Last November my wife and dog and I left New York and moved to Los Angeles so I could make pop music. Moving here is by no means a new or notable phenomenon. Popular music, film, and television made L.A. home base years ago. Geography is still the best social network. Another starlet hopeful gets off the bus. Finis.
Except I’m no starlet. Neither is the crew of young SoundCloud rappers who shacked up in the hills and cruise around town in an old Rolls-Royce. Neither is Sophie, or Zedd, or Flume, or other esoteric electronic producers who do time here and cut big pop records. Neither is Starrah, or James Blake, or Charli XCX, or the many way-left artists who daylight as pop-session songwriters — people who even just ten years ago might not have found a place in the Song Machine, let alone have wanted to. There’s a wide-eyed, collaborative spirit to the L.A. pop-songwriting community that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That’s good news for weirdos. People will write songs with you simply because they want to see what happens.
It’s worth stating the obvious: Musicians come to L.A. to make a living making music. You can live anywhere if you only want to be an artist. But being in the proximity of money is a better business plan. Right now that means L.A. Big artists write and record here. Labels and publishers are based here, and so are the sync houses who put songs in ads and TV shows. You might not know how you’ll catch a break, or whose orbit you’ll fall into, but moving to L.A. is one way to differentiate yourself from the millions who don’t. Your aspirations will be taken at face value. Being here means you’re serious.
Does the endless positivity start to feel fake after a while? Sure. Did I spend my first week here co-writing a terrible song titled “Bone to Bone”? Of course I did. Do first impressions matter too much? Maybe. The point is people tend to say ‘yes’ out here — to coffee, sessions, lunch with lawyers — because who knows what will come of that yes. L.A. is a yes town. Throw in the perma-blue sky, the major labels flush with streaming revenue, the space for decent home studios … L.A. starts to sound like some kind of pop-music utopia.
Utopia, of course, can’t be the word we use. Not when there’s still extreme gender inequality in the charts, behind the boards, in the back rooms — to give just one dystopic example. And pop music is a misleading term, because what we’re also talking about is music that just happens to be popular. So for now, let’s just say pop seems unusually ‘yes.’ Up for anything, down for whatever. That’s probably a good thing. I’m sure there’s a catch.
In 2004, I moved to New York because James Murphy told me to. This was the era that Lizzy Goodman recorded in Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history of rock music in New York after 9/11. While I’m no fan of Ryan Adams, or heroin, this was my New York. I came for the DFA parties. For Other Music, Kim’s, and the mixtape hut on 14th Street. I came for Glasshouse (different from Glasslands!) and Monkeytown and Tommy’s Tavern. Eventually I played in bands and started a record label called Godmode. Like the half-generation before us, we threw parties in condemned buildings. We played punk shows in kitchens. We made records under supermarkets. My label’s first cassette compilation, limited to 100 copies, was titled “The Internet Doesn’t Matter, You Live in New York.”
In my mind there’s a photo from the ’70s with David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Basquiat, Lou Reed, and maybe some guy from Konk in a booth at Max’s Kansas City. If it’s not them, it’s some other New York artists New Yorkers like to talk about, at some other place that no longer exists. Whoever it was, I’m sure we weren’t as talented. But I like to think the spirit was the same for them as it was for us. The sense of community, the higher purpose. The feeling that wherever we were, we were there.
So why leave? I have no desire to David Byrne you. You know the realities of living in New York right now. But there’s something Byrne never touched on: the existential burden of making art in New York after David Byrne did. Nothing I made ever felt artsy enough, or New York enough. Or maybe it was too New York and I was basically just a cover act. Whatever I was working on, I felt the weight of it having been done before. New York, I love you, but — the city had a way of demanding I deal with its history. It meant a lot to me to make music in New York. Maybe too much.
If I don’t want to David Byrne you, I definitely have no desire to Moby you. As much as I had accomplished in New York, I still felt extremely alone as an artist. This was as much my doing as it was anyone else’s. Good fences make good neighbors, that whole thing. My extreme anxieties about accidental physical contact with strangers on the subway were one and the same with my extreme anxieties about collaborating. Asking someone to make music with me meant I needed help in some way, and vice versa. And that meant I was a fraud. And vice versa. Why does my heart feel so bad?
To make pop music in L.A. is to submit to something larger than yourself. Everyone has a specific function. Sounds unromantic, but that’s part of the appeal.
Pop, as I understand it, is music made for people with no active interest in music. It’s different from rap or EDM, which just happen to be extremely popular. People care a lot more about sports, and memes, and video games, and reality shows these days. So music, even music made by major artists, has to fight for attention. There’s a reason we use words like hit and smash and impact when we talk about pop records: Music must seek out listeners like a homing missile.
I work in a missile factory. It’s in a converted condo complex in Los Feliz, where there are three other missile factories. I call my own shots, but I do have a keeper — the publishing company who gave me a lump sum of money a couple years ago and said, “Hey, you’ve kinda-sorta made things that look like missiles. It would be great if you could make us, I dunno, eight missiles? Maybe with some of the other people we gave money to?”
I can make a missile myself, but it’s generally agreed upon that working with other people will lead to better, more sophisticated missiles. Most of the time I make the missiles in collaboration with an artist, for the artist’s project. Those missiles come out looking less missilelike, which is a military advantage. Other times I’ll make a missile for no artist in particular. When it’s a damn good missile, our “teams” will try to find potential takers. Those takers might like certain parts of the missile but not others, use the warhead but not the wings, or they’ll take partial credit for the missile design even though technically they didn’t do anything. You learn not to take it personally. That’s the biz.
There are time-proven, field-tested tricks to writing a song that “works” like a pop song. These aren’t tricks or rules so much as guidelines you can use to figure out how to make your song stronger. There are also certain tempos, changes, vocal cadences, and drum rhythms that come in and out of vogue, and you try to pick and choose which of them you want to take part in. All this is part of the daily conversation of making pop music in L.A. Staying current means staying about six months ahead of everything else that’s out there — future enough to sound fresh, but not so far ahead that people won’t understand it.
Allow me to extend this military metaphor before it’s in truly bad taste: Missile technology must evolve because the public’s defenses evolve too. It’s why the EDM drop, or the single-note guitar lead, or the triplet flow, or sampling James Brown just don’t seem to work on people anymore. Surprises become less surprising with prolonged repetition. People who don’t make the music can suddenly hear the sound of its making. And just like that they tune out again.
Which brings me back to all the weirdos in L.A. Maybe one reason the industry is welcoming us is because, as much as there are best practices for song form, there’s no formula for what artists need to look like, or what their voices sound like, or what they sing about. Sounding new is more important than sounding good, as far as disarming the public goes. There are also more ways to break a new artist — more formats, which themselves birth their own audiences and rules of play. This is not radio versus streaming. A rap song that gets big on SoundCloud might never make a dent on Spotify. YouTube rewards fledgling cover artists in a way no other platform does. Then there are rap-only streaming apps like Spinrilla and Myfreemixtape, which are particularly important for artists from the South.
If something is even a little bit successful in one of these worlds, pop has your number. It wants your language, your cadence, your mating rituals, your material infatuations. Your reality. Recall that the purpose of pop music is to reach people with no active interest in music. Maybe you possess the magic whistle that will resonate with the public — whether it’s a voice, or production style, or some irreducible swag. So you move from Florida or D.C. or Kansas City. You live in a house in the Valley with people you met on the internet. You make music all day and party and eat a lot of Domino’s. If it worked on a small scale, imagine if it has some shape and money behind it — that’s the thinking. Imagine if Rihanna sang it instead of you.
So that’s the first catch. The way things are set up, breaking a new artist out of minor-hit status and into the pop mainstream remains pretty damn difficult. Songwriters who want to start solo artist careers are all but patted on the head, and the ones who do run the risk of being derided for sounding like the very artists they wrote for. Frankly it’s just easier for the entire music industry to keep putting its best songs through the proven vessels: your change-the-times, changers-with-the-times like Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Flo Rida, Demi Lovato, Zayn Malik, and so on. With every hit, the chasm widens. Imagine being a new artist and writing a song that’s so good, you simply can’t afford to “waste it” on yourself.
If you even last that long! That’s the second catch: However more open pop has become to new sounds and sensibilities, it still tends to trust newness over any platonic goodness, and there’s nothing newer than a young person. I’ve done a harrowing number of sessions at this point with 15- and 16-year-old YouTube personalities, who all go to high school on their phone. The ones I’ve worked with have an undeniable energy — pure Dionysus. They have no taste hangups, no canonical misgivings. They know how to get attention because they know what’s gotten theirs. Youth is real and beautiful. But the more new new music becomes the domain of the very young, the more we run the risk of music being in this stunted Peter Pan–type situation more than it already is, with none of the greater insights afforded by going through at least some Real Adult Shit. I am intrigued by the possibility of more Smokepurpps and Craig Xens and Lil Pumps, but worried our thirst for the new means we’ll never get to hear what they’re eventually capable of.
The third catch is a doomsday music-as-environment–type situation, but whatever, here it goes: By embracing the project of pop music, we might be complicit in letting our underground ecosystems dry up and making pop become the only game in town. The economics are simply not in favor of supporting music that’s not pop music or feeder music to the pop machine. There’s no reason to expect some benevolent turn of events. It’ll take some time to fell the tree, but the leaves are wilting. Formerly essential music publications whose bread and butter was alternative music are already becoming music-celebrity clickbait traffickers, or at best, content portals for festivals headlined by reunion acts. I don’t even want to know what opening bands on indie tours are getting for fees right now. Any music that doesn’t “hit” or “smash” or “compete” will be at risk in the musical thunderdome we’ve inadvertently created. The romantic notion of music — one person’s attempt at expressing what’s inside their soul and sharing it with the rest of us just because — will feel as quaint as glass-blowing.
But hey, I live in L.A. now. I’m staying positive. Music is still an underdog in the grand scheme of culture. Pop music is the front line of outreach — PR for music itself. Any time the public has an outsize emotional reaction to any pop song, whether it’s Pitbull or Flo Rida or even the Chainsmokers, it’s a win for all music. It reminds people that outsize emotional reactions to music are still possible. Maybe people who don’t think of themselves as music people begin to seek it out themselves. We build on our successes, respond and react. Call me naïve. If we do our job, maybe people will be more open to something or someone slightly weirder next time. It’s not a perfect process by any means, but as we say, it’s definitely going down. Timber.