By Salem Davern
There are many things I was able to check off of my life bucket list this summer: traveling out of the country for the first time, working with Grammy-nominated producers, and writing for a big-name label. This was all thanks to Berklee and Sony/ATV Beijing. The day I moved out of my humble 270 dorm room after finishing my first year of college, I remember taking a break from packing to check my email. Much to my surprise, an email from Bonnie Hayes with the subject “IMPORTANT” was waiting for me. I remember thinking, “This is either really good, or reeeeally bad.” I quickly skimmed the lines, and learned that Sony/ATV had selected me to be a part of their international songwriting camp in Beijing, China. Having never been out of the country before, or been involved in such a professional experience, I had no idea what to expect, but quickly accepted.
The first night I arrived in China, after about 20 hours of traveling, Sony hosted a welcome dinner for the participants of the program. When I entered the dinner room, I was met with a slightly overwhelming sight: a camera crew videoing everyone’s interactions, at least a dozen Sony employees, and the 21 other writers and producers in the camp, all of whom were older than me and already signed with Sony/ATV. After meeting everyone, and enjoying some amazing Chinese food, I felt more welcomed than ever.
A Demo in a Day
The next morning, everyone was summoned to the hotel lobby at 9am. From there, we were split up into groups comprising of one or two writers and one producer. We were driven to the Polaris Music Center studios, located in the middle of an amusement park. The first day was a bit surreal; once I found my group, we got assigned to our own studio, and were briefed by a Sony A&R about our task for the day. My team was given a reference track and the name of a Korean artist to write for, and we were instructed to have a fully produced demo by the end of the day. My co-writer and I immediately started generating concepts, as our producer came up with a track that matched the reference almost instantaneously. I had never been involved in such a fast-paced writing process, but I loved it. The feeling in the room was electric, the three of us being almost strangers, but working so cohesively. By lunch, we had the song written, and I had recorded most of the top-line. Fortunately, the A&R person who came to listen to the track liked what he heard, and we were driven home around 10pm. If he hadn’t, we would’ve gone back to the drawing board, and it would have been a very long night. No one was supposed to leave until the demo was perfect, which really gave us incentive to get it right.
Writing for the Asian Market
The following four days played out similarly, writing and bonding with talented musicians from all around the world. Writing for the Asian market definitely took some getting used to, as certain aspects of the song are approached differently. For example, I was told that verse lyrics “don’t really matter, just fill the space,” as they would be tweaked and translated anyways once sold. Being a Berklee student, it was really hard for me not to care a lot about the lyrics. Also, the second verse in K-Pop songs often have a different melody than the first verse. This makes the song feel like three separate songs, having completely new melodies for the verses, chorus, and bridge. I was also told to focus on making the songs more melodic as opposed to rhythmic. For the producers, the main challenge was to add a few traditional Chinese-sounding elements, while also making the song marketable and inherently pop.
One thing about the Chinese Music Industry I found especially interesting is that the A&R’s are also quite versed in production and songwriting. This allows them to be signed as writers/producers to Sony.
On our breaks, we discussed the differences between music industries in various countries. There were representatives from the UK, Finland, Norway, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and more; me being the only person from the US. One thing about the Chinese Music Industry I found especially interesting is that the A&R’s are also quite versed in production and songwriting. This allows them to be signed as writers/producers to Sony, and also give valuable feedback to all of their artists about the specific aspects of their work.
The week of writing culminated in a song screening, with listeners including Guy Moot, the President of Worldwide Creative for Sony, and Kiran Patel, a member of the British Council. Though the level of prestige in the room was high, the event was refreshingly calm. After hours of listening to the 32 songs written in one week, the guests and participants were invited to a celebratory dinner at a traditional Chinese restaurant. The next day, I was extremely sad to leave Beijing. This experience was one of the best one’s I’ve ever had.
Building a Global Songwriting Network
I’m still in touch with many of the people I met while in China, and am still writing for Sony/ATV. One of the songs that I worked on in China has been sold to an artist in Taiwan, and the rest will continue to be pitched to Sony artists. There are so many valuable things that came out of this opportunity for me. I now have a deeper understanding of what it takes to write for the Chinese market, and create on a high-level, efficient basis. I am so thankful to Berklee for this experience, as it is one that I’ll never forget. It has opened many doors for me, and opened my eyes to a whole new market. I can’t wait to see where this journey will take me!
Salem Davern is a singer/songwriter from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is in her third semester at Berklee, where she majors in songwriting. As an artist, Salem’s vibe is alternative-pop, and also enjoys writing for others, in genres including pop, K-pop, country, RnB, singer/songwriter, and rock.
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Really interesting how you had to make that demo in a single day. It’s a similar situation in some game jams where people team up (or go at it alone) to make a video game in a short period of time.
Hello! My name is Raphael Colard, and I am a first-semester student at Berklee. I really enjoyed reading about such a cool experience! I am interested in how you were able to get such an incredible opportunity after only one year at Berklee? Are there any steps you took to make doors open? I would love to hear about that if you have the time.
This is amazing! Thank you so much for writing and sharing your experience. So you wrote songs in English, and then they translated them? What a fantastic opportunity.