Classic hitmaker on songwriting in the digital age

Writing #1 hits: Then, now

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 5:53 pm

Neal Augenstein, wtop.com

WASHINGTON — The song remains the same. Not so for the songwriter’s job.

“There actually isn’t such a thing as a demo anymore,” said Hall of Fame songwriter Billy Steinberg, in a WTOP interview.

Steinberg is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, co-writing (with Tom Kelly) five No. 1 singles on Billboard’s “Hot 100″ charts for Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, Whitney Houston and Heart.

In 2013, as the record industry morphs to encompass digital downloads, Steinberg says expectations for songwriters have changed dramatically.

“When I started out in the 1980s, Tom Kelly and I would make a demo,” says Steinberg. “The word demo at that time implied the songwriters would make a relatively rudimentary (recording) of a song and send that out to a recording artist, or manager, or more often an A&R person at a record label.”

After the artist or executive decided to record the song, Steinberg’s basic demo would be passed along to the record producer.

As an example, in the demo for “Precious Time,” Steinberg sang the lead vocals with instrumentation that was fleshed-out in Pat Benatar’s recorded version.

“That producer would go in the studio with the artist and make the final recording of the song,” Steinberg says.

Steinberg and Kelly’s biggest hits include “Like A Virgin” (Madonna), “True Colors” (Cyndi Lauper), “Eternal Flame” (The Bangles), “So Emotional” (Whitney Houston), and “Alone” (Heart).

His other Top 10 U.S. pop hits include “I’ll Stand By You” (Pretenders), “I Touch Myself” (The Divinyls), “How Do I Make You” (Linda Ronstadt), “I Drove All Night” (Roy Orbison), “In Your Room” (The Bangles), and “Too Little Too Late” (JoJo).

In 2012, Steinberg and co-writer Josh Alexander had a song near the top of Billboard’s charts with Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break.”

These days, with affordable digital recording software and equipment, “people are making records in their homes,” says Steinberg.

“When I turn in my so-called demo, if the record company likes it, they expect to send their recording artist to our studio to put a vocal on that so-called demo. Then it’ll just be remixed and that’s the record.”

The new expectation means a songwriter can no longer just provide the guitar-bass-drums sketch of a song — he or she must essentially write and record the complete instrumentation.

The demo version of Steinberg’s biggest hit, “Like A Virgin,” was a keyboard-based eight-track version, with Kelly singing the falsetto lead vocal, a la Smokey Robinson.

However, Madonna’s No. 1 hit preserved much of the demo’s instrumentation.

“She used our demo as a precise blueprint,” says Steinberg. “She did go in the studio in New York with Nile Rodgers, but she didn’t sing on top of our demo track.”

As more musicians use digital software to record their music, Steinberg believes there’s still a market for talented songwriters.

“The melody and the lyric have to be written by somebody,” says Steinberg. “Even though there are some songs, especially heavy rap or dance songs that are more about the track, meaning computer-driven music.”

“I think it’s coming back around,” says Steinberg. “I think there are more real songs written in the last 12 months than the previous five years.”

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