For as long as popular music as a business has existed, so has songwriting as a job. While many musicians strive for fame and stardom as performers, Carole King found fulfillment in composing music for others to sing. Since scoring her first number-one hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” at only 17, she dedicated herself to her craft and built a career to provide for her young family. Carole worked from a cramped cubicle in the Aldon Music office inside the Brill Building of Tin Pan Alley. It wasn’t pretty, it was a job, and she was great at it.
Tapestry, King’s chart-topping 1971 solo record, lifted her name from the liner notes to the forefront of the burgeoning group of singer-songwriters beginning to pick up steam. However, Carole remained very private, choosing not to tour or perform as much as her contemporaries. “My rationale was that I viewed success and stardom as two different things,” says Carole. “Successful recording artists were played on the radio, were respected by the public, and had longevity. Stars were hounded and mobbed, their privacy was nonexistent, and they were under constant pressure to reach number one and stay there.”
Though it may not be done by publishing company staff songwriters in cubicles today, songwriting as a lucrative profession continues. The biggest names in popular music often enlist skilled individuals or teams of collaborators to craft hits. Many of the most in-demand writers share a lot in common with Carole. Often, they choose to live privately, outside of the limelight. Some, like Carole, have crossed over, finding success performing their music. In one case, a writer has found a way to write for others, perform their music and retain their privacy through quite a creative method.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
I have public music education to thank for everything
Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin has become one of the most successful and influential figures in pop music. Born in Stockholm in 1971, the year Carole’s album Tapestry was released, Martin was a student of Sweden’s public music education scheme. “I have public music education to thank for everything,” said Martin. He found success in the mid-90s, working with artists including the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and ‘N Sync. Martin has written or co-written 25 number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the third most in the charts’ history, trailing only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26). He has also received multiple Grammys for his work and received ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year award 11 times.
Martin’s reach in popular music is so vast that in a corny attempt at rock nostalgia, otherwise unimpeachable punks Green Day proudly declared on a billboard of all places that their new record had “no Swedish songwriters.” Like Carole King, Martin is relatively private, choosing to focus on his work in the studio as he continues to produce hits for some of the biggest names in music.
Britney Spears - “...Baby One More Time” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 32)
‘N Sync - “It’s Gonna Be Me” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 26)
Katy Perry - “Teenage Dream” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 33)
Taylor Swift - “Shake It Off” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 50)
The Weeknd - “Can’t Feel My Face” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 41)
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for IMDb
Described as “the most important songwriter in the world” and “the Emily Dickinson of Pop,” Diane Warren is undoubtedly worthy of such accolades. Born in 1956 in the Los Angeles community of Van Nuys, she began writing music when she was 11, adding that “music saved me.” Ignoring her mother’s pleas to give up the dream and be a secretary, she followed her father’s encouragement to stick with it instead.
When I write with other people, the experience is different. You have to compromise, which I have problems with. I’d rather listen to my own mind.
Warren became the first songwriter in the history of Billboard magazine to have seven hits, all by different artists, on the chart simultaneously. She has written nine number-one hits and 32 top-10 songs. You can visit her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but you can’t go near her Hollywood Hills office, described as a “cluttered, airless room.” She claims that nothing in her office has been cleaned or moved in over a decade, owing to superstition. Preferring to write alone, Warren has said, “When I write with other people, the experience is different. You have to compromise, which I have problems with. I’d rather listen to my own mind.”
Taylor Dayne - “Love Will Lead You Back” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 20)
Celine Dion - “Because You Loved Me” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 33)
Toni Braxton - “Un-Break My Heart” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart 42)
Aerosmith - “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 20)
Brandy - “Have You Ever?” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 22)
Johan Schuster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Born in 1985, Karl Johan Schuster, known professionally as Shellback, is another Swedish (seriously, there is something in the water there) powerhouse producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Shellback discovered music production as a ten-year-old using a double-cassette player to record his “terrible Rage Against the Machine imitations,” eventually upgrading to an eight-track portable studio. In college, he got his first non-bedroom studio conveniently located in the most metal location ever: a morgue in the basement of an old mental institution.
He wanted me to sit silently on a chair in the corner of the studio and watch him do his work.
Shellback regularly collaborates with Max Martin, who took the young metalhead under his wing. “He wanted me to sit silently on a chair in the corner of the studio and watch him do his work,” said Shellback. He must have learned something from watching his mentor because Shellback has cranked out pop chart burners at a clip quicker than an In Flames song.
Pink - “So What” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 31)
Avril Lavigne - “What the Hell” (Peak: 11, Weeks on chart: 20)
Maroon 5 - “Moves Like Jagger” (Peak: 1: Weeks on chart: 52)
Taylor Swift - “Message in a Bottle” (Peak: 45, Weeks on chart: 13)
Adele - “Can I Get It” (Peak: 26, Weeks on chart 2)
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
Known for her soaring falsetto, extravagant wigs, and chart-topping hits, Sia Furler was born in Adelaide, Australia, in 1975. Sia began her career in the mid-90s as a singer in the acid jazz band Crisp. When Crisp disbanded, she released several solo albums throughout the 2000s before attracting wider notice with Some People Have Real Problems (2008) and We Are Born (2010). Becoming uncomfortable with the growing fame, she took a hiatus from performing to focus on writing for other artists. Still, in 2014, the wigs came out as Sia broke through when her sixth studio album, 1000 Forms of Fear, featuring the top-ten single “Chandelier,” debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200.
I don’t wear this if there aren’t cameras around. I only wear this to maintain a modicum of privacy.
Like Carole before her, Sia shuns fame and recognition, purposely wearing flamboyant, oversized wigs to obscure her identity. “I don’t wear this if there aren’t cameras around. I only wear this to maintain a modicum of privacy,” Sia explained. “I sobered up and decided I didn’t want to be an artist anymore because I was starting to become a little bit famous, and it was destabilizing in some way. So I thought, ‘What doesn’t exist in pop music at the moment?’ And it was mystery.”
Beyoncé - “Pretty Hurts”
Britney Spears - “Perfume” (Peak: 76, Weeks on chart: 6)
Carly Rae Jepsen - “Boy Problems”
Katy Perry - “Double Rainbow”
Rihanna - “Diamonds” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 27)
Photo by Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images
Born to a gospel songwriting father and schoolteacher mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1979, Tedder began learning the piano at age three through the Suzuki method, in which very young children play by ear rather than reading notes. His father would place his favorite treat, candy corn (gross), on top of the family’s grand piano. “He’d use it as bait,” Tedder says. “The only way I could get at that candy corn was to practice. Then he’d put it within reach.”
The only way I could get at that candy corn was to practice. Then he’d put it within reach.
The candy strategy worked out well, considering Tedder has written hit songs for artists like Beyoncé, Adele, and One Direction. In 2009, Tedder double-dipped when Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson created hits (“Halo” and “Already Gone,” respectively) from the same track. Fortunately, no one noticed. Along with his songwriting contributions, Tedder has also achieved success as the lead vocalist and primary songwriter of the band OneRepublic.
Beyoncé - “Halo” (Peak: 5, Weeks on chart: 31)
Adele - “Rumour Has It” (Peak: 16, Weeks on chart: 27)
Timbaland - “Apologize” (Peak: 2, Weeks on chart: 47)
Ariana Grande - “Why Try”
Taylor Swift - “I Know Places”
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Like Carole King, Julia Michaels started writing music professionally at a young age. She also began her career writing for other artists before releasing and finding success performing her music. Born Julia Carin Cavazos in Davenport, Iowa, in 1993 and raised outside of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, California as a self-described shy kid, Michaels began writing and singing as a preteen. She caught her big break at 17, writing the theme song for the Disney Channel show Austin and Ally. “That was sort of a pivotal moment for me. I was like, ‘It’s not just a hobby or something I love,’” Michaels said. “It’s something that I think I could actually do and that I’m kind of good at.”
When I wrote “Issues,” I had this feeling that I just couldn’t give it up.
As she slid into her twenties, she befriended notable songwriters Lindy Robbins, and Joleen Belle, with whom she composed songs for artists like Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony, Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran, Shakira, and Linkin Park. Michaels never intended to release her own music, but In 2017, came her debut EP, Nervous System, featuring the single “Issues,” a hit on the charts worldwide. “When I wrote ‘Issues,’ I had this feeling that I just couldn’t give it up.” Her debut full-length, Not In Chronological Order, came in the spring of 2021, and singles from the hit writer keep coming.
Selena Gomez - “Love You To Love Me”
Justin Bieber - “Sorry” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 42)
Dua Lipa - “Pretty Please”
Linkin Park - “Heavy” (Peak: 45, Weeks on chart: 19)
Demi Lovato - “Fire Starter”
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for KROQ/Entercom
What does a punk lifer with a spider web head tattoo have in common with a pair of Swedish mega-hit songwriters? They’ve both co-written hit songs with Pink. Born in 1965 in Albany, California, Tim Amstrong is best known as the man behind the wildly influential punk bands Operation Ivy and Rancid. Armstrong is a versatile songwriter who has ventured outside punk rock. He collaborated with Pink, co-writing eight of the 13 songs on her 2003 album Try This. Her hit single “Trouble,” a Rancid outtake that somehow didn’t make the miles-long 19-track album Indestructible, won Pink a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 2004. He has worked with former Eagle and James Gang member Joe Walsh and produced reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s album Rebirth, which brought home a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2012.
He can see potential in other people that I’m not sure they can see in themselves.
A giant in the punk world, Armstrong is immortalized in songs like NOFX’s “I’m Telling Tim.” “Tim hears and sees things that most people miss,” says musician Brad Logan. “He can see potential in other people that I’m not sure they can see in themselves.” Armstrong continues to perform with his various projects, running his independent record label, Hellcat, rocking his signature model guitars, and collaborating with artists such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Interrupters.
Jimmy Cliff - “Children’s Bread”
Pink - “Trouble” (Peak: 68, Weeks on chart: 4)
Good Charlotte - “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”
Joe Walsh - “Hi-Roller Baby”
The Transplants - “Diamonds & Guns” (Peak: 19 on Alternative chart, used extensively in Garnier Fructis commercials)
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for dcp
Born in Muskogee, OK, in 1986 and raised in Tulsa, songwriting machine Ester Dean learned to channel her energy and emotions into music at a young age. Her first public performance came as a member of the backing choir in the musical comedy Reverend, I’m Available. Once out of high school, Dean ventured to Atlanta to pursue a career in the music business catching the ear of producer Tricky Stewart who heard Dean singing in the crowd at a Gap Band concert.
I go into the booth, and I scream, and I sing, and I yell, and sometimes it’s words, but most time it’s not.
As a “top liner,” Dean comes up with the primary melodies, lyrics, and hooks that lock listeners into a song, often providing vocal demos. “I go into the booth, and I scream, and I sing, and I yell, and sometimes it’s words, but most time it’s not,” says Dean. “And I just see when I get this little chill, and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’” In 2012 Dean hit the silver screen as Cynthia-Rose Adams in Pitch Perfect and reprised the role in the franchise’s sequels.
Rihanna - “Rude Boy” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 22)
Nicki Minaj - “Super Bass” (Peak: 3, Weeks on chart: 39)
Katy Perry - “Firework” (Peak: 1, Weeks on chart: 39)
Scotty McCreery - “I Love You This Big” (Peak: 11, Weeks on chart: 16)
David Guetta - “Turn Me On” (Peak: 4, Weeks on chart: 27)
These songwriters are a bridge between Carole King and those who may be just starting to pick up an instrument or laptop. Advances in technology have only made music creation more accessible and fun. When Carole started, physical demos of her compositions would have to be sent to A&R (Artists and repertoire) folks. “I was made aware of how much Carole King demos meant to these people. I couldn’t get ‘um back,” says Home Again Producer Lou Adler. “They just loved having them as part of their record collection.”
Now, we have the luxury of instantly passing digital files around the world. Tools like BandLab pave the way for artists to simultaneously work on a song file without being in the same room. Imagine Taylor Swift sitting in one of her reported eight homes with an idea. She can work remotely with Jack Antonoff in real time without leaving the comfort of her living room. Anyone with a couple hundred dollars, a laptop, and some good old-fashioned hard work can achieve results comparable to the best recording studios in the 90s. Songwriters can upload their recordings in minutes for the world to hear and begin receiving compensation. The future is freaky, but it is undoubtedly an exciting time to write music.