Music production & songwriting credits explained, or: Why the ‘true artist’ label is dumb)

RecordingStudio

It’s hard to think of any music fandom with an insecurity complex bigger than any given K-pop fandom. People who are into K-pop (regardless of which group is their fave) can’t just seem to say, “I like this bubblegum shit, because it sounds good to me, and that’s that, and if you don’t like it fuck you!” No, they have to constantly justify everything, both to themselves and others, just so they can confirm, “yes, it’s socially acceptable for me to like this group”.

That’s the real motivation behind the excessive caring about vocal technique (“See? My favourite group is talented, see? SEE?”), chart success (“Look, everyone likes them in Korea, they MUST be good!”), and awards (“They won something! They’re so special!”) that many fans engage in. It’s also why fans’ eyes light up with delight whenever they’re alerted to the rare event of their bias getting a songwriting credit somewhere; it’s also why they then go and trot out these song credits tirelessly on forums and websites in some pathetic cyber dick-measuring contest.

Given all that interest, I thought it would be useful to demystify one aspect of the circlejerk: the meaning of technical terms in album credits. That way, when the next media hype article comes along about artist X co-arranging song Y with producer Z, you don’t get the wrong idea about what’s really going on and you at least have some idea of what you’re stroking your e-peen over.

Because I love you guys.

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Let’s get started with some basic terminology:

Composer: Writes the music. If a separate lyricist, writer or arranger is not specified, the composer did these things too.

Songwriter: Same thing as the composer.

Lyricist: Writes the words. Unless the lyricist is also the composer or the co-composer, the lyricist did not decide how those lyrics are sung (or rapped, or screamed, or whatever), only what the words are.

Arranger: The person who decides what parts go where and/or which singers and instruments do what parts.

Recording Engineer: The person who works the big desk in the studio, (hopefully) knows what all the knobs do, and records the performers. Performers used to be recorded onto large reel-to-reel tapes, but these days it’s all done with computers.

Mixing Engineer: The person who works the big desk in the studio, and (hopefully) knows what all the knobs do. Gets the recordings from the recording engineer and adjusts levels so the loudness and softness of each instrument is just right, adds effects and special stuff (for another blog) so it sounds “nice”, and “mixes down” the result into a standard two-track (stereo) file. Except on very big high-budget projects, the recording and mixing engineer are typically the same person — if a separate mixing engineer is not specified, the recording engineer did this job.

Audio Engineer: Another word for someone who is both the recording and the mixing engineer. An audio engineer is also what you call a person who mixes a live band, but we’re talking about studio album credits here so we’ll ignore this bit.

Producer: The person who decides the sonic result of the mix — how much bass and treble, how thick or thin the instruments sound, how loud or soft everything is, what effects would go best where, etc. If this seems like there’s a bit of crossover between “producer” and “mixing engineer” … not quite. It’s more like the producer sits back in his lounge chair dictating to the audio engineer, who then does whatever the producer wants. In K-pop, it’s common for the “producer” to actually be the composer/lyricist, arranger, producer, and audio engineer all in one. Most of the more well-known hitmaker style producers in K-pop (Brave Brothers, Shinsadong Tiger, JYP, Sweetune, etc) fit this category.

Executive Producer: Fronts money for the project, effectively a sponsor. This person is usually not involved in any other way. An example of an executive producer who also gets involved in actual production and other areas would be JYP, but he’s a rare exception.

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Mastering Engineer: This person gets the final two-track mix and tweaks/optimizes it in subtle ways for maximum fidelity/impact on radio or in downloaded formats. Think about the mastering engineer as equivalent to someone who gives a brand new car a buff, shine, and polish once it leaves the assembly line. The mastering engineer is almost always a separate person from everybody else, and sometimes they go uncredited. Only very very cheap productions, and/or productions in extremely non-commercial genres with absolutely zero aspirations to mass popularity, would release a recording without mastering it first.

There are other terms, but those are the main ones you’ll come across … but let’s not forget:

Performer: Plays/sings the music. May or may not have had fuck-all to do with any of the above. In the case of K-pop, generally not.

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There are however, exceptions — exceptions that the average K-pop fan will treasure like a jewel-encrusted dildo encoded with their bias’ DNA.

Let’s look at some exceptional situations and how they are likely to apply to K-pop.

Co-Writing: For example, apparently CL helped compose three songs for the new 2NE1 album while she was bored. But what does “helped compose” actually mean? Well, according to the article:

The leader of 2NE1 composed the lyrics and co-wrote the music for the songs “If I Were You,” “Baby I Miss You” and the title track off of “Crush.” She also co-wrote the lyrics for the song “MTBD” with YG producer-in-residence Teddy.

If she’s the only one who composed those lyrics for those three songs, then she’s the sole writer of the words, which means we’re probably going to get filler-standard lyrics like the Korean equivalent of “alone” rhymed with “phone” and “Saturday night” rhymed with “feelin’ alright”. But what about “co-wrote lyrics” and “co-wrote music”, what does that really mean? Well, maybe CL sat down with Teddy in the studio and had a chat like this:

CL: “You know, since I’m a strong independent woman and a role model for women globally, I think I should help you write the song, because I think a female presence is important to preserve the artistic and creative integrity of what 2NE1 is doing.”

Teddy: “Okay then, what do you want?”

CL: “Well, in that bit in our new song where it goes ‘eh eh eh’, can we make the first ‘eh’ a bit lower than the other ones? I think that this female creative input that I’m giving now will show the world that 2NE1 are strong independent women.”

Teddy: “Rightio … anything else?”

CL: “Nope! … Oh, WAIT! In that ‘MDTB’ song, I want to say ‘2NE1, bitches!’ at some point. Like, really LOUD. Because we’re got to show the world how we’re redefining the pop music scene in Korea for women and I think that will send a positive message that we’re not afraid to light it up and let it burn like we don’t care!”

Teddy: “…Okay, is that it?”

CL: “Yep! Can we do it?”

Teddy: “Sure.”

CL: “Great! Let ‘em know how it feels damn good to be bad!”

Believe it or not, the above hypothetical scenario (assuming Teddy came through on his end of the deal and let her do that) would be enough for CL to get one co-writing vocal credit and one co-writing musical credit on an album sleeve. Of course, perhaps she’s actually done a whole lot more than that, but my point is that to get her name on the album credits, she doesn’t need to do much at all.

Co-Arranging: Another equally curly piece of terminology. For example, remember when Eunjungparticipated in the arrangement” of “I Know The Feeling“? As we’re covered, “arranging” just means “deciding what goes where”. She didn’t actually play anything, or even decide what notes get played, she just helped put the already-existing musical jigsaw pieces together. She might have gone up to composer Baek Deoksang while he was busy recording and had a conversation like this:

Eunjung: “I’d like to help arrange this song!”

Baek Deoksang: “Okay then, what’s on your mind?”

Eunjung: “Can we have an acoustic guitar intro instead of a keys intro? That’d be just swell!”

Baek Deoksang: “Sure.”

Eunjung: “Also, can Boram and Hyomin get the rap parts instead of me? I hate getting saddled with the fucking rap parts all the time now that Hwayoung isn’t around to polish her nails in time to the beat.”

Baek Deoksang: “Why not, Boram’s always whining about how she doesn’t get rap parts anyway. If I throw her a bone, maybe it’ll shut her up for once.”

Eunjung: “Great, thanks!”

Of course, it could have been a lot more involved than that. The point is, you don’t really know — nobody does except the people involved. Just like with co-writing, the most minimal of changes is enough to qualify as “co-arranging”.

So hypothetically, if certain companies wanted to publicly transition their “idols” to “true artists”, they could do so with minimal actual technical work on the part of the idol themselves. It would actually be exceedingly simple to come up with one of the scenarios portrayed here and then media play the hell out of it so that people will then hopefully respect the idol’s “creative input”.

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All that potential BS aside, here’s the best bit: we’re assuming in these cases that songwriters are accurately reporting their songwriting splits. Nobody says that they have to do that.

When composed works are reported with royalty collection agencies, each person who was involved in writing the work is apportioned a percentage of the royalties. In the case of one person writing everything, they get 100%. In the case of one person writing the words and another writing the music, they each get 50%. In the case of two people writing the music it’s not split 25% each by default, for the reasons outlined in the above hypotheticals — maybe one person had very minimal input. It’s instead up to the composers to work it out between themselves how to split the royalties, they’ve just got to agree on whatever the split is and both sign on it (and until they do, nobody gets anything).

When signing to a major label, songwriting royalties form part of the contract agreement, so you actually have to hash this stuff out with the label themselves (or in the case of K-pop, they offer you a deal and you take it, or you don’t take it and another trainee takes it instead and you don’t get to have a music career at all). So when CL suddenly decides “right, I’m going to help write a song”, that 5% or 25% of whatever part is apportioned to her is already spoken for because the royalty split sheets are submitted by the label, who will usually collect royalty on behalf of the artist.

Gosh, where could this potentially go wrong?

Well, if the label has control over royalty collection they can do all sorts of fun stuff including but certainly not limited to:

-Make songwriting royalties automatically go toward paying off production debts instead of going into the artist’s pocket.

-Allow performers to purchase songwriting credit by paying a fee for inclusion on the royalty split (so they only make a profit if the song does well enough to recoup the fee), or allowing them to be part of the royalty split for free if they sacrifice something else (like a weekly wage).

-Decide to not credit the songwriters at all by having a clause in the contract that states that any creative work made while under contract is legal property of the label.

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And that’s just scratching the surface, these aren’t the only possibilities, just a few fairly typical ones. Yes, success stories and people making bucketloads of money off big hits does exist, but for every G-Dragon who makes a packet off royalties, there’s a bunch of people like [name deleted for legal reasons] who probably put in the same amount of creative energy and got utterly shafted.

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The content in most of this post should be assumed by rational people, but like with most things in the K-pop fandom, it rarely is. So in a sea of delusion, this is just a little something to think about the next time you hear about an idol co-writing/co-arranging a song. Now when you see the psycho fandums going insane about how their oppar/unnir is so original and talented and a ‘true artist’ unlike your basic oppar/unnir, you can smile because you know better.

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