Here is the story of how professional songwriting works:
One hundred people go to a firing range to take target practice. Of that hundred people, ninety of the shooters are wearing blindfolds. They can’t see a thing. Not surprisingly, they’ re blasting off bullets in every direction—in the air, in the ground, behind them, at each other. Nothing is hitting the target except by sheer luck.
Of the remaining ten people, five of the marksmen are not wearing blindfolds, but they have poor vision and they’re not wearing their eyeglasses. So these five people can see the target vaguely, but it’s very blurry, and they can’t focus enough to really get all that close to the bullseye with any consistency.
The final five shooters have normal 20-20 vision, and they’re not wearing blindfolds. They’re staring straight at the target and pulling the trigger. While they’re not hitting their mark every time, they’re consistently able to get somewhere near the center of the target.
Have you ever wondered how it is that some songwriters (like Dr. Luke, Will.I.Am, Max Martin, RedOne, Alicia Keys, or Ryan Tedder at this particular moment in time) can consistently come up with hit song after hit song, while the vast majority of songwriters struggle to even get a cut? As a publisher, I certainly have.
One of the first things I noticed when I entered the world of music publishing after having been a songwriter for many years, was the vast imbalance that characterizes the writer roster of almost every publisher in the music business. If you’re fortunate enough to be having success at all, it’s almost always one or two writers who are generating all the activity that sustains the company, while the rest of the writers are struggling even to pay back the cost of their demos. Ironically, the writers who are making the hits that pay the bills are usually the ones a publisher is least likely to hear from—they are usually self-contained, self-sufficient business entities that rarely need the creative input of the professional manager at the publishing company. For a publisher acquiring new talent, the question is:
What are these writers doing differently than everyone else?
That question came back to me this week, as I was asked to speak to a group of up and coming songwriters at the New York ASCAP Songwriter Workshop—a fantastic group of young songwriters, selected based on songs they submitted, who participate in a short series of meetings intended to help them along their path as writers, producers and artists. These are people who have the talent, and in some cases, have already started to make an impact with their music. Still, they are faced with the challenge that greets every young, developing songwriter, and every publisher who is in the business of finding and developing talent:
How do you move beyond being a talented songwriter on an artistic or technical level, to being a successful professional songwriter on a financial level?
That’s a tough question, and it’s getting tougher all the time. In giving professional, real-world advice to people pursuing a career as songwriters, it would be very easy to simply say, “Don’t”. Having been a songwriter myself in a career that spans almost 20 years, I can honestly say that I don’t think the environment for new artists, writers or producers has ever been more challenging than it is right now. Of course, it’s true that there are more opportunities to distribute or expose your music than ever before, and viable DIY models that did not exist even a decade ago. Still, the professional realities are that sales are falling drastically (whether it’s for DIY product or major label superstars), fewer and fewer artists are recording outside material, fewer labels are signing or breaking new artists, and the level of sync fees and other forms of income are plummeting as well. It’s not a pretty picture. The obvious advice would be to look for some other form of self-abuse to engage in.
And yet, there are success stories every day. Four years ago, I went to see RedOne at his studio, just after he had moved to Manhattan—there were no hits at that point, but the buzz was building. Today, he’s announcing his own label deal, and topping the charts with Lady Gaga. A year after I first met RedOne, the company I work with, Shapiro Bernstein & Co, signed a deal that allowed us to represent a French DJ and producer, David Guetta in the US. Guetta was already a superstar in France and much of Europe at the time, but not well-known in the United States. Since then, he’s had hits ranging from “I Gotta Feeling” with the Black Eyed Peas to “Sexy Chick” with Akon to “Club Can’t Handle Me” with Flo Rida. On paper, songwriting makes playing the lottery look like a conservative business strategy. Nevertheless, success happens everyday.
In fact, as an A&R person, I can’t even say that success is terribly hard to predict. If you’ve been doing this for awhile, and you’ve learned to recognize the vibe of a hit songwriter, it’s actually not all that difficult to predict which upcoming songwriters will one day hit the jackpot. I always say—it’s easy to spot the writers who will make hits. The challenging part is to determine when they’ll make them. For publishers, it’s not enough to know that someone will one day be successful. You need to know if he or she will be successful during the three or four year span that you have them under contract.
So what are those signs that mark a songwriter who will defy the odds and go from up and coming to become the sound of the moment? What do you look for as a publisher to identify those potential superstars? What can you do as a songwriter to move up the ladder into the circle of successful hitmakers? Here are two fundamental qualities that make all the difference between having the potential for success, and actually realizing that potential:
1. Successful songwriters know who they are.
Whether you write for yourself as an artist, for your band, or for outside artists, the first step toward success as a songwriter requires defining who you are and what you do. That’s harder than it sounds, because it involves being realistic and objective about your own work, which is something that many songwriters never quite master. As I often mention in my class, Music Publishing 101, one of the values of embracing your role as your own music publisher is that it forces you to take a more critical view of your own work—seeing what you do well, where your shortcomings are, what styles you excel at and which you struggle with—and challenges you to take steps to shore up any weaknesses in your songs.
Songwriters who become successful generally have a very clear view of where their particular gifts lie, what makes them special, and what help they need to compensate for their shortcomings. Certainly, they can take criticism and even embrace it, if they think it’s well-founded. But more importantly, they don’t need criticism, because they are already acting as their own toughest critic. They are constantly searching to find the musical styles, writing collaborations, working environments, and business structures that allow them not just to experiment or create, but to excel.
Then, once they find who they are and how they work best, the successful songwriters FOCUS. It’s hard to think of any of the top A-level songwriters that don’t have a pretty narrow approach about what they do. Ryan Tedder, the primary writer for OneRepublic as well as for artists like Beyonce and Leona Lewis, is the most diverse I can think of, and even he moves in a pretty restricted area that crosses between pop rock and pop urban, often crafting songs in either genre which are fairly similar, except for the production values and lyrical point of view. In general, most successful artists and songwriters have learned to specialize and to become experts in one specific area or style. They don’t try to do everything. Instead, they know themselves enough to realize that they need to do not what they do well, but what they do best.
There’s also another reason they’ve learned to focus their efforts in one particular area:
2. Successful songwriters know their audience.
Again, no matter if you write for yourself as an artist, for your band, or with the hopes of having other artists record your songs, the secrets of successful songwriters hold true. In addition to knowing who they are as songwriters or artists, the people who manage to be effective in this business have an intuitive, deep, respectful knowledge of who the people are that will support their music. In some cases, songwriters may be writing for people very like themselves—most rock bands, for example, tend to resemble their audience. In other cases, the songwriter may be from an entirely different generation, background or gender than the audience he or she appeals to.
But as Rakim said, “it ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at”. Dr. Luke would never be mistaken for the 13 year old girls that make up the audience for Ke$ha or Katy Perry, but he is very clearly aware that they are his audience, and he intuitively understands what they want from a song, what interests them, how they speak, and what they aspire to. This is likely why Luke doesn’t write country songs—because he knows himself, and he knows that he doesn’t have an accurate picture of that particular audience in the way that Brett James or Hillary Lindsey might. Popular songs reflect the values and interests of the audience they serve. Not surprisingly then, every successful artist or songwriter has a very clear idea of who their core demographic audience is, and has gleaned as many details about that group of people as possible:
Other favorite bands
How and Where They Listen to Music
Why They Listen to Music
It’s a lot of knowledge to accumulate. That explains why top hitmakers don’t try to have a cursory knowledge about dozens of different genres, but rather prefer to FOCUS, so that they can become experts in one specific area. The reason that Kanye West can make bold records like the one he previewed at the VMA’s a few weeks ago is because he knows his audience, and he understands how they will react. Toby Keith understands his audience just as clearly. David Guetta knows how dance music fans will respond to a particular record, because he studies them at 200 DJ gigs a year. And yet, incredibly, most of the new developing artists I meet can barely articulate who their target audience is, much less describe them with any degree of accuracy. Most songwriters have never given it a moment’s thought.
If you don’t know who will like your music, or who it is intended to speak to, the record company, radio programmers, publishers and music supervisors probably won’t be able to figure it out either. That means the music can’t be marketed— because no one can market to an audience that includes everyone, everywhere. Just as importantly, if you can’t target your market, it’s very unlikely that you’ll happen to create what the market wants or needs. Which leads us back to our original story…
It’s isn’t hard to predict that the five people who are not wearing blindfolds, and who don’t need glasses, will hit the bullseye more often than the other 95 shooters. It’s because they can see the target in front of them, they understand what they’re trying to do, and then they’re taking AIM. Most songwriters never take aim. It’s almost as if they feel it’s cheating. Meanwhile, a tiny number of writers hit the mark over and over again.
Very often, the primary difference between a good, developing songwriter and a hitmaker is not one of talent. It’s strategy. Successful songwriters and artists have learned to think strategically about what they do and who they’re doing it for. Sometimes that process takes years. Sometimes it doesn’t last. If you study once successful artists or songwriters whose careers have faded, it’s usually because success led them to lose sight of their own strengths and weaknesses, or to lose touch with their core audience. Still, the sooner you start to focus and take aim, the sooner you’re likely to start having a real impact in this industry.
For publishers, helping developing songwriters to think strategically is the single most productive thing we can do. For all of the technical and legal aspects that are explored during my 12 week course at Berkleemusic.com, the primary mission of Music Publishing 101 has always been, and continues to be, to help songwriters begin to put together a strategic plan for their music. The goal is to be able to hear your work objectively, assess your strengths and weaknesses, focus your efforts on the most productive markets, and formulate a plan to bring the music to its target audience. That’s how music makes money.
This week is the start of the fall semester at Berkleemusic.com, but there’s still time to register for the newly revamped Music Publishing 101. In an environment as difficult as the one in the current music industry, it’s not enough to be talented. After all, there’s an ASCAP Writer Workshop every year, full of writers with infinite potential. The challenge is to separate yourself from all of the aspiring artists and writers, and start to build a professional career. If that’s what you’re hoping to do, this course may be what helps you find your path to success.