Awards Put Spotlight On Songwriters

The Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel ballroom was filled with some of pop's biggest hitmakers, but even the most ardent music fans would have had a hard time finding a familiar face.

They know the songs: "Hollaback Girl," "Soldier" and "Disco Inferno." They know the artists: Gwen Stefani, Destiny's Child and 50 Cent. But most don't know the writers behind the music.

"People assume the singer and the songwriter are the same person," said Marilyn Bergman, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

But that is often not the case.

"Hollaback Girl" was co-written by Stefani and Pharrell Williams. "Soldier" was the work of Sean Garrett and Rich Harrison. "Disco Inferno" was penned by Phillip "Bangout" Pitts.

These often unseen artists were honored Tuesday at the BMI Pop Music Awards, as was the most-performed song of the year: "She Will Be Loved," by Maroon 5. The ASCAP Pop Awards next week also pay tribute to the writers who put hit songs into the mouths of pop's hottest stars.

"There's always a frontman selling the song, performing it," said Mike Fratantuno, who co-wrote the Black Eyed Peas' hit "Let's Get It Started." "You feel a special pride knowing you had a part in it. This (event) gives us a little taste of what it's like to be in the limelight."

Just as screenwriters often labor behind the scenes and (perhaps unwillingly) concede credit to directors and actors, songwriters, knowing the spotlight will go elsewhere, whip together words and music in hopes a singer will give them voice.

"Professional songwriters are still driving the engines of a lot of the pop stars," said Del Bryant, president of BMI, a performing rights organization. "It's all dependent on that first structure, the skeleton that everything is hung upon, called the song."

Kara DioGuardi is a certified hitmaker, though many wouldn't recognize her name or face. She wrote Ashlee Simpson's "Pieces of Me," Hilary Duff's "Come Clean" and Marc Anthony's "I've Got You," plus tracks for Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion and Santana.

Besides his hit for Destiny's Child, Garrett also gets credit for the group's "Lose My Breath," Nelly's "Grillz," Ciara's "Goodies" and Usher's "Yeah," plus songs for Beyonce, Jamie Foxx and Mary J. Blige.

"Songwriters are the essence of the entire process," said Charlie Feldman, BMI vice president of writer-publisher relations.

Once the song exists, it's up to a producer and artist to make it sing.

Songwriters shuttle their work to music publishers and producers, who pair the songs with performers who can best deliver them. Songwriters may write with an artist in mind, but unless it's a commissioned work, they have no say in who sings the final product. Or how. Once a song is sold, it's out of the writer's control.

"There's something a little scary about letting your baby out of the house," said Jud Friedman, who wrote Whitney Houston's "Run to You" for the movie "The Bodyguard." "You never know where it will end up."

Producers have the key role in shaping the sound of a song. Some, like "Hollaback" co-producers Williams and Chad Hugo — known as the Neptunes — have established a trademark style that make any song they work on sound like one of theirs.

Besides Stefani, the Neptunes have produced hits for Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z, among others.

A producer can be more critical to crafting a hit than the singer or songwriter, BMI's Bryant said.

"The producer is truly an artist," he said. "He's a painter and a master of putting diverse pieces together."

Lil' Jon, two-time BMI Songwriter of the Year, has also produced tracks for Usher, Ciara, TLC and Ludacris. Garrett, DioGuardi and Fratantuno are producers too.

"Songs just don't come off without a good producer anymore," Fratantuno said. "It's becoming a producer's world."

Though producers wield major song-shaping power, they still have to start with a song, and not all of them write. There will always be room for songwriters, Bryant said. Even if they rarely capture the spotlight.

They don't mind the anonymity, said Jerry Leiber, who with partner Mike Stoller co-wrote scores of songs over the past 50 years, including Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog."

"The greatest joy is to hear your work done well," he said. "You don't really need to stand up and take a bow."
Sandy Cohen