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There has been a significant change in how art is created, delivered, and encountered because of internet news and social media. It seems apparent that the vacation excursions to art museums, concert halls, and historic destinations are being replaced with Facebook “memes”, commercialized drug-haven music festivals, and attention spans only as long as one can stand being disconnected from their smart phone.
In the music industry, this “dumbing-down” – along with technological advances in production and live performance – has created a cultural degradation in creativity and discipline for the performer, producer and the consumer alike. The current spotlight attack on artisanship, especially in the dance music industry, is the growing use of ghost-production, or ghostwriting.
The definition of ghostwriting is broad and covers a full spectrum of positive and negative aspects, but it can be boiled down to this simple concept: An artist’s music is created by a different producer or audio engineer, who may or may not receive any mention of their involvement, and the artist may or may not have contributed to the production process on any level. The consumer may not care where their music came from, but they should.
A musician’s livelihood is based on the recognition of their work, and this growing ghost-production issue is forcing some industry pillars to take up additional jobs, if not change their career entirely. This discussion will briefly take you through the industry concepts and functions of production as both a skill and an art form, along with the reality that ghostwritten music does not classify or qualify as a true artistic expression, and how this is affecting the ethics and boundaries of the dance music culture and industry.
Ghostwriting is nothing new; it has been going on since the Renaissance. More recently, big artists like Rihanna and Dr. Dre are among several who use ghostwriters and producers for their music, according to Mixmag Magazine. It is standard fare of the pop music landscape - whether under the strict definition of “ghostwriting” or not - for performing artists to have others write and produce the tracks they perform on an album or on stage. Usually, these people behind the curtain will get a healthy percentage of sales, whether their name is credited on the album or not. This is a mutually beneficial process for all parties involved: The producer gets paid to excel in their creative ability, the artist gets paid to perform a well-constructed piece, and the consumers pay to enjoy those cumulative efforts. There is no issue in this scenario that toes the line of unethical business.
However, the dance music industry was not structured for this scenario to apply. A DJ or Live-Production performer is given a wide array of gear and technology for their performance of pre-recorded tracks and songs. They do not get to improve a guitar solo or inject their unique vocal range into the music; they simply utilize the available technology and their practiced skills in order to read their audience and manipulate the tracks to achieve a memorable, unwavering set. (Do consider that there are many classifications of DJs, but for this topic we are focusing on the true “starving artists” of the trade: Club DJs)
Unfortunately for these performance artists, the current expectation on them is that they do more than just conduct a dance floor, tour the world, and promote their sound. The new standard is, in addition, for them to produce music or even start up their own record label with their already taxed time. To make matters worse, a bulk of the newest generation of DJs do not have the first inkling as to how to develop music in a production software, nor any developed understanding of audio engineering. This leaves both established and “new-jack” DJs in a losing position with their careers. If you are not relevant and if you are not producing, but you spend eighty percent of the year on the road performing, how do you reconcile?
Simply put, you cannot – at least, not by yourself.
At first, artists reveled in the oasis of ghost-production, which allowed them to achieve both aspects of the demands. A DJ would communicate their ideas and wishes to a trained and capable audio engineer, then continue the performance aspect of their career. Meanwhile, the engineer takes the required concepts, samples and parameters and applies their knowledge of digital modifiers, data compression and psychoacoustics. They then develop a track or album of music that would have the DJ listed front and center whether they get any mention in the footnotes or not.
While this can be considered an ethical relationship, there have been an increasing number of production agencies that have begun to create music for DJs to purchase discreetly, without any collaborative effort at all. The buyers may then pass off the purchase as their own production to boost their résumé and increase overall profitability in the super-competitive market. In essence, this is a legal and highly beneficial resource that can easily be related to plagiarism, libel, and dishonesty. It is a perversion; an abused and distorted format of what was designed to be an honest and efficient service.
Artists such as David Guetta and Skrillex are among a growing list of headlining electronic music artists that have been exposed for or accused of utilizing the broad range of this method, from collaborative efforts to out-of-the-box purchases. Surprisingly, the list is disturbingly extensive and includes artists both in the mainstream and the underground across all continents. According to a protected source from one of these major ghost-production agencies, the price of these tracks, EPs, or remixed songs range between four hundred to upwards of two thousand U.S. dollars, depending on the quality, size, and turnover. EDIT: The cost ranges stated here are extremely modest; they go much higher for big-name/top-ten artists. The DJ gets all license and copyright privileges, complete confidentiality with the agency, and the ability to turn over “their” music to any record label or artist management company to pass along as their own. While there are some well-meaning and discerning individuals in both positions that admit to this being the only way they can make ends meet, the vast majority play along with the perversion. This is dishonest and unethical in every regard, and degrades the art form at the ground level.
In Seeing and Writing 4 John Berger points out in his essay “Ways of Seeing” that a painting on a canvas is art, but this same image printed on poster board for mass-production is no longer art. This concept is resounded again and again in academic literature – explicitly in Arthur C. Danto’s book What Art Is – regarding the purity and the soul that makes up the essence of artisanship.
In the same way, music that is a result of ghostwriting ceases to be what was the standard for the art form of electronic music production, whether for dance, film, or atmospheric design. In fact, the collective majority of seasoned producers and electronic music aficionados can hear a distinct difference between a track created by a credited producer and a track produced by any major ghost-production company. Like in the architecture of suburban tract-housing, these ghostwritten songs all are constructed one after the other in the same fashion, with a dogged structure and almost indiscernible melodic pattern from one song to the next. These companies have invested in the research and staff to engineer their product to be just that: a dependable, money-making product. Not music.
The vocals and key signature may vary, and perhaps the bassline melody may have more than one repetitive phrase, but the majority of the tracks are built for one purpose only. They are designed to be a DJ’s calling card, a statement that “I am creative enough to produce floor-banging, face-bashing music. If you book me, I can regenerate that energy on the dance floor of your venue.”
To draw this out practically en scenario, Producer John Doe has sacrificed thousands of dollars for equipment, months of grueling engineering, a marriage, and countless other more promising career ventures to build an album that he pours his soul into. When he goes to release his masterpiece, he will find himself waiting in a line for a large record label’s interviewing process, that is packed with hundreds of people who just bought their “work” off of a ghostwriting agency. The record label almost always goes with whoever has the potential for the most dollar signs, (though there are some exceptions,) and so as an authentic artist, the Producer Johns of the world usually end up making no return on all they have invested. The other “producers” that don’t make the cut may be out on cash from the label’s final pick.
John Doe however, lost not only monetary resources, but time, energy, relationships, morale – he painted a part of his soul into his work, and he may never recover from that. Not any time soon, anyway.
By nature, the music industry is cutthroat. Keep pushing and evolving, or become obsolete. Max (from the music group The Dirtcaps) told DoAndroidsDance.com that he does ghost production “…not because we want to earn a lot of money. [Instead] it’s like helping each other out.” While this viewpoint sounds kosher, it is a clear diversion from what is actually going on. D.A.D.’s article interviews very specifically selected musicians that are all doing ghost production in addition to their own artistry and performance and says nothing for the rest. It is an incomplete picture of the reality of the situation.
There are countless “DJs” that now get paid obscene money to press “PLAY” and “SYNC” at festivals or big residencies because of a résumé consisting of an entirely ghostwritten EP, purchased Facebook “likes”, Twitter “followers”, and “plays” on Soundcloud and YouTube. This is no longer musicianship, or art. It is bastardizing a musical expression to achieve the coveted “rock-star status” with no need for discipline for the craft or ethical practices in the industry.
The built-in tragedy is indeed the collateral damage to thousands who have become victims to this deception. Because of how our society’s culture has developed this “like-mentality” with the attention span of a goldfish, the vast majority of the industry consumers are unaware of this reality. Even among those who are enlightened to ghost-production, most do not care; they want to eat pills and roll in dirt and neon paint, half naked. They vow to be at every big corporate-sponsored festival where the majority of the DJs on the bill have been tainted by ghostwriting, so all the music will sound the same and rake in the millions. Today, society and industry gears only move for money, so because of the lucrative results of EDM in the mainstream market, this is unlikely to change. Thus, this fraudulent flavor of ghost-production is more than likely here to stay.
Why should the average consumer care? For the same reason McDonald’s took Pink Slime out of their production process, and for the same reason some art is protected to the point of bulletproof glass and laser motion sensors. Quality speaks for itself in a piece of work, whether in a burger or in a drum loop. Ultimately for the disciplined and forward-thinking artists in this niche, they know that neither worldly praise nor critical disdain will ultimately prove the worth of their work, but that doesn’t get them above the poverty line. The right way to do things is hardly ever easy and usually takes longer, which goes against the grain of the “like-mentality.”
You cannot mass-produce integrity, and you cannot recreate a unique piece of art.
The ethics, values, and disciplines once required for a musician in the industry are waning and distorting. Nothing is sacred anymore, at least on the broader scale. But, as most of these music industry “professionals” would say, “Deal with it, or become the next has-been.” Keep pushing and evolving, or become obsolete.
Unfortunately, it is hard to do this without adopting the new standard of ethics (or lack thereof) and becoming misguided from what an electronic musician may have first aspired to do with their career.
Skiles, Deanna. Final Paper for Writing II. The Art Institute of Dallas. Modified. In-Text and Works Citations omitted.
EDITS will be cited in the original works citation compilation, which can be provided upon request.