I had an opportunity this week to speak with two different groups of developing songwriters and producers, one at the ASCAP Songwriters Workshop, the other at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University. Besides the obvious benefit of getting out of work early and meeting a bunch of promising young songwriters, producers and aspiring music business weasels, these kinds of forums offer oldsters like me a chance to think for at least a minute or two (I’m not one to over-prepare) about what insight we might be able to offer to those preparing to build a career in the music biz, and what advice we might want to give.

Actually, the first thing I usually think when preparing for such meetings is: What the hell do I have to say and why should anyone listen to it? One of my favorite quotes about show business was from Eddie Murray– when asked what advice he would give to young people, his answer was “Never take anyone’s advice”. Which is actually pretty sound, particularly given the fact that everyone in the entertainment business seems to have an entirely unique path that led them to wherever they are.

But perhaps that’s the point. In pondering the relevance of anything I might have to say to a group of songwriters or students, I realized that the one valuable thing I can offer is a somewhat unique background, having spent fifteen or more years as a professional songwriter and record producer, then a subsequent decade as an A&R person for a variety of music publishing companies, from a mid-size publisher (Zomba Music) to a major publisher (Sony ATV) to a small independent company (Shapiro Bernstein). My sort of dual-track background, with a significant amount of time logged on both the creative and the business ends of the spectrum, does not guarantee that my point of view is relevant or interesting, or even accurate. But it does offer a perspective that is somewhat unique.

It’s not hard to find people ready to share a great deal of knowledge about songwriting who have never had the experience of making a difficult A&R decision: deciding which act should be signed and which should be dropped; which songs should make the album and which should be tossed off; if that new hot writer is really worth that high six-figure advance, and whether you’re prepared to bet your job on it. Say what you will about the foolishness of the music business weasel, but those kinds of decisions definitely have a way of clarifying your views about music and refining your judgment.

At the same time, there is no shortage of music business executives who are more than happy to offer their opinion about what you as a songwriter should be writing, or how a song should have been written, or what styles are in and out, or what seven hit songs (in entirely different genres) should somehow be combined into the perfect new song for their act, all without ever having had the experience themselves of sitting down with a guitar or piano and a blank piece of paper. Seems easy till you try it.

The one valuable thing I can offer is that I’ve lived on both sides of the street. In fact, since I moved from being a songwriter and producer to being an A&R person, much of my time and thought has been spent trying to reconcile the two experiences, and derive some kind of perspective that might be useful to other developing songwriters and producers. There are plenty of things that I see now, as a music industry executive, that I couldn’t see as a music creator, and I wish I could have. When I speak to groups like the one at ASCAP or NYU, all I can offer is a real-life, bottom-line picture of the music business, born of my own experience.

Whether it’s in my books, Making Music Make Money and The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell, my online class, “Music Publishing 101″ at Berkleemusic, this blogspace, or the various talks I give at industry events, my philosophy is built on two fundamental ideas, both of which grow directly out of my experience as both a songwriter and music executive:

1. Songwriters don’t need to look for a music publisher. They need to learn to be one.

Only if a songwriter learns to be a good music publisher, and actually creates a business around his or her music, will a larger company then approach the songwriter/publisher and look for an opportunity to partner, invest, and build the business together. It always starts with a songwriter taking control of his or her catalog, and learning to generate income from it. Until that happens, no publisher will be interested in getting involved.

The truth is, songwriting is not a job. Songwriting is just something you do. There is no actual financial transaction at the core of songwriting. Taking a song and generating income from it is the work of a music publisher. Until a songwriter takes on that role of creating a viable business, nothing will happen. No one is looking to sign a publishing deal for a set of songs that are sitting in a desk drawer. Publishers want to partner with people who already have something up and running.

This realization grew out of my experience as a publisher, particularly when working with A-level songwriters like Billy Mann, Steve Diamond, Gary Baker, Stargate and others. What I noticed was that the busiest, most successful writers often had less contact with their publishers than many of the less-effective writers on the roster. This was because the top writers weren’t looking for someone to run their business, or to create every opportunity for them. They had already built a successful company around their music. They wanted someone to help expand their business, generate new opportunities, and relieve some of the administrative burdens.

As a songwriter, you are your own publisher as soon as you complete your first song. The successful writers accept that responsibility, and learn to be effective at making their music make money. That was the underlying theme of my first book, and it is the foundation of “Music Publishing 101″– a class that actually takes you, week by week, through the process of setting up your own publishing company.

2. Songwriters succeed consistently when they learn to tell the difference between a good song, a great song, and a hit song.

You don’t have to be in the songwriting game for long before you learn that everyone is looking for a “hit”. The problem is, no one seems to be clear as to exactly what a “hit” is. Most beginning songwriters think they write one every week. Most experienced, veteran songwriters think they write one per month. Most A&R people, drawing upon all of the top songwriters around the world, hope and pray to find one or two a year. The problem is that the beginning songwriter thinks that a “hit” means “a good song”. The experienced writer interprets it to mean “a great song”. Meanwhile, the A&R person is looking for something entirely different.

When an A&R person is looking for a “hit”, he or she is really talking about a “first single”. That’s the song that will traditionally be released six weeks prior to an album as a way of sparking interest in the artist and the upcoming release. If it’s an established act, the first single will re-introduce the artist into the marketplace and hopefully re-ignite the interest of the audience. If the single is for a new artist, it will be the primary thing responsible for taking a “nobody” and making them “somebody”. That’s a huge order, and it goes beyond something being a “great song”. It is a very specific kind of song, capable of fulfilling a very specific function.

A first single, by definition, has to do more than simply be a “catchy” song. Most of the time, it needs to work at radio, or at least in some kind of media venue. For that reason, it’s almost always uptempo, as most media outlets rely on energy and fast-pacing to keep their audience entertained. It has to fit a specific radio format, or at least target a very clear and specific audience. It must define the artist, giving the audience a sense of his or her individual identity, attitude, and musical style. It needs to be provocative, or funny, or surprising, or trendy or shocking enough that it cuts through all the other records being released at the same time. A first single is not only a great song. It’s a song that can make someone a star.

The Billboard Guide to Writing and Producing Songs That Sell is all about the challenge of creating those breakthrough first singles– it includes interviews with writers like Stargate, Midi Mafia and Darrell Brown, as well as industry execs like David Massey, Daniel Glass, and Hosh Gureli. There are plenty of books about songwriting, covering basics like rhyme schemes, song form, and basic harmony. This is not one of them. This is a book about discovering the difference between a song and a “hit”.

Of course, the great thing about offering up advice to developing writers and publishers is that one never knows how it turns out. Some will take the advice and prosper. Some will ignore it, and prosper nevertheless. Others will take all the advice that they can get, and things simply won’t work out. Unfortunately, career attempts in show business don’t come with a money-back guarantee.

I don’t offer much in the way of predictions, but I am confident of this: songwriters that learn to make something happen with their music by being effective music publishers themselves will be the ones most sought-after by A&R people like myself, and the ones most likely to be successful should they decide to partner with a larger publishing company. And songwriters who can learn to write “first singles” will always find more than enough opportunities, even in a shrinking business environment. A band with one sure-fire hit single will get a record deal long before a band with ten strong songs. A talented artist without a strong first single will see their album delayed, postponed, and maybe even dropped if they can’t come up with the one song that a label feels will work at radio or as the catalyst for a marketing campaign. And a songwriter who writes “hits” will be discovered, sooner or later.

It’s my birthday this weekend– and I’m gradually adjusting to the fact that I’m an industry veteran. Can’t say that I enjoy being the oldest guy in the room, but it does offer some security when offering up opinions.Take the advice if it’s useful– ignore it (like Eddie Murphy says) if it’s not. It may not be the world as you’d like it to be, but after quite a few years as both a songwriter and music weasel, I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s the world as I’ve seen it. Hope it helps…

What a week for songwriters and publishers. In the hopes of cutting down the travel costs for everyone in LA, the music publishing and songwriting community seems to have decided to cram all of their NY events into one week, which just so happened to be the last one. On Wednesday there was the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) luncheon, featuring a live interview with Lava Records president and resident music business raconteur Jason Flom, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) cocktail party and annual meeting. Then the next day, all the same faces got together for a big night out at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards dinner, an event in which several prominent songwriters each year are invited to be part of a Hall of Fame that after 40 years, still fails to exist in anything but the formidable imaginations of the leaders of the institution. It’s an apt metaphor for the week, actually, in that many discussions are had, much food is consumed, many cocktails imbibed, and in the end, no one has much to show for it all. Meanwhile, back at the office, royalty earnings are in a free fall. Oh well.

Despite the absurdity of a Hall of Fame that has no actual hall, I do have to compliment the Songwriters Hall of Fame on mounting an inspiring evening, which featured amazing performances from a vast array of artists ranging from Bebe Winans, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Chris Daughtry, and Bon Jovi to Andy Williams, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (from the Fifth Dimension), Clint Black and Jason Mraz. And that doesn’t even include the stellar cast of songwriters who were honored:

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
Crosby Stills and Nash
Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway
Stephen Schwartz
“Hair” composers Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Jason Mraz

What I found particularly interesting about the evening were the acceptance speeches themselves, and the common themes that kept popping up in the thoughts of each legendary songwriter, despite their coming from several different genres and generations. Of course, there was the appreciation of those who had opened doors: early music teachers, early believers in their talent, executives willing to take a gamble, and long-time collaborators who had been there through thick and thin. It’s worth remembering that even as isolated and personal a craft as songwriting is, it is not something one can ultimately do alone. As I say so often in my class at Berkleemusic, Music Publishing 101, and in my book, Making Music Make Money, you can not hope to succeed on any meaningful level without a core team around you– whether it’s fellow songwriters, A&R people, a lawyer, a manager, a handful of interns or all of the above. You can create alone, but you can’t survive as a creator without the help of others who believe in you and what you’re doing.

More importantly, however, the message that seemed to show up in almost every speech from the new members of the Hall of Fame, was the idea of music as a universal language, a way of effecting change, or of touching other people. The idea of songwriting as COMMUNICATION. And it came up again and again, from each writer who accepted an award. Interestingly, what did not get mentioned, or at least not in any notable way, was the idea of songwriting as personal EXPRESSION– a forum to give voice to one’s inner emotional life, to offer opinions on social or political issues, or to exorcise personal demons.

Obviously, we know that both goals, communication and expression, are part of the motivation that makes writers pick up a guitar or go to the piano with a notebook and create a new piece of music. Most of the time, I suspect that it’s the desire for personal expression that gets most writers started on their first songs– a way of letting off some emotional steam when a punching bag is unavailable or someone else is using the phone. In fact, when meeting with developing songwriters, the theme of personal expression comes up more often than anything else. There are lengthy explanations of the situation or relationship that brought the song about, then usually a long, introspective and hopefully in the end, cathartic lyric. Then finally, there is a defensive reaction to any suggestions or criticisms along the lines of “well, I’m not trying to be commercial– this is what I wanted to express”.

While that kind of desire for personal expression was undoubtedly the beginning of all of our creative urges, including those who went on to create classic songs in every different style, what the speeches at the Songwriters Hall of Fame revealed was that the process doesn’t stop there. What makes the Hall of Famers great is that somewhere in their development, they have learned to move from expression, to communication — and that made all the difference in their careers. They can use their personal experience as a window into understanding universal emotions– and their desire is to express those universal feelings in a way that can touch other people– listeners who don’t know (or care) why or how the song came to be, but relate it to their own experience and find that it has meaning. Several of the inductees spoke about the idea that there is really “one universal song” that stretches throughout time and across cultures, and that they, as individual songwriters, had simply offered their own interpretation of it. This just means that they may use their own emotions, their individual social and political agenda, or their own deep personal angst or soul-searching as the impetus for an idea– but once they move to writing the song, they seek to find the universal truth or emotion that makes the song about something larger than themselves.

As I say in my new book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell, at some point a songwriter has to decide what he or she wants to achieve with songwriting, and the ultimate choice is between expression and communication. Expression is relatively easy, and impossible to judge. If you set out to express something personal, who am I to tell you that it failed? It’s an entirely subjective process. Conversely, communication is far more difficult (how hard is it just to explain a simple task to your colleague at work?) and the success of the communication lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If I set out to communicate something and you don’t get it, then I didn’t do it right.

Objective criteria, whether it’s the size of an audience, the response of the audience, or the sales figures of a record, are all reasonably valid means of measuring how successfully a song communicates. No one watches the Billboard charts more closely than the top songwriters. They’re not content to simply express their emotions and put it out into the marketplace. They want to see whether or not people “get it”, whether or not they have touched an emotional chord.

There is a word that describes the act of writing songs for the intention of personal expression. That word is “hobby”. It’s an excellent place to start in the creative process, but not a very interesting place to end. It’s not really a question of being “commercial” versus “non-commercial”. If you write songs that communicate to others, you will find a reasonable, if variable, degree of commercial success, whether you’re Bob Dylan or Max Martin, Leonard Cohen or Jon Bon Jovi.

In an otherwise dispiriting and depressing interview at the AIMP luncheon, record label president Jason Flom (pictured) brought up what has been the elephant in the room of the music industry for over 10 years now. “Where” he asked, “have all the musical geniuses gone?” “Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?” It’s not something the industry likes to talk about– given the promo departments’ job of trying to convince the public that each new release is the seminal work of a musical genius that they can’t live without.
But it’s something that every serious person in the music business has contemplated, especially as the business has disintegrated over the past five years.

Personally, I think some of the answer lies in the balance– specifically, the balance of personal expression and communication. Somewhere over the past decade, songwriters and artists have quit trying to reach a mass audience with something universal, and settled for reaching a small group of people with a very specialized, narrowly focused, introspective yet public form of self-analysis.

Songs that are primarily intended as personal expression are no different than long, self-indulgent guitar solos, or endless pontificating by the lead singer– they are, as James Brown would have said, “talking loud, and saying nothing”. And the audience endures them, then shuffles quietly out of the club. On the other hand, songs that communicate are probably the one thing keeping the industry alive at all. In fact, they are the only reason our business can or should exist. What the great songwriters will tell you is that if you write one song that communicates on a universal level, it will change your career, as well as the lives of those who hear it. A song like that might even land you in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Wherever that may be…

What a week for songwriters and publishers. In the hopes of cutting down the travel costs for everyone in LA, the music publishing and songwriting community seems to have decided to cram all of their NY events into one week, which just so happened to be the last one. On Wednesday there was the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) luncheon, featuring a live interview with Lava Records president and resident music business raconteur Jason Flom, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) cocktail party and annual meeting. Then the next day, all the same faces got together for a big night out at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards dinner, an event in which several prominent songwriters each year are invited to be part of a Hall of Fame that after 40 years, still fails to exist in anything but the formidable imaginations of the leaders of the institution. It’s an apt metaphor for the week, actually, in that many discussions are had, much food is consumed, many cocktails imbibed, and in the end, no one has much to show for it all. Meanwhile, back at the office, royalty earnings are in a free fall. Oh well.

Despite the absurdity of a Hall of Fame that has no actual hall, I do have to compliment the Songwriters Hall of Fame on mounting an inspiring evening, which featured amazing performances from a vast array of artists ranging from Bebe Winans, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Chris Daughtry, and Bon Jovi to Andy Williams, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (from the Fifth Dimension), Clint Black and Jason Mraz. And that doesn’t even include the stellar cast of songwriters who were honored:

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
Crosby Stills and Nash
Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway
Stephen Schwartz
“Hair” composers Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Jason Mraz

What I found particularly interesting about the evening were the acceptance speeches themselves, and the common themes that kept popping up in the thoughts of each legendary songwriter, despite their coming from several different genres and generations. Of course, there was the appreciation of those who had opened doors: early music teachers, early believers in their talent, executives willing to take a gamble, and long-time collaborators who had been there through thick and thin. It’s worth remembering that even as isolated and personal a craft as songwriting is, it is not something one can ultimately do alone. As I say so often in my class at Berkleemusic, Music Publishing 101, and in my book, Making Music Make Money, you can not hope to succeed on any meaningful level without a core team around you– whether it’s fellow songwriters, A&R people, a lawyer, a manager, a handful of interns or all of the above. You can create alone, but you can’t survive as a creator without the help of others who believe in you and what you’re doing.

More importantly, however, the message that seemed to show up in almost every speech from the new members of the Hall of Fame, was the idea of music as a universal language, a way of effecting change, or of touching other people. The idea of songwriting as COMMUNICATION. And it came up again and again, from each writer who accepted an award. Interestingly, what did not get mentioned, or at least not in any notable way, was the idea of songwriting as personal EXPRESSION– a forum to give voice to one’s inner emotional life, to offer opinions on social or political issues, or to exorcise personal demons.

Obviously, we know that both goals, communication and expression, are part of the motivation that makes writers pick up a guitar or go to the piano with a notebook and create a new piece of music. Most of the time, I suspect that it’s the desire for personal expression that gets most writers started on their first songs– a way of letting off some emotional steam when a punching bag is unavailable or someone else is using the phone. In fact, when meeting with developing songwriters, the theme of personal expression comes up more often than anything else. There are lengthy explanations of the situation or relationship that brought the song about, then usually a long, introspective and hopefully in the end, cathartic lyric. Then finally, there is a defensive reaction to any suggestions or criticisms along the lines of “well, I’m not trying to be commercial– this is what I wanted to express”.

While that kind of desire for personal expression was undoubtedly the beginning of all of our creative urges, including those who went on to create classic songs in every different style, what the speeches at the Songwriters Hall of Fame revealed was that the process doesn’t stop there. What makes the Hall of Famers great is that somewhere in their development, they have learned to move from expression, to communication — and that made all the difference in their careers. They can use their personal experience as a window into understanding universal emotions– and their desire is to express those universal feelings in a way that can touch other people– listeners who don’t know (or care) why or how the song came to be, but relate it to their own experience and find that it has meaning. Several of the inductees spoke about the idea that there is really “one universal song” that stretches throughout time and across cultures, and that they, as individual songwriters, had simply offered their own interpretation of it. This just means that they may use their own emotions, their individual social and political agenda, or their own deep personal angst or soul-searching as the impetus for an idea– but once they move to writing the song, they seek to find the universal truth or emotion that makes the song about something larger than themselves.

As I say in my new book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell, at some point a songwriter has to decide what he or she wants to achieve with songwriting, and the ultimate choice is between expression and communication. Expression is relatively easy, and impossible to judge. If you set out to express something personal, who am I to tell you that it failed? It’s an entirely subjective process. Conversely, communication is far more difficult (how hard is it just to explain a simple task to your colleague at work?) and the success of the communication lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If I set out to communicate something and you don’t get it, then I didn’t do it right.

Objective criteria, whether it’s the size of an audience, the response of the audience, or the sales figures of a record, are all reasonably valid means of measuring how successfully a song communicates. No one watches the Billboard charts more closely than the top songwriters. They’re not content to simply express their emotions and put it out into the marketplace. They want to see whether or not people “get it”, whether or not they have touched an emotional chord.

There is a word that describes the act of writing songs for the intention of personal expression. That word is “hobby”. It’s an excellent place to start in the creative process, but not a very interesting place to end. It’s not really a question of being “commercial” versus “non-commercial”. If you write songs that communicate to others, you will find a reasonable, if variable, degree of commercial success, whether you’re Bob Dylan or Max Martin, Leonard Cohen or Jon Bon Jovi.

In an otherwise dispiriting and depressing interview at the AIMP luncheon, record label president Jason Flom (pictured) brought up what has been the elephant in the room of the music industry for over 10 years now. “Where” he asked, “have all the musical geniuses gone?” “Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?” It’s not something the industry likes to talk about– given the promo departments’ job of trying to convince the public that each new release is the seminal work of a musical genius that they can’t live without.
But it’s something that every serious person in the music business has contemplated, especially as the business has disintegrated over the past five years.

Personally, I think some of the answer lies in the balance– specifically, the balance of personal expression and communication. Somewhere over the past decade, songwriters and artists have quit trying to reach a mass audience with something universal, and settled for reaching a small group of people with a very specialized, narrowly focused, introspective yet public form of self-analysis.

Songs that are primarily intended as personal expression are no different than long, self-indulgent guitar solos, or endless pontificating by the lead singer– they are, as James Brown would have said, “talking loud, and saying nothing”. And the audience endures them, then shuffles quietly out of the club. On the other hand, songs that communicate are probably the one thing keeping the industry alive at all. In fact, they are the only reason our business can or should exist. What the great songwriters will tell you is that if you write one song that communicates on a universal level, it will change your career, as well as the lives of those who hear it. A song like that might even land you in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Wherever that may be…

Strength In Numbers

Apr 18 2009

Maybe it’s too many childhood hours spent in solitude, practicing a musical instrument or listening to an iPod. But the truth is, many songwriters and producers are loners, with a dangerous tendency to disappear for days, weeks, or even months in the caverns of the recording studio, venturing out only for the occasional coffee or slice of pizza. It’s not a healthy way to live.

More importantly, it’s not a great career strategy. Of course, there’s no substitute for putting the hours into the music-making process– you have to make hits, and hits don’t happen without some effort. Sometimes there’s no choice but to lock the doors, disconnect the phone and try to get the creative work done. But it’s also worth remembering that very few hit makers emerge from total isolation into the bright light of fame and fortune without a little help from their friends.

Just like every other kind of artist or creative business person, songwriters usually develop out of a community. More often than not, they are helped along by an ever-growing support group of true believers; people who believe in their talent and who can provide some help, guidance, or even just moral support. It might be an older, more established artist (think of Prince nurturing Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), a record label president or A&R person (like Jay-Z and LA Reid with Stargate or Clive Davis with Andrea Martin), a fellow songwriter (Ryan Tedder and Timbaland for instance), a publisher (Evan Lamberg with John Ondrasik), or a whole local scene of other bands, press and clubs (like the Seattle movement that helped
Nirvana

come to be the well know band they are or the current Williamsburg scene) who can provide the energy and insight to propel a new writer to success. Sometimes it takes a whole village to make a hit.

In case you haven’t noticed, you won’t meet those helpful people holed up in your home studio. Every now and then, it pays off to mix and mingle, maybe learn a few things from other songwriters, get the perspective of others in the industry, pick up some business hints for your publishing company, and find some strength and inspiration by being around people who are facing the same challenges that you are and surmounting them. You can call it networking if you want, but too often that implies a certain kind of self-interested, opportunistic, manipulative type of business card-distributing and glad-handing behavior that rarely fools anyone. I prefer to think of it as entering into the community of songwriters and publishers. It simply means coming to the realization that you are not in this alone, that you can benefit from the wisdom of your peers, and that you can help others by sharing with them your own experience.

In a business that is growing increasingly fragmented and isolated, with Protools systems and MySpace replacing the commercial recording studios and live venues that used to be the meeting places for the songwriting community, one of the most important events of the songwriter/publisher calendar is ASCAP’s “I Create Music” EXPO, which is being held in Los Angeles at the Renaissance Hotel next week, April 23-25.

Sponsored by ASCAP, which as the only performing rights organization governed and controlled by composers and publishers is in many ways the original and most fundamental of songwriting communities, the EXPO attracts thousands of songwriters, A&R executives, music supervisors, publishers, and educators for a comprehensive look at today’s music business. The list of panel discussions covers every possible topic of interest to professional songwriters; the array of superstar writers and artists that will be on hand is overwhelming. On top of that, there are exhibitors, showcases, song critique sessions, and plenty of opportunities to ask questions, gather knowledge, and meet new friends and potential collaborators. If you want to make a small investment in your business, this would be a sure-fire place to find some inspiration and jump-start your songwriting and music publishing business.

If you do make it to the EXPO, I hope you’ll take a minute to say hello to me– I’ll be around most of the day on Friday, April 24. From 10:40-11:10am, in the Hollywood Ballroom Exhibit area, I’ll be talking about my new book, “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell”, and also signing some copies. If you haven’t picked up the book yet, I’d love to have a chance to tell you a little about what I think it can do for your songwriting. Later that day, from 3:15-4:30pm, I’ll be a panelist for “Publishing Songs in an International Market”, with a great group of songwriting and publishing friends. International sub-publishing is something that most songwriters don’t fully understand, and it’s something that is essential in order to take advantage of the worldwide market for popular music.

When I graduated from college and moved to New York, the first weekend I spent in NYC was to attend the New Music Seminar, at that time one of the major music conferences of the year. It was a seminal experience for me, in that it allowed me to learn the basics of the business, while at the same time, making contacts that would become my inner circle in the music biz. I met the person who gave me my first publishing deal; I met future collaborators; I saw the Beastie Boys

in one of their first public performances. I worked at a party for independent record labels at the legendary Studio 54, and felt a part of an industry that I had previously only experienced from the outside. Sadly, the New Music Seminar is no more– but there are still those opportunities to find your way into the creative community. One of the best of those opportunities is ASCAP’s “I Create Music Expo” and it only happens once a year. It’s not too late to make plans to be there!

The Clique Girlz (who?!?) made the front page of the NY Times Arts and Entertainment section, but probably not entirely in the way they or Interscope Records might have wished. This was not a “hottest new thing” story. This was a “hot new marketing concept” story. There’s a big difference.

“Sweet Deal to Promote Tweeny-Bop Girl Group” by Brooks Barnes

As the article explains, the Clique Girlz are a fairly typical teen pop act– typical in their structure (three teen-age girls from Egg Harbor Township, NJ who sing pop R&B), but also typical in professional history (millions of dollars spent, countless videos posted on YouTube, and a handful of failed singles) all adding up to a career “in danger of washing out of the entertainment industry before their first full CD comes to market”.

Yet lo and behold, the situation is not so dire after all. Inexplicably, it seems that Topps, the candy and collectibles company, has chosen the Clique Girlz as commercial spoke girls for Baby Bottle Pop, a nipple-shaped lollipop top. Oh. That can’t fail. Surely, fortune will quickly follow.

I’ve heard this one before. After five years at Zomba Music and Jive Records, the epicenter of teen pop for much of the late Nineties, and two years at Sony Music, I’ve heard it all — artists linked with toy dolls, songs in cereal boxes, CD giveaways at McDonalds, sneaker endorsements, singing action figures, and girl groups sponsored by Ragu, the pasta sauce maker (never did understand that one). The idea is invariably presented as a can’t miss proposition, by a very bright, statistic-spouting marketing whiz kid or ad agency hype-ster. It’s usually quite impressive, and inevitably greeted as a stroke of genius by desperate record label executives. And then, after months of build-up, it fails.

Here’s one truism that you can put on the wall of your studio or publishing company office:

Hit Singles break artists.

Toy dolls, product tie-ins, and nipple-shaped lollipop tops do not. If you have an act with a great first single, then all of these marketing gimmicks will just add fuel to the fire. They’re definitely a positive, but not entirely necessary. On the other hand, if you don’t have a strong first single, all of those marketing ploys are a vain effort to put a bright gloss on something that simply can’t be shined up.

Of course, the problem is finding that standout single. It’s always been easier to find a gullible corporation willing to throw their money away on a meaningless marketing stunt, than to find a genuine hit song that can break a new artist. Part of the problem is that many people in the industry don’t understand what a hit single is. Here are three key factors:

1. Singles Fit The Radio Format.
This means that they’re up-tempo; they fit a specific market and reach a clear demographic; they meet the standards of decency and length. If you can’t get it on the radio, it’s not a single.

2. Singles Define Artists.
Ultimately, singles don’t exist to sell songs. They exist to sell artists. To do that, singles have to give artists a musical identity, an attitude, a cause, or a point of view. If you’ve heard “Satisfaction”, then you understand the Rolling Stones– their musical style and their whole way of looking at the world. That’s a hit.

3. Singles Cut Through The Clutter.
It’s one thing to put thirty different videos of your act on YouTube. It’s a better idea to put up just one video of one song so outrageous, funny, catchy, or controversial that it cuts through the thirty other videos and grabs the attention of an audience. Think Soulja Boy. Think about titles that push people’s buttons, subjects that surprise people, or things that are just irresistibly fun.
The grand challenge for every songwriter, artist and A&R person is to cut through the clutter of the marketplace.

I thought about all this after I finished my first book, “Making Music Make Money”, which was, among other things, a treatise on how songwriters can effectively market their songs. Marketing is great, and I’m all for it. But it’s essential to realize that it can only take you so far. To break through to success as a publisher or songwriter, what you really need is a hit single.

That realization led to my new book,
“The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”

which is released this week and can be found at a bookstore near you. This book is all about how to craft that breakthrough song that will make doors open across the industry. It features interviews with superstar writers and producers like Stargate, Darrell Brown, and Midi Mafia, as well as A&R folks, radio programmers and record company presidents. It’s also got exercises to improve your hit writing, plenty of musical examples, and a peek at the key formulas for commercial success.

My suggestion is: before you start marketing, make sure you’ve got the goods. Check out “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”. There’s a limit to marketing. There’s no limit to what a hit song can do.