This Article Originally Published October 1998
by Doug Minnick
One day early in my career at a major publishing company, one of our hottest songwriters at the time ( he was in the midst of a string of #1 records) came into my office and asked my opinion of a new song he had written.
"What are you asking me for?" I asked. "I haven't written any number one songs lately."
He told me something I've never forgotten: "I tend to get too close to my own songs. I lose my perspective and I need the objective opinion of someone I trust. Plus, you've gotta write 99 pieces of crap to get that one good song, and sometimes the songwriter is the least able to tell the difference."
So I told him I thought the bridge seemed twice as long as it needed to be and that the chorus should come in after the first verse, not the second. He thanked me and eventually changed the song. I was struck that a professional writer of many hits would feel the need to ask anyone's opinion. It was this moment that I began to realize that offering an opinion on a song could be a benefit to the writer, not just a complaint or an observation of weakness.
That same year, we received a tape from our London office of a song by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten. I was beyond excited when I heard the songI was convinced this song could be a number one hit. After sending it out to a few well-chosen label execs and producers, I sat back waited for the excitement to begin. Certainly each and every one of the recipients would be amazed at my great ears (oh, and the great song, too) and would all be calling to put a "hold" on the song. I knew I had just hit my first home run.
No one called. No response at all. Not even to "pass" on the song. Now I was certain I had blundered in a major way. How could I be so wrong? Maybe my ears were not perfect. A dark thought, indeed.
Then I got a note back from a legendary A&R man: "A nice song, but not the 'top 5' smash we are looking for." Getting a response from this bigwig which praised the song gave me some reassurance, and I continued to pitch the song for several months. Still, no one responded. Oh, I made follow-up calls to "make sure they had received the tape" but no one heard what I heard in the song.
Several months later, someone else from our company (from the London office, I think) sent the song to Tina Turner who was working on a comeback album for Capitol. "What's Love Got To Do With It" was the song that re-launched Tina's career, went to #1 and became the biggest single off one of the biggest albums of the year.
Was I right about the song? Yes, though in the end I wasn't responsible for the cut. Was everyone else wrong? Not neccessarily. As all you TAXI members have heard, a song not only has to be good, it has to be right.
Is the lyric something that artist would sing? Is the song too similar to another song on the album? Is the tempo right when compared with other songs on the album? Is the artist moved enough by the song to want to cut it? All of these factors and more have to line up for a song to get cut.
Another quick story on this same point: Again that same year we signed the writers (Mary Ann Kennedy, Pat Bunch, and Pam Rose) of a Country song entitiled "Safe in The Arms Of Love," among others. This outstanding song became a #1 hit for Martina McBride in 1996almost fifteen years after it was written. Great song, right circumstances.
I grew up thinking great songwriters were bornnot made. That talent was a blessing that came complete and a successful songwriter's life was the happy (and well-paid) pursuit of one's calling.
Then I read a quote from Randy Newman saying that writing songs was like torture to him, that he had to force himself to sit down and write. Paul McCartney tells of George Martin sending John Lennon and him back to write better songs after hearing their first demo (they came up with "Please, Please Me"). Paul wrote many songs for other artists (at the absolute height of the Beatles) that were turned down by those artists! Some wanted to change songs like "Yesterday" and "Come and Get It"!
I spent many years pitching songs by the hottest writers in the business. It always surprised me when their songs (great songs!) wouldn't get immediately cut. It still surprises me that most of those songs never got cut.
But that's the way it is. If it was easy, everybody would be a hit songwriter. If you are writing songs because you want to be rich and famous, chances are you'll be disappointed. But if you are writing because you love to write, because you must write, then get involved in the process. Come to terms with the process. Realize that the hurdles and disappointments you face are shared by every songwriter. You have something in common with the great ones.