Heavy Meta: The Business Of Covering Ryan Adams In The Style Of Taylor Swift
Danny Ross, CONTRIBUTOR
I write about the modern music business as an independent artist
Ryan Adams released an album covering Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ in 2015 (Credit: GQ Video)
Nice to meet you, where you been?
I could show you incredible things.
I was lost in the pathways of Brooklyn’s McGolrick Park, listening to rocker Ryan Adams reimagine Taylor Swift’s breakout pop album, 1989. Cranking up my headphones, I was hypnotized by the vibration of acoustic guitar strings and the “shaking off” of Ryan’s vocal delivery. I was dizzied by Taylor’s words of lost, anticipated, and hard-earned love. More than anything, I was inspired by the possibilities of reframing and redefining the boundaries of art.
That’s when a light bulb flashed: someone should flip this concept on its head. So over the next six months, my wife Jess and I covered every song from Ryan Adams’ Love Is Hell in the style of Taylor Swift. The result is Babetown’s 1989 is HELL.
But here’s the thing: I had initially dismissed Taylor Swift before hearing a single note.
I viewed Top 40 music as the antithesis of authenticity – its slick production favored over music composition, looks over sound, style over substance. I saw Taylor, not as an artist, but as the center of a very effective marketing campaign – she earned $170 million over the last year, more than any other musician.
It took Ryan Adams and this exercise in the meta for me to take pop seriously.
Let me explain. I’m a songwriter, looking over the shoulders of giants like Nobel-laureate Bob Dylan, and adhering to a rock ’n’ roll philosophy that values authenticity above all else. I seek to discover melody, craft vulnerable personal narratives, “woodshed” natural instruments and sing with honesty and passion.
It’s purposefully defying the times by using analog communication in a digital age. And to me, Ryan Adams encapsulates this classicist approach.
I love Ryan because he’s exuberant: he loves bands and guitars, myths and sounds, and he wants to be all of them at once. But what I most admire is his endless curiosity to learn and incorporate new styles – whether it’s classic country, spacey jam bands or heavy metal. He’s taught me to approach the unfamiliar with sensitivity and an open mind.
So while I was skeptical of contemporary pop, I was open to Ryan’s interpretation of it. He makes for a trustworthy tour guide in the musical jungle.
But before getting started, Jess and I made the executive decision to set our budget for this project at $0. That may sound drastic, but I was burned before. As a solo artist, I spent somewhere in the realm of $20,000 creating the album One Way. The costs included hiring studio musicians, a producer, mixer, mastering engineer and publicist, along with studio time, CD manufacturing and distribution. Returning income like CD sales, streaming, merch and ticket sales didn’t come close to making up the difference. There was simply no justification for spending large amounts of money on a product that people weren’t buying.
So how do you spend nothing on an album? Do everything yourself. Jess bought me an Apple Pro training book on Logic Pro X, and I was off and running as a digital producer. Soon I was creating sounds and recording every instrument with the click of a mouse, all in my own time and in the comfort of our Brooklyn apartment. I was no longer paying others to channel my creativity.
Our first step was to pair each song from Ryan’s album with a specific 1989 track. With its concise and aching story, the album Love is Hell gave us a lot of room for reinterpretation. Right away I could hear unexpected similarities between the two artists – vivid atmospheric detail, insistent melodies, the desperation and drama of the characters. And at the least, a shared love for re-creating the emotions of a John Hughes movie.
We turned the concept on its head, and covered Ryan Adams track-for-track in the style of Taylor Swift.
Then, like students painting the masterpieces in art museums, we reconstructed 1989 layer by layer. I twisted knobs and tracked digital instruments until the kick, bass and synths sounded precisely like Taylor’s original – but using Ryan’s lyrics and melodies. Bear in mind that, at this point making One Way, I had already spent $7,000 on a producer, $4,000 on recording studios, and $5,000 on studio musicians. Pretty ridiculous, right?
Laid out in front of me now were the building blocks of 1989. Day in and day out, I heard the vocabulary of pop – an entirely new set of sounds ranging from drum machines to arpeggiators. I manipulated audio and visualized sound in the form of MIDI regions and equalizers. It reprogrammed my unconscious and inhabited my dreams. So this was electronic music.
In her vocal performance, Jess showed me the vulnerability, playfulness, and athleticism that Swift utilizes. And we threw in “Taylorisms” like cheerleader chants and melodramatic breaths. The more we tracked, the more we understood the unforgiving nature of Top 40 vocal recordings.
As I molded these songs, they began to feel like my own original productions. My babies. I found myself asking: What if I’ve been wrong about pop music all along?
Suddenly, I stepped from the shadows of history to join the rest of my generation. Covering a Ryan Adams album in the style of Taylor Swift may have started as a funny concept, but it very quickly became a master class in modernity. We had wheeled out our guitars and pianos, and plugged in our laptops. We had replaced the aesthetic of rock ’n’ roll with the language of pop.
Then Jess bought me a book called Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio, and I spent two months learning to mix the album myself, studying send-buses, multi-compressors and automation. At that point, I wished we had only done three tracks instead of thirteen. I also wished I studied engineering in school instead of political science. But it gave me great joy to hear those tracks streaming on SoundCloud shortly thereafter.
Now we didn’t end up spending $0. Between the artwork, mastering, and some private lessons in mix engineering, the total cost was slightly less than $1,000. But bear in mind that, at this point making One Way, I had spent an additional $5,000 on mixing, $1,500 on mastering, $700 on artwork and $2,500 on CD manufacturing and digital distribution. It took six months, but in our zero-sum approach, we saved over $20,000.
Do I still believe that 1989 and modern pop music could benefit from the lessons of analog thinking? Absolutely. There’s too much emphasis on arrangements at the expense of composition. But I learned that pop is merely a “style,” colors to use on a canvas. Ryan Adams has always understood this. And hearing that Ryan digs 1989 Is HELL was one of the best moments of my life. Now we’re dying to hear Taylor’s opinion. And to create original music infusing the new pop sensibilities we learned.
Ryan and Taylor were both right all along: they could show me incredible things. And I hope to do the same for you writing about the DIY music scene as I continue to experience it myself.