Songwriting Business

Craft + Magic = Success

As a longtime screener at TAXI and now as an instructor at Musicians Institute, sometimes it just gets too easy to point out what may be technically wrong with a song.

An experienced writer can point out weaknesses and problem areas in any song—I can't understand the lyrics in "Louie, Louie" for example. The melody in "Wild Thing" is almost monotone. But they were classic hits.

Pointing out weaknesses and gradually eliminating the problem areas of a song is not the same thing as writing a hit song. A lack of negatives is not necessarily a positive.

I have found that many times I am asked to listen to a song with the expectation that with a couple of insightful comments I can turn an ordinary song into a hit. Very often beginning writers will think one of the five songs they have just written must be a hit—and think I can pick it out, make a couple quick suggestions, and they can bank the royalties.

I wish it were that easy.

We seem to be living in a time that wants immediate results—everything is made to look so fast and easy on TV or in the movies. All problems and challenges have to be taken care of between commercials and before the next program.

Art doesn't work that way.

Recently, I was talking to Kenny Kerner at Musicians Institute in Hollywood about classes I was to teach that semester—and wondering how many students were interested in basic song classes. He mentioned that sign up was slow—but another class—"How To Run A Record Company"—was really popular.

Obviously—more people are interested in running a record company than learning the elements of a good song. I mean, if you have the choice, why not take the job as corporation president rather than starting out in sales?

I have known several record company presidents. They all had at least one thing in common besides a great parking spot—they knew a hit song. And they knew the difference between a good song and a hit song. Notice I didn't say good song and a bad song—there is a huge difference between a good song and a hit song.

But many people have the idea that they can jot down their inner most feelings, grab a cool loop, go into a studio with a great producer who understands them and their art, and come out with a track labels will fight over for the privilege of releasing and making them a new star.

The proliferation of GarageBand and Pro Tools type computer programs and the dumbing down of technology (which I appreciate because I am technologically dumb) has somehow given rise to the idea that anybody can write a hit song.

Well, these days anybody can record a song—how good it is still depends on what the artist brings to the table in terms of creativity and craft. A well-recorded bad song with great loops is still a bad song.

I love GarageBand and Pro Tools. They and other similar programs have given artists freedom never before known. But a Stradivarius violin played by me will sound terrible—in the hands of a trained violinist it will sound great. Tools are tools.

You can take a song to me or any consultant, get advice from friends, tweak and change things around—but if it is not a hit idea with something special about it that makes other people want to spend real money to purchase it then it is just another song.

And that can also be the beauty of the process. Every song isn't a hit. As a writer the process is the work and it can also be the reward.

In just doing the work—writing a song, then writing a better song, and then learning more and writing a better song, and getting your heart broken and writing a stronger lyric, and then hitting a great phrase that resonates with other people—and then gradually, maybe everything starts falling into place and coming together and all of a sudden one day the magic is there—you know it, and so does everyone else. It is that overnight success that took years to achieve.

It ain't easy. If it were, I wouldn't have a job. And it wouldn't be so very cool when it does happen.

This article is excerpted from Michael Anderson's Little Black Book of Songwriting, available at


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