Michael Laskow, Moderator

Hit Songwriter Panel. From left to right: Kara Dioguardi, Michael Laskow (panel moderator), Tia Sillers, Barry DeVorzon, Ron Miller, and Mark Selby.

Kara Dioguardi – cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
Mark Selby – cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
Tia Sillers – cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
Barry DeVorzon – cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Ron Miller – cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.

Barry, it feels like outlets for songwriters are largely limited to Pop, R&B, and Country these days. You found a different area in which to excel, TV themes—a tiny little niche—and you're a powerhouse at it. How did you learn how to write themes?

BD: It's really different than writing for the record market, except with a motion picture or television show you definitely have a theme, an idea that you have to get across.

I saw Aaron Spelling and said, "Give me a shot at one of your television shows, and I'll give you a hit." I was kidding him, right? Because who can guarantee anyone a hit? And he called me about four weeks later and said, "Alright, come down. I'm going to show you my new show. I'm all excited. This is the first television show I've ever done."

I go down to the studio and they show me "SWAT." So I walk out of there and I said, "How can you write a hit about a SWAT team. [laughter] This is impossible. Everyone hated SWAT. It was during the riots in downtown LA. So I went back to Santa Barbara. I was totally depressed. Couldn't he give me a detective, a pretty girl, something? He gives me a SWAT team.

I sat there and suffered with it and after about a week I said, "Okay, you can't write a hit about a SWAT team." So I'm just going to give him the most exciting theme I can give him. These guys are piling out of that truck, and I'm gonna make the audience feel the excitement of that and the electricity of that. And that's how I gave birth to "SWAT." Now don't get me wrong, I worked just as hard on that as any song I ever wrote because it had to be right. And it had to be right when I went into the studio. What happened is, Aaron loved it; it made his main title; it sold what he was trying to sell with "SWAT." And to everyone's surprise, it went to #1.

Kara Dioguardi - cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
So, once you've figured out how to write TV themes, how do you go about pitching in that market? Do you go knocking on doors?

BD: That is difficult, but that door is really opening up. At the time I was writing for film there wasn't, believe it or not, a lot of contemporary music happening. Television was very jazzy and big band. Now the door is open, and there are a lot of Rock & Roll, R&B, and many other kinds of contemporary scores happening. I think the key is probably the music directors at the various studios. And, Lord, if you have any kind of in with a producer or a production company, that would be a good way to go. And you take three or four of your best songs and give it to them, and hope that they listen to it and are intrigued by it. But don't give them too much.

Are there rules to follow when trying to pitch thematic music? Do you just give them a 60-second piece? Do you make it largely instrumental? Can you have vocal stuff in there? Obviously, it'd be tough to write vocals for a show you don't know the content of.

BD: Honestly, you'd probably have a better chance to get a song in a film or a television show. But the problem with the theme is that usually the guy who gets the theme is also the guy who does the score. So you really have to be capable and have some kind of credentials to be able to write a dramatic score. So you see, that's what you really sell when you go to a television show. They hire a composer. Now, here is a trick. A lot of composers are really arrangers, they are not songwriters. If you can hook up with a composer and say, "Look, you're gonna do the score, but would you like to co-write with me on the theme with a song?" That's a great way to get in for the theme or for the main title.

TS: I just want to interject, as a songwriter. I've tried for 15 years, and I've never gotten a single song in a movie. I've tried to hard, and it's absolutely my #1 fantasy to have a song in a movie. I can't imagine anything more fulfilling than getting to actually work with a composer on something like that. That would truly be thrilling.

BD: Listen, you have great credentials, and that might be something you want to think about. There are a lot of composers—in fact, let me tell you something—most composers for film are not songwriters.

Barry DeVorzon - cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Is it that they don't have a good sense of melody, but they're great technically?

BD: Well, they're wonderful musicians. But remember, Michael, the gift of songwriting is a gift. You can be the greatest guitar player, the greatest musician, or the greatest arranger in the world. That does not necessarily mean you have the gift of creation of song.

That leads me to my next question I'm gonna throw to Ron. Are people born great songwriters, or are they born with a propensity and they have to learn the craft?

RM: At 5 years old I wanted to be a songwriter, yes. But first I wanted to be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. [laughter] And then I went in the Marine Corps., and when I got out, I realized I wasn't gonna be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, so I started writing songs. But when I seriously started to write songs, I never had any doubt in my mind that I would make it—that I would someday get to the point where I would hear my songs on the radio, and I would get paid for it, or I wouldn't have done it. I was only concerned with one thing—creating quality. I didn't care about anything else. I didn't care about records, I didn't care about people performing it. I just wanted to write good songs, and I believed if I wrote good songs, it would eventually happen. [applause]

Did you just write?

RM: I wrote a million bad songs when I was learning how to write. You learn from your own work and your own mistakes. You have to be totally honest with yourself.

I meet a lot of people who have a hard time being honest with themselves. And their family and friends are impressed because the stuff they're writing in the basement is way better than what their family and friends could write.

RM: That's the wrong criteria. The only criteria is your own taste and your own intellect and your own humanism and your own ability. You have to decide what you want to say and how you want to say it, and you have to believe in it. You have to do what everyone else does. You have to write it and rewrite it and chop it and edit it and work it and make it right. Everyone has that ability. We just have to have the discipline and the guts to do it.

Tia Sillers - cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
How old were you when you got your first cut?

RM: You mean my first record? Barry Gordy brought me to Motown when I was about 31 years old and told me I would be a millionaire in four days. And about three years later I had my first record come out by Stevie Wonder called "A Place in the Sun." That was in about 1965. [applause]

How often do you rewrite a song? How many times do you go back to the woodshed on a song before you think it's done?

RM: I don't sing it for anyone until I've written it. Once I get to the point where I'm willing to display it, I've already finished it, and I very seldom go back and rewrite. I rewrite it in my mind. Every song is rewritten while I'm writing it. You know, I'm an old guy, man. I'm 73 years old. I've got six kids, two ex-wives, 14 gold records, a golden haired retriever named Overdub, and a beautiful girl named Janice somewhere out there in the audience. No, I've been doing it for so long that it's really edited before it gets on the paper. I might get an idea and think about it, and subliminally it's working, and then consciously it's working. But when I start writing it on paper, it's basically done.

Kara, do you do a similar process? How quickly does a song come out of you? Do you partially do it, then go back to it months later?

KD: I'm trying now to scrutinize my work more, because in the beginning when I started to get a lot of cuts, you get taken over by the whole... It's almost like you're so excited that you don't think at times if you should have spent more time because the pressures of the people who are demanding the stuff from you are on a different timeline. I really can appreciate what Ron is talking about because now that I'm a little bit more secure in my career and I'm cool with what I'm doing, I'm taking more time and I want to be more selective about what I do. There are songs that I've written that I'm not 100% on, and I wish back then I'd had the power to say that I think we should not change that word to this because you can't say that on radio or it's just too adult.

So there are very different styles of writing going on here. The songs that Ron writes—and even Tia's—these are like moments-in-time standards. To write those, it's amazing. I may have hits, but that is the bar, those standards—whether it's "I Hope You Dance" or "A Place in the Sun." Something I'm looking at in my career now is that I don't want to be pushed by the market, because that's really how I came up. I was more, "They're looking for his kind of song. All right." But that's not to say that you shouldn't have quality control, because you should. So now I am rewriting things. I'm looking at them more carefully. And my record is nothing like what I do in my everyday job. It's way more meticulous.

How many times did you pitch before you got your first break?

KD: My first hit was a very strange situation. I had this indie record out, and Paula Abdul had heard it and asked to write with me. So we wrote this song called "Spinning Around." Then she got dropped by her label. Then Kylie Minogue cut the song. I didn't know who she was, but I remember seeing the video, and it was literally her ass everywhere. She was in hot pants and spinning around. I was like, "I think we're on to something here." [laughter]

Mark Selby - cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
Mark, what is your process? Do you start with a lyric, the melody, or does the song kind of dictate how it gets written?

MS: Usually it's a little bit of the two together. Usually I feel like there's a certain amount of music attached to a lyrical idea that I see. But it can be either way. I think anything is valid. Anything that gets you started is valid. I do jot down lyrical ideas, and I tend to do it where it seems like a title or a hook, and I'll write it in capital letters. If it's maybe just a line that would be cool somewhere, I'll write it in lower case.

I want to add to what Ron was saying, by the way. I completely agree with him that when you know you've pleased yourself, I think a lot of times that's when you're really done with a song. That's the way I feel too. I have a little ritual now that I don't write the title at the top of my lyric page until I think it's done. Sometimes it's fun to have little rituals like that in your writing. Tia has a bunch of them that are really cool. She has these beautiful journal books that she writes her lyrics in, and she puts it in there when it's done. And for me, sometimes it's so tempting because the song is almost done, I want to write the title at the top of the page—especially if I have to wait till later to finish it. But I don't write the title until it's done.

Tia, what would you say to relatively new songwriters who say they don't want to be formulaic; I don't want to write songs in form. I am a creator. I'm an artiste. I just want to let it flow. I hammer on this theme so much because I go to Nashville often enough to know if a song doesn't have an obvious chorus you're laughed out of the room. How important is that stuff?

TS: Well, I know that I said that I'm unable in certain ways to really aim a song. But I will say this much—I believe Jason Bloom said it two days ago—it's the music business, and the word "business" is larger than the word "music," right? And for better or for worse, there are ten thousand people in the music business, and maybe two thousand songwriters. There are all different people that are in the business writing songs. There is already a disproportionate number of people actually creating the music as opposed to people who are cogs in the wheel, or the people that are the gate-keepers of the songs. So that's one thing you have to be aware of. The second thing is, if you really want to make a living at songwriting as a songwriter, remember that your song becomes at some point a product—like let's say Coca-Cola. Well, if you want a publisher to ever support and give you money and put their faith in you, they have to feel like they have a product, even if it's the equivalent of a Chanel product or a Pampers product. They're still two products. One is very expensive and one isn't, but they're still viable and they're commercial, and they see ways for them to get through.

So if you want people to stake their own reputations on you—no matter what you're trying to do—you have to pay attention to certain rules and certain parameters. They exist for a reason, and the biggest reason is because music... When we started off as children, we learned songs like "ABCDEFG" because they were pneumonic devices; they were learning devices. When we have music and words together, that's how we memorize things and learn things. That's part of the reason why a song is a song and not just poetry. I mean, if you turned on the radio and it was just people reciting lyrics all day, I don't think it would have the same pull. Just like if it was all instrumental music, I don't think it would necessarily have consistently the same pull. The reason why there are music and lyrics together is because people like that journey and they learn those songs and they make them feel certain ways. So that's what you have to be aware of. I always say, "Contemplate your belly button all day and write belly button grazing songs," which is what we call certain songs that don't have chorus, and don't have a hook, and things like that. That's great, but what you've done is written a "belly button grazing song." Congratulations. I hope you enjoyed it, and that was a fine day, and now go on a write another song.

Ron Miller - cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.
MS: Most of what we perceive as rules for songwriting or classical music in various periods, they come about in hindsight. Basically, people can look at a body of successful songs and say that most of them have verse/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge, etc. It's not that they originated or that somebody said, "Here are the rules for writing a successful song." It's kind of in hindsight that we identify certain things that tend to work on average—just like making a good jump shot. There's a form for that that usually works, but there are always exceptions of people who can do an incredible jump shot with really weak form.

TS: And, let's say there are 50 rules to writing a song. As long as you follow about 40 of them in a song, you can break 20 of them. It's not like you have to write a song and follow every rule.

MS: I think it's better to break rules when you know them than to break them because you don't know them. [applause]

That's a great point. Now I see why you married him. He's smart!

Make sure to read Part 3 of this panel in next month's newsletter! —ML

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