This week Chris and Jeff sat down with platinum-selling producer/songwriter Darryl Swann. Darryl’s credits include work with countless incredible artists and producers, from Macy Gray to Rick Rubin and The Black-Eyed Peas. He was previously signed to Sony Epic and teaches at the Musician’s Institute, UCLA, and the Grammy Museum.
We talked with Darryl about his career, his book The Essential Guide to Songwriting, Producing and Recording, and his insight on creating and using demos as an independent musician.
This article features some of the highlights from our talk, but make sure to check out the full interview on the Music Business Lounge Podcast!
- Write a song with every new person you meet – songwriting and production evolve together.
- Cowriting and mingling are golden tickets to publishing and licensing deals.
- Efficient producers get to know their artist and what they want to create a proper sound.
- Stick to your vision but also consider outside advice.
Thanks for joining us, Darryl! Can you begin by sharing a little bit about your background in the business and how you got to where you are today?
Absolutely. So, it all started when I was a kid and I used to take apart and just totally destroy my guitars my parents would buy me. I was fascinated about how things worked. My brother took an audio recording course and I would steal his book at night. I would read and learn about microphones and signal flow and things like that. It was really fascinating to me. I was a musician but I was also fascinated with the recording process and how mics work and how electrons move through wires and magnetic properties and things like that. I was the only guy in my band that knew how to run the PA. While the other guys were out chasing girls after the gig, I was the guy packing stuff up.
My band moved from Cleveland, Ohio to L.A. in the mid-eighties. We were a total hair band. We opened for Poison and Warrant at the Troubadour and did the whole LA circuit. I ran into a buddy of mine who I went to school with back in Cleveland and he told me he was opening a studio, so I went down there. He hired me because I had a bit of an understanding of signal flow and things like that.
What was it like working in a studio surrounded by that scene?
I ended up literally living at that studio for about two years. I was fully immersed. I was in a band and working at the studio doing twenty-hour sessions everyday. I would literally sleep under the mixing board between sessions. It was warm under there. My first session as a second engineer was an L.A. and Babyface-produced a song called “Rock Steady” for The Whispers. I really got to cut my teeth and immerse myself into that environment.
When there weren’t sessions going on, I would bring bands and solo artists in. I would use them as guinea pigs and just produce them. I was playing with drum machines, which were first starting to come out. I would watch what the engineers were doing during the day and repeat that in the evening when I had my guinea pig bands. That was a great experience that really brought me up to speed.
And how did things develop for you as an artist and songwriter?
I signed with John Singleton in 1994 with a group called Cultural Revolution. John Singleton had just done Boyz in the Hood which was nominated for an Oscar. That was my first visit to the rodeo as an artist and producer. That was 1994. In 1996 I lost that deal and during that time I met Macy Gray. She had lost her own deal around the same time. She called me up looking to write some songs. She and I started writing and we wrote a song along with some other people called, “I Try.” We did it in a garage using drum machines and some live instruments. It was kind of a hybrid production. We went in at like 8 PM and the next morning we had this song. She took it to her publisher and the publisher loved the hybrid sound. It was the right thing at the right time.
That single was placed in two films and her publisher told us to keep working. I stole studio time at Paramount Recording. She would come up with a melody and I would have my drum machine and guitar. Four to six months later we had twelve songs and that became the first record. It was really something. We had created this body of work, fully produced, fully done, background, layers, and everything. The rest is kind of history.
That’s amazing! Can you tell us a bit about using demos in today’s industry? Are they still valuable?
Sure. Myself and many other people say there are no “demos” anymore. Back in the day, demos were acceptable because there was a large gap between individuals that had access to very specialized gear and skills and everyone else. You really needed serious funding to get into a room and really work. Now that gap has totally blurred because everyone and their mother has GarageBand, Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton. The big difference is this; yes you can make shiny stuff, but is it a shiny turd?
That’s where being able to write a great hook or to find that perfect synth sound that totally evokes the entire mood of the song or whatever becomes so important. Most people are putting out really shiny stuff but the content is not great. If you have to play something for somebody you don’t want to make a bunch of disclaimers. If you’re showing it to someone that counts and you have to make more than one disclaimer, you shouldn’t be playing it for them. Period. Even if they say, “I can hear past production value,” they can’t. Trust me. “Demos” are purely for the inner-circle.
If you’re a songwriter, when do you know that a song is ready to take the next step and to start entering that sort of recording process?
That’s a great question. You can think of production or writing the music in two categories. When I teach production classes, I tell them producing a band is very different from producing a solo artist or project that’s evolved “in the box” that’s beat driven. You have the band as a living, breathing entity. Before the producer shows up, the band already has songs. Traditional songwriting is kind of more people getting together as one person. They hammer out some chords on a piano or guitar or something like that and some lyrics and melodies so they can sit there and they can play acoustically.
Then there are artists who need a producer to go on Ableton or ProTools and start pulling some beats and tracks together. There is no song until we start pulling that together. From there I think it’s hard-wired in any of us that are creative. Human beings that write songs, we know when something has evolved to that point. We know when we’ve got some verses, chords, and the the structure going. The core essence of the song. I hear tons of my students; some are really advanced, some are kind of cutting their teeth on that stuff.
So once you have that recording in your hand, could you give us some tips on getting your stuff heard by the right people?
Absolutely. Obviously not everybody that writes great songs is trying to be an artist and that’s where licensing comes in. Tons of money is being generated in the industry and for songwriters that way. Get yourself connected with an entity that can place your music, like a music publisher or a licensing agency. Let’s talk about a publishing company first. Usually if you do a co-publishing agreement, which is their standard deal, they’re going to serve the songs up, put the songs out in the world, and try and cut deals. But in order for them to want to get in bed with you and work with you you need to impress them. So what is the criteria? It’s like a credit card. Once you get your first card, it’s easy. You’re proven.
If you don’t have anything placed, you need to put together a body of work. One song is not going to do it. That body of work needs to be fully produced. Once you have that, a good way to make yourself more attractive to a music publisher is to co-write with writers that have publishing deals. There’s tons of them out there. If you don’t know where to get started, check out ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. They hold gatherings monthly in New York, L.A., Nashville, and sometimes Chicago. So I tell people to go to these different functions and mingle and meet-and-greet. You’re going to meet people that have a licensing deal or a publishing deal.
You can start relationships with these people and start to make connections. People always want to find new people to write with. Make sure you have some music online that they can go listen to. Without that, it’s an opportunity lost. Make sure you have at least three to five things that are fully produced and you can say, “here’s my stuff.”
Like what you read? Make sure to share this article! Let us know if you have any thoughts or questions in the comments section or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find our full audio interview with Darryl on the Music Business Lounge Podcast, where we dive even deeper into his experiences and insight on demos and production as an independent musician.
Be sure to connect with Darryl:
Darryl Swann Official Website
The Essential Guide to Songwriting, Producing and Recording
Darryl Swann on Twitter
Latest posts by Valen Chapman (see all)
- Industry Insight: Demo Production with Multi-Platinum Producer and Songwriter Darryl Swann (Macy Gray / will.i.am) - September 8, 2017
- Podcast: Demos and Production w/ Darryl Swann (Multi-Platinum Producer / Songwriter) - September 8, 2017
- Artist Insight: DIY Development w/ Elisa Smith (Elisa Smith and the Tiny Little Lies) - June 19, 2017