(L to R) Jason Blume, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, and Marlin "Hookman" Bonds are all ears as Ralph Murphy (2nd from right) tells the audience and his fellow panelists how to "Invite the audience in."
Moderated by Michael Laskow
Songs from these writers have been cut by and been on records with artists like: Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Jordin Sparks, Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Jason Derulo, Katharine McPhee, Tyler Shaw, Leila Broussard, New Kids on the Block, Koko LaRoo, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Greg Holden, and many, many more chart-topping artists. Our conservative estimate is that their songs have been on more than 300 million records sold!
Ralph, your most famous catch-phrase is Invite the listener in. You and I have been talking about that for 20 years, my friend. How do the songwriters in the audience today “invite the listener” into the song?
Ralph: Well, the pronoun you is a trigger word. Nine out of the 10 #1 records use the pronoun you within the first two to 14 seconds. See, most people are cathartic in nature; “I’m so lonely, I’m so miserable”—well, hey, wrong! “You’re so lonely, you’re so miserable”—why don’t you do something and invite the listener in? Look at your choice of pronouns; look at the first four lines that create an expectation; the title fulfills it. Invite them in quickly; make it about them or a situation they heavily identify with. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t work, it doesn’t function. The listeners didn’t tune in for new music at seven in the morning; they tuned in for something that resonated with them—something that they’re familiar with. They didn’t tune in for that brand new song!
"Nine out of the 10 #1 records use the pronoun you within the first two to 14 seconds."
So there’s a whole bunch of ways [to invite the listener in], but it’s always about the listener.
I sang my first gig when I was five years of age. My mom was a single mother. We were bombed out of London—yes, I am that old. [laughter] We were bombed out of London [during World War II] and she was having to whip around playing piano in the pub, and she was scrubbing floors in the bakery and doing whatever, and she taught me a song called “The Mountains of Morn,” which was about the Irish experience leaving Dublin. [He sings part of the song.] She gets me to sing it, and about halfway through everyone in the pub started singing along. And by the end of it they were on their feet cheering, and I realized that they weren’t cheering me, they were cheering the song. That song had invited them in and made them want to sing it, and whoever wrote that song would live forever. I wanted to live forever. I didn’t want to be the singer; I wanted to be the creator of that work that would make me live forever. And that’s been my entire life since I was five, and it was a revelation. It was like, holy shit, it was so striking to a child. It was like, wow—mind-blowing. So I’ve become a song slut.
Marlin: We should all just leave, because that was just incredible. [applause]
So Marlin’s nickname is “Hookman.” He’s best known in the industry as Hookman. Let’s talk about the role of being the hook man.
It used to be you’d go to the ASCAP Awards or BMI Awards and there’d be one or two songwriters. Now you go to the awards and there are often six writers up there. Why does it take six people to write a song?
Marlin: When you collaborate and when you have a great group of people that can agree on what’s the best idea, you tend to put enough pressure on the song where it can be so good that it’s hard for it not to be able to compete.
Most of us want to do this for a living. I was with my publisher the other day, and we were talking about this exact same thing. And we were like, “Why are there six people on a song? Where are there seven people on the song, unless they are a sample or something? It’s just hard to make enough money when you have 8%. But I don’t think it’s necessary, unless it makes the song better. If it doesn’t make the song better, don’t do it.
"When you collaborate and when you have a great group of people that can agree on what’s the best idea, you tend to put enough pressure on the song where it can be so good that it’s hard for it not to be able to compete."
Yeah, I’m just astounded that so many people do it, and they do it successfully. And I think about it monetarily too. Times are hard anyway, you know? Writers aren’t making much on mechanicals anymore; you’re still making performance from radio and some film and TV stuff. But, wow, splitting it up four or five, six, seven ways seems like a tough road to go. But then again, I hear stuff on the radio today that’s really good, and I’m really surprised—or happy—that these groups of writers are getting together and cranking out some great music. I just don’t really understand the process, because I haven’t worked on a record in a very long time. I just can’t imagine why it takes like one guy to do the beat, why it takes another guy to do the chorus, why it takes another guy to do the lyric. You know, what happened to the people who could kinda do it all?
Marlin: I’ll chime in right there. So for example, there’s an executive who is one of the best in the business right now for this particular thing. His name is Mike Caren at Atlantic Records. So what happens is, Mike Caren ultimately is the songwriter. He’s the executive, but he is ultimately the songwriter. Because what Mike Caren will do is he will say, “I like this track, and Hookman, come in Tuesday and write some hooks. Oh, I love this part.” Then he’ll say, “Richard, come in Wednesday, because I don’t like this verse.” And he will piece together a chorus and a pre-chorus and put Flo Rida on it and it will go to #1. He’s a genius. He’s been doing it forever, and as an executive he knows how to pull that off. And there are a few other producers who kinda oversee, almost like Dr. Dre and Dr. Luke, where they are more the overall visionary of the song, and they keep putting pieces together until they’re happy. So that’s kind of how it can happen.
It’s like Frankenstein’s lab.
Marlin: It’s Frankenstein. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it really does work, but, you know, there are people in the business who don’t like it.
Richard: There are producers these days that come in after the fact, you know, because they’re not making money on the production point side of it anymore, [so] they want a piece of the publishing. I just did a song with this girl—kind of a Country/Pop artist—and the Jackie Boyz came in and did production on the record, and they wanted 10% of the publishing and the writing for doing the production on it, because they’re just not going to make any money on the backend on the production.
"Eventually someone at a high level is going to say, ‘Hey, I really like that song, let’s write something together.’ It is a journey, and you just have to be patient."
TAXI members ask me this question all the time. “Can I just be a songwriter, or do I have to be able to produce great tracks as well?” As a songwriter, can you make it today if you’re not either collaborating with a producer who can make kickass tracks, or do it yourself? Can you just sit down with an acoustic and write a hit and get it cut?
Jason: I’ll say I don’t do tracks, and it depends on the genre. If I’m writing a Country song or an acoustic Americana song I’m writing with an artist, that’s fine. I don’t need to worry about a track. I can hire a demo service and they’ll do a track afterwards. But if I’m writing Pop, Pop/R&B, Pop/Rock I won’t do it unless I’m writing with the track producer. I mean, that’s just my reality. I’m not saying that that’s for everybody else. Now, turning that around, I will say I had some hits in Europe not that long ago that I did not write with… Well, one of them I wrote with the track producer, but the other two I didn’t, where I just pitched the song. It’s rare. Literally, I don’t do it. I write to the track because that producer is working on a project and brings me in. And that’s not the way it always was, and I would prefer that it not be that way. But in those genres that’s my experience. So, you know what? Instead of that sounding horrible and daunting, it just means your job is to find the right co-writer—people who do amazing tracks.
Marlin: That’s what I was about to say. I think all of us would agree that the job of a songwriter is to eventually identify their most talented part of the song. So you may be really good at lyrics, but you may be amazing at melody. Focus on melody and find lyric people to help you. You may have OK melodies, but if you can really paint a picture with words, you want to collaborate with people that have better melodies. Because at the end of the day, it’s really gonna be the best of the best of the best that find its way somewhere important. Does that make sense? Does everybody do that?
Allan: Also, the other thing is, you have to remember every time… Listen, pitching is almost obsolete today. It’s very hard to go and pitch a song like we used to do. When I first got into this business, if I wrote a great song, I knew that it might take a little while, but I knew it was going to get recorded. That are no assurances like that at all today, I don’t feel.
"The minute you heard ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ you knew that was a #1 song. The minute you hear certain songs, you just know from hearing it, or there’s something in the track, or there’s a hook. And that’s what you guys have to strive to do."
So what has replaced pitching?
Allan: Yes, with a producer or a track person.
Richard: Or having the artist in the room is probably the best thing you can have right now.
Allan: But that’s difficult. Wherever it is you are, you have to look around to find the best of, you know, the level that you’re at. Because it’ll raise your level, and it’ll also—if it’s a great song—eventually, because there’s a lot of places like TAXI and a lot of other places that you can show your songs. Eventually people are going to get to know your name if you keep on writing great songs and you submit them.
Like Debra Grusin… Are you here in the audience? Hi, I didn’t know you were here. See, I was talking about you. Now, Debra and I don’t really know each other that well, but I know her because she’s always winning all these contests and her name is always… So I know that she’s on the right track. Whatever she’s doing she’s getting attention; people are getting to know her name; and she’s writing high-quality songs. So I did not know you were here, but I was talking about you.
So that’s what you have to do, and eventually someone’s gonna notice, and then someone’s gonna want to write a song… Eventually someone at a high level is going to say, “Hey, I really like that song, let’s write something together.” It is a journey. It is a journey, and you just have to be patient. You know, the kids today want to be famous tomorrow, but I’m used to knowing that it’s a journey that you have to travel and be patient and do good work and try to get better at it and try to make more contacts and try to write great songs. You know, you have to be in it for the long hall, and just strive to really be great, because every time you do pitch a song—even the few times you can pitch a song—you are pitching it with the best songwriters in the world.
You may not even be in the batch that they are in, so you’re going to have to draw some attention to the A&R person by having a great title, by having a great track—because you have about 30 seconds and he’s on the phone while he’s listening anyway. So you have to do something within a title, why he’s going to listen to your song above somebody else’s. You just have to come from a unique viewpoint and write something that is different, something that is left-of-center, something that’s not generic to try to get attention. Listen, the minute you heard “I Kissed a Girl,” you knew that was a #1 song. The minute you hear certain songs, you just know from hearing it, or there’s something in the track, or there’s a hook. And that’s what you guys have to strive to do, because you have to come from a higher level just to get in the game.
"I think you have to have a desire to want to produce. You have to have that thing when you look at Garageband or Logic or Pro Tools and you kind of geek out about it. I think you have to have something that draws you to that side of it to get good at it, because there is a hell of a learning curve there."
Richard: Can I just add one little point? Getting back to your original question, actually, about do you have to be able to produce? I think you have to have a desire to want to produce. You have to have that thing when you look at Garageband or Logic or Pro Tools and you kind of geek out about it. I think you have to have something that draws you to that side of it to get good at it, because there is a hell of a learning curve there.
But I also think that everybody who is a songwriter should dip their hand into it, to look at it. They are so cheap. I mean, Logic is like $200 now, which is not a huge investment in your career. Garageband is free. So you can really start to play around with these things.
And also, if you’re an artist, there is absolutely the biggest death knell of your career would be if you go into a producer and say, “Please produce my music,” because they’ll produce it the way they want to produce it and the way they want to hear it. If you understand what it is you’re trying to get at in terms of what you want your music to sound like, the elements you want in there, you should have some idea of the elements and how it’s going to sound, and maybe have some fix on some of the production. So at least you can present your ideas with maybe some bells and whistles and some weird shit going on in the track. And you go, “I know it sounds like rubbish, but this is kind of what I’m trying to do with the song.” And also, if you can produce to a certain level, then you might start making some money off of the TV and film sync side, which obviously, I know, is a whole other discussion. So that adds a little bit extra to the question you asked in the beginning.
Don’t miss Part 3 of this panel in next month’s TAXI Transmitter.