Jon Bellion is set to release his debut album under Capitol Records. On his journey to a record deal, to complement the music he was giving away for free, Bellion wrote songs for larger recording artists. Just for writing the chorus to Eminem’s hit single “The Monster,” Bellion made six figures in royalties. This market for ghostwriters enables musicians like Bellion to fund their projects and continue to release music for free. In fact, it’s possible for songwriters uninterested in fame to make a living only writing for other people. Despite the financial gains that ghostwriting presents, this practice impedes creativity in the music industry.

The idea of writing music for someone else is strange. Music is supposed to be personal. While collaboration in the industry is common, there is a fine line between collaboration and ghostwriting. Though I disagree with the practice of ghostwriting, I can understand the struggling songwriter who needs the money. I can also understand the talented songwriter who doesn’t seek fame. But what about the platinum-selling recording artist that takes credit for someone else’s work?

The reason artists who have already sold out arenas, won Grammys and built platforms for themselves still feel compelled to take advantage of other songwriters is a simple business decision. Hits pay the bills, which is why some top-tier artists sacrifice originality for guaranteed cash cows. After a hit song gets tirelessly run through Top 40 radio, racks up millions of streams and downloads, leads to sold-out shows and perhaps gets licensed for use on a Taco Bell commercial, it is amazing how much money it generates for both the singer and original writer.

The idea that hits pay the bills has come to dominate how the music industry operates — from the way record labels construct rosters of artists to how albums are promoted to the market for ghostwriters. Record labels roll the dice by signing dozens of artists in hopes that a few overachievers can cover the costs of the rest of the company. It sounds incredibly inefficient, but this reflects the large disparity in earnings that songs can generate.

Plenty of the biggest radio smash hits of recent years had ghostwriters. Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” was written by Majid Jordan. Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” was written by a young Hawaiian kid named Bruno Mars. Even Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” was written by future R&B star R. Kelly. Others are easy to find because writing credits are public and you can always find out if your favorite song was ghostwritten through a quick Wikipedia search.  

Ghostwriting also occurs in another way that’s equally bothersome. Record labels will prop up their young and untested talent by almost spoon-feeding them hit singles. R&B singer Alessia Cara is the perfect example. In August, Cara released her debut project under record label Def Jam. Def Jam took a risk on Cara, who was first discovered as a YouTube cover singer. To minimize the risk of an inexperienced songwriter, Def Jam put Cara in the studio with several more experienced songwriters and, just like that, her chart-topping single “Here” was born. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” similarly helped kick off his career, though Christina Milian was one of many artists credited with writing the hit. It’s a slightly different form of ghostwriting, one initiated directly by the labels themselves, but the consequences have the same negative effects on creativity in the music industry.

These problems inevitably arise when music, or any art form for that matter, becomes a profitable enterprise. The solution involves a world where there is less demand for ghostwriters and more integrity for the music. The burden is on the superstars. Don’t rush an artist like Frank Ocean to put out his next album even though it’s been four years since his last. If it takes Ocean another four years, so be it. At least it’s his own.

Zach Brown can be reached at zmbrown@umich.edu. 

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