You've Got Exactly the Same Chance of Writing a Hit as Diane Warren


By Michael Laskow
writing a hit song
I finally had two consecutive days off after the Road Rally. I spent both of them lounging in bed, reading the eight-inch thick stack of business magazines that piled up in the weeks leading up to the Rally. Oddly, that's how I relax.

I just read an article called What It Takes To Be Great, in Fortune, and flew down the steps, hung a hard right turn in to the kitchen, and proclaimed to my wife, "I've been right all these years, honey — great songwriters aren't born with some God-given talent! They've learned to be great by working really hard at it. Anybody can write hit songs — anybody!"

The kids barely looked up from their turkey and stuffing leftovers. They've seen me in this exuberant state before. My wife politely paid attention, but she really wanted to get back to filling out the Girl Scout paper work in front of her.

To me, this was a defining moment in my life. I've known that you can write a hit song for fifteen years. Why fifteen? Because that's how long I've been running TAXI, and if I can be successful at this, then everybody can be successful at whatever they chose — especially writing hit songs.

I'm no genius, and I certainly wasn't born with the skills to create and successfully run a company. I had to learn those skills by reading more than 500 business books and tons of magazines.

But, I get frustrated when musicians ask me questions like, "How many points should I be asking for in my recording contract?" and "What should I put in my bio?" Why don't they ever ask me how they can learn to write great songs?

All that other stuff doesn't matter if you don't write great songs. Having a page on MySpace doesn't matter. Building a huge list of "friends" doesn't matter. Having 24 tracks of digital recording gear doesn't matter. Writing incredible songs that people want to hear time and time again is what matters most.

If you write great songs, the world will come to you. If you write great songs, you don't need to sell your music, people will want to buy it. They will come to you!

All the modern marketing books say the same thing — the days of disruptive, in-your-face marketing are waning. The best way to sell anything these days is to create something so wonderful, so remarkable, that it sells itself.

Think iPod. Think Blackberry. Think Mini Cooper. They all caused one person to remark to another, "It's cool!" We all know that word of mouth is the best marketing tool of all, but you have to create something so undeniably great that people will talk about it — word of mouth.

So, what does this have to do with my leisurely day of reading business mags?

The sub head in the article by Geoffrey Colvin (Fortune October 30, 2006) says, 'Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is IRRELEVANT to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.' Geoffrey is so right.

The article goes on to say, "British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane Davidson, and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, 'The evidence we have surveyed... does not support the notion that excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.'

In every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years, and even decades, and go on to greatness."

The big question that the researchers ask themselves is, "Why?" How do some people continue to improve? And the answer they keep coming up with is that, "Nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, that you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen."

Greatness isn't handed to anyone. The best people in any field are the ones who spend the most time on "deliberate practice." It goes on to say that hitting 300 balls with an 8 iron isn't practice unless you are constantly getting feedback and improving your results. Otherwise, you're just repeating your mistakes, over, and over, and over again.

Let's think about that as it relates to musicians. They learn to play an instrument when they are young. They probably even progress past playing 'Louie, Louie' with simple bar chords. Then they take on the task of learning to write songs. They do a little research on the art and the craft of songwriting, and bang out some tunes.

Aunt Sophie comes down to the basement after Thanksgiving dinner, and listens to a couple of the songs. "You really wrote those yourself? And you know how to run all that recording equipment? You should be on the radio!"

They (you) couldn't agree more. The rock star lifestyle is definitely more appealing than your nine to five at the insurance company. Writing hit songs for other artists or earning your living by placing your music in films and TV shows wouldn't be so bad either.

So, you join TAXI and make a few submissions. Then something horrible happens. You get back your first few critiques (the feedback the article mentions), and your heart sinks. You weren't forwarded. "How could they think that? Did they even listen to my songs? My friends (and Aunt Sophie) think I'm great! Who are these people and what do they know?"

For many of our members, that's enough to stop them dead in their tracks.

If you have been reading my emails for any length of time, you know that I love to use sports analogies when looking at this issue.

Just because you used to play high school football, does it mean you're qualified to walk on the field and quarterback the Super Bowl this season? And though you play golf nearly every weekend, does that qualify you to play along side Tiger Woods in the Masters?

So why do so many musicians think that they are qualified to be rock stars or hit songwriters even though they don't practice deliberately, and they don't incorporate feedback to constantly improve?

"This is what I do. You either like it or you don't." They stop working at some point.

"I don't want to be pigeon-holed and write commercial songs, but I want to sell a million records and have a hit!" Hits are really hard to write. Ask any hit songwriter.

It's kind of like hitting those 300 golf balls, but without getting feedback that would help you improve your swing with each stroke. Instead of just doing the work, you need to do it with the intent to improve. You need to set goals and work to accomplish them.

TAXI's listings give you targets to aim at, and your critiques give you feedback from heavy-weight industry people who have written, produced or signed hits. Every one of them.

All these thoughts and plenty more were running through my head when I read the article. I could barely contain myself. Somebody else knew what I knew — that you can be a hit songwriter or a hit artist if you really, truly work at it and incorporate the feedback from the people who can help you. You have the same chance as anybody else to become successful with your music, because you aren't born a hit maker (and neither are they), but you can definitely teach yourself to become one.

Maybe that's the reason so many musicians choose to believe Aunt Sophie and not the industry pros giving them feedback — to listen to the pros might mean that there's a lot of hard work that lies ahead. Living in Aunt Sophie's world enables you to avoid the hard work, but have a false sense of success.

By the way, the next time Aunt Sophie tells you that you should be on the radio, ask her to take out a second mortgage on her house and invest a few hundred thousand in your career. That's the litmus test record labels have to use. Let's see how much she loves your music when you lay that one on her!

And to add insult to injury, the article goes on to say, "Reinforcing the no free lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established that researchers call it the ten year rule."

Ten years! Holy $#%*! That actually doesn't surprise me. It took me at least ten years of hard work before I could call TAXI an unqualified success (and I'm still working at it — for a total of fifteen years). Diane Warren (arguably the most successful songwriter of the last two decades) told me that it took her twelve years of working obsessively on her song craft and pitching her best before she got her first song cut.

As I retreated from my less-than-enthusiastic family and began to climb the stairs with a piece of pumpkin pie in hand, I could hear TAXI members the world over shouting (in my mind), "Ten years — that's $2,100 just for my membership fees and another $1,000 for ten years of submissions!"

I began my internal dialog with them as I licked the whip cream from my pie. "So, if somebody told you that you could realize a thousand percent increase in the probability that you would succeed in the music business for $3,100, you'd pass on that investment?"

"I probably would, that's a ton of money," said one of the imaginary members as he rolled his brand new 50" LCD, HD TV out of Costco.

By the time I crawled back in to bed, and continued to thumb through my stack of unread business magazines, I resolved that my new favorite article might be best kept to myself. Neither my family nor the thousands of TAXI members who had gathered below my bedroom window wanted to hear about it. Aunt Sophie and those well-meaning friends had clearly won this round.

Somewhat dejected, I plopped the magazines on to my wife's side of the bed, and flipped open my laptop. The first thing I read was this email from TAXI member David Newell:

Dear Michael,

The Road Rally of 2006 was a bittersweet experience for myself. First off, you find out just how good the competition is, and they are REALLY good.

Then you find out the difficulties of getting your voice actually heard by someone at the top.

And finally, you find out your only hope is to stick in there for the long run and work at it every day and maybe, someday, you can make it.

Call it the biggest reality check you can get. It really made me confront myself about my commitment and my investment. The answer for me is OF COURSE, it's just what I have to do.

So after letting all of that sink in, I don't feel discouraged at all. I feel equipped. The Rally gave me an edge on everyone else because I know exactly what it takes. It doesn't take a serendipitous moment when the stars align so that I finally am seen for the star that I am.

It takes Great songs.

After listening to songwriters and panels full of the top people in the Biz, not only do I know what a Great song is, I know how to make my songs GREAT! I feel like I have been given a list of instructions that thoroughly address all of my shortcomings — a lot of which I wasn't aware of until I went to the Rally.

And now, after making some of those changes and being home long enough to play some shows. I immediately notice a difference. The reaction from the crowds has been better than ever. And most of all, I have an extra dose of confidence every time I play because I feel like a pro. There is something about the knowledge you receive. It changes the rocky steps of hopes & dreams into a ladder of goals and achievements.

Thanks,
Dave

I wanted to give Dave a big, fat hug! Why wasn't he in my kitchen tonight?

You can become whatever you want to be. You have exactly the same shot as everybody else. The statistics prove that it's not about natural born talent. It's also not about the number of tracks in your studio, and it's not about where you live or the lack of a thriving local music scene. It's simply all about your personal commitment to do the hard work that it takes to become great.

I can tell you from my own experience building TAXI, that the work doesn't feel so much like work when you love what you do. And in the end, you will find that success feels a hell of a lot better than never trying at all.

I know because I've experienced both.

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