Seven long years passed from the time I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my songwriting dreams until one of my songs appeared on one of the Billboard charts. That song only reached #63. It would be four-and-a-half more years before I’d have a song in the top 10.
I have earned my living as a writer for more than twenty-five years and below are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
Write Songs That Have an Outlet
For years, I wrote songs that I would now categorize as singer/songwriter, folk, or Americana songs. I was certain my songs were better than most of the hits I heard on the radio. So, I was frustrated and perplexed when time after time, publishers failed to sign my self-proclaimed masterpieces.
I did not take into account that publishers are in business. To keep their gigs, they need songs that generate money; songs that sound like radio hits; songs they believe they can place with artists who do not write their material; songs that open the door to setting up collaborations between their writers and successful artists and/or record producers. Publishers might also seek songs they believe they can license for placement in television shows and films.
The songs I was writing might have worked well if my goal had been to be a recording artist releasing my own material. But I wanted other artists to record my songs.
The problem with writing songs that are “better” than those on the radio and at the top of the streaming charts is that we need to write songs that sounds like they belong on the same playlists as the current hits. Our songs need to be fresh and unique while still sounding consistent with the successful songs in the genres we are targeting.
In my workshops, I sometimes review songs that sound like they could have been hits in a previous era. Some of these country songs sound tailor-made for Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, or Conway Twitty. Their pop counterparts sometimes sound like they belonged on an album by iconic artists such as the Association, the Supremes, the Four Seasons, or the Righteous Brothers. The problem is not that the songs aren’t strong—it’s that there are no successful artists currently recording in these styles.
For some songwriters, writing from the heart produces songs that are perfectly suited for today’s market. This was not the case for me. I needed to study and emulate the structures, melodies, chord changes, grooves, and productions that were propelling songs to the top of the charts, if that is where I wanted to be. In many cases, I could shape my songs to fit the styles that were in vogue without altering the essence of the song. When I began delivering the kinds of songs that publishers believed they could place, I began signing contracts and getting my songs recorded—instead of complaining that no one was recognizing my talent.
Get Feedback Before Investing in a Recording
The songs that are some of the toughest for me to critique at my workshops are those that sound great— until I place them under the proverbial microscope. These recordings sound so good because the writer has invested considerable amounts of time and money to produce a demo recording that meets the high industry standard.
In some instances, the writers have hired top-notch studio musicians, vocalists, and engineers who know how to capture radio-friendly performances. In other instances, they have spent countless hours to produce demo recordings in home studios equipped with the latest gear.
To the layman, a great demo can easily be mistaken for a great song. Catchy licks, awesome vocals, a hot band, and a well-engineered recording can evoke effusive praise from family and friends. But almost all of the songs produced by pro writers and submitted by music publishers have demo recordings that include these elements; they are the industry standard.
Professionals, such as music publishers, producers, and record label executives assess the underlying song. No amount of embellishment can overcome a weak lyric or a melody that fails to stick in listeners’ brains.
It seems that the more time and money we spend on a demo, and the better it sounds, the less likely we are to acknowledge the song’s weaknesses—or revise it. Why spend considerable time and money only to be told that a song would benefit from some serious surgery?
We need a great demo and a great song to rise above the competition.
The time to seek professional feedback is before investing time and money in a demo recording.
Produce Better Demos
I assumed that listeners would be able to hear the hit potential of my songs regardless of the quality of my demo recordings. I was able to imagine how my songs would sound if they had the groove I imagined; if they included background vocals; if they featured hooky musical licks and different grooves, and if the vocal and instrumental performances were up to the industry standards.
Can’t music industry professionals be able to do the same? The answer is a loud and resounding, “No.” Our listeners are not mind-readers.
When I screened songs as a production coordinator and an A & R assistant, in most instances, the overwhelming volume of songs I needed to review made it impossible for me to envision how a song might sound if the demo had been produced differently. It either sounded like a hit—or it didn’t.
To give my songs the best chance of rising above the competition, my demos needed to demo-nstrate the potential of my songs. While in many cases, it was sufficient to produce slow songs with only a guitar or a keyboard and vocal, songs that relied on a groove needed to be more fully produced.
At my songwriting workshops, over the years I have shared demos of songs that went on to become hits. In the vast majority of cases, those demos clearly laid out the road map for the producer and artist to follow.
At the beginning of my songwriting pursuit, I sang the vocals on my demos, and in many cases, I played the guitar. It would be generous to call me a mediocre guitarist. I’m a pretty good singer, but I was rarely the best singer for the songs I recorded. My vocals lean toward the Americana or singer/songwriter categories. But I was writing country, R & B, rock, and pop songs. I needed to hire the musicians and vocalists who could best convey how my songs might sound on the radio.
Demos that are not up to the industry standard send a signal from the first note that the songs have come from an amateur. When I began hiring pro session players and vocalists my songs began to get noticed.
Have a Marketing Plan Before Recording
I can’t count how many aspiring recording artists I’ve taught who have invested tens of thousands of dollars to produce albums—only to find those recordings gathering dust. Back in the day when CDs were the primary mode of distributing music these artists ordered 1,000 CDs, the minimum order. When asked how they planned to sell them, the typical response was, “I’ll place it on my website and on Amazon, and I’ll do a video for YouTube.” Boxes of these CDs wound up in basements, attics, storage units, and trash bins.
With Amazon offering more than 100 million songs, the chances of listeners randomly finding yours is literally one in a 100 million. Similarly, those posting videos on YouTube have more than 300 million other videos vying for attention.
Before spending money to produce recordings, cover artwork, and videos, formulate a plan for promoting the product. This might include scheduling a tour, during which you will sell product at your shows; media promotion, such as newspaper articles and local television and radio appearances; and a strategy for getting your music “discovered” on social media platforms such as YouTube, and on playlists.
Companies such as Rise (https://rise.la) work with artists, record labels and music publishers to get their music played on Spotify, YouTube and Instagram. Click on How to Get Your Music on Playlists: Demystifying the Process to learn more about this process.
Producing awesome music is crucial—but it is not enough.
Seek the Right Collaborators
I’ve heard it said that putting two writers together to collaborate is quite different from breeding championship thoroughbreds. Combining the genetic stock of winning horses is likely to produce offspring that possess the qualities of a winner. But this is not necessarily the case with songwriters. I’ve written mediocre songs with some extraordinarily gifted writers—writers who created iconic songs and collected GRAMMY awards. Of course, the songs were perfectly crafted; there was nothing wrong with them, but the magic just wasn’t there.
There is no way to predict with whom that elusive chemistry will emerge. Of course, I needed to work with writers who brought out the best in me creatively. But it was also important to work with writers who could contribute to getting the songs recorded. In some instances, these were recording artists or record producers. In other cases, these writers were signed to well-connected publishers.
This lesson was hammered home when I wrote with the late A.J. Masters during my first visit to Nashville. A.J. was signed to a music publishing company; I was not. On my own, I had limited opportunities to pitch our song—and even less credibility. But A.J.’s publisher had the connections and ability to get through those all-important doors, and one of those doors led to our song being recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys.
Writing with a recording artist, producer, or someone else “inside” a project can certainly provide an edge. The same is true for writing with a writer signed to a successful publishing company. But these advantages won’t be enough to get you across the finish line unless the pairing results in a very strong song. Ideally, we will find collaborators who tick off both the creative and business boxes.
I hope my experiences and some of the lessons I learned along the road to songwriting success can help expedite your journey and make it even more lucrative.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His latest book, Happy Tails—Life Lessons from Rescued Cats and Kittens (SPS/Blue Mountain Arts) combines his love of photography and cats. Jason’s songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on https://tinyurl.com/yckat6fc. Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song critiques. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.