The hit single “The Middle,” by Zedd and featuring Maren Morris, is currently on its third week at No. 1 on pop radio – a giant feat for any song but especially so for one that was written well over a year prior and had been recorded by no fewer than 12 top female singers. Among those to take a crack at the vocal: Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello, Anne-Marie, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Bishop Briggs, Bebe Rexha, Lauren Jauregui from Fifth Harmony, Daya and Elle King.
“It was a super long process,” says Stefan Johnson, one-fifth of production team Monsters & Strangerz, who, along with his brother Jordan Johnson and Marcus “Marc Lo” Lomax, shaped the track which was written by Australian newcomer Sarah Aarons. “We never lost the feeling for that song,” adds Jordan Johnson. “Even a year later, I, as a creator hadn’t gotten tired of it. It was special.”
Sure enough, almost as soon as the final version made its debut – on Grammy night during a Target commercial – spins, streams and syncs for “The Middle” shot up and have barely slowed since. The song’s ridiculously hooky chorus, with a spurned lover pleading to her significant other, “Why don’t you just meet me in the middle,” is about as close to a sure thing as pop bangers get.
“It’s infectious,” says Amanda Berman Hill, SVP and Head of West Coast Writer Relations for Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Aarons’ publisher (Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG, and Kobalt also have a share of the song through contributions by DJ-producers Zedd and the duo Grey, Jordan Johnson and Lomax, and Stefan Johnson, respectively). “From the moment it was released you’d see and hear people walking around singing the song.”
So why the many roadblocks just getting out the door?
For starters, the competition for hit songs is fierce these days. Where during the vinyl, tape and CD eras, songwriters angled to get just one “album cut” placed – and pocket royalties for their contributions commensurate with the full album’s sales (back when physical product was moving hundreds of thousands of units) — the streaming age means songs have to stand on their own.
In simple math, a million streams on Spotify averages out to around $6,800 in revenue, the lion’s share of which ($6,000) goes to the master rights holder (the label). The remaining (around $800) is allotted to the publishers, which then divide the earnings between their writers based on percentages of ownership (rates vary between paid and free streams). “The Middle,” as of this writing, had 236 million streams on the streaming service, which could net out $184,000 to the publishers — and that’s just for Spotify. Factor in other DSPs like Apple Music, and it’s already at $250,000. By comparison, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You,” the biggest song of 2017, has 1.7 billion streams on Spotify. A songwriter’s share of that track easily tops a seven-figure payout.
With some 20,000 new songs added to streaming services like Spotify every day, that means creators, who receive a cut from any public broadcast, be it radio, satellite or streams, are increasingly fighting to lock down a “single” – the song that will get the biggest push from the record company and stand the best chance of gaining smash status. And that single limbo, as it were — waiting for a major artist to say “yes” or using one artist’s interest in the song to entice another act to commit to making it a single — is where “The Middle” found itself back in early 2017.
“You’re confident at the start, but the longer the song [sits around], the more you start feeling like it’s slipping,” says Stefan Johnson, who, along with his production partners, ran down the hit’s long and winding road for Variety.
January 2017: Songwriter Sarah Aaron and Monsters & Strangerz, who met during a writing camp the previous year, riff on a synth progression and, in 45 minutes, come up with the chorus for “The Middle” off of a Wurlitzer riff that Lomax was tinkering with.
February to March: The guys finish production on a demo version of “The Middle” with Lomax adding a Vocoder to the hook. The sound would become a key component in future versions of the song.
April: A finished demo version is sent to Demi Lovato via her manager Phil McIntyre. “Demi really liked it but Sarah was not happy with the verse,” says Stefan Johnson. Worried that additional changes would “mess it up,” Johnson recalls: “Sarah was, like, ‘No, I need to re-write [some verses],’ and she did and they ended up being the best ones.”
May: The producers fly to Miami to cut a vocal by Lovato. “She sounded awesome and we were really hyped on it,” says Stefan Johnson. “But then we didn’t hear anything after a couple weeks and other people were hitting us up about the song, so we asked: ‘Is this gonna be a single for Demi?’” Lovato was conflicted between “The Middle” and “Sorry Not Sorry,” eventually opting for the latter (written by Oak Felder), he explains. “We got the call. Demi thought it was too pop, she’s trying to go more soulful and urban. We were super bummed.”
June: “We really wanted the Demi single, but we also weren’t discouraged because so many other people wanted the song,” recalls Jordan Johnson. Publisher Andrew Gould of BMG intervenes, sending the song to Dave Rene, who manages hit DJ-producer Zedd and newcomer act Grey. Word filtered down that Grey was going to play “The Middle” for Zedd. “That got everyone excited,” says Lomax.
July: “When we got the Zedd version, it was like a home run,” says Johnson. “It sounded like it was supposed to. It was our demo production taken to the finish line. We went in for a day of edits with Sarah, Grey and Zedd and put together a wish list of artists: Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels…”
August to September: Cabello is into the song and goes to cut her vocal with Zedd. “He sends us a version that’s incredible,” says Stefan Johnson. “I sent Camila a text about it, and she’s usually very responsive, and there was no reply. So I’m, like, what’s going on?” By this point Cabello’s “Havana” is climbing the charts and Johnson watches it take off “from 25 to 20 to 15…” And eventually to No. 1.
October: It’s “Defcon 4” at Monsters & Strangerz. With an Oct. 18 release date for the Cabello version two weeks away, the call arrives. “Camila’s out. She doesn’t want any song to overshadow ‘Havana,’” Stefan Johnson recounts. That’s when the song goes out to all comers and a slew of versions come back, including vocals by Bebe Rexha, Tove Lo, Bishop Briggs, and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others. Listening to the vocals, some takes are nearly indiscernible from the final versions. Yet, each is missing a certain something. Says Jordan Johnson: “Some of them are good but none feel like Sarah [Aarons]. Or Demi or Camila.”
November: Anne-Marie is a vocal powerhouse who’s popular in her native England, but still a relative unknown in the U.S. Monsters & Strangerz had worked with her before, and Zedd was down to giver her a shot. Says Stefan Johnson: “She cut a version by herself and Zedd really liked it. So he flew her out [to L.A.] and they cut a version together. Boom. Anne-Marie, Zedd and Grey. The release date is Jan. 6 and they even sent us the artwork.” A year’s worth of work and “the most phone calls I’ve ever had about any song,” he laughs. “You hope it’s worth it after all that.”
December: According to Stefan Johnson, a call to Monsters & Strangerz from their manager on the 30th goes something like this: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Target is going to premiere the song on Jan. 28 during the Grammys as part of a huge campaign. The bad news? We don’t have a singer. Anne-Marie’s out.” With DJ and publisher politics at play, DJ-producer Marshmello is releasing a song featuring Anne-Marie called “Friends” (No. 14 on pop radio as of April 19), and there’s a reticence by Zedd to have a track out with the same singer at the same time. Plus, Warner/Chappell has the master for “Friends” and Anne-Marie is signed to Warner Music, so that “takes priority,” says Johnson. “I was, like, this is just the worst. We’re done. We have no more ideas. There’s nothing left.”
January 2018: Country singer Maren Morris is “the angel that saved us all,” says Jordan Johnson. Unbeknownst to the production trio, Morris had cut a version on her own that no one had heard. Zedd listened, liked it, and flew down to Nashville at the top of the year to record her vocal. “She sounded incredible,” says Lomax. “It was the best one yet, no question.” Adds Stefan Johnson: “The lyrics took on a whole new meaning when Maren sang. All of a sudden, you believe it. The taps are running. Dishes are broken. It sounded a little Nashville and felt right. We were pumped. They sent new art with a new name again. And there was a new release date: Jan 26. Still, we were, like, we won’t believe it until we see it on the Grammys.”
Morris’ vocals (extra raspy due to a strained vocal cord that was being treated) coupled with a new bridge and added embellishments (like the tick-tock rhythm during the breakdown) turned out to be just what “The Middle” needed. And perhaps as importantly, the single, released by Interscope and Columbia and promoted by Interscope Geffen A&M president of promotion Brenda Romano, positioned Morris for crossover success. Says Sony/ATV’s Berman-Hill: “Maren is already an enormously accomplished artist [and] I hope it opens the door to the pop and international audience who may not be as familiar with country music or what a great talent she is.”
Monsters & Strangerz have yet to meet Morris, who was on her honeymoon when “The Middle” first reached No. 1, but Johnson senses from her vocal takes that she had a goal in mind. “This song was her ‘I can do this and watch me do it’ moment,” he says. “Now she has no ceiling.”
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