What does it take to write songs for name artists?

I took some time at Midem 2010 to put a question to David Stark, publisher of SongLink. His tipsheet provides some of the best tips in the business, hooking up major artists with songs. The “names” have included Tina Tuner, James Blunt, Kim Wilde and many others. Publishers and songwriters use SongLink obviously to get their songs on the shortlist. So the obvious question was: what does it take to write for a name artist?

You’ll find the answer here.

6 comments to “What does it take to write songs for name artists?”
6 comments to “What does it take to write songs for name artists?”
  1. As someone who spends time listening to other peoples’ songs with a view to pitching them to established artists I can certainly say what may hold you back.

    1 Long intros – if it doesn’t catch my attention from the outset I will not listen. Harsh but true, when you have a lot to get through you simply do not waste time.

    2 Bad production – I want to hear EITHER a totally flawless pop production of a quality that you would expect to hear on the radio, OR a simple but well recorded piano or guitar vocal that shows the songwriting off.

    3 No quality control – Before you send anything out to anyone, check the honest opinions of some peers. Only send your BEST work. It will only taint your future relationship with the person you wish to impress if you send inferior material that really doesn’t compare with what is on the charts

    4 Ignoring the brief – If you send something that is a mile away from what is being asked for you will not gain a favourable response.

    5 Old fashioned writing – It is VITAL to keep up to date with what is going on NOW in your chosen genre. If the majority of what you are listening to for pleasure is over 2 years old you seriously need to review your listening habits.

    I hope some of that was helpful – if it sounded harsh, ask yourself if you are too removed from the realities of the business.

    Good Luck!

  2. Hi There, My name is Jerry and I have been a song writer and musician for over 25 years.
    I consider myself a song writer simply because I feel I write good songs – not necessarily obvious ‘commercial’ songs, but songs with a sustenance that have been influenced by a plethora of the major influential artists of our time – indeed, ‘Legends’ of the business.
    Today however these songs may likely be pushed to the side, or worse, thrown in the trash, because of somewhat contradictory standards. I personally think the words ‘commercial’ and ‘pop’ should be taken away, or at the very least, explained better to those wishing to have a serious career as a songwriter in the industry. More on this in a second.

    In response to Sue Ballingall’s comments – which, i have to say, although they may sound blunt, are at least honest, according to her own experience – I would like to make a few comments and question a few of those bullet points above, if i may, and base them on this particular criteria for the budding song creator.

    I think it is fair to assume that most people who own any piece of the widely available, advanced technology would consider themselves to be song writers, perhaps because they can easily mask a poorly written lyric or melody into something that sounds half good. This is by no means a generalisation of a certain genre or age of writer, indeed, this technology is available for most people of all ages and abilities with a computer and some experience of playing – although, this doesn’t even seem to be the case in many instances anymore – let’s face it, the computer can do it all for you! But specifically, for those asking ‘what it takes to pitch songs to a named artist’ or even ‘how do i get someone to listen or approve my material as a song writer’, it’s maybe not as simple as is described.

    LONG INTROS….agreed, anything which makes the listener want to switch-off before it’s even got into the meat of the song is a no-no – depending however, on who or what you are pitching for. Let’s take Daft Punk as an example, one of their most popular songs takes nearly 2 minutes to get to the verse!

    BAD PRODUCTION…I agree, because of the technology available, there really is no excuse these days why someone cannot create a great-SOUNDING track, or even ‘piano/guitar ballad’ – BUT, again, this really depends on the listeners definition of ‘pop’ or ‘commerciality’ – let’s face it, one minute they could be playing Adele or Tinie Tempah, the next minute they could be buying into an old Stevie Nicks song…so this still remains a little vague to me, and something that i feel is largely overlooked whenever the question is asked ‘what is required’ – it doesn’t really give the budding songwriter a real insight into whether their songs are viable for today’s culture, or later on down the line perhaps when someone from a record company decides that ‘old jazz’ is coming back into fashion. Also, a good production doesn’t necessarily showcase a good song (see above) – and after all, that is what is ultimately required, is it not? ..anyone remember the man who wrote ‘Do You Believe In Love After Love’, nearly 20 years previously to Cher discovering it and releasing it??

    NO QUALITY CONTROL… Although I always think it’s a good idea to ask a trusted friend to give an honest opinion on your song, it’s not really the last-word on if that song is going to get anywhere – also, asking someone to choose their best ‘commercial’ material is like asking someone to choose their favourite children from a possible 100! From experience, sending something you think is a good contender for ‘the charts’ will probably be old-fashioned by the time someone releases it. And let’s be honest about the charts…it’s ever-changing – ever since we reached the noughties no one really knows what’s coming next in the charts, unless of course you are signed up to the tipsheets – even then you have to be ‘approved’ before subscribing. Approved of what you may ask?….production? Hardly fair. There could be a great song that someone throws away, just because it doesn’t sound exactly like anything else in the current charts.

    IGNORING THE BRIEF…Yes – if you are lucky enough to get a chance at pitching a song to an artist and/or publisher, you should read carefully what they require – if it is specifically something with a dance beat, or RnB-feel, then that is what you do, because once you have stepped into that arena, or been given the opportunity to pitch to someone who would otherwise throw your hard work into the trash, then you can’t blow it by not reading the brief properly, or thinking that they’ll look through your production and see the final picture when it’s re-recorded! However, if your brief just says ‘poppy-commercial’ – this is a poor brief. This is normally put on there to allow thousands of people to submit what THEY feel is their most ‘poppy’ production or most ‘commercial’ song – again, those words haunt me!!

    OLD-FASHIONED WRITING….This is a very sore point with most people who consider themselves to be good writers, full stop. I really don’t think there is a definitive explanation WHATSOEVER of ‘old-fashioned’ writing – I can probably say without fear of backlash, that most people would find and enjoy at least one Beatles song, or Stevie Wonder tune, or Queen harmony, and maybe even appreciate a Frank Sinatra melody – would this be considered old-fashioned? What if Kanye West or Eminem were to re-release it in the form of a sample? How about Amy Winehouse (God bless her) – when she first appeared it was a breath of fresh air for the music scene – her 50’s appearance, her less-than-flawless production (apparently the drums were recorded in a room in New York using just 3 or 4 microphones), add to that the ‘old-fashioned’ Ronnette’s-style harmonies, along with harsh reverbs to create the sound of ‘OLD’ styles… This was and still is classed as ‘innovative’ – not brave, not old-fashioned, but groundbreaking. A far cry from the likes of the Kings of Leon, or the Killers, who, although are very good in their own genre, would perhaps be considered more ‘mainstream’? (Oh crikey! I’ve just used one of those hideous words haven’t I!).
    And then of course there’s Duffy…again, old-style – refreshing…? She was around at the same time as Amy I think. Either way, I don’t believe there is such thing as old-fashioned writing – if a song’s good, it’s good. How we determine whether it’s good or not remains a touchy subject with most writers these days, i feel.

    These are just my comments you understand, and i feel that Sue has a valid point with regards to what publishers and signed artists might expect from a new songwriter in today’s industry – and this is not directed at Sue as a criticism to her comments as such, but instead the real question through all of this is WHY it should be this way, when a lot of the time it’s very contradictory. Let’s remove what we all THINK is ‘commercial’ or ‘pop’ or even ‘a hit song’ – there is no definition for any of it. These days there’s just ever-changing, recycled music – in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s you could hear and pidgeon-hole a genre or style – personally, i’m not so sure about the 00’s….

    Jerry Benjamin.

  3. Wow. Jerry, thanks for the comprehensive answer.

    I pitch quite a lot, to both singers and advertising. And I must say that we can rant and rail against what Sue is saying, but it is the reality for a subset of songwriters: those that want to play in the major league, those that want to be covered by the people in the top ten of the charts.

    But you’re right on many points. I think what Sue meant about “old-fashioned” writing is in terms of what is being pitched this month. Adele, Amy and others play a style that is almost 50s revival. But if that is the style that is hot, it’s not old-fashioned. I’m sure you get what I mean.

    I’ve also been listening to releases for some advertising recently, and it’s amazing the difference it makes when you listen to a song for a specific reason. Filters kick in and very quickly you can discard (or love) a track for specific criteria.

    But this is a very specific area of writing. Those that write for the love of it – and thank Smurf these people still exist- should do what they do best. There’s nothing worse than bending yourself all out of shape – and then failing anyway! Follow your path. At some stage, this might tick enough boxes to please someone else, in which case things might happen.

    Concerning stuff being “thrown away”. Yep, I do it all the time to others. And my stuff is also thrown aside on a very regular basis. The answer is to either: update the song or demo, move on to something else or – if you really believe in it – to bring it to the success you think it deserves. Maybe that’s just having it as the highpoint of your own gigs. Maybe that’s having someone local sing it. Maybe it will get some spins on local but not national radio. Don’t get bogged down by your catalogue, keep adding to it.

    As you’ve been writing for 25 years, I’m sure you know what I’m saying.

    My only real advice to any writers out there that are wondering ‘what about me?’ is to write a lot and write with someone better than you, whether that be in lyrics, music or production. Keep upgrading those skills. Keep learning. Aim high and have lots of fun. Otherwise, it’s a heart-rending lonely road to take.

    Michael
    PS: feel free to drop a link to your stuff if you think it’s ready for the wild mob on the infobahn.

  4. Hi, many thanks for your reply.
    I can appreciate everything you are saying, and yes, i do understand there are certain requirements that song writers and producers have to conform to in order to be taken seriously in the ‘new world’ of pop and commerciality. Agreed, it is a lonely road for someone who decides to do something different and inspiring – but that is what we decide as half-decent, storytelling, thoughtful song writers is it not? We should be aware of that possible road to nowhere when we first embark on our journey. It’s an art, and that’s why we love it. I’ve been writing 25 years and i could name a thousand writers that have taken me over, and probably only written 10 songs in their entire life, but all of those songs have been published in some way! Does this mean i’m a bad writer? Or is it confirming? Luck? ..Who was the first guy who looked at Jackson Pollock’s first piece of artwork and said ‘No No, keep it simple’ or ‘It’s not Da Vinci is it?, it’s just a load of blobs!’…Or was he lucky that the first person who saw it said ‘Wow! That’s different – the art world needs this!’

    But i digress – Let’s for a second go back to the question that still remains – WHO decides what is good now and what isn’t? What is deemed as ‘commercial’ and ‘poppy’ – and of course, who decides what commercial and poppy actually IS by it’s own description…it could be any one of those artists mentioned, but it also could be something that is up and coming, just not the right time to be promoted to the charts yet. In which case, as i mentioned previously, any song is good enough so long as it is memorable in some way… Because unlike the words ‘commercial’ and ‘pop’ or ‘mainstream’ – the words ‘catchy’ and ‘hooky’ have been around for years and years, and in my opinion, are more of a standard to work towards, as writers we can define it better – ‘catchy’ means memorable either by lyric or by melody, or both. ‘Hooky’ could mean a great chorus or something which stands out in the track that’s easily remembered… Whereas ‘Pop’ derives from the word ‘popular’ (largely undefinable), ‘commercial’ means basically anything on the TV or Radio (vague) – there is no OBVIOUS commercial track – if it’s played 8 times a day on the station, it’ll be a hit, whether we like it or not! – with respect to our friend Adele for instance, her track Chasing Pavements was not what I would call (in this day and age), a typical commercial song. In fact, that’s why it was so popular i believe. She stood out. Either that or it was a lucky break, she ticked the right boxes all of a sudden. Similarly, who was the first person to come up with the idea for the track ‘Ooh Stick You, Your Mama Too’?!! ..Can you categorise this is the same ‘pop’ frame as Adele? It’s on the same radio station!

    If i were an artist creating my own songs for myself to perform (or advertise), then i wouldn’t care as much about conforming to what is, in a very general sense, ‘pop industry standards’ – I would be creating my own mark, my own status, and hopefully, like you quite rightly point out, my own audience or set of people for whom it ticks the right boxes. And it wouldn’t necessarily matter how long it took. Because of today’s social media sites and ability to create your own advertising it’s fairly easy. I couldn’t argue if those songs were not bought-into right away, or didn’t quite fit into the charts – because i’ve decided as an artist to be different, to create my own sound.
    But that isn’t to say that what i’m WRITING as a writer isn’t good enough for the likes of Maroon 5, Rihanna, Pixie Lott, Amy, Adele, etc.. it just means that THEY themselves haven’t thought of the song concept yet and haven’t decided (or the record company hasn’t decided) to try out new material, or something that is even slightly different to what they may be performing now. So what we’re saying is it’s only when they make that decision, our writing (as new and in some cases, innovative writers) will be noticed?

    Basically we’re in a day and age where it doesn’t necessarily take the song to change an opinion anymore – it takes the attitude and opinion of the industry itself. That’s the only time other inspiring writers will be heard. I’m sure most of us have been in the studio when the producer has said ‘No No, let’s keep it simple’ or ‘That’s too clever for pop’ – Too clever?? – As i’m sure a lot of us have been sitting down to write a new track, but don’t know where to start – is it really because we’re trying to be different? or is it because we’re trying not to be?
    For now, I would say, if you’re eager to write something that’s different, that’s fresh, witty, melodic, beautiful, or has, in your opinion, some substance to it – or if you’re the person that sits for days on end with writers block trying to think of something that will touch people’s soul – just remember our friends ‘Ooh Stick You Your Mama Too’ – and you’ll never have writers block again!
    I say keep throwing your s*** at the wall – some of it is bound to stick!
    Forgive me if this opinion has gone off the rail somewhat. If i can’t have anything else i can still keep passionate, can i not?!

    J.

  5. Concerning “Ooh Stick You…”, there have always been novelty songs. Remember “Shadappa Ya Face” and even “Who Let the Dogs Out”? I wouldn’t use them as a barometer for anything other than radio’s need to have catchy fluff on the air occasionally.

    M

  6. Helo I am dyslexic so this will b fun for u to read started writing 2 years ago naw 50 years old and at larst found a pen and have written some hopefully some good lyrics and suffer post traumatic sters disorder wich is wear a lot off my stuff comes from not to depressing u wont b swinging from the ceiling hopefully yours jc

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