Are songwriting camps the future of Australian music?
The velvety-quiet halls of Studios 301 quiver intermittently with a rogue thump of bass. A muted vocal trill escapes from under a heavy soundproof door; laughter can be heard through the walls.
Cushioned inside 22 studios, 85 of Australia’s most gifted artists, producers and songwriters are furiously working on new material.
Most of them have never met. The teams are comprised of musicians spanning diverse backgrounds, genres, ages and levels of experience.
50 Songs 5 Days is kind of like songwriter speed-dating, with the relationship consummated immediately.
The brief: group the country’s most promising songwriters together in a recording studio to produce a new song every day for a week.
Writing camps are more than a commercial exercise to produce and release new material
At their core is collaboration and networking. The careers of many of Australia’s best songwriters have been secured by APRA AMCOS’ SongHubs program, which creates opportunities for members at home and overseas.
In the last five years, 55 SongHubs camps have churned out over 150 commercial releases globally, clocking-up more than $1.5 million in songwriting royalties.
With a focus on up-and-coming songwriters and fostering a sense of community, 50 Songs In 5 Days creates a pressure cooker for creativity across an intense five-day camp, seeing participants grouped in different combinations daily.
The enigmatologists behind this real life musical chairs are Specific Music’s Leonie and Robert Conley, whose curation prowess and partnership with APRA AMCOS has seen 50 Songs In 5 Days become Australia’s largest writing camp after just five years of operation.
Prominent local songwriters Sarah Aarons, Jarryd James, Morgan Evans, 5 Seconds Of Summer, Dean Lewis, Vera Blue, Jack Gray and more are just a handful of artists whose careers have been spring-boarded by 50 Songs In 5 Days.
And while the camp has seen impressive commercial success from the releases birthed in its sessions, for co-founder Leonie Conley, the aim of the game is community.
“How do songwriters meet?” she proposes. “Before SongHubs started, songwriting was a very private thing; they were very isolated.
“Robert’s and my perspective is about creating friendships and relationships. Everyone from the publishing side want results from the songs, but our first priority is relationships and fun.”
Ones To Watch
Neither musician had considered the path of songwriting as a way to subsidise their own solo careers, and flexing new creative muscles has been an enriching experience.
“I never thought of it until maybe the last 12 to 18 months,” muses Philpot. “When I was young I’d write songs in all different genres, but at the time I didn’t realise that I was writing for other people subconsciously.”
“Not many people look after the songwriters. They’re often left in the shadows and are often the last thought. A lot of the time, songwriters can get lost in the industry and be very easily eaten and spat out. APRA and 50 Songs is changing that.”
For Clark, songwriting became an important emotional outlet during a challenging two-year period which saw her career put on hold in 2016 after she was diagnosed with lupus.
Early success saw her debut single ‘Never Far Enough’ (2015) recieve national airplay, while her next output Shiver sat in the Top 10 on AMRAP’s Metro Chart for two weeks in a row, as well as receiving a nomination for WAM Song of the Year 2015/16.
Stream ‘Never Far Enough’ below:
“I was really stressed,” she remembers. “I was releasing a single and doing it all myself; no management, no publicity, no help.
“It was hard to be doing okay and then have to hit the brakes real hard and focus on healing.”
Clark says that while she viewed the hiatus as an opportunity to reconnect with herself, the first year was exceptionally difficult.
“For the first 12 months my life was pretty much just ticking things off. Thinking: ‘What can I do today? Can I make breakfast today? Yes. Can I shower today? Yes. Can I do anything else today? Probably not.’
“After that year I realised I couldn’t just sit and be okay with this being the only option.”
After penning almost 50 songs during her recovery, she applied for a grant to make her EP while juggling a genetics degree.
Fast-forward 12 months and Clark is back in the game. Her first new single ‘Giving Up’ was released in September this year, and subsequently nominated for the prestigious Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition.
Stream ‘Giving Up’ below:
After being a stand-out of SongHubs at BIGSOUND, 50 Songs In 5 Days co-founder Robert Conley invited her to attend 2018’s event, which is how she found herself in a room with Philpot, gospel vocalist and The Voice alum Maiya Sykes and Logie Award-winner Hugh Sheridan.
At 20 and 25 respectively, Philpot and Clark often find themselves working with older and more experienced artists and producers. While a goal of writing camps is to grow your network and make important connections, it’s also a time for personal growth and improvement.
“I often felt out of my depth when I was young; being afraid to speak up with my ideas,” says Philpot. “The ageism can be real.”
Fresh off the back of a SongHubs writing camp in Nashville, Philpot says that, when faced with a group of strangers and nine hours to produce a complete song, the most important thing is to get to know one another.
“Something I learned to do better in Nashville was how to get to know the people in the room before you try to write a song for them, because how can you possibly write a song for someone if you don’t know what their sound is, what they’re going through?”
“I think it’s important when you do these co-writes that you just have to adapt – you have to adapt or die,” Clark laughs.
“‘Dare to suck,’ as Julia Michaels said – that’s how I live my life,” agrees Philpot. “Some of the best songs come from daring to suck.”
A new frontier
Daring to write pop music is also a punt many Australian songwriters are taking. Changing the industry’s “uncool” perception of the genre and going on to pen global hits for international superstars.
It shows in APRA AMCOS’ full-year financial report, released in October: royalties to its 46,648 songwriter, composer and publisher members increased 8.2% year-on-year to $362.8 million.
“Of the ARIA Top 50 singles of 2017, 46 songs were co-written by more than one writer, and 23 of those included an international writer,” explains APRA AMCOS’ Director of Member Relations Milly Petriella, who also manages the Ambassador Program and SongHubs.
“From a commercial standpoint you can see how important it is to create these co-writing opportunities and introduce our homegrown talent to their international peers.”
Maree Hamblion, Joint Head of A&R at Sony/ATV, remembers how hard it was to get sessions with pop writers less than a decade ago because “pop was such a dirty word”.
“I think people wanted to start making money. I think people want to have their music heard. With artists travelling a lot more, they realise they have to be diverse if they want to have an international career.”
“These days people are becoming more proud to like and write pop music,” agrees Philpot. “I’m working with a lot more people who say openly ‘I’m a diva, I just love pop music.’ And that’s nothing to be ashamed of; pop is popular music because it sounds good.”
While Philpot signed with Sony/ATV just before heading to SongHubs Nashville, for Clark, the SongHubs experience is helping to gain the ground lost during those years spent in recovery.
While whispers of ‘the next big thing’, ‘bidding wars’ and ‘label deals’ set the hype to boil, Clark doesn’t seem to believe it.
“I don’t know, I just want to write, and find the best team to help me do that.”
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.