Mercury and Grammy winning producer casts a steely eye on the current challenges for songwriters and his top five Salute tracks: Salute Curator, Jonathan Quarmby.
Dreamy, emotional song exploring the mystery of possibilities unexplored.
Ensconced in London’s renowned RAK studios in St John’s Wood, just a stones throw from the London Zoo, Quarmby’s experience encompasses not just how someone like Benjamin Clementine wins a Mercury prize, but also how any aspiring songwriter has a hope of making it out of the musical wilderness. Hint… it’s not easy.
“We’ve arrived at a stage where the song is King, and the public care less about music production.”
One of the things that came out of his Grammy-winning producer partnership with Kevin Bacon, Bacon & Quarmby, was AWAL (Artists Without A Label), one of the first digital aggregation platforms that allowed writers to directly put their music onto iTunes, no record label necessary. So he’s tremendously au fait with the current distribution landscape, and just what it means to have a great song on a modern distribution platform:
“The first thing to do is to get the song right!”
Moving fast from the bedroom, or the studio and into the charts is what it’s all about for writers in this time. Dodging barriers, and avoiding unaffordable expenses en route to releasing a record. Indeed, that’s what digital distribution platforms like iTunes and Spotify can facilitate. And what can happen then is that the public might raise the profile of a good song.
iTunes and Spotify are deluged with music that nobody cares about, he says. Luckily, the digital environment is big enough in scale to accommodate that: The public become the algorithm; drawing their favourite music through, making the cream rise to the top. And that is what Salute is all about: A microcosm in which new songwriting will emerge and gain recognition.
Production becomes the backdrop and curtains around a song, Quarmby says; most writers will never experience the Halcyon days of music recording, where Curtis Mayfield could string up an orchestra to make a record. He asserts that label executives are having to realise, much to their consternation, that music does not have to be well-produced to soar up a Spotify playlist.
Quarmby’s advice to writers now is very direct, and uncomfortable to hear for many aspirants:
Think about the songwriting process, he says, where it came from. In the UK, you could evoke an image of a Victorian parlour, where folk gathered around a piano, and new songs were shared before going on to be popular in much bigger music halls.
Or, up to the time, maybe a writer is practicing their bars at at a cypher outside a hip hop night, before getting their break into a scene. There’s a disconnect between private music making, trying things out, and what should be aired in public.
“I love the idea of discovery and I love the idea of finding new music, but what you really want is to discover great music”
What Quarmby discovered being a Salute curator is that, much as there are some amazing entries, it’s also clear that others aren’t examining what they’re doing hard enough, and asking themselves, ‘is this good enough?’ Think, what separates the amateur from the keen amateur and the professionals; it’s raising the bar, all the time. Asking, ‘should I use moon and June in the lyrics’, ‘is that guitar good enough,’ ‘Is this something that I should be sharing with the public at this point in time, or do I need to improve before I put it out there.’
The bar to being a professional music maker is that high, he says. People don’t want to be constantly listening to stuff that just isn’t that great. Taking the metaphor to a running track, he states that many people can run quite fast. Do the 100m dash in less than 13s? Not bad! But to become one of the top runners in the world, you need to be able to turn in 10s dashes, frequently!
It’s this degree of dedication and training Quarmby recognises as crucial to forging a career as a songwriter.
When you’re confident that something is truly as good as you can possibly get it, then you can share it.
If something is really good, it’s going to get elevated into the Salute Top 100. If it’s exceptional, then we’re going to see it come through to the Top 10 and then possibly even in the final six. Now that the public algorithm has been activated, we can’t wait to see if any of his picks from the crop make it to the top!