There’s more to music than a good beat and some annoyingly catchy lyrics
For the fifth 5am start in a row “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner consumes the half-asleep lull of silence in the car during the 30-minute drive to campus. The admittedly addictive tune acts as nothing more than background sound to leisurely tickle my ears. But, the ‘background’ of how songs, like Posner’s, reach that perfected state of auditory bliss is hardly known to the basic listener-level individuals. ‘Mastering’, ‘loops’, ‘limiting’ – it all seems like yet another foreign language, don’t you think? You’re not alone. Does it really matter how the song came to be? Isn’t the completed song that we hear all that matters?
To put it simply, no.
The process of how any song reaches the Top 10 on SA Top 100 or iTunes Charts and becomes radio-ready is lost to the everyday music listener. You might think you know how a song is made – a singer sings, musicians play instruments, producers record the track, and – drum roll please – there you have it! It’s not this clear-cut in reality.
South Africa has been noted by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry as a “major hub for repertoire creation”, yet also as a “story of underperformance.” Could this be because of misguided aspirations of a rock-star lifestyle where music is considered easy and fun? Music producer, composer and part-time lecturer at the SAE Institute in Cape Town (previously known as the School of Audio Engineering), Kevin Ribbans, believes young aspiring producers are missing a few technical chords. “Young producers [come] into music production with a real belief that they will become the next Avicii or Guetta and what they don’t realise is that RSA just doesn’t have that big of an EDM [Electronic Dance Music] scene,” he explains. “I don’t think they realise the scale of the commercialization of such a scene in America,” he adds.
Clearly producers are about more than simply longing to be the new Avicci every music festival battles to slap onto their set-list of acts. Ribbans lists the three non-negotiable skills a wannabe producer cannot shrug under the mix-desk. “1. Musical knowledge of all musical genres, 2. Knowledge of any DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] used in the creation of music, [and] 3. The ability to understand what people want, be it what music is currently “cool” or what a client means when they battle to put their concept into words,” urges Ribbans.
But let’s not mute the musician. Whereas producers are the “builder[s],” says Ribbans, it’s fair to say that musicians then supply the building blocks. After interviewing local musician and songwriter, Rowan Stuart, it became immensely evident that a main difference between musicians and producers is the creative mind-set of a musician compared to the technical mind-set of a producer. “The biggest misconception [of the South African music industry] is that music is a glamorous and easy profession,” says Stuart. Stuart adds that this misconception is conceived by the fact that one “only sees the final product [and not the] hundreds of hours of practice, rehearsals, writing and rewriting, lugging gear, driving all day and having to put on a good show regardless of how you’re feeling.”
On top of a gruelling behind-the-scenes grind of tweaking and rehearsals, there is the added stress of up-and-coming musicians and producers plunging into a popular industry. With big dreams of ‘making it’, there’s bound to be moments of self-doubt. For Avril Kinsey, a globally prominent classical guitar performer/composer and founder of the Cape Town Academy of Music, her greatest challenge at the birth of her career was her underestimation. “My own greatest challenge was not setting my goal posts high enough,” says Kinsey. “[A challenging aspect was] navigating the world of opportunities and reliable people to push my career forward,” she admits.
Rowan Stuart says his biggest challenge was understanding his brand and how he could represent himself in the best way possible, musically. “It seems that the better you know your own musical identity – that thing that you do best or unlike anyone else in the world – the better people respond to your music,” he says.
Despite bridges to climb, South Africa is not lacking in spaces for artists to develop a reputation in the industry. Ribbans notes a new-found “underground” scene, which gives young artists room to get their music heard. “Places like Red Bull Studios have also created Hub-like spaces for people to link and communicate and learn from each other. Organisations such as Bridges for Music have been great in educating the impoverished and opening up the world of music production to them,” Ribbans expands.
Stuart notes that these various spaces for musicians take a bit of digging to find. But he does credit ‘open mic nights’ as great opportunities for any musician. “These can be great places for musicians to get experience on stage, make friends in the industry, and even find potential bandmates,” he explains.
Next time Posner’s hallucinatory track airs on radio or pops up while your music library is on shuffle, it’ll be hard to ignore how much work has gone into creating this harmonious product. Or how many extra hours are clocked in when a client unstrings all hard work by saying they preferred an earlier version of the track. “The producer will go cry in a corner for a bit and then start the entire process again,” jokes Ribbans (he confesses how tears aren’t untouched territory in out-of-tune situations such as a reversion to the beginning of the production process).
Music’s about more than being “stuck up on that stage singing,” as Posner croons. A box of tissues in the recording studio, a new pen for all the late-night re-writing, and calloused finger-tips from countless hours of strumming and picking chords on a six-string are what make a good beat with annoyingly catchy lyrics.