Let's discuss a term that's used a lot in the industry: toplining. The act of toplining means "writing a song over a pre-made beat." This seems like a kind of arbitrary distinction between a songwriter and a topliner, and in truth, it really is. The only real difference is in the creative process. Do I start with a blank page? Or do I start with pre-made boundaries to direct my creativity? The answer is: it doesn't matter, because you're still writing a song with two verses and a chorus.
Toplining in today's music industry
The more interesting part of the story is learning that most of the pop, R&B, EDM, and hip-hop songs you hear on the radio came to life as instrumental beats that were toplined afterwards. In fact, if you're an aspiring mainstream songwriter who wants to break into the industry, you will be doing toplines 95 percent of the time.
For songwriters, the act of toplining is either good or bad. It's good because it immediately puts you in a style or a musical niche, but it's bad if the track you're working on isn't hot. It's good because you don't need to be able to play an instrument to be a successful writer, but it's bad if you're an instrumentalist-turned-songwriter and you can't sing. Most successful songwriters in the industry are amazing singers, exactly because they only have to topline tracks. All you really need nowadays is a mic and a laptop to be a pro.
Back in the olden days of yore, songwriters would write their songs and then bring the fully formed song to a producer, who would then create the arrangements and record the band. Not so much anymore. In commercial songwriting, the track virtually always comes first. The biggest reason is that with the rise of better music production equipment, people could make more and more interesting-sounding tracks than ever before. Many producers started making such hot beats that the audience's ear started getting attuned to it. Nowadays, most music consumers won't even listen to the lyric and the melody of a song if the beat is boring. This has shifted the power structure towards the producers, who usually send their tracks to a bunch of different songwriters to write over.
How does songwriting credit work with a topline/track situation?
This is how you get into the legal woes of today's industry. One producer sends out his or her latest, hottest track to 100 writers, and will get 100 songs back over that track. Who owns the songs now? Is the track producer automatically a co-writer on the topline because he or she provided the backing material that influenced the melodic ideas for the writers? The answer is: not usually. Most producers, if they say no to a topline, will let the writers take it back and pitch their topline to another producer and won't take a percentage of the writing credit. Just ask for it specifically in an email and you're good. Be aware, however, that some people are jerks and will force you to give them credit. In that case, blacklist them. Fuck those guys.
How to practice toplining
Here's a quick and dirty way to practice toplining, especially if you don't know any producers yet: go to YouTube and rip some great instrumentals using a website such as anything2mp3.com. Don't ever release these songs, because that's super illegal, but doing this is an easy way to get your hands on good beats to practice on for your own personal use.
In an interview, Sia once said that her real talent isn't in songwriting, but in unearthing the hottest beats from a folder of 1,000 that she has on her computer. I love this quote because it's exactly where the industry is now. If you cannot distinguish between a current-sounding track and a dated one, you're never gonna write a hit song, no matter how awesome you are. Understanding the musical landscape you're in, and staying current in your beat choices, is a huge part of being on the cutting edge of the industry.
But then again, it's the exact same for "normal" songwriters, too. If you work with shitty producers, your songs will sound shitty, and vice versa. So, in the end, the distinction between topliner and songwriter is unimportant. Understanding what the industry needs from you in order to have a successful career is what's actually important.
Benjamin Samama taught songwriting at Berklee College of Music from 2013–2015 and currently writes and produces pop music full-time in Los Angeles. His songs have been released by dozens of artists all over the world and enjoyed by millions. Click here to contact Benjamin if you'd like a one-on-one songwriting consultation with him.