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A 'Songland' explainer: Why this new talent show is 'Shark Tank' for songwriters

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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I imagine when Songland’s executive producers, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, pitched their show to NBC, they might have called it “Shark Tank for Songwriters.”

So, here’s how Songland works: On each self-contained episode, four aspiring songsmiths perform their unreleased compositions for a panel of pros and one guest superstar artist. Three of those contestants advance to a one-on-one round, during which they are each paired up with a panelist to have their song reworked — sometimes radically so. And at the end of the evening, the guest star selects one song to record — and release immediately on iTunes through BMG.

And, just like on Shark Tank, the pros get a percentage of the profits. As explained to Yahoo Entertainment by NBC’s publicity department: “If a songwriter is selected to advance in the episode and get paired with one of the songwriter/producer panelists (Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, Shane McAnally), they agree to enter a co-writer with that songwriter/producer, which involves a songwriter/publishing split.”

It’s probably worth it. OneRepublic’s Tedder has co-penned songs like Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love,” and Adele’s “Turning Tables.” Dean is known for massive smashes like Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” And McAnally is one of the most successful country music writers of all time, with a résumé that includes Sam Hunt’s crossover hit "Body Like a Back Road” and dozens of hit singles for Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Album of the Year Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, and other Nashville A-listers. Getting a credit and royalty share alongside those names is probably a better bet than winning that other music competition on NBC, The Voice, which Levine actually just left.

And there’s no doubt that Tedder, Dean, and McAnally drastically improved at least two of the raw songs presented to them on Tuesday’s premiere, including the one that this week’s guest recording artist, winning Voice coach John Legend, ultimately selected. As one contestant put it, Songland is “like you're in school, and you're just like, ‘I’ve got this rough draft.’ And then they're like, ‘OK, this is good, but here's how you make it amazing.’”

It will be interesting to see if America’s viewers latch onto a show that gets into the somewhat unglamorous nitty-gritty of behind-the-scenes songwriting. Back in 2011, Stewart’s former bandmate in the short-lived pop-rock group Platinum Weird, ex-American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, attempted to launch her own reality-TV songwriting competition, Bravo’s Platinum Hit, on which Tedder actually served as a guest judge; that series, while compelling in a music-nerdy sort of way, was a ratings disaster, with Bravo even moving it to the Friday night graveyard shift mid-season. But Songland’s Shark Tank-style format adds an element of pass-the-popcorn suspense, and future episodes will feature other modern pop heavy-hitters like the Jonas Brothers, Macklemore, Meghan Trainor, Kelsea Ballerini, will.i.am, and Charlie Puth. So, NBC execs may have a new platinum television hit on their hands.

Let’s take a look at the four contestants who competed Tuesday for a chance to have John Legend record their songs.

Max Embers, “Back Home” (later retitled “Looking Back”)

This German immigrant’s midtempo number felt unfinished and unfocused, with lyrics that were non-committal and generic. “Right now, the one thing this song suffers from is too many melodies; just when you'd fall in a melody that I really felt was sticky, that I liked, you veered off of it,” griped Tedder. This just didn’t feel soulful or heavy enough for an artist like Legend; honestly, it sounded like one of those throwaway coronation singles on The Voice that never makes it to radio.

But Tedder gave Embers some impressive, actionable advice, telling him not to give away the first note of the chorus during the verse: “Save that note for the chorus, and you're going to get that goosebump moment.” Legend did appreciate the song’s gospel chorus — and when Legend sang an a cappella snippet, it already sounded much improved. The goal moving forward would be to make the song sound “more modern and groovy,” not snoozy. Max made it to the next round.

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Tebby Burrows, “We Need Love”

A peace-and-love togetherness anthem for these dark and troubled times seemed so on-brand for Legend, “the perfect artist to record this song, because he speaks up about injustice and equality,” according to Burrows. But the tropical island flavor, bouncy beat, and overall lightweight feel seemed at odds with serious lines like “They try to divide us between one another/Why we spreading lies about our brother/And why should you hate me for the color of my skin/And why should I hate you 'cause you love a little different?” And the lyrics really were so trite, so Up With People/Free to Be You and Me/“I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” McAnally even thought the gimmicky production felt too Lion King.

“My only critical comment is I think it's getting a little too message-heavy. You have to be careful about preachiness. You're crossing the line into cheesy a little too often,” warned Tedder. “I've done message songs before — which is probably why you thought this would be a good song to pitch to me — and we always have to be careful that it still has some edge, a little darkness, like Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye would do. Because if it's so happy and it's so bouncy and it's called ‘We Need Love,’ it's a little too much,” said Legend. But Legend had an idea to make the song “more mournful, like crying for the world” and lend it an acoustic, Jack Johnson-esque vibe, so Tebby advanced.

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Sam James, “Shinedown”

This Nashville country-pop songwriter’s evangelical power ballad actually sounded like a hit. McAnally was grinning broadly throughout Sam’s performance, and Tedder was even mouthing along to the lyrics by the end — both very good signs, or so it seemed. But understandably, “Shinedown” wasn’t the right fit for Legend, even after James took some of the panel’s tips about flipping the lyrics’ gender roles and changing the chord progression in the pre-chorus. “I don't feel like it feels like me. It might be country, but it's not me,” said Legend. “So if you're writing for me, I wouldn't sing that melody.” Sam didn’t make it to the next round.

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Ollie Gabriel, “Something New”

This retro, romantic soul song felt like it was written just for Legend. And, maybe it was! “I feel like this is a perfect song for John Legend. It's classic. It's soul. It's a piano ballad. If anyone were to do this song, it has to be John Legend,” insisted Ollie, who also said he was trying to create a modern version of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Well, “Something New” wasn’t quite that good, but it did seem like the sort of wedding-classic weeper, a la Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” that could become a new-school classic. Legend had a glimmer in his eye as he grooved along, and when Legend started to sing the chorus so naturally and effortlessly, it already seemed like Ollie was the winner. “This song really does speak John’s language,” admitted Dean.

However, “Something New” took a lonnnnng time to get to the triumphant, five-hanky chorus, so it needed some serious editing; Legend suggested they “figure out a way to pare it down a little bit, so you focus on the best sections.” McAnally sensed a lot of potential, saying, “I know it's this close to being a hook I've never heard before.”

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Max was then paired with Tedder, Tebby with McAnally, and Ollie with Dean. And that’s when the real magic happened. That’s when we all learned that a raw, rough, half-baked song can be transformed into a something special by seasoned professional hitmakers — so much so that the weakest of the three original contest entries ended up winning in the end.

“Something New” undoubtedly needed the least retooling, so Dean just focused on tightening it up, making the chorus quicker and punchier. “You’ve only got a few seconds to get people hooked into it, so we can scratch the verse because it's long. I always start with the hook first. This tells the story,” she explained. Tedder noticed that the pruned version “flowed so much better,” and Legend said it felt “timeless.”

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Tedder punched up the tempo of Embers’s tune from 94 to 105 beats per minute to “add some edge and some cool,” explaining to Max: “[John is] either going to love it or hate it. But I figured your best chance of winning this, and our best chance of winning this as collaborators, is for me to give him a tempo record.” The result was something that felt similar to Legend’s sparkling, vibey 2008 hit with André 3000, “Green Light,” completely different from Max’s limp original. It actually became my new favorite of the three entries. “It's the fundamentals of Songwriting 101: Every single part should have a reason to exist and should feel like a hook,” proclaimed Tedder. This guy knows his stuff.

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And finally, McAnally created an even more remarkable transformation, “a total 180,” with Burrows’s once-cloying “We Need Love,” a song freely admitted he hadn’t liked at first. He turned it into something melancholy and fragile and bittersweet, just as Legend had requested. John appreciated the new version’s “conversational” vibe, raving, “I really felt that. The change in mood really made a big difference. … It really gave me chills, and I felt it, and I'm ready to cut it. I love the message, and musically, the mood they put with it was exactly what I was looking for.”

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And so, now Legend’s official version of Tebby Burrows’s winning song “We Need Love” is available now. Have a listen below, and see you next week, when four other songwriters dive into Songland’s shark tank.

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