How I Listen

What Gives This Song Its Value?

With the realities of streaming economics now dramatically reducing the ‘value’ of a song, Stephen Carlisle takes us through the intricacies and complexities behind an individual track, explaining how these nuances give a song its worth.

Guest post by Stephen Carlisle of NOVA Southeastern University

Streaming was supposed to save the music business. It hasn’t. Fourteen years into the Spotify experience, music industry revenues are still stuck at half the amount they were in 1999. 1 Or as the website The Trichordist tersely puts it: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with music streaming, except the economics.” 2 Million of songs at your fingertips, all available for free. Which still isn’t good enough for some people.

I once had a student ask me at a lecture whether is would be a copyright violation to hack the Spotify app so as to gain access to the premium tier.

“No, probably not,” I replied. “But it certainly would violate your terms of service that you agree to when you signed up for Spotify. But why would you want to do such a thing? Spotify is already free.”

“Yeah,” said the student. “But those ads are so annoying.”

So, the advertising you have to listen to, the small price you pay for getting something for FREE, is too much for some people. Is this what it has come to? That the value of a great song to the public is essentially zero?

I suspect that the reason this thinking persists is that the general public has no idea how much work goes into making a great song. Not just the writing, but the arrangement and the recording. Your great three minute pop song could take days to record properly, perhaps longer.

So, let’s really tear apart a great song, and note all the component parts. The song is Maroon 5’s “Misery,” a top 15 hit and a Grammy nominee. 3 Hands All Over, the album on which this track appears, took two months to record, even though they used the producer’s own studio which was available 24-7. 4

The producer, of course, was the famous (or infamous) Robert John “Mutt” Lange. I say infamous because he is well known for driving his artists very hard, but achieving stellar results, including Def Leppard’s Hysteria which sold a mere 25 million copies worldwide, 5 plus his then wife’s Shania Twain’s Come On Over, the best selling country music album of all time, 6 and AC/DC’s Back In Black, which sold 25 million copies in the US and reportedly 50 million copies worldwide. 7

At the top of this post is a picture of a recording console. Electronics have taken the size of these boards down, but the basic facts are the same. These huge rows of knobs are there because each one does something different. Some adjust the volume of the sounds on that track, some adjust equalization, some adjust the panning, or where the sound appears in the sound field. Complicated, time consuming work.

Here’s the video for “Misery.” N.B. Timing references are to the audio only version. The video lags behind the audio version by 2-3 seconds.

And don’t forget your headphones.

  1. The song opens with drums panned center, with just bass drums and high hat playing. The bass drum, the “thump, thump” that drives just about any song forward, likely occupies its own track. Recording live drums sounds takes a long time, in the past, sometimes days. Though judging from the consistency of these sounds they are probably samples. My guess is there are probably at least five tracks of drums: bass, snare, high-hat, and the rest of the kit, though it could be that the cymbals occupy their own track.
  2. Funky rhythm guitar is panned left. As this plays for most of the song, it will occupy its own track.
  3. There is an extremely distorted guitar, playing staccato rhythms. This is panned right. Even though to my ears this is the only time this sound appears. Again, this could have its own track.
  4. Synthesizer bass, double tracked and panned both left and right. Either played twice, or most likely the first track was copy-paste into the second track.
  5. “Oh Yeah!” Adam Levine’s lead vocal comes in. Panned center.
  6. At 0:09, there is a backwards snare drum beat. Undoubtedly a sample. In the analog days this would have taken some work. The tape would have to be lifted out and reversed. The backwards piano introduction to Yes’ “Roundabout” was done this way.
  7. Immediately after the backward snare drum beat, the “grunge” guitar panned right disappears.
  8. Also, after the backwards snare drum beat, the double synth bass panned left and right stops. Bass is now panned center.
  9. Lead vocals for the verse start. At 0:29, beginning with the words, “So let me be and I’ll set you free” there are two vocal tracks instead of one. As the other vocal track sings a harmony part, and Adam Levine is the only singer on the track, Adam had to sing the part twice. Not as easy as it sounds. The pronunciation, timing and phrasing all have to match perfectly. In the olden days, so would the pitch. Now we have Auto-Tune for that.
  10. As we head into the chorus, “I am in misery,” a lot happens. The double tracked vocals continue. There is now a new guitar part playing, panned right in place of the “grunge” guitar. Clean guitar continues, panned left. Double tracked synthesizer bass returns, panned left and right. A synth “wash” also starts.
  11. At 0:53, a synth making a “whistling” sort of sound appears. Panned to (if you visualize a clock face) 2 o’clock.
  12. At 1:08, a synth making a string sound enters, panned to 12 o’clock.
  13. At 1:11, the word “didn’t” is doubled tracked. At 1:16, this happens again.
  14. At 1:52, we head to the bridge, “You say your faith is shaken.” All the other parts drop out. Vocals revert to single track. All synth bass disappears. Regular electric bass remains, panned center. A piano enters. The piano, (along with female vocals) traditionally is one of the hardest instruments to record faithfully. Again, with modern technology, this could be a sampling keyboard. But since the piano’s range is so broad, again it will occupy its own track.
  15. At the same time, panned to 10 o’clock, is an organ. Separate track.
  16. At 2:11, “Why do you do what you do to me?” the guitar panned left disappears. Guitar panned right remains, along with two vocal tracks, singing different parts. There seems to be some percussion, panned to 10 o’clock. Too soft to make out exactly what kind.
  17. At 2:20, guitar panned left returns.
  18. At 2:23, the words “answer me” are doubled tracked.
  19. At 2:30, we start to ride the chorus out “You really got me bad.” There are numerous vocal tracks that jump in and out with different phrases. Hard to say for sure, but my guess is about four different tracks.
  20. The whole thing fades out, known as a “board fade.” The music is still being played, but the volume is artificially lowered at the recording board, until it is inaudible.

This just begins to detail the work involved. Each one of those sounds had to be

  • Recorded
  • Assigned an overall volume
  • Assigned an aural location
  • Equalized, or adjusting the volume of sounds at particular frequencies

Then, the whole thing has to be adjusted for volume within the song, a process known as “mixing.”

And we have not even begun to assess the work done in writing and arranging the song.

So, why do many people see the need for music to be free?

Creating a song such as “Misery” is a lot of hard work.

And hard work makes this song valuable.

Notes:

  1. Still Down by 50%, The Problem With Streaming 2020 Edition 
  2. Id. 
  3. Giving A Little More: The Grippling Tale Behind Maroon 5’s ‘Hands All Over’ 
  4. Id. 
  5. ‘Hysteria’: How Def Leppard Whipped The World Into A Frenzy 
  6. 22 Years Ago: Shania Twain’s ‘Come On Over’ Is Released 
  7. 40 American Thigh-Shaking Facts About AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ 
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