I Scratch Your Back, You Scratch Mine…

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I Scratch Your Back, You Scratch Mine…

Posted On28/07/2020
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Earlier published in 2013 in my column in Pro Sound Systems.  Note: a composer / producer / engineer / singer referred to as he in the article should also be read as she.

This title is a mantra heard commonly in the corporate sector. And perhaps in many business deals, perhaps happening in our own families too. A human trait, maybe. So what kind of a title is this for a music related column, you may ask.
As I was wondering what interesting topic to write upon, I came across a very interesting debate on a Facebook post by a music producer which read: “Every singer has to sing scratches for free, and does not even get paid for the conveyance. Besides he or she also adds his/her own creative elements in the song being produced!”

It created quite a stir among the music composers, producers and some singers in that thread. Responses had some agreeing that it is not wrong in doing so, while most felt this was sheer cheating. Some even raised the topic of the Copyright Bill protecting such exploitation, while others were having a good laugh at the conversation.

Let us understand how this whole thing normally works. Many singers (mostly beginners) visit studios of music composers with a prior appointment and hand over a demo CD of theirs. These demos are of their voice on popular film songs over karaoke tracks. Some singers even invest in getting proper minus one tracks re-created at a commercial studio, and thereby spend a good amount of money on making their demos. Many busy composers ask these CDs to be left at their office / studio. Others ask for short demos over email. Some persistent singers who keep calling a composer, or a commercial studio, do get firmly asked not to bother anyone there again.

Usually a composer, if he is also a music producer himself, creates a song at his/her home studio setup. This is his investment of time, money, studio gear and talent in coming up with something new every now and then in creating a music song bank. And he dubs the tune lines himself initially. Many composers do try out new voices in their tracks. So they check with a singer, “hey I have a scratch tune / song ready. Want to come and give it a shot? Perhaps your voice may suit it.”

The singer thanks his stars and dashes to the studio (usually the home studio or project studio setups). The lyrics are also got in a similar manner. The lyricist teams up with the composer and the lines are readied before the singer comes into the scene. A song is finally made. The only reason its still called a scratch is that the whole thing is still an experiment. Everyone is chipping in their bit hoping that the song will be accepted by a film company or a director.

Especially in Bollywood, the chances of a scratch singer getting replaced by a well-known name are pretty high. And here is where the work ethics come into play.  If a song gets picked up by a film or even approved for an ad film, then it is the composer’s duty to pay the singer who’s voice was used in the pitch. However, many shy away from doing so as the buyer of the song does not pay for the scratch. And the song has to be reproduced again with changes, if any. Many a times the composer also dubs the scratch song with various voices before he finds the right one to pitch it to a potential buyer (film producer / production house).

The debate in this FB post came to a point when one singer called all composers “creeps”! The debate became a little ugly then. However, the usual online patch-ups happened. Wow, again.

No one in the music industry wants to upset anyone it seems. Even if they are right! I guess insecurity runs pretty high here. And maybe there is a justification to that. Those who have regular jobs get paid on every 1st or 7th of a month. In music, there is no fixed income for anyone. Infact, there is no guaranteed income either. Even if one song of yours becomes a hit, you need many more to back it up to land up with a music concert.

The best part in all this I find though is that everyone is trying to live their dream. And not all have rich parents to support their child forever. In such a scenario, with songs being sung, written, and even composed for free is a bit scary. For how long can one keep on doing this? “Free” also cannot be abused beyond a point just because someone is willing, rather forced to do things, out of no choice.

There is no solution being offered here. But if any “scratch” or dummy recording or an experiment is being done, the stakeholders – composer/producer, lyricist and singers – are responsible for its success or failure. Not necessarily in an equal proportion. And if the song gets accepted, one must have the courtesy to pay up the initial investors. Till, then happy scratching…

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