Writing music with on-demand musicians
The gig economy is a revolutionary tool for artists.
Creative services platforms like Fiverr bring together the demand and supply for artistic labor.
Artists with a big vision need to hire collaborators. Artists who want to practice their artistic craft while earning some spare cash need gigs to work on. Fiverr brings the two sides together, acting as an escrow and mediating the occasional dispute.
New artistic tools give rise to new art forms. Photoshop created new types of visual art and memes. Unity made 3-D model design accessible, leading to new games. Ableton simplified the ability to make electronic dance music, birthing new genres.
The gig economy is a powerful new artistic tool because it unlocks paid collaboration.
In this post, we’ll explore why the gig economy is so useful for artists, and how to use it to bring a big artistic vision into reality.
The gig economy is widely used for physical tasks such as driving, grocery delivery, and house cleaning.
There is also a growing adoption of basic digital services such as transcription, data entry, and web scraping. Even white collar knowledge jobs like medicine, law, and accounting are moving onto the gig economy.
Platforms like Uber, Instacart, and UpCounsel drive down costs and improve market efficiency by aggregating supply and demand on a digital platform. You can use the gig economy for veterinary house calls, flower delivery, and podcast editing.
For transactional, well-defined tasks, the gig economy is clearly a game-changer. But what about creative work?
Writers, designers, animators, and musicians can be hired through the gig economy. Thousands of artists across the world make a living online while practicing what they love. They are cheap to hire, and many of them are quite good at what they do.
How can art change with this dense aggregation of supply and demand for artistic work?
I decided to experiment with how the gig economy might be used for music production. Over the last year, I hired ten different vocalists from Fiverr to perform across an album that I wrote. I also hired three sound engineers to mix and master the tracks.
Writing this album was extremely fun and satisfying. Being able to pay talented strangers to work with me over the Internet felt futuristic.
My perspective on art has been changed by Fiverr to the degree that my perspective on car ownership was changed by Uber. The gig economy dramatically lowers the cost of ambitious artistic projects.
Whoever you are, the Internet invites you to create ambitious art. On the Internet there are free resources for learning to make art, free tools for creating your art, and free social networks for distributing your art.
The gig economy fills a missing piece: paid collaboration.
Whether you are creating a television show, a novel, or a business, you can use the gig economy as a vast talent pool to help you solve problems.
Why is paid collaboration so important? Because artists normally want to work on their own art. Art is a solitary pursuit. We make art when we are by ourselves. We use art to channel our individual emotions into a book, song, or painting.
The insular nature of art makes it hard to find artistic collaborators. Everyone who could collaborate with you has their own art that they are working on. Why would they want to help you with your project?
The best works of art involve multiple people. A writer needs an editor. A singer needs a songwriter. A software engineer needs a UI designer.
If you run a business, you can afford to hire a full-time employee to help you with paid collaboration. But if you are creating an art project on the side, you don’t have a big budget to allocate.
It’s hard to make good art by yourself. The gig economy lets you find affordable collaborators to get artistic leverage.
A Pop Workflow
I have written music on the computer for fifteen years. Since Distrokid made it possible to release music to Spotify, I have published five albums. None of it was great music, but I’ve been steadily improving.
I am like many digital artists. I am inspired by the power of the Internet to create and distribute art. I want to share my sound with the world, and I want the quality of my art to be good enough for people to connect to it.
From 2003 to 2017 I mostly worked in isolation. I didn’t seek out mentors, or solicit constructive feedback, or look for collaborators. And I didn’t try to learn music theory.
For this new album, I wanted to level up. I wanted to use the Internet to educate myself on how to excel as a musician. And I wanted to work with singers who could complement my productions.
My goal for the album was to create catchy modern pop music.
My musical role model is Max Martin, the music producer who is able to work productively with almost anyone. He has created many of the hits you have heard from the last two decades, from Britney Spears to Bon Jovi to Taylor Swift.
Max knows his strengths and weaknesses. His humility and leadership allow him to assemble an elite musical team. It’s no accident he has continued to create pop masterpieces longer than almost anyone in history.
I envisioned each gig economy vocalist as an A-list pop star whom I was lucky to borrow some time with. It was my job to bring out the best performance in these singers, by providing them incredible instrumentals and memorable lyrics.
With this in mind, I needed to have fully composed songs, ready to perform for each singer. I wanted the singers to know that I respected their time and their talent. In return, they would provide top-notch performances.
To compose these songs, I used a digital audio workstation (DAW). A DAW is like Photoshop for music. It allows the producer to compose melodies, create instruments, record vocalists, mix the tracks, and do everything else involved in creating music.
Many mainstream hits are made by “bedroom musicians” working with only a DAW and a set of headphones.
The DAW is a rich palette of tools for writing music. It is empowering, but can also be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the details, spending hours at a time tweaking a minor detail of a song.
When I started this album, my songwriting was not efficient. My music wasn’t catchy, and it lacked the clear structure and addictiveness of pop music. I didn’t know how to write lyrics that would stick in your head.
With the help of Google, I took a crash course in composing modern pop music.
Gary Ewer’s Secrets of Songwriting is invaluable. Gary covers the music theory and the algorithmic structure of pop songwriting in a clear, approachable way.
There is a reason that pop songs are popular. The pop format is scientific. Great pop music comforts us with its familiarity, but provokes us with slight deviations from what we have heard before.
“You have a really basic arrangement, a very simple vocal, very simple transitions. It’s almost like a formula where you replace the lyrics and the music, and keep the drums the same.” — Calvin Harris
There are many different formulas for architecting a pop song. It is important to understand the basic concepts of chorus and verse. These represent two distinct areas that almost every pop song has. Songs with more variety might have a pre-chorus and/or bridge section in addition to chorus and verse.
Music theory allows the songwriter to build these distinct sections in a structure that makes sense to the listener. From Gary’s articles, I finally grasped the importance of the “circle of fifths”, which is as useful to songwriting as the periodic table is to chemistry.
Now I keep a window with the circle of fifths open at all times when I write music.
Gary emphasizes the use of “hooks”. A hook is a musical structure that grabs the listener and sticks with them. A hook can appear in the chorus or verse. Some songs have one incredible hook, others have several different hooks.
As I learned about music theory, I looked for videos that could illustrate the pop theory which Gary talks about in his articles. I found a video series from Pyramind called “Breakdowns”, in which Matt Donner breaks down the theory of modern pop/electronic music.
I found Matt’s advice to be so useful that I booked private lessons with him, which I recommend to anyone who is looking for an electronic music teacher.
Matt’s videos emphasize how to be productive as an electronic musician. If you want to sit down and get a song fully written in four hours, how do you divide your time? The DAW provides you with a paralyzing array of choices. What are the priorities?
My priority became the hook. A pop song lives and dies by the hook. A song without a hook cannot succeed as a pop song. Conversely, a good hook can compensate for an otherwise boring song.
For me, finding the hook was the hardest part of writing a pop song. During the months writing this album, there were many days in which I did not find a hook. But with patience and persistence, a catchy melody always seemed to find its way onto the screen eventually.
Once I found a melodic hook, I would start writing lyrics around it. If it was a chorus hook, I would write lyrics exclusively for the four or eight bars of chorus. The same was true if I had found a verse hook.
Alex Forbes insists that writing lyrics is about getting in touch with your subconscious and reflecting your true state of mind onto the page. Otherwise the lyrics will sound hollow and the song will lack the vigor it needs to succeed as a pop song.
Pop lyrics can take many forms — but they must be catchy.
Pop lyrics can use both vague, abstract phrases and evocative, specific imagery. Lyrics can use rhyme, slant rhyme, and extended metaphors. Any literary technique that can work in a book can work in a song.
But the lyrics must be catchy.
The words must be fun to say. Certain phrases must make your spine tingle. Discovering catchy lyrics is as important as finding a hook.
With a hook and a section of lyrics around that hook, the rest of the song fell into place naturally. The articles from Gary Ewer provided a great system for building a fully formed song architecture around a catchy hook.
This is where the circle of fifths again came into play. The circle of fifths provides a framework for moving between keys and developing a chord progression that has a different sound in the chorus and verse.
The circle of fifths can be used to map out the specific chords within a section of a song. It can also be used to define how to move from one section of a song to another. The sequence of sections within a song is called the “song form” or “song structure”.
The different sections within a song’s form are often enumerated with letters such as A, B, and C (not to be confused with the keys of A, B, and C). Each letter denotes a melodic section of a song.
The “AAA…” or “Strophic” song structure is the simplest. In “AAA…” the chords in the chorus are repeated in the verse.
“AAA…” can be a comfort zone. In this album I needed to swallow the bitter pill of learning the basics of the circle of fifths so that I could explore more complex structures like “ABABC…”.
HookTheory is another invaluable tool. HookTheory allows you to see and hear the chord progressions behind your favorite songs. Using HookTheory alongside the circle of fifths is a great way to see how music theory underpins the best pop songs.
As I wrote my new album, mornings were spent reading tutorials from Gary Ewer. In the afternoon I watched videos from Pyramind. I ate dinner in front of my computer, playing with HookTheory and seeing how Zedd’s chord progressions compare to those of The Eagles.
I love the Internet for this reason: you can totally engross yourself in a topic. Multiple forms of educational material can be tied together to customize your own ideal learning environment.
Working With Singers
Each song started with an instrumental hook. After the hook, I wrote the rest of the instrumentals concurrently with writing the lyrics. When I finished writing all the instrumentals and all the lyrics for a song, I recorded myself singing the lyrics.
Once I had lyrics recorded with the song, I had a first draft of the song finished. I exported the song to mp3 and put it in a Dropbox folder that was synced with my phone.
Creating a pop song usually takes at least a few days. Sometimes it takes as long as a month. When Max Martin is working on a song, he regularly bounces the song project to mp3. He listens to the song on earbuds, laptop speakers, and car stereo systems.
We listen to pop all over the place, so it is important to hear a song in multiple contexts before finalizing it.
I like to listen to music on cheap bluetooth headphones while running outside. It’s important that my own music sounds good in that context. I focused intently on the quality of my work-in-progress music as I jogged through the hills of Pacific Heights.
Listening to myself sing the lyrics, I thought about what type of singer would be best for that particular song. Should it be an angelic female voice? A baritone male? A youthful boy band-type?
To find vocalists, I used Fiverr. There are other platforms such as UpWork, SoundBetter, and Vocalizr. These platforms all have their advantages, but Fiverr seems to have the best selection of singers at low cost, and the software and UI is top notch.
Singers on Fiverr have a profile page that shows them demoing their skills. There is a high correlation between the quality of a singer’s demo and the quality of the end result they will deliver.
When I decided on a singer, I messaged them an offer including the written lyrics and the version of the song sung by me.
When a singer accepts an offer on Fiverr, the singer commits to a deadline. The customer (me in this case) gets charged for the cost of the gig, and that charge sits in escrow until the performance is delivered and the transaction is finalized.
As I wrote this album, I tried to focus on one song at a time if possible. I wanted to complete a song in its entirety before switching to a new song.
Unfortunately, the best singers usually have a backlog of orders. From the time of my initial message, it would take 4–7 days for the singer to get to my lyrics and perform them. This created a bottleneck in the workflow for an individual song.
In practice, I was usually working on 2–3 songs at any given time. To manage the album, I used a Trello board to visualize the progression of songs through different phases of my workflow.
When a singer finished their lyrics, they uploaded the audio file to Fiverr. I downloaded it, loaded it into my DAW, and listened to their performance. Usually there would be 2–3 areas of their delivery where I asked for revisions.
Fiverr transactions have this “revision” feature built in. I never felt uncomfortable asking a singer to do another take, or to give another vocal track so that I could overdub them.
When I did make a revision request, I learned to be extremely specific about what I was asking for. The last thing a Fiverr singer wants to hear is a phrase like “use your best judgment” or “take creative liberty”.
Telling a singer to “take creative liberty” adds subjectivity to the transaction. Subjectivity creates the chance of a dispute over quality.
A customer could say that the singer didn’t do a good job, and demand a refund — and in the gig economy, the customer is always right. The singers want rigid specifications for how to sing a song to protect themselves from doing wasted work.
A vocal performance on a typical three minute pop song usually cost me $70 — $140.
You can also hire very cheap singers, but you usually get what you pay for. I paid $10 for a Nigerian R&B singer with an amazing voice, but unfortunately his cheap microphone degraded the audio quality too much.
A pop song demands a great vocalist who has put in the necessary practice. But the singer also has to be a good fit. On a few occasions, I hired an experienced vocalist whose performance did not end up fitting well with the song. There was some sunk cost of ~$400 across the album.
In some cases, I found vocalists who were radically underpriced. Two cases were the smooth female vocalist called leahhart and a superb Bahaman rapper called grafezzy. Each of these artists were about $40 per three minute engagement.
Eight months into my album, I had the vocals and instrumentals completed for sixteen songs, amounting to just under an hour of music. These tracks were not mixed.
Every pop song must have a good mix. The mix refers to the overall feeling of a track, including volume of the instruments, the panning, and effects such as reverb and compression.
When I wrote these songs, I was not focusing on the mix. This was a deliberate decision — I love working inside the mixer, toying around with effects and tweaking volume levels. But I only have so much time. Writing music in a DAW is such an expansive decision space that you must decide what you will not do.
I knew that I could save mixing until the end and find someone to help me with that part. The time and energy I saved avoiding the mix was allocated to songwriting. However, once the songs were all written and the vocals were recorded, it was time to spend some time on the mix.
I hired two studio engineers from SoundBetter ($400 each) and one from Fiverr ($50 per song) to mix and master three of my songs. All three mixes turned out well — but I decided that I wanted to be in the room for the mixing/mastering process on the rest of the tracks. There are too many small, creative decisions that I wanted to pass judgment on.
Studio time with an engineer at Pyramind was cheap, and it would allow me to hear the music on nice speakers in a soundproofed room. I spent a few days in their Folsom Street studio called “The Vault” with an engineer named Sam.
Once we finished the mix, I did a final test, running outside listening to the finished album on my bluetooth headset, to make sure it sounded good away from a controlled studio environment.
The Sell Side
From the buyer‘s perspective, the creative gig economy is a huge win. The effects on the seller side are positive too.
One of the singers I worked with said this: “My personal thought on the ‘gig economy’ is it a great resource to make a living while also doing what you enjoy. I would way rather be singing all kinds of random music jobs (something I like and am pretty good at) than be bussing tables or something equally as not interesting to me.”
“My personal thought on the ‘gig economy’ is it a great resource to make a living while also doing what you enjoy.” -Fiverr Singer
“It also helps me improve my efficiency in recording, in turn making it faster when I go into the studio to record my own music. In a sense it levels the playing field with pricing (a pro for some, con for others), helps buyers choose creative people with seemingly quality work and ethic (via ratings) and opens up connections that would never be made otherwise.”
The gig economy is a place for people to build skills while working for money. In this way, the gig economy also functions like a trade school with no tuition. Teenagers on Fiverr have helped me with creative animation and podcast editing. They are receptive to feedback and hungry to learn.
For workers who already have in-demand skills, the gig economy can offer superior working conditions. Many elite tech workers subject themselves to an unhappy 2-hour daily commute, when platforms like Toptal offer work from home at a high salary.
The gig economy is a dense aggregation of buyers and sellers that allows for rapid price discovery and an efficient market.
In some markets, we have seen the negative consequences of the gig economy’s efficiency. On-demand drivers perform 12-hour shifts to meet a quota. Food delivery workers ride bikes through snow to deliver pad thai while it’s still hot.
The most grueling gig economy work is within the commoditized fields. If you are driving an Uber or delivering groceries for Instacart, it’s very hard to differentiate yourself. You cannot escape the ruthless downward pricing pressure of fungible labor.
On the other hand, there is no salary ceiling in fields like graphic design and singing. The artistic work is more fun to do, and there is always upward mobility. Artists have very real pricing power.
Collaboration Leads To Better Art
In 2003, The Postal Service came out with Give Up, an electronic pop album that has stood the test of time.
The band’s name was a reference to the fact that the album was collaborated on over physical mail, with the artists sending digital audio tapes to each other.
As recently as 2003, the most efficient way to collaborate on music was to send tapes by mail. Fifteen years later, online artistic collaboration still feels immature.
The most highly developed domain for artistic collaboration is software engineering. On GitHub, thousands of users make shared contributions to software. Some of the world’s most impactful software is the result of these huge crowds of developers building software for free, in an environment of managed chaos.
In software engineering, decentralized collaboration has led to revolutionary technologies such as Linux and Bitcoin. Strangers work together to build technology that would be impossible for any one person to develop.
Linux and Bitcoin were started by individuals, but the online collaboration tools for software made it possible for the number of contributors to scale.
The art world has not yet been so affected by online collaboration. The songs we listen to are produced by a few people working in a studio. Movies are produced by monolithic studios.
This is an opening for a new generation of artists to rethink how collaborative art can be made with the Internet.
Newer tools like Slack, Asana, Dropbox, and Splice have changed the way artists can manage their projects. The gig economy gives us access to paid collaborators.
Over time, these tools will reshape the art that we make and consume. We will see more bedroom musicians and film directors who work out of coffee shops. Decentralized artistic teams will use software to bring their projects to life.
There has never been a better time to be an artist with a big, ambitious vision.