Reference Tracks Explained (Easily)

“Songwriting’s a brutal business, don’t go into it.”
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PARTYNEXTDOOR wrote a reference track for Rihanna and the Internet went nuts. Let’s talk about the machinery of songwriting.

Lucas [1:02 PM] I have an idea for an article for you. Reference tracks, like, what are they?

Nathan [1:04 PM] Interesting, maybe it’s one of those things I know, so I didn’t think to treat it as a question.

Lucas [1:09 PM] Yeah.

Nathan [1:09 PM] Do you know? I’m wondering how many people do or don’t.

Lucas [1:09 PM] I mean...kinda? It’s like an outline, right?

Nathan [1:13 PM] Well...it’s potentially a lot more than an outline. If you’re songwriting for someone, you record the song yourself and send it like, “Here, this is how I picture it sounding,” maybe right down to different intonations or phrasings or ad-libs. And then, if the artist decides to record that song, they “reference” the original version, choosing how much of the original they want to change.

So the final version could end up sounding almost exactly like the reference version only with a different singer, or it could end up pretty different—case by case basis.

Lucas [1:14 PM] Is it different than songwriting?

Nathan [1:16 PM] No, it’s the same thing, a reference track is how a songwriter shares their songwriting. Like, if you write a song for someone, what then? You email them the sheet music? You need to let them hear the song you wrote, so you have to record a “reference” version to send. Sometimes that might be a piano or guitar and the songwriter singing, something stripped down, maybe not even verses, just the hook. Or they could almost literally record the song in full for the reference, bring in strings, multi-instruments, etc. PND could have hired a female singer who sounds like Rihanna to record that reference. This way, she would be more comfortable hearing herself singing the record—and therefore maybe more likely for her to want to record it.

Lucas [1:18] So this is only for when you aren’t in the studio with the artist?

Nathan [1:21 PM] I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s only for “when someone isn’t in the studio” with an artist because an artist isn’t likely to get in the studio with a songwriter unless they’ve already heard a reference track they like.

Rihanna’s not just going to spend an entire day in the studio with someone coming up with a song from scratch unless that person’s a real super-superstar songwriter. Pharrell might call Rihanna (or vice-versa) and say, “Hey, come over to the studio, and we’ll see what happens,” but for everyone else, it’s pretty much reference track or die. Even genius songwriters might need to write 50 songs, 100 songs, 1,000 songs until they come up with that one big single. Rihanna’s not about to sit around for days waiting for that one-in-a-thousand song. It makes much more sense for a songwriter to send her the great song when they come up with it. That’s why Drake has Majid Jordan sleeping in his studio. He wasn’t wasting his time sitting around with them; he was like, “When you come up with something great, record a reference track, and I’ll take a listen.”

And the original songwriter may never get in the studio with the artist at all.  Again, it’s about clout. Pharell might be able to say, “This song’s not getting released unless I get in the studio, and I approve it.” But if you’re a young songwriter, you have a friend of a friend of a friend who somehow gets Rihanna a reference track, she likes it and records it but doesn’t particularly give a shit about further input from you, what are you going to say? No, you can't use the song?

Lucas [1:24 PM] Another question. How often does this happen? It seems like a lot.

Nathan [1:25 PM] It happens... always. Songwriters make reference tracks like chefs make plates of food. I should stress, though, we’re talking almost solely about pop/R&B songs here where this kind of songwriting is the standard. For hip-hop songs, you rarely have a reference track for anything but maybe a melody and a hook because there’s a premium on writing your lyrics. So it’s far less common for a hip-hop artist to use reference tracks (with some notable exceptions cough cough).

In fairness, most people don’t think about the logistics of how songs get made like that. I didn’t for a long time. I won’t pretend to have always been Oz behind the curtain. I just ended up hanging out a lot with songwriters and label people.

Lucas [1:38] PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE BEARD BEHIND THE CURTAIN! Another question, why does this all feel so secretive? Why aren’t reference tracks released more often?

Nathan [1:40 PM] Well, in the hip-hop world, there’s a very real stigma against not writing your lyrics, so hip-hop reference tracks, if and when they exist, are understandably kept on the down-low. Again, Drake.

Pop and R&B artists don’t feel the same need to hide that they use songwriters. I don’t think anyone was operating under the delusion that Rihanna wrote all her stuff, but still, what’s the upside of the public hearing a reference track for an artist? Better to let people assume their favorite songs were created in some magical late studio session than expose the machinery. “Well, he had his cousin email my manager a reference track, and my manager thought it could be a hit, so I recorded it. No, I’ve never actually met him.” That’s not exactly going to go down as a significant moment in music history.

Lucas  [1:52 PM] I’m assuming PND got paid for it, right? How well does a reference track pay? Or is it like, you did a reference track and get a standard songwriting credit. I feel like it’s a little more involved than just helping to write a song.

Nathan [1:55 PM] For sure. PND may not have gotten any upfront money, and the first actual checks may not arrive for months—welcome to the life of songwriters and producers—but he got a split of the sales and publishing. How songwriter splits work is way more complicated than I can get into here.  

Again, songwriting and reference tracks are the same thing. Reference tracks are how songwriters write songs. Songwriters make reference tracks like chefs make food. 

In today’s music industry, it’s more common that a song gets made because a songwriter sat by themselves in their house for weeks, wrote something that they thought could work for Rihanna, recorded a reference track, somehow managed to get that reference track to the artist through a bunch of intermediary people (managers, A&Rs, etc.), a bunch of emailing happens, then the artist gets into the studio and records the reference track without maybe even being within 3,000 miles of the person who wrote the song in the first place.

The rare elite artist may not work that way—billionaire Dr. Dre can afford to keep a studio running 24/7 on the off chance a great song pops off—but for the big middle ground of music that gets made now, reference tracks are a fundamental part of how music gets made. 

Lucas [2:30 PM] I didn’t realize it was the same thing as songwriting. Why didn’t you say that in the first place? Kidding. Please don’t fire me.

Nathan [2:45 PM] I don’t want the takeaway here to be that I know everything, I don’t. Just ask my wife. Instead, I hope the takeaway here is how fucking ridiculously hard being a songwriter is. I wouldn’t survive a week doing it as my career without having a nervous breakdown. 

You write song after song after song, they all end up in the trash can. But then one song sounds good; you can hear a superstar artist on it. And so you spend another week recording it, calling in favors to your friend who plays guitar because that one great guitar lick might end up making or breaking the song, paying a singer to come in because you’re not about to sing this melody meant for Rihanna. You pour everything into making this excellent reference track because you’re not a big-time songwriter, you can’t just hum a few bars on the phone and expect a famous artist to give a shit. This song could be your big break; you can’t half-ass it, you’ve got to sell them on it.

So after some sleepless nights, you finally finish the reference track. It could be a finished track with a few tweaks; you even put a light mix on it. And then...you never manage to get it to Rihanna, and all that work goes to waste. Or by some miracle, she does hear it, records it, and it never makes the album. Waste. Even Sia, who’s written multiple huge songs, gets rejected so often she just put out an album comprised entirely of songs that got turned down by Adele, Rihanna, and more. 

And even on the one-in-a-million chance the song somehow does manage to make it from your humble studio to a major-label album, Rihanna ends up involving other songwriters you’ve never even met, and so now you have to split the songwriting seven ways. And then you don’t get paid until months after the album’s released for a song you wrote a year and a half before you even see your first check.

Songwriting’s a brutal business, don’t go into it. And if you can’t help yourself, godspeed.

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