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Ghostwriters in the former USSR are turning Western DJs into stars

Far more artists than most care to admit pay producers to write tracks for them

  • Ben Raven
  • 8 February 2018

What must it feel like watching a party from the sidelines with little chance of taking part? Try moving to an impoverished part of the former USSR, swapping your passport for local papers and getting into production to find out. For many of the region’s ghost producers, dance music’s big time is a distant dreamland. Unobtainable, but frustratingly and fleetingly tangible from afar.

The visas that enable travel across borders – visas that are essential to a career in dance music – are prohibitively expensive. But there is a way to make a living from production without leaving the country. The only snag is it involves making tracks for other people in the West, and watching the careers of those with more fortunate passports rise through the ranks.

Ghostwriting is an incredibly controversial subject in dance music. Far more artists than most care to admit pay producers to write tracks for them, which they later pass off as entirely their own. It is a career treated with disdain in many circles, and a feverishly hot topic that many artists go to great lengths to cover up.

“There have always been bands, acts, and partnerships where someone preferred the technicalities of recording, mixing, and musical equipment, and the other preferred to be more involved in direction and arrangement,” says top ghostwriter and engineer Austin Leeds. “I think ghostwriting does need to be re-labelled in many instances, because really it is co-production. Even if a DJ just gives a style or a reference track, they are still curating, creating, and co-producing.”

For many ghost producers in the former Soviet states, there is nothing to debate. The chance to earn money from what would otherwise be a hobby, renders any qualms about making tracks for other people irrelevant.

Alex Larichev, Founder of EDM-Ghost-Production, Moscow

I ghostwriter, and I’ve got a team of six people who custom-write tracks in a professional studio. I thought it would be nice to also give the community of producers a chance to sell their tracks that are not custom-made. They don’t have to communicate with people, they just upload [their track], give the copyright to my company, and when a client buys the track, he buys the copyright.

Most of the time, the guys who make ready-to-use tracks are kids. Half of them are 16, 17, 18 years old. They all work in bedroom studios, and my quality control managers check the submissions we receive. If a submission is good enough to be played in festivals or downloaded from digital stores, then they put it on sale.

When they upload a track for me, they say: “I want this track to be sold for five hundred Euros.” Seventy per cent goes to the producer, thirty per cent goes to my company.

Two years ago, I was working as a cellphone salesman and my mum got brain cancer and passed away. I had to make a choice: go back to work selling phones [or produce]. At the time, I had already been producing for seven years and I’d had releases with Armada and all those Dutch guys.

It was really hard to get signed because commercial labels are looking for people with a brand. You [need] to have your videos, photos, a huge biography and the gigs and money to promote [yourself], and I didn’t have it. I just had music. So I thought it would be nice to make a website and say: “Hey I’m making this, you can order a track.” Then it was one order, then the second, third. People liked the quality and I had to hire colleagues to help me out.

In my company, there are lots of producers from [former Soviet Union countries] like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. They all have a dream of being a DJ, but due to price, politics and visa issues, it’s impossible for them, so it’s very frustrating.

All those countries are known for their hackers. The kids download cracked software from Russian forums and they make music every day. For people in the former USSR countries, it’s hard to [leave the country]. You need a visa for America or Europe, and because Russia is a huge country [with long distances to travel] there’s no reason to book them if you can bring a European DJ [for less money].

One guy made four tracks for one client, then in seven months the client was playing as an opening DJ for Hardwell in his country. He was like, “What the fuck is this?” I told the guys: “Hey, this is your choice: you got your royalties and your money, this is what you chose.” They say, “Of course we chose this, it’s OK...” but they’re [still] jealous, of course.

Hostility to ghost production is everywhere I go. When I tried to meet some of my clients at IMS they were like: “I can’t do it, Alex, people know who you are.”

What kinds of DJs buy tracks? Half of them are young, eighteen-year-olds, who’ve visited Tomorrowland or Ultra and want to become a DJ, but they [use ghostwriters] when they realise how much there is to learn and how long it will take.

The rest are those [DJs] who are too busy [touring] to make music, and all of those are from outside Russia. Only three or four are from Russia in a year. Most of them are from USA or Europe.

Are we doing something wrong? Why should people from USA and Europe enjoy being worldwide DJs and Russians can’t? It’s not about the music, it’s about politics. We only have five top DJs from Russia and there are 70 DJs from [much smaller] Holland. These kids – at least they can make money and do what they love to do.

We’ve sold about 100 tracks in the last six months. Would I like to be a DJ? I dreamed of being a DJ when I was a teenager, but then again, constant travelling makes my health [suffer].

Alex Larichev is the founder of EDM Ghost Production and Ghost Producers

CHEDD & CHEASE, ukraine

I live with my girlfriend in a rented apartment. We are planning a future together and in a year’s time we will move to a new home and get married. My mother lives in a small town near Kiev. She still works but is sick and every six months she needs to go to hospital. I help her always.

I like to write music in a semi-sleepy trance state, as DeadMau5 used to say in his Masterclass lessons. In this state, everything you write turns out awesome.

I studied Music Production at university for two years but I didn’t have enough money to finish the course because of a family crisis. Nevertheless, I learned enough to produce using software such as Cubase/Nuendo, Reason or ProTools and I also learned to use Ableton Live and Logic Pro 9. Most of my work takes place in FL Studio but sometimes clients ask for projects in other DAWs.

I did not have equipment for a very long time. I learned to write music on hi-fi speakers from 2007 until the end of 2014. Now I have bought myself JBL LSR 305 [active monitors]. I use Sennheiser HD 650 headphones as my main reference, and a UAD Apollo Twin DUO USB soundcard.

I buy plug-ins sometimes. I have a licensed FL Studio 12. VPS Avenger, Sylenth 1 and Serum. I also have some UAD plugins, and a lot of free plug-ins, some of which are simply not replaceable such as Xfer OTT or CamelCrusher. Without them I cannot imagine what I’d do.

My mom bought me a PC and I immediately began to cut and process music. I used a software application called Sound Forge. I liked it so much I went with friends to a big market in Kiev and bought a CD with a bunch of pirated music programs and there it was: Fruity Loops 3. From then on I tried to write music by trial and error and six months later, I wrote something that remotely resembled a track.

Minimal techno was really popular in Ukraine in 2007 and all my first tracks were in that genre, but in the autumn of that year, my friend gave me Armin van Buuren’s ‘Universal Religion 3’ compilation and I realised I would write trance music from then on. Though I later changed styles many times, I still have a special love for trance.

I made my first track that was good enough to send out in 2011, but I could not release it. This track just lay in the public domain on the once-popular Russian service PromoDj.ru. It was streamed about 1000 times, which back then was a super hit.

Before studying music at university, I taught myself. I didn’t know any DJs or producers before beginning my course. Then I bought video lessons and when we got internet, I watched tutorials on YouTube.

YOKAZE, siberia

My real name is Ivan Rybalkin. I’m 20 years old and from Surgut in Siberia. This area is poor. I do not have running water, heating or other goods of humanity. I still burn firewood to keep warm in winter and I carry water from the well at all times of the year.

I have no children. I live in a small family of 10 people. My relatives know that I write music, but I do not go into details. I help around the house, heat the bath, bring water and so on. When they found out that I dropped out of school for the sake of music, they were angry. People of the old school don’t understand what I’m doing, especially in Russia.

My city has a negative attitude towards people whose appearance differs from ‘normal’ so I have problems because of my long hair.

I write music all the time. I don’t have a normal job. Compared to the average earnings in my country, my income from ghostwriting is pretty good, at times even more than average.

I write music in different ways. If I have a production order, then on average it takes me two to three hours to finish the track. If it’s a personal project, it’s much more complicated and takes longer. The software I use is Ableton Live 9, Reaktor, FabFilter. Serum is currently my main weapon.

In terms of equipment, I have the Microlab Solo 3C monitors, Korg NanoKey 2, Korg MS 20 Mini, guitar, Sennheiser HD 215 headphones.

I have all the cracked software. It is too expensive at the moment for me to buy licensed software, but I hope I will be able to soon and will not waste time searching for cracks. A copy of Serum [costs] like a monthly salary for the average worker in Russia.

I started writing music at the end of 2012. I became interested in DJs and how producers make music. I started to Google and found a couple of tutorials and decided to take this business seriously.

I studied production on my own by trial and error. Where I’m from, there are no other producers. For the last five years, I’ve slept only three to four hours a night and I maintain my creativity. This is the secret of good production.

I was looking for different ways to make money from my favorite hobby. I went through various ways of earning money and stopped at ghost production. A friend told me about the EDM Ghost Production website so I wrote a couple of tracks and started collaborating with the guys.

I have a personal multi-genre alias called Yokaze which is gaining strong momentum and is getting support from popular producers. I have a couple of releases on the Renraku label and there are a lot of releases on labels such as Circus Records, Quality Good, Division. I also work on collaborations with very famous musicians.

I don’t get annoyed if I see a DJ have success from a track I wrote. If the track helped the DJ I’ll just be glad. This work is not for emotionally vulnerable people. People who think ghostwriting is wrong often have a misconception about the music industry and often they work full-time in places where they are uncomfortable.

Would I prefer to be a DJ or ghostwriter? I don’t want to choose between the two. One day I will become a popular DJ and I’ll continue to ghost write. There’s nothing stopping me from being a successful DJ. Give me a little time and I’ll be on the cover of your magazine.

SoundCloud.com/yokazejdm

This feature is taken from the February issue of Mixmag

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