“I’m a ghost-writer, I’m the cat you don’t see / I write hits for rappers you like and charge ’em a fee” 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. Of course, cynical record labels sometimes pay the songwriters to keep schtum and waive all rights in order to make their recording artist seem more talented. As Mad Skillz explains, many big-name rappers have their lyrics written for them by a ghostwriter. But these rappers actually perform the lyrics that have been penned in their name, (Dr Dre being one of the most famous examples), bringing them to life with their own talent.
Most of this is common knowledge. What isn’t common knowledge, though, 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 absolutely no input of their own whatsoever. I’d heard tales of some of the biggest names in trance having production teams behind them 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 scene making a name for themselves on respected labels, to people duping acclaimed imprints with ghosted remixes, 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 and continue to do so. These are collaborative partnerships, however; the artist comes up with the lion’s share of the integral ideas, while the engineer brings them to life. Obviously there are 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 under the ‘composing’ artist’s name. At the
least, these engineers will 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 gulf that new technology opened up 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. I have here an email from a ‘Professional Ghost Production Studio’ offering the following: “Full tracks/songs/remixes/edits/music (house genres and sub genres: house, techno, tech-house, deep-house, minimal and many more). Confidentiality is 100 per cent assured, from €200 to €350 per track/remix”.
You’d imagine that any individual offering ghostwriting services would be keeping their involvement hush-hush. But short of naming their clients, many are surprisingly forthcoming and even self-promoting. Some brazenly advertise their services on their Facebook profile, or leave comments on Soundcloud about their services. Hypercolour boss and acclaimed producer Alex Jones is a reformed ghostwriter, and 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 because I needed money. More often than not the client will ask you to ‘make a bomb’ – a silly phrase – and to ‘do it in one day for £150/£200 (also it would be really good if we could get a second one done in our time together)’. Firstly, if I could write a ‘bomb’ in a day, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. Secondly, I’d never say I’d written a ‘bomb’ because, when you use the term ‘bomb’ you actually mean ‘get me to the top of the Beatport charts so I can fly around the world, see my picture in magazines and generally raise my social status’. Sadly, DJing and more recently ‘producing’ has become just another fashion accessory. You’ll generally find people like this high- fiving other people more famous than themselves in DJ booths and making damn sure they’re getting their photo taken alongside them.” He goes on: “I taught myself how to make the music I make from scratch. It’s taken me years of trial and error, sleepless nights, angry neighbours and genuine sacrifice, and to be fair, it still doesn’t always sound perfect! But it does sound like me.”
THE GHOST’S VIEW
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 personally think ghostwriting is a cop-out. 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, surely?
I speak to Timo Garcia, a successful producer, prominent engineer and occasional ghostwriter, who reels off a whole 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 four 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 and books all have a history of ghostwriting. And I have to find a lot of money every month to pay my studio rent, and I 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 want to use engineers like me to write and produce music for them in the style they play. It’s a way for them 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 sixteen thousand pounds on rent alone, so without engineering I would never be able to survive,” he continues. “I’ve had over sixty engineering clients and some are amazing producers with lots of ideas and an exact sound they want to achieve, but 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. 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 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. Speaking of earnings, who gets the publishing and performance monies from the release of a ghostwritten records? Some of the ghostwriters I speak to claim they receive full royalties from their ghostwritten tracks as they would if they were 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 money for 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 more challenging.
Maceo Plex, another former ghost-writer and now one of the biggest names in underground house and techno, has been outspoken on the subject, but when I catch up with him he seems to have mellowed a bit. “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. “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 why there are people out there who seek out ghostwriters. It’s 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, 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.”
DJ CALLING CARD
It’s 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 Jackmaster and Oneman, who have succeeded by dint of being both excellent selectors and closely tied with rising musical movements (the Glasgow bass scene and Rinse FM respectively). 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, say, a vet or a chef or a lawyer, you will roll with the punches and learn the skills that those roles require, even if they put you out of your comfort zone or aren’t 100 per cent 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 and 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 happen overnight. I spent a year producing with an engineer, then two years working in collaborative partnerships with people who could use the tools, then three months juggling an evening class with a full-time and part-time jobs so that I could learn to produce by myself. Since then I’ve been disciplined in spending enough time every week making music – on top of 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 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 of and satisfied with the end result, and constantly motivated to better myself. And 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. “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,” says Maceo Plex. “But there are other people that just have the money to buy the tracks, and that’s kind of a virus in the industry right now, that we’ve got to get rid of. If you think that a lot of these big commercial people make their own music, you’re living on another fucking planet! I always thought that maybe in the underground this wasn’t respected or appreciated, and that it wouldn’t become such a problem... but eventually it did.”
There’s no end in sight to this ‘virus’, as Maceo Plex calls it. If the 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 patrons’ identities to anyone. As long as there’s an need for DJs to use productions as a calling card and promotional tool, the scourge will continue. I didn’t write this article to gossip or spread rumours, or to name and shame anyone. I just want the dance music-loving public to know that this is something that goes on, and I want those having tracks ghostwritten for them – and those doing the ghost-writing too – to maybe take a step back and think about their integrity. 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 only playing make-believe, using someone else’s hard work, then I feel genuinely sorry for you.
Find more opinions, podcasts and music from Ben Gomori at www.benzmixes.com