ASCAP’s 13th annual “I Create Music” Expo at Loews Hollywood Hotel concluded after Wednesday’s events, which included a slate of panels designed to offer practical advice to the estimated 3,000 aspiring songwriters, producers and artists who attended. The final sessions featuring hit songwriter Dan Wilson, Meghan Trainor and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Below are five observations from the 2018 Expo and its final day. (See our recaps of Days One and Two.)
1) The death of the music business has been greatly exaggerated. There was no lack of young hopefuls, guitars and demos in hand, participating in largely nuts-and-bolts panels about how to succeed – from the right kind of microphone to the best agency to collect all your global streaming and synch royalties. In his annual Membership Meeting address to a packed house, ASCAP President Paul Williams – the diminutive singer, songwriter and actor who has brought an undeniable zeal to the post – said that revenues collected by the rights org were up 8% to $1.14 billion, joking, “Growth has never been my strong point.” There was also considerable optimism that the Music Modernization Act – subject of much politicking – would find its way through the Senate and onto Donald Trump’s desk.
2) Music Publishing is now a glamor business: Traditionally, music publishers were the poorer cousins of their record label counterparts, but what was once derided as a “nickel-and-dime” business has no become prescient in precisely the piecework streaming economy. A jovial Sony/ATV boss Martin Bandier celebrated his company’s being named Publisher of the Year at the BMI Awards with a rollicking party high above Sunset, where he marveled at how “music is a growth business again, like it was when I first started.” There’s also seemingly a more inclusive policy for songwriters and producers, a point that came up several times during the three days, with gender, race or even politics irrelevant if a creator has talent.
3) Dan Wilson offers a master class in songwriting: On the final day, songwriter Dan Wilson (who has written hits for Dixie Chicks and his own band Semisonic as well as co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You”) offered a series of creative tips on topics ranging from “What would Tom Petty do?” and “theft/appropriation” to “tell a story and take your ego out of it” and “be constantly on the hunt, believing something great will happen.” To illustrate, the self-effacing tunesmith related an anecdote about writing “Someone Like You” with Adele at a studio in Hollywood after she insisted they binge on YouTube videos of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. “She told me this sad story, and I incorporated those feelings into the song,” says Wilson before picking up a battered acoustic and performing the song. “She played it for some people and I asked what they thought. ‘My manager loved it and me mum cried,’” he recalled, doing a very credible Adele impersonation. Talking about “One of Those L.A. Nights When the Stars Come Out,” his collaboration with Chris Stapleton (who came up with the title), he recalled explaining that the Los Angeles smog blots out the stars. “It’s a metaphor, Dan,” Stapleton replied.
4) A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and composer/producer Adrian Younge discussed the soundtrack for the Emmy-winning Netflix series “Luke Cage.” The duo, who previously collaborated as producers on Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled Unmastered” album, discussed the challenges and opportunities that the medium of film/TV scoring presents.
5) Meghan Trainor has a second career as a stand-up: In one of the Expo’s final panels, “What Them Do: A Conversation with Meghan Trainor and J. Kash,” the songwriter-turned-performer marked a return to the same event and venue that she first attended as an unsigned artist back in 2008 — Justin Timberlake and Quincy Jones were featured panelists — offering real-world success to the hopeful. Pointing out where she sat, the self-effacing Trainor greeted her family in the audience (“My father once told me, ‘You may not have the look, but you got the sound’”). Downright giddy, she agreed to a spontaneous selfie with a young family band enthralled to meet her and praised a questioner who noted the soca/calypso influences in “All About That Bass,” punctuating her one-liners with a Bronx cheer.
J Kash is an affable Virginia Beach self-described stoner who moved to L.A. 10 years ago, writing hits for Cobra Starship (“Good Girls Go Bad”), Kesha (“We R Who We R”), Maroon 5 (“Cold”) and Charlie Puth (“We Don’t Talk Anymore”), making him one of the most in-demand songwriter/producers of the moment. Trainor and J Kash previously worked together on “No,” “Me Too” and the most recent single, “No Excuses.” Two more new tracks from her upcoming album, the disco-inflected “Let You Be Right” and “Can’t Dance,” are hitting streaming services today.
Trainor marveled at how her partner could be such a successful writer while being tone-deaf. “He can’t sing a note, but his rhyming and rapping, his use of words and conversational lyrics are what make him special.” The deadpan Kash was the perfect straight man/foil for Trainor, who recalled one A&R guy who, after hearing “Bass,” greeted her with, “So you’re the one who’s chubby and thinks it’s cute.”
The last word for the three-day conference – which one impressed attendee dubbed “SxSW without the performances” – went to the plainspoken Kash, who admitted he made “bad music” for years without success, but stuck to his belief in himself, another recurrent theme of these sessions. “Anything not to have to work a real job,” he cracked to a round of applause.
There were at least 3,000 other attendees at ASCAP Expo who would surely agree.