Week 8 – The emotional labour of songwriting

Barber and Long (2015) describe the ‘emotional labour’ involved in songwriting that encompasses the ‘commerce-creativity dialectic’ (Hesmondhalgh 2007, p20). For their research Barber and Long (2015) distinguish between ‘singer-songwriters’ and ‘professional tunesmiths’ / non-performers, concentrating on the latter. This blog explores some case studies including a mainstream pop writer, Sia, and some local examples of female singer songwriters. What are the possible income streams and what creative processes are required in commercialising your emotions?

Sia seems to have the formula / secret / ‘mystic powers’ for making successful pop tunes. As well as releasing chart topping hits as a performer, she has also co-written for Adele, Katy Perry, Rhianna and Brittney Spears, to name but a few. She has made a great living from making catchy tunes for female pop A-listers, literally churning out songs, as quickly as fourteen minutes per track, of which she says:

I don’t think that I’m necessarily like a super-talented songwriter. I think I’m just really productive. One out of 10 songs is a hit”.

But what if you aren’t in the elite ranks of mainstream pop songwriting? What ways can independent artists get financial rewards for their emotionally creative endeavours?

In the case of locally based Jo Hamilton, her creative freedom is supported by a mixture of sync opportunities, whereby she may be commissioned to provide a soundtrack for film or TV, BPI funding to aid international releases, and a patronage scheme. Patronages, direct audience sponsorships and ‘adopt a musician’ style support systems are becoming increasingly popular with artists who have a healthy fanbase who see them as musically ‘authentic’. Jo is also supported by an independent label, who has afforded her the artist development so sadly missing in today’s fractured music industry.

Carina Round, an artist originally from Wolverhampton, and now based in LA has used crowdfunding and pledge music routes, letting go of the need for record labels altogether. This option has proved popular with singer-songwriters globally, as a debt-free, self-releasing model for reflexive artist development that harnesses fan support. Regular updates on social media are handled personally and there is a ‘Do-It-Together’ mentality that cushions the emotional processes of making the music as well as undertaking the daunting task of self-promotion. Carina has also had music placed in television shows and performs with other artists.

All three examples include the necessity for emotional labour in the process of making art, no doubt. In the case of Sia, we see an example of the current songwriting elite, who has been able to routinize the process, similarly to those undertaken by Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building tunesmiths. Like Carole King, she has ventured into performance herself when the songs have been rejected by the artists they were intended for.

Other songwriters, in contrast to Sia, have found other avenues to support their commercial / creative balance by authentically building an emotionally-based relationship with their fans and nurturing these relationships through the use of social media (Carina Round) and handwritten postcards (Jo Hamilton). With new media and proliferation of music sync, there are new opportunities for artists to act as both tunesmith and performer, depending on the situation, and all three artists mentioned exemplify that.



1 thought on “Week 8 – The emotional labour of songwriting

  1. It goes without saying that the commercialisation of one’s emotions is without a doubt a crucial factor within the singer-songwriter industry – and or community – within the wider music industry, particularly in the area of publishing, and I really like the way you’ve contemporised this discussion by alluding to several case studies regarding woman, which admittedly are overlooked in academia regarding songwriting and commerce. As you’ve mentioned through the case studies of Jo Hamilton and Carina Round, I would argue that perhaps the lesser known artists have the potential to achieve the same financial rewards as artists such as Sia through their more lucrative and creative strategies such as the increasingly popular sync deals. I would be interested in seeing this fleshed out further, perhaps by looking more in-depth at local female artists and their ways of utilising creative methods to open up revenue streams that may not have been there otherwise. Going further, I’d recommend Schellenberg and Von Scheve’s 2012 article, Emotional cues in American popular music: Five decades of the Top 40, which looks in-depth at the relationship between pop music and audiences with songs rich in emotional depth.


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