Are Your Songs Hitting the Right Target?
When I critique songs at my workshops, I always begin by asking the writers to share their intention for their song. For example, a song might be intended solely for self-expression or catharsis. Another song might be written by a performing songwriter to include on their own recording project, while another might be crafted in the hopes of placement with recording artists who do not exclusively write their own material, or for placement in television or films. Let’s examine the considerations that go into writing each one of these kinds of songs.
Songs Intended for Catharsis or Your Own Enjoyment
When we write these types of songs, we are creating for an audience of one. The sole requirement is that we leave our internal censors behind and compose melodies and lyrics that please us. Songs in this category do not need to employ the tools that help our songs make the leap from our own hearts to the hearts of potentially millions of listeners—although they might do so.
If songs in this category express the emotions we hope to convey and our work pleases us, we have achieved our goal. Those who have other hopes for their work have additional considerations.
Songs Written For Your Own Recording Project
Artists writing for their own recording projects (or for their own bands) have more latitude to incorporate abstract and non-literal lyrics in their songs than do those writers who hope other artists will record their work. The melodies and lyrics performing songwriters write, the musical forms they use, and the instrumentation they incorporate all contribute to making them instantly recognizable to fans. All of these elements, along with an artist’s visual image, the attitude they convey, and their vocal delivery play huge roles in conveying the artist’s or band’s persona. But nothing defines a musical act more than the songs they record. Ideally, the songs artists write for their own recording projects reflect those characteristics that are unique and distinctive about them.
There is a consistency—a thread that runs through the songs our most identifiable artists record, regardless of whether they wrote the songs. The music and lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s classic, “White Rabbit” (written by Grace Slick) were the perfect expression of the band’s psychedelic-influenced identity. Shania Twain’s “ Any Man of Mine” (written by Shania Twain and Robert “Mutt” Lange) was an ideal vehicle to project the artist’s image as a strong, confident woman. Other artists have become known for writing material that is inextricably intertwined with their image.
It can be effective to list those traits and characteristics that we choose to present to our audiences – those aspects of our personalities that we choose to amplify and present as our artist persona. Are you brash? Confident? Do you exude sexual energy? Do you have lots of swagger? Are you dark and edgy? Outrageous? Street-wise? Be sure the melodies and lyrics you write reflect the identity you hope to project.
Many artists tell me that their song is intended for their own recording project, but they would be thrilled if other artists recorded it. There are indeed instances where a song that is well-suited for its writer can work well for additional artists. But I advise artists to craft songs that exemplify the image they wish to present to their audience. If those songs can also be recorded by others, consider that to be a bonus.
Songs Intended For Outside Artists
Songs written for outside artists—those who do not exclusively write their own material— will likely include elements that are different from those found in songs an artist might write for themselves. The writers of songs intended to be pitched to others are tasked with achieving a delicate balance. Their songs need to tap into universal emotions and have melodies and musical accompaniments that can work perfectly for a variety of artists, without seeming generic.
Artists rarely record songs with non-literal, vague, or abstract lyrics—unless they write them for themselves. When writing for others, be sure your lyric makes perfect sense and conveys a concept that a variety of singers could step into and present as their own.
Most mainstream artists (i.e., pop, country, and R&B) are seeking breakthrough songs— songs that can establish them as a star or propel their career to a next level. The songs we write for acts who do not write their own material will likely need to be perceived as potential hit singles—not album cuts.
Recording artists who become successful, but do not write their own songs, likely have an exceptional voice. We need to give these singers melodies that showcase their vocal prowess and allow them to shine. So, when writing for others, don’t allow your own vocal limitations to restrict the melodies you write.
Songs Written for TV/Film
In some instances, a writer is asked to compose a song for a specific scene. In these cases, our job is to underscore the emotion of the scene— not tell the story. Details and information are conveyed by dialog and visual imagery, not by songs. For example, the lyrics for a song to accompany a scene in which firemen are rescuing people from a burning building, would likely best serve the picture by relating to courage, bravery, and selflessness—not smoke, flames, or fire.
Many writers compose and record songs in the hopes of licensing them for film/TV, but do not know the kinds of scenes in which their songs will ultimately be used. To accommodate the widest variety of uses, songs intended for sync licensing should avoid details that might contradict information depicted on screen. These include references to names, locations, seasons, holidays, and detailed descriptions of individuals. Assess whether mentioning a precise locale (i.e., the Empire State Building or the Tennessee State Fair) is critical to your song. In some instances, it might be. But in many cases, you can substitute a less specific location. For example:
A lyric that includes, “We were chilling that Christmas on the beach in Cancun” will have more opportunities for placements if it stated, “We were making memories with our toes in the sand.” Similarly, describing a man as having “ocean blue eyes and a sexy cleft in his chin,” will limit a song’s use. A more general description such as, “He was hotter than a heatwave,” is less likely to eliminate the song being appropriate for a variety of scenes.
We need to walk a tightrope, avoiding information that can exclude our song from a wide variety of scenes, while still having the lyric be unique, fresh, and strong enough to rise above the competition. Listen to “Bad Things” (written and recorded by Jace Everett), which played over the opening credits of HBO’s vampire drama True Blood. Note that the writer included highly original imagery—without including specific details that might have eliminated the song from applying to a wide variety of scenarios.
By identifying our hopes and intentions for our songs, we can guide them to have the best shot of successfully hitting their targets.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His 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.
CommunityConnect with BMI & Professional Songwriters