giving someone the ammunition to fake an entire career and dupe thousands of people across the world is, for me, quite another.
You'd probably imagine that anyone offering ghostwriting services would be keeping their involvement hush hush. But aside from naming their clients, many are surprisingly forthcoming and even self-promoting around the subject. Some brazenly advertise their services on their Facebook profile, or leave comments on Soundcloud tracks advising you to use their services. If such brash ghostwriters think they aren’t harming their own career in the process by being so blatant, they should think again. I speak to the co-owner one of the UK’s hottest house labels of the moment, who are currently working with some of the very biggest and more acclaimed names in the game. We talk about the aforementioned ghostwriter who shouts about his services on his Facebook wall. “He also sends us demos.” says Label Boss X. “My filter in my brain automatically tells me to not listen to his demos for that very reason.” Such integrity isn’t found in all quarters; some labels allegedly don’t even care if they know the track they want to snap up has been ghostwritten.
Hypercolour boss and acclaimed producer Alex Jones is a reformed ghostwriter, and one who's vitriolic about the topic these days. “I think it's a fucking joke“ he says with typical candour. “I have done it in the past just because I needed money. Me and my mates get told: 'make me a bomb for £200'. I can do that in a matter of hours whilst I sit on Facebook. I don't do it any more - I get paid enough from the label and DJing, but my pals get it all the time and it winds me up something chronic. Super-talented people making run-of-the-mill tripe for morons, just so they can afford to live.” I accept that it's incredibly difficult to make a living from being a producer these days. I'm not the type to leave a comfortable job in pursuit of a full-time production career until I know that producing and DJing could generate enough income to support me. I think it's admirable that others take the leap of faith and try and make it work however they can, but I think ghostwriting is a cop-out.
Jones believes that those being ghostwritten for are the real scourge, and that despite their complicity, ghostwriters are innocent in all this. He doesn't feel that this is a hypocritical stance, and that it's the user and not the dealer that's the problem, so to speak. I'm not so sure myself. Some would argue that there are other ways to support low-income production careers, or indeed that many a great producer has been broke for years from pursuing their passion and doing what they love and has never succumbed to selling their musical soul for their upkeep. Is it a question of nobility and integrity? Or is it the same as a struggling writer creating copy for a multinational corporation? I believe there is a clear difference. The corporation is not trying to build its name on creating sparkling copy. The person being ghostwritten for, however, is duping the consumer into thinking that it's their talent behind the music. It's subterfuge in addition to what one might term necessary 'soul-selling'. I'm sure most of us have had to do things we don't totally agree with to earn a crust, but art – something that is supposed to be personal, from the heart, genuine – should be viewed differently.
I speak to Timo Garcia, a successful producer, prominent engineer and occasional ghostwriter, who reels off an impressive list of labels that have signed tracks that he engineered. For all his apparent success in his own career, the bills don't add up, and he engineers and ghostwrites to keep his head above water. “I can't say who, but I wrote 4 tracks from scratch last week for someone in the UK. I have also ghostwritten tracks for people in Australia the US and India. It's just like engineering but with more freedom because I'm doing it alone” he says, possibly missing the irony of that statement. “It's morally questionable but has been going on for years and in many other industries too: plays, films, books all have a history of ghostwriting. And I have to find a lot of money every single month to pay my studio rent, so have to find ways to cover that, what with all the illegal downloading and lack of payment from even the biggest labels for releases. And I can see why DJs would want to use engineers like me to write and produce music for them in the style they play to get their foot on the next rung up the ladder to fame and fortune.”
“When I was at my London studio I spent over £16,000 on rent alone so without engineering I would never be able to survive” he continues. “I've had over 60 engineering clients and some are amazing producers with lots of ideas and an exact sound they want to achieve... some are much less knowledgeable and just bring the Beatport or RA Top 10 and a sample of an old record and say: ‘I want one like that using this sample’ and let me get on with it, stopping occasionally to refer back to the reference tracks to make sure I'm going in the right direction. Some just send the reference tracks and samples over the net and let me get on with it. The line is fine and I'm never sure who is really clued up and how much is just me doing my thing. But either way I know for sure that I would have had to jack it all in a while ago if I didn't write, produce, and engineer for others. It's the only way I can survive.”
As someone trying to make a name for themselves, it kills me to hear that people are buying tracks to put their name to when I and countless of other hopefuls have spent hundreds of hours learning how to produce and making tracks, fitting it around full-time and part-time jobs. If you haven't got the time to produce, you don't deserve to have a production 'career'. Same goes if you can't be bothered to put the effort in to learn or to work with an engineer. Same goes if you don't have any ideas or talent for making music. It's something that you have to earn. I've heard people try and use arguments about artists like Damien Hirst, who employ an army of workers to bring their visions to life, to validate ghostwriting. But the difference there is that the idea has come from the artist in the first place, and is executed under their direction – making it analogous to the producer-engineer set-up, not the ghostwriter method.
So what are the other viable alternatives for producers who can’t live off sales and bookings alone? Plenty of producers supplement their incomes by making music for film and TV and other syncing opportunities, and while it might be just as soul-destroying in many cases, the money can be as good or better, and there's none of fallacy that comes with ghostwriting. Unfortunately, the reality is that unless you’re pretty lucky, it’s hard to get a dependable stream of work in this field. “I’ve been writing albums for sync and would love to make a living off it” Timo says. “I’ve contacted over 50 agencies and uploaded hours and hours of music for them, sent batches of CDs and tried every avenue I can to get my material used on TV, film or games and it’s almost like a closed shop. I’ve managed to find a couple of companies now who I write for but it seems any royalties earned from this will take years to come in drips and drabs and also probably won’t pay the rent.”
Speaking of royalties, who gets the publishing and performance monies accrued by the release of a ghostwritten records? Some of the ‘writers I speak to claim they receive full royalties from their ghostwritten tracks as they would if the track was penned and released under their own name. This means that if you take a look through the (public) databases of the PRS and the PPL (the organisations responsible for collecting monies accrued through public broadcast and performance of music in the UK), you can see who really wrote certain records. Finding cases where the ghostwriter didn’t receive any further financial remuneration after their initial pay-off is understandably more challenging.
Maceo Plex, another former ghostwriter and now one of the biggest names in underground house and techno, has previously spoken out about ghostwriting. “Can we talk about ‘artists’ who don’t make their own music for a minute? Can we talk about that? Fuck artists that don’t make their own music” he told EQ.TV back in April 2011 . There’s a lot of this going on right now and I think it needs to stop and people need to really pay attention to this and stop supporting people who don’t make their own music. There’s so many names... sometimes they turn up, they do a live PA and they didn’t even make any of the tracks! It’s amazing how many people do this. There’s actually people out there that are paying for music and getting, and then releasing on the biggest labels there are and... nobody cares. There are people that know it and they still don’t care.”
After months of chasing, I finally corner him at Global Gathering and ask him how he feels about the situation currently. “In a way I think it's fucked up, but on the other hand I've never been in the other person's situation” he says, sounding somewhat more mellow about the topic than in his EQ.TV interview. “You can imagine there are some pretty amazing DJs that just can't write music, and we're at a time right now where if you don't write your own music and you don't have your own records out, it's difficult to get any attention. So I kind of understand where there are people out there who seek out ghostwriters. It's just a really messy situation in the industry right now, because on one hand there are DJs who can DJ really well but can't produce that are putting out records under their name that are not really them producing, and on the other hand there are really amazing producers that aren't getting the respect and the gigs and the attention they deserve because the scene is so filled with people that don't write their own music.”
It's sadly true that in the vast, vast majority of cases, talented DJs can't make a name for themselves these days unless they produce – with occasional anomalies like Jackmster and Oneman, who have proliferated by dint of being both excellent selectors and closely tied with rising musical movements and contingents (the Glasgow bass scene and Rinse FM, in these cases). The game, for better of for worse, has changed, and the skill set required to succeed with it. But being an excellent DJ has never guaranteed success on its own. If you don't have the requisite skills to do both or the nous, timing and fortune to succeed as a pure DJ, you shouldn't be able to buy that privilege. It's not a right. Certain vocations develop in their requirements as times change, and if you've got the passion and dedication to be a vet or a chef or a lawyer, you will roll with the punches and learn any required related skills that those roles require, even if they put you out of your comfort zone or aren't 100% in tune with your natural abilities. I accept that DJing and producing or composing demand different talents, but there is clearly a lot of crossover there. And perhaps in these days of Beatport Top 10 homogeony and epidemic file-sharing, a DJ's own productions should be viewed as those killer, signature records that DJs of yore had to painstakingly hunt down in order to make their sets unique - or at least ahead of the curve.
I'm in a position now where some of my biggest musical heroes are playing my records, and some of my favourite labels are signing my productions up. But this didn't come overnight. I spent one year producing with an engineer, then two years working in collaborative partnerships with someone who could use the tools, before spending three months juggling an evening class with a full-time and part-time jobs so that I could produce by myself. Since then, I've been disciplined in spending enough time every week making music – on top of a full-time and part-time jobs, and a semblance of a social life – to ensure I have a constant output and am always making progress with my production and aspiring career. I've had to sacrifice a lot of free time, money, socialising and relaxing to do so. It doesn't come naturally to me. I find it very hard work. But I am immensely proud and satisfied with the end product, and constantly motivated to better myself.
Does Maceo Plex genuinely believe that all these DJs having tracks ghostwritten for them have gone through the years of practice, trial and error, rejection, hard graft and anti-social nature of learning to and continuing to produce that real producers have? “I think there are some DJs that try and they just don't got it in 'em. There are other people that are entrepreneurs, that are businessmen, and pretty good DJs, and they've been building something – a label or whatever they're building – and they seek out a ghostwriter to put themselves out there as well. Most of the time I've kind of figured out that a lot of these guys that have the money to pay a ghostwriter also have their own label and also have their own parties, and with the help of a really good engineer, have music out there.”
There's that word again – 'engineer'. If these poor, supposedly super-talented DJs don't have the skills to produce themselves, why not at least give the creator of the track some credit and cite them as a collaborator on the track or as an engineer? They'd still get the exposure and the glory, but the ghostwriter would at least get some props. It seems like a happy medium. “There are some people that have really good music knowledge and use engineers to put it out there” says Maceo Plex. “I think that's OK, because some people just aren't very good at putting together sounds and making things sound right – but have really amazing ideas and work really hard on the music they do with the engineer. But there are other people that just got the money to buy the tracks, and that's kind of the virus in the industry right now that we gotta get rid of. But I don't think it will ever go away. It's just how the music industry is.”
“Commercial music has been like that for years. If you think that a lot of these big commercial people make their own music or write any of their own music, you're living on another fucking planet! Most of the pop guys go in the studio and are given the lyrics to sing... well, at least they can sing... but you'd be surprised – a lot of them can't sing. They go in there, they give them their lyrics, the engineer makes their voice sound really good with effects, and they call it a day and make a couple of million. We're in the underground scene, and I always thought that maybe in the underground this wasn't respected or appreciated, and that it wouldn't become such a problem... and it eventually did.”
Here's a thought, albeit a crude analogy: if you cut of a drug user's supply, they can't take drugs any more. As long as there are producers willing to be paid to ghostwrite, there will always be wannabes willing to pay them. And so the circle continues. There's no end in sight to this 'virus', as Maceo Plex puts it. If guilty parties were exposed, he believes that ghostwriting would still continue, but that ghostwriters would be forced to sign legally-binding agreements to ensure they never reveal their patron's identity to anyone. The DJ market has become infinitely more crowded since the rise of the laptop jock, and as long as there's an integral need for DJs to use productions as a calling card and promotional tool, the scourge will continue. I just hope that talented producers in need of a quick buck might think twice about indulging in this dark art, and instead put their efforts into more noble, legitimate endeavours. I can but dream.
I didn't write this article to gossip or spread rumours or to name and shame those I've heard implicated in ghostwriting. I just want the dance music-loving public to know that this is something that goes on, and for those having tracks ghostwritten for them to possibly take a step back and think about their integrity. And at the end of the day, there's no greater buzz than watching a dancefloor full of people reacting to music that you have toiled over for hours and created yourself – and if you're playing make-believe to someone else's productions, then I feel genuinely sorry for you.