Now What?

Inside songwriting

By Jason Blume
You've now reached a point where you can write perfectly crafted songs. Your songs all fit into one of the structures typically heard on the radio. Your lyrics are well-crafted. They communicate exactly what you intend and include rhymes in all the right places. They fit the music beautifully, incorporate detail and imagery, and clearly tell your story. Your melodies are memorable. They include catchy rhythms and lots of repetition. You're producing competitive demos that sound as good as those being pitched by the pros. Maybe you've even won several song competitions. So why aren't you having hits? Why are you still working a miserable day job? And what do you need to do to get to that next level?

This situation reminds me of a turning point in my career. After more than five years of attending every available workshop, studying the songwriting books, and honing my craft every night after work, I had an appointment with Rodney Gordy, who at the time was a publisher at Motown's Jobete Music. I planned to play Rodney a new song that I was sure had the greatest hit potential of any one I'd written to date.

Not only did I think this song was terrific, but it was the best sounding demo I'd ever produced. I'd bitten the bullet and hired a professional demo singer who I couldn't afford, telling myself that I couldn't afford not to have the best available vocalist. My hope was that Rodney would offer to publish the song. My fantasy (and unspoken expectation) was that he'd be so impressed, that right on the spot he'd offer me a staff-writing deal—an exclusive songwriting agreement that comes with a monetary advance. I wanted that deal more than anything in the world. Being a staffwriter would be my ticket to quitting my day job and having the time, professional support, and resources to do what I was always meant to do—write songs.

I knew how good this song was and I couldn't imagine his turning it down. I was totally unprepared when he casually said he'd pass. When I asked if he could offer any feedback that might help, he stated that there was nothing wrong with the song. He said I'd written "a staffwriter song"; one that was just as good, but not better or significantly different than those songs that any one of his staffwriters could write on any given day. I left the meeting angry and frustrated. If I was writing at the same level as his staffwriters, why wasn't I one of his staffwriters?

Over time I came to understand that essentially what I had been told was that I'd crafted a well-written song that wasn't a "hit." There wasn't anything truly exceptional about my song; nothing in the concept, melody, or lyric to compel an artist, producer, record label executive, or publisher to choose mine over the stiff competition.

So... what should you do if you're writing "staffwriter" songs instead of hits? The first thing to do is to congratulate yourself for reaching this level. You've worked hard to get there, and many writers never master the tools and techniques as well as you already have. You can't get to the next level until you've reached this one, so you're right on track.

Now, let's look at some cold, hard facts. It's not uncommon for a major artist to be pitched in the ballpark of 1,200 songs for his or her album. Most of these songs will have been written by professional writers with major credits. There are simply not enough slots on hit albums to accommodate every songwriter who's vying for one of them.

If an album includes 12 songs, it's likely that some of them will be "inside" songs—songs written or cowritten by the artist, producer, the label executive's boyfriend, or someone else involved in the project. It's likely that a couple of the songs will be contributed by one of a handful of top writers who are consistent hitmakers. This may leave only one or two available slots.

So how can you possibly compete? Nashville publisher John Van Meter said, "Every cut is a miracle," and I'd have to agree. Then how do you cut through the competition?

You've got to give the listener (a publisher, producer, record label executive, or recording artist) a compelling reason to choose your song over all the other songs in consideration—including those that may have been written by the artist. That reason won't be your sparkling personality. It'll be a combination of a fresh, unique lyric, an attention-grabbing idea, an exceptional melody, and a demo that shows off the song to its best advantage. In other words, in a field this competitive "good" isn't good enough.

Let's assume you've indeed written a truly incredible song. Now other factors come into play. The publisher you meet with may already be representing other songs that are similar to yours. He may have 30 staffwriters he's already committed to. Possibly your song is not his personal taste, or maybe he's just having a bad day and missed the fact that your song truly is brilliant. Presuming your songs really are strong, there are a multitude of reasons why a given publisher might not choose to publish them—that have little or nothing to do with the quality of your writing.

Developing writers often achieve their initial successes by working with small, independent publishing companies. If you're targeting huge publishing corporations that have tens of thousands of songs in their catalog, as well as fifty or more staffwriters (many with number one songs to their credit), there's not much of a chance that your song will be something they feel they "need." However, if you're pitching to a publisher who represents a small catalog of songs and does not have a commitment to many staffwriters, your song (if it's exceptional) will likely be something this publisher will be thrilled to represent.

There are countless stories of songs that went on to become huge hits after being rejected by virtually every record label. "Change My Mind" was rejected more than 75 times before becoming a single for The Oak Ridge Boys. The single stiffed and it was an additional five years and 100 more rejections before the song became a top five Country single for John Berry.

Each time my song was rejected, did that mean that it was a "bad" song? Was each rejection proof of my greatest fear—that I had no talent? Apparently not, but each rejection felt like it was sending the message that I wasn't good enough and would never be successful. As songwriters, we're regularly called upon to bare our souls, while maintaining the skin thickness of an armadillo.

Timing is another critical factor. It won't matter how perfect your song is for Faith Hill if Faith just completed recording her album. It'll be at least an additional nine months, or even a year, before her record label and producer are seriously looking for songs. Even if you were able to get a song through to her and she placed it on "hold," by the time she's ready to record, there's a good chance that your song will be replaced by a new exciting find, or that she may be looking for a different type of material.

Once the demo goes into the mail there are at least a thousand factors that are out of our control. We can't affect the mood the listener will be in when he or she hears the song; whether it will fit a specific slot required for a particular project; whether the idea of our song is similar to one the artist has already recorded for this album; if it's consistent with a theme or concept for the album; whether it's something a particular artist wants to express musically and lyrically; or a hundred other things that might stand between us and getting this song recorded by this artist.

So, what can you do? Keep plugging away. Hone your skills until you can consistently write excellent songs—and, occasionally, exceptional ones. Build your catalog until you have incredible, fresh songs that are appropriate for a wide variety of artists. Continue to network, join local songwriting organizations, and attend workshops and seminars where you'll have an opportunity to interact with industry professionals and other writers who are working their way up the ladder. Understand that it's normal for a song to face many rejections before finding its home. And remember, you've chosen to pursue a career in a fiercely competitive field. Don't beat yourself up for not being where you'd like to be. You're on your way.

Jason Blume's songs are on albums that have sold more than 50,000,000 copies and have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Gipsy Kings, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, and country stars Collin Raye, John Berry, and the Oak Ridge Boys. One of the only writers to ever have songs on Billboard's pop, country, and R&B charts—all at the same time—Blume is a best selling author and songwriting teacher.

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