By Rory Winston
“Bruh, this Budapest DEX thing – it’s supposed to be like what? Billboard PlayLISZT or a let’s-get-wasted-to-music conference…?”
Gavin, a longstanding friend of mine who’d spent years in the music industry, messaged me this question several months after the 2019 DEX Songwriting Expo came to a close.
Though I recall responding in a sarcastic vein, I knew the answer was none of the above. DEX was a concerted attempt at catalyzing international collaboration – applying industry standards to local productions and creating connections with the world at large. Gavin’s query, however, forced me to consider not only the relevance of Dex but the raison d’être for imminent events such as Durango, NSAI Tin Pan South, West Coast Songwriters Conference, Taxi Road Rally, SESAC Bootcamp, Kauai, and even ASCAP itself.
What were these ambitious all-encompassing events really about? What did they hope to accomplish? Did specialized 4-day interactions teach anyone anything they hadn’t already known? Was the entire farrago an industry excuse to party while invoking networking as the excuse? Were the paying participants a long line of hopeless amateurs longing to be in the same room with cynical professionals who could always use the extra cash and ego-boost while offering little but motivational speaking in return? Or was there something more to it?
Although I’d participated in in-house songwriting camps at the expense of record labels, these larger Expo gatherings shared little in common with the tight modular collectives whose explicit purpose was to generate artist-specific songs. Unlike, the well-honed creative rotations so common to Scandinavia, and the agent-infused collaborations arranged in the US, UK and Canada, most of Europe – and especially Central Europe – didn’t have a history in organizing ‘hit factory’ events. As for Hungary, the question was even more poignant since generations of internationally renowned Hungarian composers had played an integral role in the evolution of western music.
Hungary’s Musical Legacy & Future in Songwriting
Besides the form-related experiments and harmonic innovations of Franz Liszt in the 19th century, Hungary, by the first half of the 20th Century, had disproportionately impacted all of the compositional development. Known for his revolutionary approach to music education, Zoltan Kodaly, along with Bela Bartok, gathered, researched and documented folk themes. Soon, they began infusing them into classical music. Bartok created a paradigm shift in tonality and rhythmic patterns – one that caused a breakdown of the diatonic system of harmony. Later, György Ligeti, reputed as one of the most important avant-garde composers, jolted music to yet a new direction by building compositions around timbre rather than pitch and rhythm.
Similarly, when it came to rock music, Hungary didn’t lag behind the West even under communism. Though less accessible because of language and cultural relevance, folk-infused rock operas such as Stephen, the King by Levente Szörényi and János Bródy were as well-wrought and nuanced as Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Llyod Webber and Tim Rice. As a testament to that period, Kanye West had paid royalties to the former art-rock band Omega for having recently used their older themes in his work. In a country renowned for its musical education, as well as the integration of Eastern and Western traditions, it would be hard to imagine any music-related event getting an automatic pass.
The DEX Expo 2019 -2020
On the industry level, DEX Expo covers a lot of territory in a short amount of time. With a host of international and local experts, topics range from creativity to product to business and marketing. Artistic manager/lawyer Dina Mystris (EMI, Universal Music London as well as Refune Music Group) described the best way to solicit labels and be sure that your emails, videos, and music are given the proper consideration. Another lecture precisely detailed how choices of instruments and their particular tone have a dramatic function within the context of a given song. While another discussion centered around the level of sound production and structure necessary for standing out while remaining commercially viable in the pop world. On the other end of the market spectrum, a niche alt. rock band described its own methodology when it came to creating a decade’s worth of cohesive material.
Other subjects included the secret of writing relatable English or internationally-minded lyrics, the best way in which to maximize profits while securing royalties and copyrights, legal traps in the industry, the business aspect of creativity, how to write commercial music or jingles on demand, tips and tricks on attaining the perfect mix, how to find the balance between spontaneity and controlled mechanics in songwriting, and how to respectively tap into two of the most lucrative yet vastly untapped markets, the Chinese and South Korean.
In addition to such practical information, workshops included a 4-day songwriting camp wherein songwriters, performers and producers were randomly thrown into a room while being tasked with coming up with 30 potential tracks, a workshop on maximizing virtual instruments in pop-rock and electro music, workflow tips within a digital environment and how different music programs benefit specific processes.
Will Simms, a London-based French composer, who has had multiple hits in the UK, Spain, Denmark, and the Far East, made a case for why anyone from anywhere can manage to sell songs in any conceivable genre worldwide. Likewise, the inimitable Tamara Obrovac explained how fusions are capable of making use of otherwise disparate approaches. Most interestingly, on both evenings, two of Hungary’s finest composers, László Dés and Presser Gábor, respectively played selections of their works and explained their personal creative process.
While a vast number of the songs finalized in the workshops made me think that locals leave out organic local flavors in an attempt to replicate familiar international formulas, there were, nevertheless, young songwriters who thought differently. It was clear that with the right guidance, young Hungarian songwriters would find a way of maintaining their own idiosyncrasies while still meeting market expectations.
In a sense, DEX Expo was success for the very same reasons the very first Songwriters Expo started by John Braheny and Len Chandler in 1977 was a success. It brought many talented people together to connect and learn from one another. Although the most interesting new voices were not among those chosen to show their works, they often managed to find one another in the crowd. And this is as it should be. And as it had always been at any successful Expo in the past. The most fortuitous meetings had always taken place in the hall between lectures or after hours.
Even more reassuring than the number of upcoming Hungarian songwriters is the growing number of female songwriters who are composing material for both male and female artists.
Though I had officially attended Dex in the capacity of a music reviewer rather than as a lyricist, I’d discovered two very gifted Hungarians – a beatmaker/producer, and a songwriter/arranger – and one extraordinarily original Bulgarian composer. I’ve been collaborating with them ever since. Although my former colleague, Gavin, still harbors doubts about the merit of Music Expo’s, he has had no issue with recognizing the quality of those I had found there.
Hungary has inherited a rich musical legacy. It would be surprising if the country lacked the wherewithal to imbue its upcoming songwriters with the same spirit. Dex Expo could, over the years, quite possibly prove to be a mechanism for undertaking such a feat.