You know the story: for every huge hit song that you hate your brain for holding onto, there is a team of people responsible for its creation. And while that remains as true as it’s ever been, exactly how those hits are created is vastly different these days compared to, say, 20 years ago.
As huge supporters of trying to recreate the excitement of organic artist discovery in the digital age, we are on a perpetual mission to dissect and understand just what makes today’s hit-making process different – and learn how to retain the convenience and reach of technology without losing the old school magic of Way Back When.
Walter Afanasieff is a multiple Grammy-award-winning record producer and songwriter. He is best known for his long-standing songwriting and producing partnership with Mariah Carey, with whom he has worked since 1990. Some of their more notable collaborations include writing “One Sweet Day”, the longest-running number 1 song of all time, and “All I Want For Christmas is You”, which is widely regarded as the last modern Christmas song to attain a timeless place in the canon of Christmas songs.
Awards include the 1999 Grammy Award in the Record of the Year category for producing “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and the 2000 Grammy Award for Non-Classical Producer of the Year.
Afanasieff is one of the first producers to join Muzooka, a music sharing and industry networking site designed to bring emerging artists in direct contact with seasoned industry professionals. As someone working on the forefront of this new kind of music discovery, we had quite a bit we wanted to discuss with Mr. Afanasieff. Here is an industry player who cut his teeth during the days when stars were “discovered” by stalking Tommy Mottola on his way to lunch. What does someone with that kind of foundation think of the new tech-driven recipe of superstar making? We sat down with Walter to ponder the (de)evolution of the music industry, what keeps a veteran like him motivated to press forward, and how a site like Muzooka fits into the whole big, ever-changing picture.
Jessica Blankenship (JB): Let’s start with the broad and work our way to some specifics – on the whole, what is your feeling about the evolution of the music industry during the time you’ve been around?
Walter Afanasieff (WA): Well, for starters, I would say the music industry has devolved as opposed to evolved. The absolute human principles behind music making have succumbed to technological evolution, yet they themselves have suffered a complete de-evolution.
JB: Why do you think that is?
WA: The entire conglomerate of all of these influences – from technology to media involvement to TV to Internet and social media – everything has conjured up a demise of the integrity and bravery that existed before. Music industry people do not take chances anymore. They default daily to whatever is the flavor of the month as determined by the media, and the social media machine. It doesn’t matter what the talent level is of the artist, or even whether any real talent is present or not.
JB: So you think talent is secondary to trend these days?
WA: The biggest problem is that people are not driven towards being a better artist, publisher, producer, A&R person, etc. We no longer want to strive to achieve a certain standard like we did before because it's no longer required.
JB: Why is it no longer required?
WA: Because we have been told that if someone gets on a program like The X Factor, or The Voice, or American Idol that you don’t need to know the craft. You just have to have a good story and be cute, and have 4 people on the panel give you approval and you get a 5 million dollar recording contract. That’s it. Every year, the standard is lowered. In the first opening seasons, there was a genuine regard for talent. If you put Kelly Clarkston in season 10 of American Idol, with the same body and same story and same talent level, she wouldn’t have had a chance. It has progressed into a system of “is the boy cute enough? Is the story poignant enough?” - if the story is there, we don’t care too much about the craft anymore. We are now allowing these people with no credibility and no talent to become stars. The "plight of the candidate" now supersedes the talent of the candidate.
JB: So what are the consequences of this new standard in “discovering” new musical talent, in terms of the actual music?
WA: I remember a time when everyone had their own real voice, and yes, everyone wants monetized success. This is a business. But it was also a little more compartmentalized in a more artistic way. There was a great deal of variety. There were a lot of types of styles. Today, there is just one flavor upon which success is based. It's all about a statistic of popularity driven by various institutions: TV, social media, and the way radio is now, etc. It’s like with TV: We have completely amazing, unique shows like Homeland and Breaking Bad, but still, Honey Boo Boo is the top show. It’s the same in the music industry.
JB: Yeah, when you put it like that…pretty lame.
WA: With all the might and power of the major music institutions, the big labels, and this is what we’re producing now? It's pathetic. And why? Because these music industry people wake up every day, see what's number 1 and go try to attach their names to it somehow, instead of saying, "Okay, what is next? What can we do to be no. 1 next?" That’s what we used to do back in the old days.
JB: How so?
WA: We, and all the people who came before us, were people who loved to operate in a free musical economy, back when the music industry knew how to take chances. That was what they did. Tommy Mottola and Clive Davis and all these guys were all in a casino with poker chips gambling, placing bets, and taking chances with their artists – and when you won with somebody, you won big.
JB: Why do you think that doesn’t happen anymore? Why is so much of the music industry playing it safe with their “one flavor” of music?
WA: For about 10 years, everyone said it would never happen again, that kind of superstar “win big” moment. Bullshit. Adele just sold 20 million albums. Bullshit. Susan Boyle sold 16 million. It can happen, but still, every pop hit that’s being churned out, it's all 124 bpm, it's all got the same kick drum, it's all auto-tuned by the same machine, they're all singing about breaking up or being horny, they're all written by the same people, because they're being bought by Honey Boo Boo.
JB: So what does that mean for people like you, the songwriters, the creative professionals other than the face on the package?
WA: There are 5 million people after 500 jobs in those roles. Why did this happen? There are no fewer audience members. There are no fewer people wanting to listen to music. There are no fewer talented people. But there are literally 100 times fewer opportunities to work in the music industry. Unlike in other industries, we didn’t get our jobs outsourced - we just got rid of them. Those jobs are all controlled for the flavor of the month / contest winner / YouTube sensation / The Voice winner, etc. - that is the next star. And then they put out the word that these very few people are looking for songs, and that’s the only place labels want to spend money. How it used to be is that more of us could find diverse, interesting opportunities to work because labels were investing time and money into a greater number of artists.
JB: And they don’t do that anymore.
WA: Right. We are less innovative, have less balls, are less willing to take chances, less willing to sign artists who are not known. That's the biggest problem, and that’s why I say the music industry did not evolve, it devolved.
JB: So with all of this in mind, what’s next in your opinion? Where do professionals like you go from here?
WA: We all get in line for these 500 jobs, and along the way, we're gonna have to cut our rates and do work for free, which we all already do. We're gonna keep doing what we do with integrity, those of us who still believe in great songs, great talent, great production. There are still people who want the best out of something, instead of wanting just what's on the radio. We wait for an accident. Adele, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire - these were accidents. They set a different tone for a minute. They reminded everyone that not all music is this conglomerate media bullshit. That's what I believe in. All of these things keep dragging us along. Along the way, we must all have enough of a commitment to our craft. We can’t be afraid to pursue greatness. Because the reality is that mediocrity is celebrated. Kim Kardashian is a superstar, and Honey Boo Boo is a fucking superstar; we need to tell ourselves that the occasional accident will come along and remind us that they exist and that someone can shake things up by telling all of those people, "No, you don’t know how to sing; I know how to sing," or, "No, that isn’t a good song; this is a good song.”
You can reach Jessica Blankenship at firstname.lastname@example.org.