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!

Alright—-I know I’ve kept you all hanging on a cliff all week. When last we left off, all of the “track writers” among us had just been hit with the newfound knowledge that by sending out their tracks to every lyric and melody writer with whom they’ve traded business cards, they may have unwittingly given away 50% of the final song to a dozen different writers. Lyric and melody writers or “top liners” were shocked to find out that they might not be the only ones writing to that track they received from their MySpace friend. They were also rather dismayed to know that their brilliant lyric idea was no longer their own, but now belonged to the track writer as well. Tension ensued. Nervous glances between once friendly writing partners were exchanged. Lawyers were consulted. What do we do now?

In case you missed it, the most recent blog addressed the issues involved in what is the now familiar method of co-writing between “track” writers, who compose an instrumental “track”, and “top line” writers, who usually write the melody and lyric of the song. This style of collaboration has become the most common approach to songwriting, particularly in the pop, dance and urban worlds– whether it’s Lady Gaga and RedOne, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, or Ne-Yo and Stargate. The difficulty is that track writers are frequently sending their instrumental tracks out to several different top line writers (often without the knowledge of the top liners), and essentially auditioning the various writers, to see who comes back with the most commercial melody and lyric. At the same time, many melody and lyric writers are laboring under the idea that if for some reason their melody and lyric isn’t the grand prize winner over this particular track, they can simply take back that lyric and put it over a different, and hopefully, more successful track somewhere down the line.

First, let me say, despite my advanced years and traditional mindset, I do “get it”. In the early years of my songwriting career, I was primarily a composer, and “track” writer/producer. In the later years of my songwriting stint, I shifted roles and became primarily a top line writer. So I do actually know the realities at play here.

First, let it be said that there is nothing more difficult than writing a hit melody and lyric. Most track writers can deliver consistently at a B-level, and can probably nail an A-level track at least 20 or 30% of the time. The success rate for even the best lyric writers is far lower– it’s probably one in twenty ideas that really have “hit” potential. Therefore, it’s not surprising that most track writers like to have at least a couple of different writers take alternate approaches to any one track. Who wants to burn a good, commercial track just because one writer came up with a mediocre melody and lyric? Like I said, I get it.

In the same way, why would a top line writer, upon finding out that the song they’ve written is only one of fifty that share the same musical composition (and that their lyric is not the “chosen” one for that track) not take back at least a few of the best melodic and lyric ideas, and put them into a different song that might actually see the light of day? After all, great hooks or lyric concepts don’t come along every day. It all makes perfect sense.

Except that this is not the way that copyrights work. Copyright law, which is the law that defines ownership of songs, stipulates that once a copyright is created, each one of the creator’s shares in the full copyright. This means that once a new song is created, the track writer owns 50% of the lyric, in the same way that the lyric writer owns 50% of the track. No writer owns just the part that he or she wrote. They own a share in the total, complete song. You can’t remove one lyric writer from a song and substitute another, any more than you can take one lyric idea and separate it out from the track that lies underneath it. It’s all one thing.

So what do you do? How can a track writer find the best melody or lyric for his or her track, without giving ten different writers a 50% share of the same song (shades of “The Producers”)? How can top line writers avoid finding all their best work wasted on songs, which don’t even wind up using a note or a word of their writing? This is a very complex question, in an area where the lawyers, so far, have feared to tread. But here are three quick suggestions for protecting yourself as best you can, at least until this legal grey area is finally clarified:

1. Communicate.
Believe it or not, there are a few areas in the music business where honesty really is the best policy. This is one of those. If you are sending out tracks to several different top line writers, simply let them know that. A few may be offended. A few might refuse to write to the track if others are already working on it. But those are exactly the misunderstandings and bruised egos that you’re looking to avoid. Better to spot them sooner, rather than later.
Likewise, if you’ve decided that the lyric and melody you’ve written is being wasted on a track that’s going nowhere, a simple phone call may be enough to gain permission to take that lyric back, and put it over a more viable composition. Don’t let track writers hear for the first time the hook they thought was theirs, at the moment when it comes on the radio. That makes co-writers angry, it makes publishers angry, it makes other artists (who may have thought they were cutting the song) angry. That much anger can’t be good. Simple, clear communication can save a lot of headaches. 2. Clarify
It never hurts to have things in writing. Send a simple email or letter with your track that explains very frankly:
(a) This track is solely created by “Hot Track Writer” and no ownership in this track is being offered to the “Top line Writer” simply as a result of composing a melody or lyric to the track. Likewise, no ownership in the melody and lyric written by “Top line Writer” is claimed by “Hot Track Writer”.
(b) This track may be submitted to multiple writers, in an effort to solicit different melody and lyric ideas. None of these melody and lyric ideas, or the demo recordings that embody these melody and lyric ideas in combination with the track will, in and of themselves, constitute a new composition.
(c) Only upon the mutual agreement of “Hot Track Writer” and “Top line Writer” will the combination of this track and “Top line Writer’s” melody and lyric actually constitute a new composition. Should the existence of such a new composition be agreed upon by both parties, ownership of the new song will be shared equally between the two parties.
(d) Should one or both parties decline to create a new composition from their joint efforts, this track will remain solely owned and controlled by “Hot Track Writer”. Similarly, all melodic and lyric ideas will remain in the ownership of “Top line Writer”. Neither party shall have any claim on the work of the other.
You can attach a brief outline like that to an email, along with an mp3, or in an actual letter. But at least everyone knows what they’re getting into.  3. Keep things separate, but equal.
If you really want to play it safe, you could actually register your “tracks” or your “top line” as a separate composition with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, HFA or the Copyright Office. At that point, you could take the position that whatever track you decide to put your lyric over is a “derivative” composition of your original lyric– which means you own the lyric in its entirety, and you own 50% of the new song that was derived from the original composition. In the same way, a track writer could claim that the track was a separate composition, which he or she owned 100%– any song created with a lyric over the top of that instrumental track would be deemed a derivative composition.
This method is probably the most thorough approach to the issue, however it generates a great deal of paperwork and is unlikely to be a favorite approach of most publishers (or most licensing organizations). Does ASCAP really want to register a track and a derivative composition for every different song? Does your publisher find that registration process to be a worthwhile investment of time? In the real world, it’s highly costly to treat every song as three different copyrights– the original track, the original lyric, and the combination of the two. Multiply that by every song submitted to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC or HFA and you start to get some idea of the scope of the problem.

Needless to say, our efforts in this blog have been to shine some light on what is a dark secret, and a grey legal area, in the music business. There are no clear-cut standards here– only “customary ways of doing business”. What I can tell you is that silence is not golden (lack of communication leads to problems in this area), “don’t ask, don’t tell” will inevitably result in “don’t own what you thought you owned”, and playing a new game without understanding the old rules that still apply is a very dangerous venture. If you ask someone, or someone asks you, “do you wanna write to my track?”, it’s not just collaboration that’s being discussed. It’s co-ownership of a copyright, and that’s a much more serious thing. Keep an eye out for this one– this subject is going to wind up in the news in a big way, sooner or later. It’s a legal quagmire just waiting for someone to step in it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If there’s one lesson that can be learned from the music industry’s past decade of delusion and disaster in the digital revolution, it’s that things in the real world often change much faster than the laws that govern them. Whether it’s sampling, or file sharing, or mash-ups, or social networking, the music business seems to keep finding itself facing issues that simply were not anticipated, or are not covered by the current legal structure of copyright law. Suddenly, one finds him or she playing in a game in which the old rules no longer apply, but there are no new ones to take their place. That spells anarchy– and that’s a dangerous place to be.

Here’s the latest example of that new game/old rules conundrum, which is impacting songwriters, producers and publishers everyday– even if most of them don’t know it yet. This one is so pervasive, and so complex that we’ll need two blogs to deal with it. Consider this blog the warning shot– to tell you what the problem is, and how it can put you at risk. In Part 2, we’ll talk about what you might want to do to try to protect yourself in what is essentially a land without laws. And it all starts with a simple question:

“You wanna write to my track?”

Sound familiar? In a sense, this simple, innocent question is the entry point to an entire quagmire of problems, in part because it describes a “new” way of songwriting that was never really anticipated in copyright law. In the past, most songwriting partnerships were collaborations between “composers” (who wrote the chord progression and most importantly, THE MELODY) and “lyricists” who wrote the words or lyrics to the composed melody. This relationship describes everyone from

Lorenzo Hart and Richard Rodgers

to Sondheim and Bernstein, from Hal David and Burt Bacharach to Elton John and Bernie Taupin. One writes the lyric, the other the melody, and together they make a song.

The key here is to understand that according to copyright law, a song is made up of MELODY and LYRIC. There is nothing in copyright law that expressly makes the chord progression, the drumbeat, the rhythmic feel, or the actual “sounds” of the instruments part of the “song”. Those are arranging elements that could potentially be made into a copyright-protected “arrangement”, but legally speaking, they are not technically part of the song. Except for one thing…

In the real world of the music business in 2009, those “arranging” elements are indeed an indisputably integral part of the song. In fact, the most common method of songwriting collaboration in today’s world, particularly in urban, pop and dance genres, is between a “track” writer (usually also a producer) who creates a “musical bed” made up of a drum program, a chord progression and a full arrangement of instruments (picture a fully produced master recording of the song minus the lead vocal line), and a “top line” writer, who creates the LYRIC and MELODY. Whether it’s Stargate and Ne-Yo,

Justin Timberlake and Timbaland
or Redone and Lady Gaga, most contemporary collaborations are between track and top line writers. Although there are numerous exceptions, most such collaborations are considered to be 50/50 splits– with the track writer taking 50% of the song, and the top line writer taking 50%.

Perhaps you’ve already begun to see the problem. Given the rhythmic nature of most contemporary pop music and the importance of the drum programming and the production values of the track, there’s really nothing unfair about the “track” writer getting half of the ownership of the copyright. It is certainly reflective of the importance of those production and arranging elements in today’s market. The problem is this: it simply doesn’t correspond to anything in actual copyright law. If you’re playing strictly by the rules (which almost nobody does), the top liner who wrote the MELODY and the LYRIC is the sole composer of the song. The producer is simply an arranger, with no actual ownership of the copyright. But that’s only the beginning of the problems. Here’s the real challenge with that familiar “Do you wanna write to my track?” question…

You’re probably not the only one hearing it. In the day-to-day business of music publishing, A&R and songwriting, it’s generally understood that many track writers are not simply sending their track out to one specific writer to create a song. In fact, many track writers may send the same track to five, ten, even fifty or sixty different top line writers– with the hopes of finding that one unique, stand-out melody and lyric that makes the track into a hit record. A&R people do the same thing, often sending out a track that they’re considering for a project to several of their favorite “top line” writers. The smash international dance hit “Lola’s Theme” by Shapeshifters was a classic example, with the track (which itself was based on a sample of an old Johnnie Taylor song, “What About My Love”) going out to virtually every top line writer in the UK and America. The “winning” top line was written by Karen Poole, one of the UK’s top melody and lyric writers. Simple enough then– the song “Lola’s Theme” was then considered collaboration between the track writers (including the writer of the original Johnny Taylor song) and Karen Poole, which is indeed how the song was registered. But consider an alternate view:

Each time a “top line” writer composed a melody and lyric to the Shapeshifters track, a new song (and therefore a new copyright) was created. This means that there may have been fifty different copyrights, all containing the music from the Shapeshifters track and each with a different melody and lyric. In each of those fifty copyrights, the top line writer owns fifty percent of the song. BUT LISTEN NOW: the top line writer owns fifty percent of the WHOLE song. Not just the lyric. The top line writer owns fifty percent of the lyric, the melody, and every other musical element of the song. Copyright law does not provide for the owners of a copyright to divide up the copyright like a pie, with each owning his or her separate piece. Once a song is created, all of the owners of the copyright own a piece of the whole thing– not just the part that they contributed. There is no provision for taking a lyric away, and then subtracting out the lyricists’ portion of the song.

This means that a song like “Lola’s Theme” by Shapeshifters

could have as many as fifty different owners, each claiming fifty percent of the song– even though not a word of their lyric is actually used in the version that was recorded and released. After all, if a song is translated into another language, the ownership remains with the original writers, even though the original lyric is nowhere to be found. Therefore, if a top liner writes to a track, theoretically he or she is now a co-owner not only of his or her lyric, but also of the track– and continues to be an owner no matter how that track or lyric may be altered, or even if the melody and lyric are discarded altogether.

The fact that no one made a claim to “Lola’s Theme”, or to any of the other thousands of songs that have been written in the same way, simply reflects a hesitancy to break with “how things are done” in the everyday business of music. But legally, there is almost certainly a claim to be made in most of these kinds of collaborations. If you are a track writer sending out the same track to dozens of different writers, you could suddenly find yourself with dozens of claims to ownership of that track. If you’re a top line writer, you probably don’t have the freedom to simply take your lyric idea back from a track that never sold and put it on a new track. You’re playing a new game, but the old rules still apply if you wind up in court. And as the owners of Napster, YouTube, Pirate Bay, Yahoo, etc. will tell you– sooner or later, you probably will wind up in court.

So what can producers and top liners do to protect themselves and their work? What can publishers do to avoid finding out that their hit copyright has fifty different owners, each of whom claims half the song? Stay tuned till next week, for some lessons in self-defense…

I read yesterday where the current vetting process for possible appointees to the new Obama administration involves a 7 page, 63 question form designed to reveal any dirty laundry lurking a potential nominee. Apparently, the questions even delve into diary entries, blogs (Aargh! There goes my shot at Secretary of State) and potential conflicts of interest involving spouses, family members and close associates. Once the new administration gets done cleaning up the political world from all appearances of shadiness, maybe they can go to work on the music business. Where the weasels are, you can be sure to find an endless supply of double dipping, nepotism, and palm greasing, along with enough conflicts of interest to keep a Senate inquiry busy for decades.

Of course, many of these conflicts of interest are blatant—in fact, they seem to be tolerated primarily because they are so unabashedly out in the open. Back in the golden days of the industry, no one cared that uber-lawyer Allen Grubman represented both Bruce Springsteen and CBS President Walter Yetnikoff when the two of them were negotiating Springsteen’s contract. After all, the whole reason that artists and executives used Grubman was because everyone else did. Likewise, people look the other way today at top executives holding down major label A&R gigs, consultancies at competing labels, and partner-shares in a management companies or publishing companies all at the same time. If you want to work with a player, you have to let him or her play the game.

But there are other conflicts of interest that are subtler, particularly when they involve large corporations, often ones with artist or writer rosters that stretch into the thousands. One such issue has grabbed headlines recently, involving legendary songwriters and artists Hall & Oates, and their venerable hit “Maneater”. Check out the story below:

Whoa Here the Lawsuit Comes

It seems that Hall & Oates are accusing Warner Chappell of allowing other writers to rip-off their 1982 hit “Maneater”. It’s a strange charge. For all the vile and stupid things of which publishers are customarily accused, not protecting hit copyrights is one that rarely comes up. After all, this is one area in which the writer’s and publisher’s interests converge. Everyone wants to protect the hits in the catalog, don’t they? Hmmm….

Unless of course the publisher represents both the copyright being ripped off, and the people doing the ripping. Herein, as they say, lies the rub. “Warner Chappell failed and refused to take action based upon a conflict of interest of its own making”, says the Hall and Oates suit. “Warner Chappell publishes and/or administers the copyright interests of two of the infringers.”

While the lawsuit does not identify who the “infringers” are, it has not been lost on anyone in the industry that

Nelly Furtado released a song by the same name, which just happened to be written with two Warner Chappell writers, Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills. Does something smell funny to you?

This is the challenge for the new mega-sized major publishers. The good news for Warner Chappell is that they represent Hall & Oates, two songwriters inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, and they also represent two of the hottest writers in contemporary urban and pop music,
Timbaland
and

Nate “Danja” Hills
.
That’s would be the envy of any publisher. But the problem is: what do they do when there is conflict between writers, and they represent both sides? No one wants to be caught in the crossfire.

There’s an incident to which I was a witness that I like to use in my Berkleemusic.com Music Publishing 101 course, as a topic for one of our chat discussions. It is a true story of two writers who wrote a song that was to be the single for a Very Big (selling) Pop Star.

Given that there were only two writers involved in the song, the initial split of the composition between the writers was an even fifty-fifty, with each writer owning one-half of the composition. So far, so good. But before the song demo was finished, the writers had decided to add a sample—with that, 20% of the song was gone.

Then, once the song was chosen as a single contender, the president of the label decided that the song needed additional production and a remix. He sent it down to his A&R Vice-President, who, not too surprisingly, decided that he should be the one to do that new production—and he did, adding a second sample in the process. Unfortunately, that sample was a bigger one, and took up 50% of the composition. Now the original two writers no longer owned 50% each of their song. Thanks to two samples, they each owned 15% of their song. It gets worse.

Not content with grabbing a production credit, the A&R person then decided that he too should have a portion of the writer’s share, for selecting the sample that would run throughout the track. That meant the writers could say goodbye to another 10%. Now each original writer owned only 10% of the song.

But of course, there was one person still left to accommodate. That Very Big Pop Star was not accustomed to singing songs in which she did not have a hand in writing. Cost? 10%. After all was said and done, the original writers of the song were left with only 5% each of the song they wrote together—a song that did become a big hit. Ouch. This is the kind of thing that can leave writers, and publishers, very bitter.

But not in this particular case. Interestingly, it turns out that the publisher who represented the two original writers also represented everyone else. They published the A&R person and his “writing” share. They owned one of the songs being sampled. They published the artist as well. So while the two writers seem to have gotten shafted, the publisher actually came out in much the same position as when the process started. The publisher simply collected on behalf of seven or eight different writers, rather than two.

Needless to say, that’s the conflict. How hard did the publisher fight to protect the original writers from the A&R person’s grab at a writing percentage—when the publisher represented the A&R person as well? How strenuously did the publisher negotiate on either side in the sample clearance process? What chance did the writers have of resisting the demand by the artist for writer’s share, when their publisher was working for both sides (and probably had a lot more invested with the superstar artist)?

As the major publishers grow ever more vast, these sorts of conflicts become increasingly inevitable. My advice? Remember that you’re in the jungle. Never simply assume that your publisher has your interests at heart. Despite their best intentions, they may also be subject to competing interests that can undermine their defense of your work. If you find yourself in a dispute of some kind, make sure that you understand who else is on your publisher’s roster, and give some thought as to where the real priorities of the publishing company might lie. Then rely on your own lawyer to keep the publisher honest.

On a larger scale, you may want to ask whether or not a big publisher is right for you. While there is a value to the global reach and industry influence of a major publisher, there are also drawbacks, and conflicts of interest are one inevitable issue. Everyone loves tossing a big name like Warner Chappell around. But as
Hall & Oates might say, “watch out boys, she’ll chew you up…”

Hits Only, Please

May 24 2008

Having just attended the BMI Pop Awards in Los Angeles, an event so unique and thrilling it’s rivaled only by the ASCAP Pop Awards three weeks before it, and the SESAC Awards, sandwiched in between those two, I couldn’t help but look around the room at the award-winning writers assembled and wonder:

What do they know that the masses of struggling songwriters do not? Why can one writer create four or five BMI-award winning songs, awards that recognize the top-earning songs of the year, while most are hoping just to write one song that someday gets played on the radio?

This is the same question that lies behind my upcoming book, “Hits Only, Please”. I’ve spent the past year interviewing writers, publishers, radio programmers, music marketers and others, trying to understand “What makes a hit song?” and even more importantly, “What makes a hit songwriter?”. What is the key that allows certain songwriters to consistently create “hits”, and to show up on that BMI or ASCAP stage, again and again…

Of course, if I had discovered the magic formula, mine would be a very expensive book. But in interviewing a number of top songwriters, I have found several pretty good hints as to what’s needed to make it to the top of the charts. Here’s just one quick observation to start with:

Hit songwriters WANT to write hits.

Doesn’t everyone? No. In my experience, I’ve found that the majority of songwriters might like to have one of their songs become hits, but most do not actually WANT to write hits. Most songwriters want to write what they want to write, in the way that they want to write it. They are not interested in writing what radio wants or the audience wants. Many of them don’t even think about how their song might fit into a radio format, or which group of people might like their music, or what kind of things appeal to that particular audience. Everything is left entirely to chance, and to the desire for creative expression.

As a songwriter, at some point in your career you must decide what motivates your creativity. Is it a desire for personal expression? Or is it a desire to communicate? They are not the same thing. Expression is an easily attainable goal, and utterly impossible to judge or critique. If you feel you’ve expressed what you want to express, who am I to inform you otherwise? Only you can determine the success of your own personal expression.

However, if your goal is to communicate, you’ve taken on a much larger endeavor. You’ve also attempted something that is considerably more objective. You may feel that you’ve communicated an idea or an emotion quite clearly. But in the end, someone else will be the judge. If I, the listener, don’t understand what you’re saying, or relate to it, then the message was not communicated with success. Like beauty, communication is largely in the eye of the beholder, not the creator.

By and large, hit songs are created by those who have an intense desire to communicate. Hit songwriters have a desire not just to express themselves, but to communicate those ideas to an audience– to reach them, to touch them emotionally, and to entertain them. To that end, they are willing to make their music fit into radio formats and marketing plans. They keep up on trends and fashions to stay one step ahead of their audience. They edit relentlessly, to make sure that only their best work is put forward, and that every second of a song engages the listener with something new. They listen to feedback– from the industry, from their peers, and most importantly from their audience. If something isn’t working, they change it. Hit songwriters want to win.

At the ASCAP Awards, the songwriter of the year, Timbaland, was notably absent, but sent a message to be read on his behalf. He apologized for missing the event, but explained that he was in the studio mixing a new record. Then he threw down the gauntlet. After winning a record-setting 9 ASCAP awards over the past year, he said that he was looking forward to the upcoming year, and winning 10.

The next day, I saw my friends Mikkel and Tor from Stargate, the production team that has been dominating the charts for the past year with hits like “Irreplaceable” and “Please Don’t Stop The Music”. They had been at the awards and had heard Timbaland’s message– and at breakfast the next morning, they were already raring to get back to the studio. “Timbaland made the challenge last night” they laughed. “Now next year, we have to beat him.”

Writing hit songs is never easy. But you won’t win until you decide to get in the game. Congratulations to the all the ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC award-winning songwriters in 2008. I look forward to seeing you there next year!

ASCAP
BMI
SESAC