Twitter / DIYmagazine

I’d hazard a guess that most people who actively listen to popular music will recognise the name Jack Antonoff, and that’s a testament to the sheer extent to which his behind-the-scenes work in production and songwriting have come to dominate both mainstream and alt-pop music in recent years. By working with Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey and many others on albums which have altered the very soundscape of modern music itself, Antonoff has left an indelible and unmistakable mark on the charts. However, he’s not the first producer to achieve such high-profile success, and he certainly won’t be the last.

In the realms of Americana and roots rock, the immense success of producer Dave Cobb has led his name to become as synonymous with his genre as Antonoff’s is with his: from the liner notes of multi-million-selling albums by Chris Stapleton to those of a number of lower-selling but equally lauded projects by independent artists, he’s everywhere, and having Cobb’s name stamped on a record has become a symbol of quality. As such, countless accolades have poured in, including Producer of the Year at the CMAs, and a notable production credit on the A Star Is Born soundtrack.

Dave Cobb produced one of Gaga's most well-loved recent hits, "Always Remember Us This Way"

On the surface, the music emanating from the studios inhabited by Jack Antonoff and Dave Cobb has nothing in common, but at a closer examination that might not be entirely accurate. Dave Cobb’s long-held preference for recording with live bands and his aversion to digital recording methods is no secret, and though Jack Antonoff has never had a firm no-synthesisers rule, he has undoubtedly further embraced the live studio sound on recent work. Regardless of any sonic differences, though, both producers continue to prove endlessly popular with both listeners and the artists they work with, despite the saturated nature of the market.

To understand how they have effectively monopolised their respective areas, it’s necessary to underline the huge impact a producer can have on the sound of a song. At best, when listening for the first time, the production choices won’t even be noticeable to the casual fan, as they should fit the music as effortlessly as a glove. At worst, however, people can become deterred from what might otherwise be a great set of songs just because the mix or creative choices feature some jarringly clear missteps.

“Imperfection is often an asset, and less is often more”

Following several decades of heavy production and coldly calculated hooks (à la Max Martin) dominating the pop charts and rendering artists interchangeable, some contemporary musicians subvert these expectations and instead see that imperfection is often an asset, and less is often more – and that’s a mantra that’s representative of the work of both Jack Antonoff and Dave Cobb.

Both producers avoid overly interfering with the music they work on, abandoning the excesses and flourishes which have so often been used to disguise the distinct lack of imagination fuelling chart-topping hits, and instead they push the artistic personalities and strong songwriting which lie at the core of these records to the forefront. The originality of each musician always takes centre stage, while the ‘catchiness’ of their hooks is left to drift in and out as desired.

Antonoff experimented stylistically on St. Vincent's futuristic and universally acclaimed record Masseduction

That’s not to say that the records they work on are all entirely stripped-back folk records – the art rock of St. Vincent’s Antonoff-produced Masseduction has nothing in common with a Lana Del Rey record, after all – but it is to say that every one of these records displays a clear artistic vision which has been enhanced – not buried – by its producer. It’s this fact that has allowed the artists working in these spheres to maintain the sought-after longevity that accompanies a career based on quality, rather than on quantity of number ones.


Mountain View

Lorde's new era lets the light in

It seems, overall, that their respective successes are reflective of a wider shift in tastes amongst popular music fans. Perhaps as a reaction to what came before, people are enjoying seeing albums climb the charts on the strength of their overall sound, rather than by virtue of one or two massive hit singles. Perhaps people are becoming invested en masse once more in the format of the ‘album’, which critics formerly declared an art form destined for extinction.

These styles aren’t for everyone, of course – Dave Cobb’s work has been referred to by some listeners as ‘muddy’ and old-fashioned, and one section of Lana Del Rey’s fandom ceaselessly calls for her to ditch Antonoff, leave her folk-rock aspirations behind, and return to her Born To Die-era aesthetics. That’s the nature of music: we all have a unique preference. But the numbers speak for themselves, and for Jack Antonoff and Dave Cobb, their inevitable journey to legendary status is only just beginning.