Photo: Koury Angelo
How It Really Works: Songwriter Sam Barsh On Success In The Streaming Age
The multi-platinum music creator discusses the reality of making a living as a songwriting in the streaming age
What does it take to make a living as a songwriter in today's music industry? The answer may surprise you. Multi-platinum songwriter, producer and keyboardist Sam Barsh would know. His smash-hit credits include co-writer on Aloe Blacc's "The Man," writer and keyboardist on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, contributions to albums by Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid, Ledisi and many more.
We sat down with Barsh to hear his perspective from the front lines of music creating as a living, and his insights are powerful. Below, Barsh shines a light on the reality of making a living as a songwriter in the streaming age and provides valuable advice to aspiring songwriters and a glimpse at why all music creators can find optimism in the recently passed Music Modernization Act.
As a major songwriter how has the streaming age affected your bottom line?
The biggest change that streaming has brought to the songwriting business is the replacement of physical or download sales with streaming, and the corresponding difference in revenue. Physical sales continue to disappear while streaming is the way of the present and the future.
The mechanical royalty payment for a physical or download sale of a song is $0.091 per sale, while the average streaming mechanical royalty payment is $0.00043 per stream. (The $0.00043 per stream figure is the average per stream payment from Spotify, which is the most used streaming platform in the US. Apple and Tidal pay more, Google pays less, so the Spotify number is a good median). And since songwriters have their rates set by the U.S Government, we can’t really go out and sell our songs to those services for what they should be worth.
The good news is the Music Modernization Act is set to change that [with the institution of a market-based "willing buyer, willing seller" standard], and that’s exciting and encouraging, but at the end of the day the new royalty rates will still be set by the government and as we’ve seen recently subject to appeals and court fights. So even though I have a catalog of over 100 songs, a large number of which are with major artists, including four songs featured on No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and multiple Gold and Platinum plaques, that doesn't translate into riches.
Could you go into more detail on the royalties you earn?
To paint a very clear picture of how most songwriters earn money from streaming, let's examine the “album cut,” or a song that wasn't a single, on a major platinum album.
Fifth Harmony's [second album] 7/27 is a perfect example to use, since it's an album by a huge act that has a lot of different songwriters on it… It's a quintessential professional pop songwriter album, if you will.
Like almost every platinum album, 7/27 was led by its singles. On Spotify, “Work from Home” has almost 900 million streams, “All in My Head (Flex)” has close to 300 million, and “That's My Girl” has 130 million plus.
By contrast, seven of the songs on the album have less than 22 million streams each on Spotify. Taking into account that Spotify has a little less than 40 percent market share for streaming, let’s just approximate that each of those seven album cuts streamed 50 million times total across all platforms.
With the average streaming rate mentioned before of $0.00043 per stream, that means a song with 50 million streams earns $21,500. With an average of 5 writers per song on 7/27, assuming in this case that they all got even splits, each writer on one of these cuts would earn around $4,300 from streaming.
Considering that album cuts are much less likely to get major sync licenses or radio play, in many cases that $4,300 is practically all the songwriter will make from landing a song with an A-list pop act. Of course, artists like Fifth Harmony still sell some physical copies, but that is a small number in the scheme of overall sales. And keep in mind that there are songs on major platinum albums with WAY less than 50 million streams. Also, most writers have either an admin deal or a publishing deal, which will take anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of their earnings.
Contrast this with if Fifth Harmony had released this album in 2003 with the same numbers. For the entire CD era, if people wanted to buy an artist's single, they would purchase the album that the song was on. Given that “Work From Home” went 5x Platinum in the USA alone, for this purpose we'll assume people would have purchased 5 million copies of the album. With a statutory mechanical rate at that time of around 9 cents per song, each song on the album would have generated $450,000 from U.S. sales, with the individual songwriter's 20 percent of one song earning them $90,000 in US mechanicals alone, as opposed to today's number of $4,300 from the entire world.
This analysis is not an exact science, but it paints the picture of how things have changed.
In light of the difficulties of earning a living in the streaming age, what would you say to an aspiring hit songwriter?
First of all, I would say don’t quit writing songs if that's what you love to do. It’s part of our DNA as writers to create songs, and it is a hell of a lot more fun than most other things people do for a living. However, if you’re in it just to chase hits and make money, you need to know what the stakes are.
Be forewarned that if your primary goal in becoming a songwriter is to get rich, your odds are infinitesimal. You’re not only competing with millions of writers for one of the top 30-50 songs (the songs that generally make real money), you also have to account for the fact that most hits today have between three and six writers on them, so the pie is divided accordingly.
Also, the concept of an “evergreen” copyright has changed, since streaming has put a major dent into catalog sales for older songs.
"I was told recently by a legacy artist who had big hits in the 70s that their catalog royalties went down about 70 percent since streaming took over." -Sam Barsh
Given that most hit songs generate the majority of their revenue during a two to three-year peak period, you would have to write multiple hit singles and/or have a substantial percentage of a global super-smash to make the “set for life” money that many people think comes from writing just one hit song. It's definitely not impossible, but you can have a lot of success as a songwriter and still just be living royalty check to royalty check.
On the positive side, streaming is a great tool for artists. So if you're a writer/artist, self-releasing music is a way to both gain exposure and make money. It's much easier to get somebody to check out your music via streaming than it was when you just had to hope someone who never heard of you would randomly decide to buy your CD at the record store. And payments for the master side of recordings are about 10 times higher than mechanical streaming royalties for songwriters.
Lastly, for my musician friends that are dabbling in songwriting and production, know that you’re competing with people who do nothing but write songs and produce, and have been honing their craft with as much dedication as we have with our instruments. I myself have put in my 10,000 hours at least threefold, as a musician, a songwriter and as a producer and engineer. And it still took me 10 years of seriously working at songwriting to write major records.
What’s one tip you’d give that a young songwriter might not be aware of?
Be mindful of splits ahead of time. I recommend having a conversation with your co-writers directly, before getting management involved, whenever possible. That doesn’t always prevent somebody from tripping or going back on their word, but if you can communicate directly with your collaborators and agree on splits before the song gets placed or recorded, it will alleviate headaches later on.
You mentioned your role as a producer earlier. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be a producer?
One of my favorite things about being a producer is that it requires me to utilize the entire range of my musical, emotional and intellectual skill sets. I'm a people person, and every situation is different, so I always get an intrinsic feel for the energies in the room and do my best to facilitate a day of great work. Making the artists, writers, musicians, engineers and anyone else who happens to be in the room feel comfortable and stay focused is essential, because most of the time they're looking to the producer to set, or at least guide, the tone of the session.
All that being said, nowadays producers spend a lot of time working alone. In modern pop, hip-hop and R&B music, producers are responsible for creating the instrumental tracks, hiring outside musicians if necessary, recording and editing the vocals (sometimes with help of engineers and vocal producers), editing audio, adding effects, making requested changes from artists and labels, and delivering a quality rough mix and individual audio files (aka stems). In my experience, the average pop track takes a producer 30-50 hours to complete, often more.
I produce jazz records as well, which tend to take less time because in most cases the artist has selected the material and gotten the arrangements done in advance of the session, and the recordings are usually done by a live band all at once in the span of 2-3 days. Jazz producing is largely about time management and setting a good vibe in the tracking sessions, helping the artist pick takes and solos, and shaping the sound of the instruments in conjunction with the tracking and mix engineers.
For all of this work, producers receive an upfront fee upon delivery of the final product and a backend royalty [The Music Modernization Act guarantees direct payment of this royalty if you register with SoundExchange]. Despite the fact that a lot of people may not understand all it is that we do, as you can see from the amount of skill and time it requires to create and take a record across the finish line, the work of a producer has big-time value and should be treated as such.
Lastly, what can songwriters do to ensure their rights are protected and demand better compensation?
There’s no union for songwriters, but there are organizations like the Recording Academy or Songwriters of North America that we can join that fight for our rights and compensation. These groups were instrumental in getting the Music Modernization Act passed.
However, even with these groups fighting for our rights, according to US law anybody can record any song without permission, and any terrestrial or streaming radio station can play any recording without permission, as long as they pay the statutory rate of compensation to the rights holders. Without the ability to withhold the product, and with compensation rates set by government, we don’t have much leverage in that fight.
The exceptions to this are for the first recording of a song, and for sync licensing in film, television and commercials.
If you write a song that you believe is a smash meant for a major artist, but a label wants to have an unknown artist record it, or an indie artist wants to record it, you have the right to say no, as long as the song has never been officially released on another recording. However, once the song has been recorded and released, anyone has the right to record it again.
And if someone wants to license your song for a show, film or commercial, you have the right to negotiate the fee or to say no.
The underlying theme of all of this is that knowledge is power. The more we all stay aware of the realities of our business and communicate with each other, the better off we all will be. Earning money as a songwriter or music producer is the definition of art intersecting commerce, but a lot of us ignore the commerce part of it. Nobody would accept a job in another field without knowing how much it paid first, and a contractor wouldn't build a custom home for a client without first negotiating a price. If we can approach our work the same way, it could go a long way to convincing our clients and consumers to acknowledge the value of our work.
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Recording Academy.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Rhyming With Purpose, Part 1 | Songwriter's Toolbox
Explore the artistry of rhyming and why the use of rhyme in songs is a great meeting of the art and craft of songwriting
Why rhyme? Do songs have to rhyme? Well, actually, no. There are some famous songs — like “America” by Paul Simon, “Moonlight in Vermont” by Blackburn & Suessdorf, or “I’ll Be Your Man” by The Black Keys — without any rhymes. But they are exceptions. Generally in songs, be they rock, rap, folk, blues, funk, or hip-hop, rhymes are integral to the solidity of the lyric. Rhyme adds a solid completion to a line that nothing else can replace. They not only complete a line sonically by matching sounds, they also link words in terms of associative meaning. One can play forever with the distance between the sound of rhymed words, and their meaning.
To examine usages of rhyme, we will look at songs from all eras and genres, from standards from previous generations, to modern classics and pop hits.
The artistry of rhyming does not require a remembrance of all great rhymes past. It has to do with how one uses those rhymes. Many verses in songs since the 1960s are composed of quatrains — four lines — and the most common rhyme scheme we hear in quatrains is abcb, in which the second and fourth line rhyme, and the first and third do not. This is the most common rhymed form for a four line verse.
But there are more intricate ones. Bob Dylan has used countless rhymes that thousands, if not millions, of songwriters, have used. But his brilliance and amazing artistry lies not simply in the choice of rhyme, but in their usage. Although he’s more famous for exploding the content of popular song than other virtues, Dylan has been a remarkably virtuosic rhymer since his first songs, often using intricate rhyme schemes, like abab, which requires each line to rhyme, or aabb, which is also a quatrain in which each line rhymes. Much more common is an abcb pattern, in which only the second and final line need to rhyme and the first and third can be different.
An abab rhyme scheme is one Dylan has used often, and which every line rhymes, but the rhymes are intertwined. It’s a form from romantic poetry, used by Shelley, Keats and Byron. In Byron’s poem “When We Too Parted” you can see the seeds of multi-rhymed Dylan wordplay, and an abab scheme.
When I interviewed Dylan in 1991, I suggested to him that his rhyming reflects romantic poetry and Byronic verse. He immediately recited a verse by Shelley, from the poem “Men of England,” that showed Dylan knows romantic poetry, which explains his grace and ease with intimate rhyming patterns.
For example, in Dylan’s cinematic song “Joey,” he employs an aabb rhyme scheme, linking ‘fork’ and ‘New York’ in the final verse of this epic narrative, and then introducing a ouplet founded on two simple long `e’ rhymes — ‘Italy’ and ‘family.’ But they are rhymes which come on the momentum of the melody and groove — as opposed to existing on a page to be read — and sung with rhythm and soul, so that the result is an effortless, rather than forced, use of rhyme. The rhymes are seamlessly folded into the imagery and action, all in beautifully-metered rhythm, to create a powerfully visual effect.
SIDEBAR: As an experiment, try writing in the abab rhyme scheme and use only perfect rhymes, so that both the first & third as well as the second & fourth lines rhyme.
The use of rhyme in songs is a great meeting of the art and craft of songwriting. Art leads to the choice of word, the distinction of the image and its place in this rhythm. Craft comes as the way you set up that rhyme. And as artfully brilliant a rhyme you might have, without a crafty set-up, it will fail. The songwriter’s job, then, requires contriving something so that it seems uncontrived. Every rhyme is a contrivance, yet the challenge is to use them in a way that they seem natural, intrinsic to the song, unforced. Which requires, usually, an artfully crafty set-up rhyme.
A famous example is Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which, although written in the 20th century by a hit songwriter, resonates as deeply in our culture as the national anthem. Berlin wisely didn’t even attempt a rhyme for `America,’ as none exists that would not be clunky at best. So the ultimate line becomes “God bless America, our home sweet home,” with the word needing the set-up rhyme being ‘home.’
He accomplishes this by landing on an image: ‘the oceans, white with foam.’ Knowing that an image is always compelling, he gives the mind a picture which evokes an emotion, he gives us this oceanic majesty, although ‘white with foam’ is a set up for ‘home sweet home.’ When one thinks of America, it is not foam that’s foremost. Yet used as a set-up — the rhyme before the rhyme — its placement is not suspect, and the whole of the song concludes with a melodic cadence aligned with the final culminating rhyme, ‘home sweet home,’ that simply seems perfect. Yet its perfection has a lot to do with the songwriter’s art in concealing its contrivances.
TIP: Next time you’re stuck on finding a rhyme for a key word, consider reworking the lyric with a set-up rhyme. One way of doing this is making a quick list, prior to crafting the lyric, of all potential set-up rhymes for the title, or a key word. From that list, see if you can expand the set-up rhyme, so that it works more in terms of content. Then when crafting the lyric and matching it to music, use this list to launch you in the right direction.
Songs still rely on rhymes, especially when it comes to setting up the title. So many songs are built around the title, both lyrically and musically, and when the musical cadence agrees with the rhyme in landing on a title, few things are sturdier. In Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” for example, the chorus is anthemic, and the title is set up with a cinematic sweep of light across the whole nation.
When I interviewed Dylan in 1991, we discussed rhyming. A meticulous craftsman who is known to rewrite songs even after they are recorded, he’s always been an inspired rhymer. I asked him if rhyming was fun for him.
“Well, it can be,” he said, “but you know, it’s a game…It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, well, that’s never been rhymed before.”
He then expounded on his method of combining the dictates of the craft with the spontaneity of this art. “My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is. Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” I asked if working backwards like that was something he often did. “Oh, yeah,” he answered. “Yeah, a lot of times. That’s the only way you’re gonna finish something.”
It’s an understanding that is key to the conception and completion of a good song – one works backwards and forwards at the same time, much as a rhyme simultaneously propels the listener of a song backwards and forwards. As songwriters know, to create a verse with a rhyme structure, one often has to put rhymes in place first, and work backwards from there. So that in finding the set-up rhyme — such as Berlin’s foam — we often discover the heart of songs. In the necessary contrivance the art is discovered, and that is the soul and genius of songwriting, in which all its aspects come together organically and dynamically. The goal is to contrive this rhyme pattern in a way that seems uncontrived, so that the rhymes fall naturally in terms of phrasing and meter, but do not call attention to themselves. It is the aim of the songwriter to create words which flow with an inevitability – as if they are simply the right line, meant to be in that place – that conceals, seamlessly, the songwriter’s hand.
SIDEBAR: Devise a list of potential set-ups for a title, with emphasis on finding lines that are evocative and compelling on their own, and also happen to be perfect rhyme set-ups. In this way, when your set-ups are as compelling as your rhymed lines, you infuse the song with an inner structure of strength and inevitability.
GRAMMYs On The Hill Honorees Named
Legendary artist and producer Quincy Jones — 27-time GRAMMY winner and The Recording Academy's ambassador for its 50th Celebration — will headline a day of music advocacy as part of The Academy's GRAMMYs on The Hill activities in the nation's
Quincy Jones, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Marsha Blackburn to be saluted
Legendary artist and producer Quincy Jones — 27-time GRAMMY winner and The Recording Academy's ambassador for its 50th Celebration — will headline a day of music advocacy as part of The Academy's GRAMMYs on The Hill activities in the nation's capital on Sept. 5, it was announced today by The Recording Academy.
Events will include a unique afternoon jam session with GRAMMY-winning artist Keb' Mo' and members of Congress. Later that evening at an awards gala, Jones will be honored for his lifelong contributions to American music, and honorees Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) will be recognized for their legislative support of the arts and music creators.
Among the luminaries joining Keb' Mo' to salute the honorees will be four-time GRAMMY winner and Recording Academy Chair Jimmy Jam, Academy President Neil Portnow, nine-time GRAMMY winner Ray Benson (of Asleep At The Wheel), "Godfather of Go-Go" Chuck Brown, GRAMMY-winning songwriter Brett James ("Jesus Take The Wheel"), country superstar John Rich (of Big & Rich), four-time GRAMMY winner BeBe Winans and seven-time GRAMMY winner CeCe Winans.
"GRAMMYs on the Hill connects top music makers — from singers and songwriters to producers and engineers — with members of Congress in Washington to shed light on the effect music has in enriching our lives," said Portnow. "This year, as part of our 50th Celebration activities, we will highlight the importance of music preservation and education so that it continues to thrive in our culture for years to come."
Throughout the day, more than 120 music professionals from across the country will come to Washington to speak to legislators about promoting policies that improve the environment for music and its makers. Earlier in the day on Capitol Hill, the GRAMMY Foundation will showcase its programs with a special performance by Keb' Mo', who will jam with members of the Recording Arts and Sciences Congressional Caucus (the "Congressional GRAMMY Band" — a group of musician members of Congress who have informally jammed at previous Academy advocacy events) in the Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.
That evening, GRAMMYs on the Hill will move to the ballroom of the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel for its 7th annual gala dinner where The Recording Academy will honor Jones, Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Blackburn. Chesnee High School of South Carolina will receive the GRAMMY Foundation's Signature School Award and Scholarship for its outstanding commitment to music education.
Neil Portnow's 49th GRAMMYs Telecast Remarks
Photo: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images
Björk, Nas, George Harrison: 10 Songwriters Who Inspire
We highlight 10 artists who have transformed music and served as inspiration to other artists
Before James Bay and Skrillex became household names, they were just kids finding the musical heroes who would shape their sound. Having been fortunate enough to talk to many musicians over the years, we’ve noticed that certain songwriting heroes are mentioned repeatedly as being inspirational and influential, having shaped generations of music with their individuality, their artistry and in the case of each of these inspirational songwriters, their profound, insightful and very human songwriting.
Connectors between artists of all genres, these prolific, prophet-like songwriters have touched the lives and creative minds of some of today’s greatest artists. “Those real artists are the ones that make the popular artists go,” producer John Feldmann says.
We were careful, when making this list, not to make it a “greatest-of-all-time” list, but to honor artists and songwriters who have transformed music, in smooth and soulful to grand and audacious ways; songwriters who have been mentioned again and again in our interviews as inspirations to some of music’s top contemporary artists.
From My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to Skrillex, the many musicians who love Björk cite her incredible individuality and uncompromising integrity to her art as reasons why. Skrillex says, “Björk’s always been someone that I loved since I’ve been a vocalist.” Sometimes her grand artistic vision overshadows the fact she is also a tremendous songwriter, something the members of Grouplove recognize. “The funny thing about her productions is she spaces things out so much, but at the core of it, even if it is crazy and hard for your brain to wrap around as maybe a radio song, if it was put into that format, at the end of the day the songs are still so good.”
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “The Mercy Seat” (written by Nick Cave & Mick Harvey)
A great songwriter who can tell a long-form narrative like “Dig, Lazarus, Dig” or write an achingly beautiful love song such as “Into Your Arms,” Cave has been named an influence by Garbage, Miike Snow and Cold War Kids, among many others. “He’s still one of the last great living potent and dangerous men on stage," Garbage's Shirley Manson says. "When you watch him play you have no idea what he’s gonna do and he’s older than what you expect him to be, but he still feels very vigorous and dangerous and exciting. He is the greatest living rock and roll god.” As for the secret of Cave’s songwriting prowess, Manson says, “He’s a lover of words and a lover of communication, and a lover of connection.”
John Coltrane, “Giant Steps”
The iconic jazz saxophonist’s scope is so massive that he has been cited in song dozens of times, by acts as wide-ranging as Elvis Costello, U2, Common, Gang Starr, Rick Ross, the Roots and Damon Albran. That is clearly an “artist’s artist.” Of course he’s known for being one of the great jazz musicians, but he was also a gifted composer whose influence spreads far and wide. “I think that the radical departures of John Coltrane’s solos are as kind of reorienting as an N.W.A. song,” Tom Morello once told us. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan also cites the truth and passion of Coltrane’s music. “Who are people we look to that get it right?” Corgan asks. “We look to people like John Coltrane, who seems to say it in everything he does.”
George Harrison, “What Is Life?”
Time has deservedly been very kind to the legacy of the “quiet Beatle,” with many acts citing Harrison as an influence. Breakout star James Bay often turns to Harrison’s music. “I love George Harrison’s music because it’s a wonderful balance of the sort of nonsense lyrics that were popular in the ‘60s, and I don’t mean nonsense in a harmful word, I mean it in a playful way, it’s a perfect balance of that and something very heartfelt,” he says. “’My Sweet Lord’ always comes back because, I know it’s a relatively religious moment there, but ‘Wah Wah,’ off All Things Must Pass, in the context of the music it’s the most euphoric piece of songwriting. So a lot of his music does come back around.”
Loretta Lynn, “Portland, Oregon”
Loretta Lynn’s comeback album, Van Lear Rose, was produced by Jack White, one of the country legend’s biggest fans. “God, this woman is brilliant,” White told us at the time. “And she’s just throwing me a bone … She tells it like it is, and she’ll tell you anything if you ask. There’s a real brilliance to her that comes out as, to this day, as it did when she started, this kind of hillbilly aw-shucks-ness that people take for granted, and thought was a gimmick when she started. They thought this hillbilly gimmick wasn’t gonna last, and it has, because after you get past the novelty forefront of it, you realize there is a brilliance to it and sort of universal thoughts that everybody has. ‘Your Squaw Is On The Warpath’ may sound funny. It may be novelty to bring people in, but the phrasing and the writing of that song … she really is so brilliant.”
Joni Mitchell, “A Case Of You”
“I could tell that Joni was a painter by the way she wrote lyrics,” singer/songwriter Jewel once said of this “artist’s artist.” The epitome of artistry, the complex and utterly imaginative works of Joni Mitchell have influenced creatives of all types, including Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who once told us, “The soundtrack for Waking the Dead is great. It made me rediscover Joni Mitchell, Blue was sort of my big album on that film. ‘Case of You,’ I think, is one of the best songs of all-time.” Countless artists have either covered or sampled Mitchell’s work and the light that she has shed on the creative process prevails for many of our music icons still today.
Nas, “The World Is Yours” (written by Nas & Peter Phillips)
This poet/musician and provocative storyteller has inspired artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Common and Jay Z with lyricism that uncannily puts words and rhythm to feelings that can otherwise be difficult to explain. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park once told us, “When I was growing up, I loved listening to music that I felt was speaking directly to me. Nas’ Illmatic was that way, where you go, ‘Hey, that’s me, too.’ That is so exciting, to find that connection. A lot of hip-hop that I listened to was from more of an outsider’s point of view, like I always just loved to hear those stories. They’re telling me what’s going on, so I feel like I know more about what’s going on in the world, because that shit’s not going to be on the news.”
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles “Tears Of A Clown” (written by Stevie Wonder, Hank Cosby & Smokey Robinson)
You know someone is a music giant when he or she has shaped the legacy of other legends. “The King of Motown” — as he is known for his incredible track record of writing hits for both his band, the Miracles, and countless other Motown acts like the Temptations and Mary Wells — is also partially responsible for giving the world Led Zeppelin. Asked about the first record that made a big impact on him, Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant once told us, “’Shop Around’ by the Miracles, 1960. Smokey Robinson’s voice and the whole production, I just had no idea something could be so smooth and yet so sensual and evocative, it was great.”
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”
Even before last year’s hit documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, the widespread influence of Nina Simone’s legacy was felt far and wide by musicians as diverse as Sade, Peter Gabriel and Avicii. While Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson cites Simone as a great protest writer for her work on “Mississippi Goddam,” “Revolution” and more, Rufus Wainwright once told us it’s Simone’s work as a performer that made her a legend. “Nobody has ever quite mastered, to the degree she has, the sense of kind of drama in between the music she has and her sense of timing. So I would say she’s probably the high priestess of that concept.”
Tom Waits, “Take It With Me” (written by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan)
It’s a very short list of artists who have earned a place in the debate over greatest living songwriter. However, anyone whose music has been covered by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles to the Ramones and Norah Jones is immediately in the conversation. “He’s by far my favorite musician. His storytelling is really phenomenal,” Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue says. “I think that’s the great thing about his songs, you feel like you are living in them when you are listening to them, like you’re in that crappy car on the highway and you see the little Jesus on the dashboard.”
(Steve Baltin is a music journalist in Southern California. He is a contributor to Rolling Stone, Billboard, Forbes, and many other publications, host of Hulu’s “Riffing With” series, and music journalism instructor at the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY Camp.)
(Monica Molinaro is a freelance music journalist and marketing professional in Los Angeles. She has written for Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter.)