Dancing in the Street

Here’s the creative process behind the hit song by Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street.” It’s a story of collaboration and of the zigzagging creative process, as reported to Marc Myers in the WSJ.

  1. In early 1964, songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter was in a Motown studio, playing around on a piano and trying to come up with a song. She started with her left hand, playing a bass rhythm. Then, she developed a melody and some chords. But what she had in mind, she couldn’t play with just two hands. So she went to another songwriter, Paul Riser.
  2. Paul and Ivy talked it out, and then Paul wrote out the music. Paul then created a chord sheet for the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. Paul and Ivy knew that the Funk Brothers could make just about any sketch of a song turn into something awesome. The goal was to get the rhythm track on tape, to then work on some lyricS.
  3. Ivy took the tape to producer Mickey Stevenson’s house, because Mickey had a rehearsal room in his attic. Ivy wrote melancholy lyrics; that’s the way he heard the song.
  4. Marvin Gaye just happened to be at the same house. Marvin and Mickey needed a song for singer Kim Weston. Ivy’s ballad lyrics seemed perfect for Kim, but then Marvin had a different idea for the song.
  5. Marvin thought the melancholy lyrics weren’t right for the music. Marvin thought the music was upbeat, just like “dancing in the street.” Then, he realized that could be the name of the song!
  6. Ivy returned to the song and wrote completely different lyrics, for this new idea. Marvin then added various new lyrics.
  7. They still thought the song was going to be Kim’s song. Marvin was recording a vocal demo, to play for Kim, but he couldn’t sing it quite right. Martha Reeves just happened to be in the studio at that time, so they asked her to give it a shot. To everyone’s surprise, Martha totally nailed the song.
  8. The producer Mickey Stevenson said, “I was in big trouble. The song was supposed to be for Kim, and Martha had just aced it.”
  9. The next step was to add in the horn arrangement, and to overdub some percussion effects, like tambourine, and background vocals.

The song turned out to be very different from what we knew as “the Motown sound.” It was funkier, with its prominent bass line and drum beat. It was one of the most influential songs of the 1960s.

Many people think that songwriting is a solo act, where the writer spills her heart out and expresses deeply felt emotions. But just like every other form of creativity, the solitary creator is a myth. Songs, almost always, are created like everything else: Through a collaborative, wandering, unpredictable process.

Can Technology Change What Music Gets Produced?

In the old days, when people bought music on CDs, the music industry was focused on making sure a new album had a big opening weekend–kind of like a Hollywood movie. They would make sure the album’s songs were on the radio and on MTV. They would put ads on highway billboards. Maybe you heard the album’s “single” on the radio, and thought it was pretty cool, and then you decided to buy the CD. That happened to me many times back in the 1980s. And for some of those CDs, I got tired of them pretty quickly and I just left them on the shelf. But the music company didn’t care how much I played the CD; they already had my money.

The Internet has changed the music business dramatically. For years now, people have been buying digital downloads of single songs for 99 cents, instead of entire albums. And today, people aren’t even buying the digital download–they’re just renting access to song libraries for a fixed monthly fee. When you sign up for Spotify, each time you listen to a song Spotify pays the record label a fraction of a cent. How could the record label ever make as much money as if you paid 99 cents for the song download? To break even, you’d have to listen to the same song at least 99 times plus.

In a recent study by the Wall Street Journal, data showed that one major record company makes more per year, on average, from paying customers of streaming services (like Spotify) than from the average customer who buys downloads or CDs. How could that be, when almost no one is going to listen to the same song 100 times? Well, think about your life over the last five or ten years. For your most favorite songs, you probably listened to them a lot. And the data shows that’s true. In the Wall Street Journal study, it took 34 months for (anonymous) one indie rock album to make more money from streaming than from sales. Another album, by a male rapper, broke even in four months. And what happens after the breakeven point? People keep streaming their favorite songs, and revenue continues to climb. But album sales only keep going down.

The biggest exception was with pop acts, which tend to rely on lots of advance marketing and get almost all of their sales in the early days. Under the new streaming model, those acts almost all lose money–because they don’t have the kind of staying power where listeners keep listening to them for years. The study concludes that the nature of musical creativity will change:

The lesson for record companies and artists appears to be: making disposable hits may once have been a viable business, but new technology could demand tunes built to last.

On this day, Christmas Eve, I can’t help but think that Christmas songs will do well in the new model, because people listen to them over and over again, year after year.