This Week In Songwriting: Rod Temperton and Ending Songwriter Obscurity

Oct 07, 2016

The story of the week in the songwriting world was the passing of Rod Temperton, the proliferic songwriter behind such hits as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Rock With You,” and “Off the Wall.”

He also wrote the classic disco hit “Boogie Nights” and performed it with his early 70s band Heatwave, and wrote other songs for the likes of Donna Summer, Quincy Jones, and Anita Baker. But it was his work with Michael Jackson that places Temperton in the annals of music making history. As noted in The Guardian—“Temperton’s work on Off the Wall and then Thriller in effect reinvented the Jackson brand.”

The Guardian: Rod Temperton: the effortless orchestrator of the perfect pop illusion

However while everyone knows who Michael Jackson was, few outside the music business ever heard of Temperton or knew he wrote “Thriller” and these other hits until news of his death broke. While the fact that he’s now getting the mainstream recognition he deserves is nice, it highlights a broader problem affecting songwriters—obscurity.

Temperton is one of the few songwriters whose passing even makes the mainstream news. Most do their work in relative anonymity, noted only by songwriter communities and the specialty media outlets that follow them. Indeed many prefer this behind-the-scenes status.

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Writing credits are rarely included in the publicly facing song details on digital services.  The Recording Academy years ago launched an effort to highlight producer and writer credits in music more prominently (or at all), but nothing concrete has yet to come of it.

Elevating songwriting recognition would have several benefits for both songwriters and fans.

By better highlighting their role in the music creation process, songwriters could gain extra leverage in the ongoing negotiations taking place about better valuing and compensating their work in the digital age.

And by better linking the songs fans love to the writers responsible for them would enhance their music discovery and enjoyment. Both Spotify and Apple have created several playlists around tracks with the same producer, but haven’t done so with different tracks by the same songwriter.

For instance, a Rod Temperton playlist might look something like this:

Songwriters play a critical role, and as such should be celebrated more in life as well as in death.