Ever have a problem getting started, or “in the mood” for writing? Here’s a suggestion: go on an idea search. Like look around at everything around you and do a little exercise. Ask yourself if you could write a song about every item you see. Some things would be silly, others would be ridiculous, but that’s the point. If you write even a silly song for practice, you might be surprised at what it turns out to be.
You know, Brad Paisley writes a lot of songs that may seem silly to begin with, then turn out to be hits. Take his song “Camouflage.” If you stop and think about it, he wrote this about a really silly situation. Could you ever imagine writing lyrics like,
“Well, I asked Jenny to the prom and her mom knew how to sew , So she made a matching tux and gown from Duck Blind Mossy Oak”
Sure, it’s silly, but hey, folks, a lotta people liked it when Brad sang in on the radio. And it made us kinda jealous that he released it as a single and not our “Toothbrush,” which was on the same album as Camo, and which I thought had a silly title when it was first submitted to us by writer Danny Simpson.
So just hang loose and try different things. But be like the pros and schedule a time to write, then keep to the schedule. If you wait ’til some super inspiration comes to you out of the blue, writing will stay on the back burner and it’ll be difficult to get around to it.
Listen To The Radio
One of the most important tips heard from hit songwriters in Nashville is “listen.”
That means listen very carefully to the songs you hear on radio.
Many professionals recommend that you record songs from the radio, play them back and copy down the lyrics. It’s probably even better if you buy the top 10 songs in your favorite genre, so you can listen and get totally familiar with what’s hot. These days, you can download the lyrics you need to save the time of copying. Compare them with what you’re writing and see how you measure up.
It makes a very interesting study. Because, while a writer may have an excellent idea, and write it very well, it would be difficult to get a cut on a tune that’s so far out of the mainstream that a producer, artist or radio can’t relate to it.
Everybody throughout the music chain wants hits. And it’s much easier to hear a hit in context with what’s currently being played on radio.
It’s the middle of rush hour traffic. You’re stuck in the car, guzzling coffee, when BAM! It hits you. Inspiration strikes and you are completely unprepared. How many times has that illusive hook hit you while you were on the road, at the DMV or in the shower? It happens all the time. And every time you tell yourself that this will be the time that you start carrying around a recorder or attach a Post-It note to your forehead. Yet, you never seem to make good on your promise.
Inspiration is what makes a songwriter a songwriter. It fuels the creative spirit, drives the starving artist, and produces some amazing work. So why do so many of us risk losing the best of it while we are going through the motions of daily life? Ideas are precious gems that need to be protected and polished to bring out their beauty. If you dropped a diamond down in the sink, you would probably immediately try to retrieve it. So why not prevent “dropping” or losing your thoughts by being ready to catch them?
You don’t need the latest and greatest in sound recording technology to capture your brilliance. All you need these days is a smartphone and a recording app. Not into recording? More of a lyric writer? Then go to your local drugstore and pick up a spiral bound notebook for .50¢. The point is, there are many ways to capture your insight. I’ve often found that a beverage napkin at my local watering hole works well. Whatever works for you, just get it down somehow.
“It was actually this little tape recorder with rainbow buttons and a Rainbow Brite sticker. It was very exciting because I loved that recorder. So that was what I made my demos on – not that I sent that to record companies! I just recorded it so that I had a memory of all the stuff that I had been doing, and then I wanted to see how far I could go with it all.” – Anna Nalick, Columbia Records Artist, Songwriter Universe Magazine
Have a pen and paper within arms reach whenever possible, make a deal with yourself that no matter what you’re doing, you will stop and capture that thought before it gets away from you. Keep your smartphone in the console of your car to catch those inklings that can only be brought on by miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper congestion. You will be amazed how many more lyric and song ideas will come about just by trapping some of your mind’s wanderings when it least expects it.
Hooks Make Hits
If you as a songwriter aren’t paying attention to hooks when you write, it’s time you re-thought how you work. Most writers are familiar with the “hook.” It’s the part of a song usually repeated over and over — the phrase that listeners sing along with and remember most about the song. Hooks are super important in creating radio hits, and as the following points out, important when it comes to getting your music in film and on television.
One of the prime sources of income from songs is that earned from synch arrangements. “Synch” is short for synchronize, the process of using music in film, videos, commercials, etc. Income from “synchs” comes from two sources: fees from the rights granted to use the music and performance royalties paid when the synched music is played on radio and television.
A great example is The Black Keys, an Alternative band who records in Nashville. According to Billboard, the group gets about one synch offer each day, both for new music and older material. Black Keys manager John Peets of Q Prime South, who handles the requests in-office, describes the volume of licensing inquiries as “shocking.”
“They write such strong hooks… that’s why they’ve been successful with licensing,” Peets says. “Most people think about synchs in terms of complete songs, but really, it’s more about which 30-second snippets will work.”
So the “hook” works not only to gain radio popularity, but to get into the lucrative business of providing music for television, film, etc.
The hook and the title are often the same thing, which means that the hook, the title and the idea for a song could start out together and combine to make a powerful impression for the songs that make hits and go on to be recorded and synched many times. So when you come up with an idea, try it on as a title (untitled is not an option). And make sure it works well when repeated several times as part of a chorus.
Be aware of it. Pay attention to it whenever you write. If you use them well, listeners will pay much more attention to your songs.
Pick A Great Title
This is not about how to write a song, but it could have a lot to do with whether a song gets noticed: PICK A GREAT TITLE! Is that important? You better believe it. A song with a hot or intriguing title is more likely to be picked from a large pile on an A&R exec’s desk and listened to with great interest.
Put yourself in the position of a music pro listening for material for a major artist, He/she has hundreds of songs to go through. I hate to tell you this, but the process can get boring. That is, until something unique comes along. And that usually starts with a notable title.
Get the picture: suddenly a CD surfaces that has a title like “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not.” Bingo. Anybody would be eager to listen to that. Definitely not the moment to take a break and listen later. We’re talking, of course, about the major hit for Thompson Square… the one that super-charged their career.
Now feature seeing a title like “How John Rode the Bus to Town.” Whoa. Why would anybody be excited to listen to that? You say nobody would use a title like that? You wouldn’t believe what we see. And maybe you’re asking, “what’s in a title? Isn’t it the song that counts?” Of course it is. But why hang a boring title on any song, when it’s much more likely to be noticed with a title that’s interesting.
Some writers who started by writing poetry sometimes want to use “untitled.” We always recommend that you look through the song and find something that gets attention. While a well-known poet may get interest from followers by publishing an untitled poem, using that title in music is going to get you a big ho-hum. From us, it’ ll get the advice, “name it.” In fact a member of our creative team once wrote piece called “name your baby” to make his point.
Ideally, the title should be a part of the idea and the hook of the song. That way the most memorable line in the song, the hook, matches the title to make the whole song more outstanding. That way the whole package makes the song more memorable, and the more memorable a song is, the more likely it is to become a hit and even a standard that gets played for years. Like Craig Martin’s “Don’t Take The Girl.” We mention Craig because our publisher partner, ParMusic Group has published more than 30 of his songs.
Bottom line: think great titles. That’ll almost guarantee a great starting point for your next song. And a better song.
Songs Too Long
One of the most frequent problems we see in songs is length. Songs that are too long.
What’s too long? A song that runs much over 4 minutes. Most songs recorded in Nashville run between 3 and 4 minutes. Yes, there are some over 4 and even a rare 5 here and there. But rare doesn’t usually work in a new songwriter’s favor.
So how do you shorten? Usually as you re-write. There is a temptation to put in every thought you have on a subject, and far over-explain what your thoughts are.
To shorten, go through a song and take out everything that’s not necessary. In other words, once you’ve said something, don’t try to explain or say it another way.
If it seems tough to cut, keep in mind that it’s even tougher to get an artist to record one that’s too long. The fear is that radio won’t play it. And they might not.
Presenting Your Music
It may be an understatement to say that how you write is important.
But it’s not an overstatement to say that how you present your writing to music professionals is equally important.
Sending something that looks messy to a publisher for example is almost sure to get you rejected. They go through a lot of material, and don’t have much faith in people who won’t take the time and care to make sure what they send out looks professional.
Always buy name-brand and use a clean label. Labels are available at office supply stores. If the appropriate material isn’t readily available where you live, we can furnish it at professional.
Two Real-Life Lessons for Songwriters
First lesson: You’ve probably read stories of how some hit songs come together quickly – in a few minutes, maybe – or at least less than an hour. Then other songs take a while. A writer works off and on for weeks, or maybe even months to take a song from idea to finished work. We recently talked about a current hit song that took years to write.
It’s a simple song. So simple that a lot of people might think a songwriter must have whipped it out in minutes, did a small demo, pitched it to a star, it got recorded, made a hit, and the whole thing probably got wrapped up in a month or so. Not.
The song is called “The House That Built Me.” Number one on the charts for four weeks, and the rare kind of song that every songwriter wishes he/she had written. Not because of the money a hit song brings, but because it’s just such a perfectly written song. Simple lyrics, simple melody, and delivered very low key by Miranda Lambert.
Simple song, but not so simple in its effects. It’s a song every writer in Nashville hears for the first time and immediately says, “Dang! (or some such expletive) That’s so obvious. I could’ve written that, why didn’t I?” Kind of like the Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffet song “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” written by Nashville songsmiths Jim “Moose” Brown and Don Rollins. The kind of song everybody on Music Row talks about for weeks.
So how long did such a simple song as “The House” take from idea to hit? Try six years. As Wall Street Journal writer John Jurgesen gets it down from interviews in Nashville, “The House That Built Me,” gestated for six years, starting when co-writer Allen Shamblin mentioned a line he’d read somewhere: “We don’t build houses, they build us.”*
And therin lies the heart of the first lesson. As Songwriter/Artist Billy Dean (“Somewhere in My Broken Heart,” “Let Them Be Little”) once said to me, “The main reason most songwriters don’t make it is they give up too soon.”
Second lesson: Recently we sent out a songwriter alert asking for submissions of songs we could pitch to Blake Shelton. The response? Overwhelming. About a thousand songs in just a few days. Our A&R team worked overtime to go through each and every one of them. But there was a major problem. Very few of the songs were anything close to what we could pitch to Blake Shelton.
Not that you folks didn’t send some good songs. They just weren’t something Blake Shelton would do. We got some that were something like his recent hits, but too much so. Artists don’t do the same thing twice in a row. Many were songs that others might do, but no writers seemed to want to hear that.
The Lesson? The experience told us once again why Artists, labels and producers refuse to even listen to songs from writers they don’t know. It’s the familiar story: “No unsolicited material accepted.” Or as Big Machine Records puts it in the submission requests they make, “Provided as a service for professional publishers only”
So why do writers just overwhelm the pros with non-relevent material? Because they have some hope they might get lucky… that the songs they have might get cut. After all every writer thinks his/her songs are good. And we might agree. But not every good song is appropriate for every artist. Like some writers who come to us think we should pitch every one of their songs to every record label and every artist.
But that’s called shotgunning. And people in the music business hate it. If we did that, it wouldn’t take long for everybody to stop listening to anything we sent them.
So we take the time to listen carefully. Not just to a song, but to what an artist wants. Matching songs with artists is key. Does it happen perfectly every time? No, of course not. Not with any publisher. Just look at the odds: A major star putting out a request for songs when an album project is coming up will probably get a thousand carefully screened songs. But only a dozen or so can make it.
But don’t let that be disheartening. Everything in life is that way. Success usually takes a lot of trying. If it didn’t, everybody would be an instant success.
The Successful Songwriter’s Most Important Asset
It may be a broad jump to pick out one trait to call the most important of all when it comes to songwriting. Get a group of emerging songwriters together and the conversation often centers on how to come up with song ideas, writing effective lyrics, whether a song needs a bridge and dozens of other opinions on the “craft” of writing as some call it.
But we find that most songwriters who don’t make it, have one major fault in common. And it’s not about writing skills. It is, quite simply, not sticking to it. They quit too soon. The ones who do make it keep on trying. And that’s not a trait exclusive to songwriting.
Edison faced hundreds of disappointments before he finally succeeded in making a simple light bulb that worked. Lincoln was Mr. Failure himself, year after year. But he refused to quit, became president and changed history.
Now, let’s get real about songwriting. It is a challenge. Many great songs are turned down by major artists time after time before they get recorded. If it were as simple as a hit artist saying, “That’s a great song, therefore I’ll record it ,” life in the music business would be simple. But the song at hand must fit what the artist wants to do, fit the project at hand, be relevant to what the artist wants to accomplish, and dozens of other qualifications. That’s why an artist may pass on a song today, but decide to record it two years later.
Curb recording artist and awesome songwriter, Billy Dean, called us recently. Wanted to talk with us about our helping a friend of his get started in songwriting. Of course we were happy to help. Billy may even co-write with his friend when he gets a good grounding on what it takes to succeed. So we had a long-ranging conversation with Billy about the important things songwriters should know. Billy should know.
We agreed that the greatest problem facing songwriters is that they give up too soon. We asked Billy if he thought the first song he ever wrote was great. The answer was an emphatic NO!
“Did the first song you pitched get recorded?” Again a resounding no. “You gotta keep trying,” he said.
Actually, everybody in the music business has known this for years. There are times when a song becomes a one-hit wonder right away. But it’s rare. And the moral to the story, is don’t dare quit because your first few songs don’t hit right away.
A Q&A – Songwriters Are Asking:
Q: My wife and I are looking for a songwriting deal but we feel that in order to convey what we have to offer, we should be the ones performing on the demo and not studio musicians. Is that possible?
A: Of course it’s possible, and we get that question a lot. But here’s the thing: Nashville demo singers and musicians are experts at making a song sound the way it should in order to impress the stars you’re trying to reach. Even top pro songwriters get a group of professional DEMO performers to do their demos. Even most big stars have studio musicians play on their records instead of the bands that play live with them. It’s a world of specialists. And while you may want to come to Nashville to record on your own sometime, just to check it out, we highly recommend that you leave the professional demos to the professional demo specialists, whether we or someone else provides them for you.
Note: If you decide to try a do-it-yourself version, be prepared to pay more, simply because it takes more time and effort to set up a non-standard session.
Q. Does it matter how old I am? Its just I’ve sent some lyrics before I got this letter about the “competition,” which costs $20 but does that mean because I’ve sent some lyrics I’ve entered and have got to pay?
A. No. The competitions are entirely separate. Many writers choose to have us help with their writing and provide services for that, but aren’t interested in song contests. And that’s OK. Your age doesn’t matter either. It’s just that anyone under 18 must have the permission of a parent or guardian to participate in anything more than a song or lyric contest.
Q. My biggest fear is that someone sees/hears my lyrics, and doesn’t exactly copy them, but uses them in pieces, and then I have no options in terms of lawsuits or ever being compensated. Is this a logical, rational fear or not? Should I start sending my music out or just keep writing for fun?
A. The same “pieces,” or phrases often appear in many different songs. In fact, Nashville’s music trade magazine, Music Row, has an annual feature pointing out examples of just that. But the thing is, that doesn’t hurt either song’s prospects or copyright ownership. The rub comes in when somebody lifts a substantial portion of a song and puts it in another. That’s when it becomes actionable in court. But it usually doesn’t go to court. Once a conflict arises, it’s usually worked out long before it gets to court.
Example: Toby Keith found he had inadvertently used an idea and turned out a song very similar to one written by a songwriter that writes for our co-owned music publisher, ParMusic Group. As soon as the situation became apparent, Toby immediately agreed to compensate the writers. So don’t worry about somebody stealing parts of your work. Once it gets to the professional level, everybody respects writers and their rights. If every writer worried about your concern, no songs would ever get to the point of being recorded. And you might waste a great song’s potential by not trying.