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The second annual International Writers Camp (IWC), organized by Conservatorium Haarlem in Holland, between November 1 and 4, 2016, united students from several European music institutions. The IWC placed them into groups with at least one vocalist, one electronic musician or producer, and one instrumentalist to deliver a song. The final results were then judged by publishers who gave feedback on what the industry seeks in professional songwriters and producers. This year’s panel included professionals from Sony/ATV, Universal Music, CTM Publishing, Strengholt Music, Armada Music, and TTT Management.
Berklee’s campus in Valencia took part for the first time under the wing of Brian Zalmijn, voice instructor in the Master of Music in Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration). Four students participated; two from the Master of Music in Music Production, Technology, and Innovation, and two from the contemporary performance program. “It’s a great opportunity for students to connect with other peers from all over Europe, to expand their network, and to meet and get feedback from publishers,” says Zalmijn.
“The fact that the songs are produced within three days by groups that are randomly put together adds to the excitement of knowing that your song might actually be signed,” says Remco van Eijndhoven, international coordinator of the IWC. This year, 87 students from institutions from the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Italy, and Denmark joined students from Conservatorium Haarlem to deliver a total of 29 songs.
Before being placed into their groups, students started the camp by listening to a brief telling them about the kinds of songs record labels are seeking. “One person advised vocalists to focus on delivering the feel of the song instead of trying to impress with vocal chops,” says van Eijndhoven. A shared opinion was that, more than ever, it’s all about the chorus. “With streaming services monitoring how quickly people skip to the next song, it’s important to not dwell too long on an intro or first verse,” adds the organizer.
Facing the Professionals
With these tips in mind, the students got to work. John Snelgrove, from Port Townsend, Washington, was one of the participating students from the music production, technology, and innovation graduate program. He co produced the track “Higher” and was responsible for the sound design within his group.
Snelgrove teamed up with Pia Christensen and Marianne van Calcar, both from Conservatorium Haarlem. “The process was quite fluid, and we made decisions quickly,” he says. Because van Calcar is a singer, they chose a pitch for an up-and-coming female vocalist. Christensen's background is in producing, so she made a drum loop while Snelgrove improvised on guitar, and van Calcar did the same with the melody and lyrics. “After a while, we found something we liked and copied the chord progression to a synth track in our Digital Audio Workstation,” he says. From there, they split up: Christensen worked on the rhythm, van Calcar on the lyrics, and Snelgrove on the melodic and harmonic material. “We settled into a pattern of splitting up to work on different parts, then meeting up after a couple hours to glue them together and get feedback from each other,” he adds.
After two days of hard work, it was time to face the professionals. Each team performed a minute and a half of their song in front of the jury to receive their feedback. “Playing the song for the jury was helpful. I've never made this style of music before, so I was more interested in their feedback and advice than getting signed or anything like that,” says Snelgrove. In their case, the jury really liked the production but thought the lyrics were cheesy. “One of the members of the jury really didn't like chopped vocal samples, which our chorus was built around, so that sparked a debate among the jurors. Regardless, I liked that our track was controversial!” says Snelgrove.
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As a result, Snelgrove felt very challenged and inspired to continue producing genres outside his comfort zone. “Writing a good pop song is more difficult than it seems,” he says. Van Eijndhoven believes that the level of the resulting songs was extremely high this year. “At the moment, it looks like more than half of the 29 songs have been or will be signed and pitched in the near future,” says van Eijndhoven.
For Zalmijn, an experience like the IWC is invaluable as it teaches students what happens in real life. “It’s a way to get used to working on a project, not knowing everybody, and still relying on the skills they have developed.” Making choices, managing a workflow, and understanding the writing and production processes are key aspects that students mastered in just three days.