SONGWRITING Q&A: ASK ME ANYTHING!

Got a Burning Songwriting Question?
Simply drop me a note here, and I'll get back to you "as ASAP as possible."

Has It All Been Said and Done (and Written?)

Blaine asks this question:

 

What can a songwriter do to write something unique? Everything seems to have been written...

 

Here's what I wrote back:

 

I've often wondered myself if "it's all been said and done," or written and sung as the case may be.

 

First, tell me this: when you fall in love, does that rush of emotion hit you the same way it does me? When you feel hurt, or inspired, or mad as hell, is your experience exactly like anyone else's? Your best friend, your hometown, your point of view... they all seem unique and precious to you, don't they? The same goes for your musical background, your relationship to the language, and your sense of rhythm and harmony.

 

In short, we each look at the world through our own prism, our own filter. Personally I wouldn't trade mine for the world! So when you sit down to write a song, don't edit out the aspects of it that express YOU. Dig into those particular angles, those quirks, those perspectives that reflect your truth and your identity. Relish the thought of baring your soul, which is admittedly scarier and more difficult than grabbing for the nearest cliché. I firmly believe that the Universal is present in the Particulars of your personal experience. It's a paradox, but it works wonders.

 

Great songs might share underlying concepts, but it's the way those ideas are colored, shaped and delivered that makes them worth a listen. It's like cooking: we all share a common set of ingredients, but we each cook them up differently. (Unless you're eating at McDonald's, I guess.)

 

If you want to test this, write 3 pages non-stop, non-judgementally, spontaneously, sparked by something you truly care about. Don't even question whether what you're writing would "make a good song." Just express your passion without reserve, for 10 or 15 minutes. Don't cross anything out, just go for it. Silence your critical left-brain voice for a while, so you can really discover what you have to say.

 

Later on, go back and circle any words, phrases, ideas or images that strike you as particularly real or true. Maybe there's the seed of a song in there. Maybe not, but keep spilling yourself onto the page, (or into your recording device) until you find that magical something that's aching, yearning to come out. That's where the gold lies.This exercise is one I use to break out of "blocks" myself. It really works!

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On Demo Quality and Creating Relationships

 

Pamela had 2 great questions on these subjects:

 

Do songs being sent in to a publisher for evaluation (for possibly a single/song contract) need to be professionally recorded? Meaning, a high quality production? I am told that uptempo songs should. It seems strange to me to spend all this money on a professional demo and then be told by the publisher a new one needs to be made. That's double money going out for one song.

 

Her second question is:

 

How do you get a referral to a publisher in the first place? If you're an outside writer, with no success yet, but own hundreds of original songs with over half of them being potential hits? Do you think just telling a publisher that, they would be interested in at least listening to a few of your songs?

 

Here's what I wrote back:

 

My personal experience tells me that it's best to narrow your material down to the very best, most commercial, "one-listen" radio-ready songs, then demo them to the hilt.

 

Unless you know a business person extremely well and they have better-than-average "ears," don't expect them to extrapolate out from a rough or minimal demo. In a perfect world, sure, People Behind Desks can imagine a full production from a guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo... but that's not generally how it works in the real world.

 

It is very expensive, but if you're committed to your craft, you'll be able to use even one amazing demo of a great song as your calling card in the business. Everyone — publishers, producers, other writers, managers — will know from that one demo that you have talent and take yourself seriously. Then they'll take you seriously as well. This is truly a business based on "who you know." That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just reality. If you have communication skills along with your songwriting talents, over time you'll be able to develop personal relationships with publishers, lawyers, collaborators etc. That's how I've gotten almost every song cut: by knowing someone who needs a good song.

 

You have to make a long-term, consistent effort to get out there and meet successful people in your genre(s) of music. Join the organizations, attend the conferences, go to the gigs and showcases. Participate, don't isolate. The music business is a small world of passionate, successful people, surrounded by a lot of hacks. You have to prove you're not one of the latter!

 

Personally, if I've demo'd a song in a style that is currently "on the radio," I don't usually have to demo it again. But I try to make sure that the demo is done up right, with top quality singers, players and engineers. This often means recording it in NY, Nashville or LA, or digging up great people elsewhere. I spend $800 - $1500 a song. A good reason to be sure the song holds up as a piano/vocal or guitar/vocal first, right!?

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Writing Alone... After Collaborating Forever

Jan has this question:

 

I have been writing with other people for so many years, that when I sit down to write by myself I feel like there is someone or something missing. How do I just write and complete a song by myself?

 

Here's my response:

 

Because this is an issue I run up against often, I find myself digging back into my best moments as a solo songwriter for guidance. I've had about 100+ collaborators in the past 23 years since I started co-writing. One of my hits was written alone... and that’s about it!

 

First off, I'd ask you to honestly evaluate what your strong suits and weak suits are, and consciously work to improve those weak spots.

 

  • Do you write great melodies, tell great stories, come up with cool chord progressions, hooks or instrumental riffs? (Or not.)

  • Are your lyrics fresh and emotionally pungent, or do your play it safe and keep your distance?

  • Do your songs all start to sound the same after a while?

  • Do you need to study your instrument(s), read a lyric-writing book, take music theory, or otherwise improve your skills?

 

Whatever the answers to those questions are, note that being self-critical while in the process of writing is like slamming the brakes on just when the flow is getting started. That sounds like it's happening for you. For me, what works is immersing myself in the puddle (or the waterfall) of my own emotional truth, then channeling whatever comes out NON-STOP. In other words, don't let that lonesome non-collaborative feeling stop you. It might just be the voice of terror: you're getting too close to the bone!

 

The best songs I've written alone were coming from very real places in my gut. So take risks, soak up inspiration from great songs (without ever ripping them off, mind you), let the emotion of it all roll you over. Plus, remember these words: "Dare to suck." In other words, let yourself fail and flail and write really badly! For every 10 songs I write, maybe one is worth being recorded by someone. Those other 10 are so necessary to the process, though, even if just to teach me (again) what doesn't work.

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When Should a Songwriter Contact Managers?

Here's Susan's question:

 

What is the best way to contact management for artists for whom you think your songs are best suited?

 

Here's what I wrote back:

 

In my experience, the lion's share of the work needs to be done before that moment when you actually send the song out.

 

First of all you have to have written songs that sound like they'll be hit singles, because the only time artists or managers seem to look beyond their inner circle for material is when they're lacking in those obvious one-listen, hit-you-over-the-head, radio-ready type songs. Often a record label's constant refrain is "we don't hear a single," and that's where the outside songwriter can come in and save the day. If you have songs that are truly that strong, and are demo'd so well that they are interchangeable with what's on the radio (or in a movie, or on TV, etc.), then you probably have a shot!

 

My other question would be this: have you made sure that the acts you're approaching are open to cutting outside songs? These days it seems like 90% of successful acts either write or co-write their material, often with the producer. So some research into each particular project is always a good idea. So let's say you've got the songs, and have your eyes on particular acts. Now what?

 

Well, in my experience you usually have to "know someone on the inside." Are you out there participating in the music business? Are you a member of the various national and local songwriters' and performers' organizations? Do you attend industry events, showcases and awards ceremonies? Do you have a presence in the social scene that surrounds the types of music you write and enjoy? Do you know a lawyer, publisher, collaborator or producer who can provide an introduction to you and/or your material?

 

It's been true for me that most of my successes have come about because I spent years cultivating relationships with actual warm-blooded people who respect me and like my songs. Then they spread the word, and I gradually worked my way up the musical food chain. It's not the silver bullet theory, but rather a series of small events. Like Woody Allen said, 95% of life is just showing up. If you're showing up anywhere and everywhere with your great songs, and then "working the room," you're much more likely to get them to successful artists, managers, etc.

 

Of course the other way to go is to look up names and addresses in a directory and try to do it that way. I call this the Shotgun Approach, as opposed to the Magnet Approach, above. I've never had much success that way, but I know folks who have! You need to have the right personality and lots of perseverance for that path. Just keep hammering away until someone opens the door a crack. Still, the songs have to be there, and the artist has to be appropriate, and open to outside songs.

 

I've also found that cultivating relationships with record producers can be extremely fruitful for songwriters. A producer's job in life is to turn out album after album, so they usually have a constant need for new, outstanding hit-single-type songs. These days with the Internet there are a zillion possibilities for getting your songs around, too. In the old days you had to make physical copies and mail them off, hoping that someone would actually open the package. Nowadays you can shoot off an MP3 with lyrics in the body of an email and find out 4 minutes later what someone thinks of your song.

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Where Are Those Fresh Chord Progressions Hiding?

Shane asks this great question:

 

Fresh chord progressions are needed for fresh melodies. Do you know of a publication that tells you: Try "these" chords for a verse. From there you could go "here" for a chorus or "here" for a bridge. I have bought many chord books, but none are simple enough for me to use them the way I want to.

 

Here's my response:

 

I agree that fresh chords can spark fresh melodies, but I have yet to find a book or publication that lays out a list of which chords or progressions to use when. My experience is that learning to play a LOT of songs in your preferred genres can be very helpful in seeing what works, and/or what's selling these days.

 

Finding out the chords to the hits is very easy, because you can go on any search engine. On Google for example, just type in the song's title, plus the word "Chords." Sometimes the chords are wildly inaccurate, but many are spot on.

 

Of course there are so many genres and niches in popular music, there's no way anyone can advise songwriters on exactly what will work in advance. There are certain conventions, but so much depends on the particular lyrics and melodies of the song itself.

 

I found this site, which does have some articles on the subject you might find helpful:

 

http://www.howmusicreallyworks.com/

 

Hopefully you play guitar or piano well enough that this won't seem like absolute nonsense!

 

My late, great guitar teacher Steve Tarshis recommended this music theory book, written with the beginner in mind:

 

Harmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians

 

Keep playing, keep "pokin' and hopin'," and I'm sure your chords will improve over time!

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Close-But-No-Cigar Songs

Brad writes:

 

I was wondering if you have any advice about re-writing a song that you really like, but has gotten lukewarm feedback. Many songwriting experts seem to say to forget about it and move on to the next song, but I don't believe that a song with potential cannot be pushed over the top with a little more work.

 

I think I have such a song, but when I try to re-write it, I only can hear what was already written, as it is entrenched in my brain. Any ideas?

 

My response:

 

Thanks for your great question.

 

Like you, I often get entrenched (great word!) in my songs after I've heard them hundreds of times. They seem to harden like concrete after the initial stages of the writing process. That's fine if the song in question is really great, but this stuck-ness can be an obstacle to rewriting if you are getting signals that the song isn't 100% wonderful.

 

Regarding feedback, one of my songwriting teachers had an expression:

 

"If 10 people say it's a horse, you might as well saddle it up and ride it outta here."

 

In other words, if you're getting the same lackluster responses from several different sources, there may be some validity to the criticism. Are their responses ringing true to you on some level? If you can remove your attachment to the song and weigh the feedback, separating the critical wheat from the chaff, it may help to point you in a better direction.

 

But before you re-write (again), check in with your "heart of hearts" and make sure the song itself still has a strong "spark."

 

Thankfully, I've have had the experience of writing a few hits, in addition to hundreds of close-but-no-cigar songs. From that perspective, I can say with some certainty that, from pretty much the moment of birth, a hit feels really different. A hit possesses a strong, palpable spark of inspiration — the kind that keeps you up at night and runs up and down your spine like an electric current. People who hear it feel that spark, and the song touches them in that place inside where we all share the same humanity. It's a magical thing, but you know it when it happens!

 

When I brought my first song that gave me that feeling to a songwriting class, the other writers in the room were similarly blown away. They all said what I'd been thinking since it popped out: "Now THAT one is a hit."

 

This only occurred after 7 years of writing — a lot. That song, "Too Turned On," was soon recorded and released by a dance artist, Alisha, went to #6 on the Billboard charts, and still receives radio play 23 years later. So, in that case, the feedback was accurate, and reflected my own internal response to it. It felt like that song came "through me." I never felt like I forced it.

 

Contrast that with the experience you're having with this song. If you honestly feel like your lyric has the spark but your music doesn't, then do everything in your power to do a music-ectomy. In other words, toss out what you have and start from scratch. If it doesn't work out, you still have that music to go back to, right?

 

So, how can you separate yourself from a song that's really entrenched? Here are three suggestions:

 

  • Find a collaborator who writes music, and only give them your lyric.

  • Try re-writing the music on an instrument you don't ordinarily play.

  • Take the lyric and a recording device and experiment for ages a capella.

 

I've used all of these methods to escape my ruts. The beauty of collaborators is that they NEVER write exactly the way you do. Instant rut-removal! And the beauty of writing on an instrument that you don't ordinarily play is that new sounds, new fingerings, etc. can open up your mind. And finally, if you reduce the song down to its essence, in this case the lyric, and proceed a capella, you might find yourself back in touch with that magical spark that brings all great songs to fruition.

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Maybe It IS "Who You Know" After All!

Here's a thought I had as I coached a few clients recently:

 

People are always asking me "how can I get my song cut/in a film/on TV etc." Starting back when the Victrola was new, this has been the million-dollar question. The cynics of the world, seeing so many lame songs become hits, pummel us with the old adage that "it's not what you know, it's who you know."

 

Well, I'm here to say that it's partially true.

 

First, let's assume you have one or more truly great songs that you're intending to "break in" with. (Right now I won't get into the subject of what happens when you don't have a great song as your "calling card.")

 

If you ever want to have an impact beyond your immediate friends and family, it's essential to go out there and meet like-minded souls. Lots of them. You create relationships with living, breathing, wonderful humans. Ones who love what you do, and want to do it with you. Ones who are on your wavelength. Ones who share your passions and your higher purpose. And if they're already successful, so much the better. But they don't have to be. You can eat your way up the musical food chain together!

 

Personally I hate the terms "networking" and "connections" because they're so rooted in naked ambition, lacking any sense of the personal touch. Our deep humanity is the reason we love music in the first place, and want to make a contribution through the medium of song, n'est-ce pas? It's best to keep that in mind when reaching out to anyone in the music world.

 

Anyway, looking back at the songs I've gotten cut, 99% of them came about because I hit it off with somebody, and stayed in touch with them. I went to a party, a gig, a conference, an event — or I followed up on it when someone said, "Gee, you really should meet fill-in-the-blank!" I shake a lot of hands, give out my card, visit websites, listen to songs I've been sent... In other words, I participate. I show up. Sure, a few cuts have come out of over-the-transom submissions, but most of the time it was in fact "who I knew."

 

Here are a few examples from my life:

 

Placing the song, "Melt Away" in the Denzel Washington film Déjà Vu (The film has made over $170 million worldwide.)

 

A few years ago, my longtime collaborator Jeff Franzel suggested we co-write with Peter Gordon, an acquaintance of his. Jeff had known Peter's father from way back when, but Jeff and Peter had never made music together. I trust Jeff's judgement, so I said "sure!" (Notice the "Six Degrees of Separation" thing already going on here.)

 

Eventually Peter got an assignment from a friend of his, who was Jerry Bruckheimer's music supervisor on "Déjà Vu." We submitted one tune for the "restaurant scene," got some feedback on it, wrote a second song entirely... and got pretty much nowhere with either.

 

Then we got a call that they now needed a very specific type of song (style, tempo etc.) for the same scene. Oh, and they needed it, like, yesterday! We jammed into action, and submitted a brand-new song within a few days. This third attempt was the one that made it into the film. Notice that we would have been shooting in the dark without that last specific and timely bit of information from someone on the "inside."

 

Getting the song, "Don't Rush Me," recorded by Taylor Dayne. (#2 Pop, #3 AC, #6 Dance, Multi-platinum album)

 

In 1980-something I was in the office of the fabulous Judy Tint, an entertainment attorney, and she said she thought I should meet a successful club DJ she knew. I followed through on her suggestion, and met the DJ at a recording studio in Long Island. Hanging out in the studio that day I also bumped into a 19-year-old engineer who at the time was basically living on the couch at the studio. He had a British accent (oh so charming!) and a palpable passion for music. We exchanged numbers, because he told me he had a hot new artist he wanted to work with, and they needed some original songs.

 

Flash forward a while. I was now good friends with the producer, and he had signed the artist, Taylor, to a production deal. I was running my new songs past him, and he had strong opinions about which ones were or weren't right for her project. Finally he got a "singles deal" for her on Arista, and her first release, "Tell It To My Heart" was an instant smash. They needed to follow up ASAP with an album.

 

Suddenly all that time I'd spent developing the relationship and running the songs past the producer started yielding some results! Sure enough, my song "Don't Rush Me" appeared on the debut album, and became my biggest hit to date. The producer also cut other songs I'd written with Taylor and other artists.

 

By the way, the club DJ got out of the music business altogether, having found religion. But calling him, thanks to my lawyer's advice, set the whole thing in motion!

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Self-Promotion in the Modern World

Here's a note from Ken, one of my former students:

 

"I'm finally finishing off an album. Yeah! I was wondering if you had any thoughts on self-promotion. CDBaby is good I know, but I wondered if there are others or better ones?"

 

Here's what I wrote back:

 

As for self-promotion, in this day and age of Internet Overload you should be able to generate some serious viral word-of-mouth if people love the music. If I were you, I'd do some heavy research on the subject, since there are tons of resources and websites dedicated to this subject.

 

Pick your strongest "single" and use that as your way "in the door." Get feedback on which song that might be from your circle of friends, if you don't already know. You might even want to shoot a video for that song and get it on YouTube. Know any amateur film students or animators?

 

If you're performing live you can get mailing lists happening via social media, or apply to appear at any of zillions of showcases in New York or farther afield. After my 2 album releases I did lots of gigs, "house concerts" (which are really fun), and tours in the US and Europe. You might not be committed to doing that sort of thing, but it does help spread the word.

 

There are also several of reputable contests (and some not so reputable!) as well as newsletters. Depending on the specific niche that your music falls into, you can discover many other resources that serve your particular audience.

 

Also, would any of your material be good for film or TV? There are lists available of music libraries and music supervisors if the songs and production are of master quality, suitable for broadcast. Of course it can be a long process to form the relationships necessary to actually get a song placed, but if you own the songwriting and publishing rights there are many lower-budget projects that don't want to deal with the huge music publishers and need easily-licensed songs that are available ASAP.

 

Another possibility is the ASCAP Expo, each Spring in LA. I've participated in it twice, and met some cool people involved in many aspects of songwriting and artist development and promotion. Really top-name writers, producers and artists are on the panels, too. Check it out on the ASCAP website. BMI, SESAC, The Recording Academy and other music business organizations offer other opportunities as well.

 

The main thing is to commit yourself to following through. If you sincerely believe your music makes a contribution to people, then don't hold back! I believe that audiences are on the lookout for quality performances and songwriting, regardless of whether it comes from major labels or do-it-yourself artists. Set aside some time every day, every week, to getting your music out there. As Woody Allen said, 95 percent of life is just showing up.

 

After we met in person and went over some of Ken's songs, I added this:

 

However you decide to proceed with your songs, the next batch will ideally benefit from the feedback and "stand on the shoulders" of your work on these.

 

Getting them "out there" is a process unto itself, worthy of a whole 10-week workshop at least! The main thing is to "show up" and create relationships galore. Almost every single cut I've gotten was through knowing someone, or knowing someone who knew someone. And the only way to get to know anyone is to put yourself in the room, on the web, at the events.

 

When you have great songs it makes things MUCH easier, of course! Even one great song can create a buzz and make folks want to work with you further. There's no one way to achieve success, it's a matter of day after day taking the small steps towards it.

 

I force myself to make a few calls, write a few emails, create a few deadlines every day, and have built up a support system of people who like what I do. People don't generally want to pull YOU up by the bootstraps. They have to see some benefit for themselves because they think you'll help THEM achieve success. So the question become what do YOU have to offer...

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