“SONGS into DOLLARS! New songwriters, poets, composers may gain SUCCESS, FAME, WEALTH. Songs composed, PUBLISHED. Appraisals, details FREE.”
Classified-size ads like this were rampant in the backs of magazines for most of the 20th Century. Amateur lyricists were invited to send their work to “song poem” companies who claimed to vet all submissions and only select the material most likely to be a hit, i.e., anyone willing to pay the subsequent fee. These companies would then write the music, chart it out, and hire studio musicians to play it: often only once, sometimes recording 12 different new songs an hour. It was assembly-line music at its most efficient.
It was also a scam. The songs were rarely ever heard outside the writer’s home, despite promises to market it to tastemakers. Years later, some surfaced on a series of compilations by Bar/None Records, very serious songs with unintentionally hilarious titles like “Human Breakdown of Absurdity.”
Song poems were/are easy to mock. But even though they were a scam, they were also a democratizing force during a time when home recording was far out of reach for most amateurs, or even most professionals, who often needed a major label to bankroll studio time.
Cut to the 21st Century, when everyone who buys a new computer gets pre-installed software, including a digital audio workstation (DAW), while other tools are available for free online. A boom in home recording democratizes music-making to infinite levels, which is inherently a good thing.
And yet, something’s missing. Working alone in your basement has obvious limitations. Unless you’re Stevie Wonder (which you’re not), you actually can’t play or sing all the parts yourself. You’re not that good a mixer, and you most likely know next to nothing about mastering. And it’s hard to find great players and producers if you don’t live in a major music centre – and what starving artist can afford to live in one of those anymore? (Okay, fine, Montréal is still possible… for now.)
Into that void come new online services like SoundBetter, which enables pro and semi-pro musicians looking for a mixing engineer with Top 40 credits, as well as people who need everything done for them. (“I have this rough song idea I think you can write and sing to and make it a hit,” reads one post on SoundBetter.)
SoundBetter is the progenitor, founded in 2012 by Shachar Gilad, a former employee of Logic, Apple, and the plug-in developer Waves. Gilad was hearing from both musicians who needed professional help, and professional producers and engineers who were having difficulty connecting with new clients. SoundBetter was inspired in part by Yelp, AirBnB, and Etsy: part directory, part marketplace, and connecting supply with demand across all global borders.
Anyone can post an ad: Are you looking for an EDM producer that can give your track the kind of bottom end you’re looking for? Or an incredible R&B singer to handle your hook? Maybe something super-specialized, like an oboe player? In the age of infinite synth patches, AutoTune and plug-ins, there is still high demand for the human touch – even if, as Gilad points out, his clients could be in Russia or rural Manitoba. Two of his most successful vocalists live in Vietnam and Lisbon. And having live instrumentation sets your demo far apart from the same synth patches used by everyone else with whom your demo is competing. For those who are providing the service, they can work out of their home and at their leisure, connecting with clients around the world they’d never have access to otherwise.
Initially, SoundBetter accepted all providers. In 2014, they added a premium level for more experienced players and engineers who are vetted and charged a monthly fee for greater visibility on the site; less than three per cent of applicants are accepted. “If we let everyone into premium, we’d be making a lot more money, but we don’t do that,” says Gilad. “That wouldn’t be sustainable, or a good experience for the client.”
Premium clients often have Grammys, or Top 40 credits to their name, but that’s not necessarily the best benchmark for who’ll do the best on SoundBetter. Old-fashioned customer service is. “What does a credit actually mean?” asks Gilad rhetorically. “It means someone in your city gave you a break to get you in that room on that day [a hit was made] and you didn’t blow it. A lot of people never had that lucky break, but they’re super-talented, and SoundBetter allows them to develop. If they get 100 reviews that are positive, they get hired again and again. And it’s really important when you’re working remotely to communicate well. You could be an amazing singer or mixing engineer, but we’ll kick you out if you don’t provide a good service.” Gilad boasts that some songs produced by SoundBetter now have hundreds of millions of plays on Spotify.|
A relatively recent competitor to SoundBetter is Tunedly, which was started as SongCat, in Prince Edward Island in 2015, by a German and French couple, Chris Erhardt and Mylène Besançon. The pair met in Ireland; the couple are still in Charlottetown, though the company’s office is in St. Louis, Missouri. They know a thing or two about working remotely in an interconnected world.
Tunedly is decidedly smaller than SoundBetter, offering only several dozen heavily vetted providers, to whom they can guarantee steady work. But they’ve also attracted some top names to their advisory board, including Matthew Knowles, father of Beyoncé and Solange, and Harvey Mason Jr., a Grammy-winner who’s worked with Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake and other heavy hitters.
SoundBetter allows providers, who are charged a monthly fee, to set their own pricing with clients. Tunedly doesn’t charge its providers to be on the platform but takes a small percentage of revenue. It sets standard rates, to avoid undercutting. “We want songwriters to put together their team for each project based on who’s the best choice, instead of who’s the cheapest choice,” says Tunedly’s Erhardt.
SoundBetter’s clients and providers are global; Tunedly’s providers are largely L.A. and Nashville pros. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tunedly is focused more on singer-songwriters in folk, acoustic pop and country, primarily in North America, while SoundBetter attracts a lot of chart pop, hip-hop and EDM clients from around the world. Tunedly started out as a demo-development site, where songwriters would submit a rough version of their song that would then be produced by a project manager at Tunedly, who would arrange the song and hire the players (which is not terribly dissimilar to the song-poem model). As of May 2017, Tunedly moved away from just pre-made packages, and allowed songwriters to pick session players for specific needs, closer to the SoundBetter model.
For the lonely songwriter trying to flesh out rough demos, it’s a far cry from placing your trust in sketchy classified ads for song-poems. You control the final product. And this time, you might actually have a hit on your hands.