I posed this burning question to ten music industry pros in the hopes of identifying the common denominators found in those songs that leap out of the proverbial pile and demand that an artist record them. Here are the answers I received …
1. “What makes an artist say ‘I HAVE to cut that song’ is a question I ask myself everyday. I personally feel most people, artists included, are first attracted by the melody but then you have to sell them with the lyrics. Like most of us, an artist is looking for a song that touches them, but on top of that they want one they can sell, one that is authentic and believable coming from them. When you can put a catchy melody with the right lyrics and the artist hears it at the right time…then they say, I have to cut this song!”
—Tim Hunze, Partner, Parallel Music Publishing
2. “Today many artists are also writers or co-writers of their songs. So, first of all, they must feel it is a song that is better or different than what they are writing. It must have such an emotional impact on the artist that it is, to them, an undeniable hit song with a message they can’t wait to share with their fans. A classic example of this is Miranda’s recording of “The House That Built Me,” written by Tom Douglas and Alan Shamblin. Though Miranda is a wonderful writer, she had the wisdom to realize she was hearing a message that is personal yet universal, something with emotional pull that everyone can relate to. I believe the resulting popularity of it truly expanded her fan base.”
—Woody Bomar, President, Green Hills Music Group
3. “Great pop/rock singers (who don’t/can’t write their own songs) invariably want a song they can ‘inhabit.’ A limited few great singers want to act the character in the song (outside of show-songs singers that is). Good songs, like good poems, are a direct connection to a truth.
So as songwriters we must write songs from our own unique perspective on the human condition. The more unique that perspective - the more clear is our relationship to it!
Few people care to identify with the greyness of life, we all want to be ‘jerked’ back into meaningful life by the extraordinary - or the sudden clarity of an ‘original view.’ This can only happen if, as with most things in life - you make sure that you say what you mean… and - you mean what you say!”
—Rupert Hine (Producer, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner, Rush, Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik, The Fixx, Howard Jones …)
4. “The main things: The lyric strikes a personal chord; the lyric/melody matches exactly what the feel is they are going for on the new project; and … it’s so different and fresh that they have never heard a song like it before.”
—Tom Luteran, VP/ Creative, Sony/ATV Music Publishing
5. “When you get down to that most basic level of connection between an artist and a song, it’s always hard to identify exactly what triggers the reaction. I do think that with most artists, it’s less of a commercial judgment (that’s for the label A&R to make) than an emotional one.
In general, I think it’s one of three elements—or even better, two or three of those elements in one song. An empowering lyric is very important—probably more so to the artist than even the audience. An artist wants to sing something that resonates with them emotionally, that captures their view of the world, and that ultimately casts them as a strong figure, not a victim. Angry and defiant is okay—but sad and wounded is usually not.
Similarly, an artist will always want a melody that feels like it was made for their voice, meaning it sits easily in their range, plays to their strengths as a singer, and falls into their natural phrasing. They need to feel great singing the song. Lastly, I think most artists gravitate to a musical sound that is unique or surprising. Again, A&R people tend to want a track or production that sounds like another currently popular song, but artists are much less interested in that. They want something that will surprise their audience and stand out.
The key to making artists fall in love with your song is to really immerse yourself in their music and even in their life. It means understanding how they phrase, what their range is, and what kinds of things they sing about. But it also means having some idea of what subjects are important to them, what’s happening in their lives or careers, and how they’d like to be seen.”
—Eric Beall, V.P. A&R, Shapiro Bernstein/author of Making Music Make Money and The Billboard Guide to Writing and Producing Songs That Sell
6. “I think the song has to resonate to them. It has be personal. It has to move them. And then they have to hear themselves singing it, believing that no one else can.”
—Butch Baker, Senior VP of Creative Services, HoriPro Entertainment
7. “First of all it has to have some kind of melodic appeal that catches you right away. That keeps you interested enough to hear the rest of the song. It’s gotta have some kind of a hook—that catchy melody; or that play on words that makes you kind of bend your ear and say, ‘What is this song about?’
Then you have to have some kind of meat. I think the best example I can think of at the moment is my single, ‘Yeah.’ That has the most catchy opening line of the chorus of any song I’ve probably ever had, and it follows up with the second line of the chorus that’s a really cool kind of artistic play on the melody, and a really cool lyric. So it hooks you in then it keeps you in with the art. That’s what we look for in a song.
It’s a really, really hard kind of balance to find, which is the balance of art and commerce that I look for. It’s got to have the commercial appeal to hook you in – and the art to drive it home.”
—Joe Nichols, Red Bow Records recording artist with (14) top-40 country singles including (4) #1’s and (5) additional top-10’s.
8. “For an artist to record a song there has to be a strong connection to the lyric. A story they can relate to—like anyone who listens to a song. There needs to be a melodic hook that is undeniable and unforgettable. Both have to make an impact through familiarity as well as having an original and unique approach. Having the artists in the room while you are writing will raise your chances of a cut by a hundred fold!”
—Richard Harris, #1 Billboard and platinum selling songwriter & producer
9. “I think first and foremost the lyric has to relate to the artist. If they can’t sing it and make the audience believe it, then they might as well not even exert the effort of recording it. Secondly, it has to relate to the audience. This could be lyrically or melodically. Something that moves the listener.”
—Juli Griffith, VP of Publishing, Magic Mustang Music
10. “I think everybody’s looking for that breath of fresh air—which is a really tall order. You want to grab somebody’s attention and make them say, ‘Wow. Not only have I never heard anything like that, I think it’s really commercial.’ It’s really a combination of a song that resonates with the artist in some way—and they think that when they play it, a lot of people are going to love it.
When I heard “The House That Built Me,” I couldn’t think of a song I’d ever heard like that, but anyone who’s ever moved—even one time—can relate to it. And there’s so much detail in the lyric: the handprints on the front steps; the favorite dog buried in the yard … Terry Wakefield never gave up on that song for eight years.
You’re looking for that sweet spot right there; something that will mean a lot to the artist, but will also translate out to a lot of people, too.”
—Dale Bobo, Big Deal Music Nashville
So … what are the factors that compel an artist to choose one song over all the rest? The consensus seems to be that there has to be an exceptional, fresh melody attached to a lyric that not only resonates personally with the artist, but also makes them believe the song will impact their audiences. It needs to have an element of freshness—a new angle, melodically and/or lyrically—that sets it apart, while still being perceived as something that will have commercial appeal.
That said, our job as songwriters and publishers is to find unique melodies and lyrics that tap into universal emotions to which recording artists—and their audiences—will feel a deep connection.
Jason Blume’s songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). In the past year he’s had three top-10 singles and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
His songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ it Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more.
Jason authored three of the best selling songwriting books, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting, and is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s latest books, instructional audio CDs, and workshops visit www.jasonblume.com.