The Lifecycle of a Song (by Andrew Tomasino)

The lifecycle of a song is something that a typical listener likely does not consider. They appreciate the sounds and lyrics, but likely not the required steps in between that make a song what it is. A song must be rehearsed, edited, and distributed as well. This paper discusses every step that an artist takes along the way to a song’s completion, from writing to release and promotion.

Many established artists pay songwriters to come up with the lyrics for them, such as Ariana Grande. In fact, while she has co-written some of her more successful songs, such as “Thank U, Next,” she typically has a team of songwriters to help her. Conversely, many artists write their own songs, such as Taylor Swift. Some artists who write their own songs write the lyrics first, and then come up with the title later. This allows them to focus on the purpose of the song first, and then sum it up with a title. On the other hand, some artists prefer to create the title first, allowing them to have some direction as to what the lyrics should relate to. It comes down to a preference of whether the title should direct the lyrics or vice versa.

After the lyrics have been written, an artist must decide what a song is going to sound like. Some may have had a general idea as to what the genre might be based on the lyrics and their own musical strengths. It is often helpful for an artist to play into these strengths, but branching out into different genres can show versatility. However, this can backfire and be critiqued as an artist having a lack of focus or identity. This typically comes down to how much experience an artist has and what they are known for. A newer artist may want to keep a consistent style to build said identity, while a more developed and famous artist can afford to make what some consider to be a mistake by trying something new.

Regarding what the song will sound like, artists may simply play what they feel the song should sound like based off of their emotions. On the other hand, some artists may break it down in terms of music theory, making it more of a science. These can also mix in with each other, since a successful artist will typically have experience with both. It is important to blend what makes a song sound good with what the artist thinks it should feel like, mainly based on how they feel writing it. This part of the songwriting process is arguably the most important since it will be a critical factor as to whether or not listeners will enjoy it. It can be argued that a song without sound is just a poem, after all. Artists may use sounds that tend to be inseparable from the genre, such as an acoustic guitar for country music, or an electric guitar for rock. Many will also use instruments that are not typically associated with that genre to stick out from the bunch. It is one thing to use a basic drum set in an upbeat Beach Boys song, “Good Vibrations”, but it is another to add a theremin, a unique Russian electric instrument created in the 1920s. According to Brittanica, “It consists of a box with radio tubes producing oscillations at two sound-wave frequencies above the range of hearing; together, they produce a lower audible frequency equal to the difference in their rates of vibration.” Using an actual instrument that mainly utilizes vibrations in a song with that in the title is an excellent way to add subtle depth for those who wish to seek it out.

Once the song has been fully written and performed, the next step is recording. Some artists may choose to make a demo tape, a way to add some form of structure to a song. However, this isn’t always necessary, and it is simply a matter of preference. Smaller artists may opt out of going to a traditional recording studio, since it does cost a decent amount. In fact, according to Recording Connection, “The cost to rent a music studio can vary. Most music studios charge an hourly rate, ranging from around $30/hour for budget studios to $100/hour or more for a studio with fine-tuned acoustics and equipment.” They also mention that some of the higher-end studios can even go up to $500/hour, which would include the help of an audio engineer as well. With all of this in mind, artists may wish to perform somewhere as simple as their own homes. In fact, that’s what Billie Eilish did with her song “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” and she has done this frequently (in her brother’s room); especially at the beginning of her career roughly 8 years ago. It is clearly not necessary for every artist to go to a recording studio, but the ones who do are typically able to receive more feedback from an engineer / producer and can also listen to tracks inside and outside the recording booth. Once this process is complete and the song is finally recorded, the song will move on to the editing process.

Editing a song’s audio can be very long, complicated, and difficult. One step it can include is changing an instrument’s pitch (including the artist’s voice). This is typically a more unlikely scenario, unless the artist chooses to slightly alter the song. For the most part; however, the editing process is about polishing the song. One way that this is done is through sound mixing. This can include altering how long a sound effect continues on for, such as reverb. There’s also dynamics processing, which, according to Sage Audio, “… relates to volume and dynamic effects such as compression.” Additionally, there’s spectral processing, which Sage Audio states, “… relates to the frequency spectrum and how they fall into a stereo image.” These are all incredibly difficult and can take an enormous amount of time to master, requiring years of practice and training.

The final stage of editing before a song is released is called mastering, which is the process of leveling the song’s volume, as well as balancing the song as a whole. This can include making a certain instrument louder or quieter in order to emphasize a certain portion of the song. For example, while present throughout, the guitar in Free Bird is not loud the whole time, but instead only during the solo. This does not necessarily mean that it was played at a regular volume during the recording, but it may have been tweaked during the mastering process to make it more prevalent, since it is what many remember about the song.

Finally, once the song has been written, rehearsed and fully edited, the distribution and promotion processes begin. Nowadays, songs are mostly distributed to streaming platforms, although it is not rare to see physical copies of singles or an album in some stores. There are certain services that allow artists to distribute their songs for a fee, such as Songtradr and Amuse. Some well known artists, such as Drake, use label distributors who specialize in this area. After song distribution, artists will want to promote their song(s). This can be done in many sorts of ways, such as through social media. While more famous artists will already have a large following of fans who will know immediately when a new song/album is released; others will invest more time in advertising to gain more traction.

A song’s creation consists of many important steps that must be completed. While some artists have help along the way, including independent songwriters, artists ultimately bring all of a song’s components together. The lifecycle of a song is a significantly involved process that requires much time, effort, and collaboration.

by Andrew Tomasino

Innsbruck Records Summer Intern 2023