With music-focused tech platforms increasingly recognizing songwriters as a key component of the music community, YouTube staged its first ever songwriter music night on Wednesday (Feb. 7). The event featured hitmaker Justin Tranter, who in addition to cowriting Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Julia Michaels’ “Issues” and Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” is also an advocate for LGBTQ rights.
Tranter says he was excited for the opportunity to partner with YouTube and showcase the people behind the songs.
“I thought that it not only would be fun to do but for all of the songwriter super-fans and music geeks out there like I was when I was a kid,” Tranter tells Variety.
The event, held at YouTube Space LA in Playa Vista, Calif., represents the digital platform’s efforts to shine a spotlight on songwriters and create more creative opportunities for them. Lindsay Rothschild, YouTube’s songwriter and publisher relations lead in North America, says she pitched the idea of a songwriter night to Tranter’s publishing company Warner/Chappell Music and “Justin immediately came to mind.”
Aside from the events, YouTube creates channels for songwriters that include playlists of all the songs they’re written. “There really isn’t a space or home for digital songwriters out there,” adds Rothschild. “Nothing that is visually engaging like this is. A lot of songwriters think, ‘Why would I have a channel there would be no reason that I upload content?’ Except so much of their portfolio — or all of it — is already on the platform.”
For the event, Tranter alternated between his onstage chat with moderator Hrishikesh Hirway, the host and creator of podcast “Song Exploder,” and his performances accompanied by a string quartet and background singers. He sang three of his most recent popular songs: Halsey’s “Bad at Love,” Julia Michaels’s “Issues,” and Imagine Dragons’s “Believer.”
Sitting in an all-white, five-piece outfit that Tranter joked made him look ready to start a cult, the lyricist spoke to Hirway about growing up in Chicago and originally thinking he would never write for other artists, sign a record deal, or make pop music. He’s done all three. “I’m so grateful for my endless delusion,” which he says is the reason he kept pursuing music for many years.
When speaking with Variety, Tranter further discusses the current state of the music industry. He says that a social consciousness is missing from pop music, and notes that YouTube is a great way for young LGBTQ people to share their voice, but translating that into music hasn’t happened yet.
“I think that that’s kind of the biggest issue that we’re facing—if you want to make mainstream music how do you also speak your truth at all times,” he says. This is an issue all marginalized people face, he adds, listing Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper as two artists who incorporate powerful messages into their music and remarks that hip-hop leads pop music in this area. “Every, every artist should strive to be as social conscious as [Lamar] is.”
Adds Tranter: “The beauty of letting marginalized people tell their own stories is it isn’t only the right thing to do socially, but it’s also the right thing to do financially. People love the truth and people like to spend money on the truth.”
A little over a month into the year and Tranter has already hit career milestones. He was nominated at the Golden Globes for his song “Home” with Nick Jonas and was recognized at the Grammys in the song of the year category for Michaels’s “Issues.” He addresses President of the Recording Academy Neil Portnow and his recent comments about female artists needing to “step up.”
“When the statistics are that bad—in the last six years only nine percent of nominees for the Grammys have been women—and you make a comment like that, there has to be serious change and possible repercussions. Women have a right to be angry, and I’m angry too.”
Tranter says he spends most of his time making music with female musicians and relates to feminine narratives more. He has been advocating for more women to be involved in the songwriting and producing processes.
“If a song is being written for a woman, there should be a woman in the room collaborating,” he says. “Young women should be telling stories of other young women. And if the superstar who is an amazing storyteller isn’t a writer that’s totally fine, but we should get a young female writer in the room to work on that song with us. A young woman’s idea of sexuality shouldn’t be dictated by 45-year-old men.”
So far this year, Tranter has reunited with songwriting partner Michaels and started working with the Haim sisters, Janelle Monáe, newcomer Jess Kent, and Shea Diamond, a trans woman of color.
Tranter is on the board for GLAAD, so it isn’t surprising that he uses his social media platforms to address political and social issues. He says the biggest problem the LGBTQ community is facing during Trump’s presidency is erasure. He references the removal of LGBTQ rights page from the White House’s official website the first day of Trump’s presidency and the trans military ban. “There is just countless examples of them trying to act like we don’t exist which is a very, very successful way to take people’s power away and to make us unimportant and not equal. We are already not equal.”
“I think that everybody has a responsibility to speak out when our democracy is being threatened and I think our democracy is being threatened,” says Tranter, acknowledging that he understands why some musicians choose to not voice their political opinions. “I never want to say that musicians have to do anything,” he says. “If your dream was just to make songs, who am I to say. … It’s not a musician responsibility, I think it’s a human responsibility. Silence equals death.”