Hit Songwriting Secrets (not!)

I spend a lot of time perusing the internet for other songwriting news, tips, ideas, etc., in part for my own curiosity, and also because of the articles I write for Muse’s Muse and those I post here.

American country musician Taylor Swift perform...
American country musician Taylor Swift performing live. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One phrase that always makes me laugh is “songwriting secrets”…whether they are pitching a book or some kind of one-on-one session with you as a songwriter, or maybe they’re just trying to get you to sign up to their website so that they have your email address so they can spam with you with stuff later on;  the idea that there are secrets to songwriting that no one else knows is FALSE!

Why?  Because the songs that are successful are not secrets at all!  They are out there on the radio, on iTunes, on videos and CDs for you to listen to, analyze, reverse engineer and learn from.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, you have literally hundreds of thousands of hit songs out there at your disposal to teach you, they are not secret at all.

So how do you learn from them?  This is the the real “secret”.  What is it about a song that makes it successful?  Studying different hit songs, what they are comprised of and how every part works together, you will get a better sense of what makes it successful.

So let’s get to the songwriting first.  Some will tell you that there’s a secret “formula” to hit songwriting…for instance, always have a particular number of verses, always keep the intro short, always write in the first person, come up with a title first…etc., etc.  Don’t “always” do anything;  each song has its own personality and if you’ve already written a few of them, you know what I mean.  Do you use the same chords every time?  The same form or subject matter?  Of course not.  The only formula you need is to make it good, and “good” is a very subjective thing.  If you listen to the top ten pop hits right now on Billboard, (or country, or any other chart for that matter) you’ll discover a few things.

They don’t necessarily conform to any one key or song form (although as far as subject matter, when I checked Billboard for the most recent top 10 pop hits they were pretty much all about love/lust or breakups/relationships!), but they do use certain techniques to keep the listener hanging on.  Sometimes those elements are simply the recording and production itself, sometimes they are the way the verses and chorus (and/or pre-chorus) relate to each other, sometimes the lyrics and/or music are really catchy.  And often it’s simply the artist or band that has such a huge following, almost anything they do will become a hit.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, then your job is to study what’s out there and come up with something better!   Easier said than done, I know.

But lets back off the actually writing for a bit and consider what else makes a song a hit.  First of all, many songs that you hear are not necessarily “great”, but they make it to the charts because of the artist or band, as I mentioned earlier.  If these artists and bands don’t write their own material, who does?  A lot of them get their songs from their record label, who may have their own writers or have a publishing branch.  Quite often, the same circle of songwriters write a lot of the songs you hear…particularly in country and pop.   You can find out yourself by checking out the BMI or ASCAP records (or whichever performing rights organization exists in your country).  These P.R.O.’s have search able records online, so there’s no secret there either.

So, okay, a lot of it is who you know, in which case, part of your job as a potential hit songwriter, after you’ve come up with some great songs, is getting to know people.   Go to music centres like Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, research publishers who might be interested in your style of writing.  Join organizations that can help you like N.S.A.I. or songwriting associations that give workshops in all areas of the craft and business.  Be prepared to keep learning, learning, learning.  Hang on to your day job and save money for these ventures.  When you meet people who can help you, be polite, don’t shove your CD in their pocket, ASK first.

You also need to be patient.  I met a guy once who wrote his first ten songs and immediately went to Nashville to pitch them.  He was so sure that’s all he had to do…but when he got there he learned pretty quickly that he had spent nowhere near enough time on the writing part before he did the pitching part.  It was a huge reality check. That’s a true story. So remember to use your head and do everything in the right order!

The recent stories about Taylor Swift’s success are interesting because on her earlier releases she co-wrote a lot of material,  but on her most recent release “Speak Now” she wrote every single song herself.  She’s young and she’s smart, getting the experience she needed under her belt first by co-writing.  Co-writing is a “given” in the pro songwriting community…a lot of the songs you hear are written by more than one person, so you should consider doing that yourself too.  Chances are that if you get anywhere near working for a record label, you’ll be thrown into situations where you’ll have to write with someone you don’t know.  And if you’re a singer/songwriter and hoping to make it as an artist, you might take a cue from Taylor.  Don’t assume you know everything…you don’t!

There are no secrets to hit songwriting any more than there are secrets to any kind of success.  It comes down to the same things, whether you want to be a great chef, a successful financier or a best-selling author:  hard work, determination, patience, some talent and a little luck.  Shhhh…don’t tell anybody! 🙂


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    Be Careful Out There

    I was recently contacted by a songwriter who had himself contacted an online Nashville-based company after he saw an ad for them on a music website.  When I checked it out, I saw that this company’s website was pretty straight-forward:  “We find songs for…” and then it proceeded to list a whole bunch of big name country artists.  So they were either a song publisher or song plugging company.  Below the long list of artists, there were three buttons.  The first button was supposed to be a FAQ, but the questions represented weren’t anything like “who we are and what we do”.  No, instead they included questions like “Do my words need to be perfect when I send them to you?” ,  “How long should my song be?” and “Do I need to copyright my songs before I send them to you?”.  All of their answers to these questions raised red flags for me.

    The first question was “Do my words need to be perfect when I send them to you?”…any legitimate song publisher or songplugger WANTS A “PERFECT” SONG to pitch.  They don’t want to listen through a bunch of mediocre songs…which is why it is so hard to get that publishing deal in the first place.  Most song publishers listen to about the first :10 or :15 seconds of a song before they decide to turn it off or not.  But what did this company’s website say?  “No.  All songs start with a good idea and that’s all we need.”  Right away, this should tell you that they are taking anything that gets sent their way.  Why?  I’ll get to that in a minute.

    Second question:  “How long should my song be?”  Now, that’s a rather odd question to put in a FAQ, but nevertheless, they have an answer for that one too!  Their answer is:  “A commercial song…usually has about 24 lines, but may vary.”  This reminds me of an old scam artist/self-proclaimed “hit” writer that I came across a number of years ago on the web.  He actually had it calculated down to the number of syllables in a line!  If you have this many syllables, your song could be a hit!  But all you have to do is check out a bunch of hit songs from anywhere, anytime, to see that numbers of lines and syllables is NOT the most important aspect of being a “hit”, nor is a certain number of them a prerequisite.  Another red flag.

    Third question:  “Do I need to copyright my songs before I send them to you?”  Their answer?  No.  That was the biggest red flag for me.  Now, practically speaking, a lot of pro writers do not copyright their songs until they get picked up by an artist.  But they know who they’re dealing with, and they already have a name for themselves.  They are not you, the first time songwriter trying to get your songs to a publisher.  Technically, a copyright ‘exists’ when you finish writing a song.  You always put the copyright symbol on anything you send out.  And if you are really hot on that song, you register a legal copyright first before sending it anywhere.  No question.

    Okay, let’s get back to that Nashville company website.  Remember I told you that I’d explain why they would take anything that is sent to them?  Well, this will tell you. The next button says “Read what songwriters are saying about [us].”  I read all of the quotes and every one of them was about the recording of the songwriter’s song.  For example:   “Thank you for making a great recording of my song. You are special people who make a difference.”  None of the quotes had anything to do with getting a song placed, pitching it to artists or getting on the radio, or anything else.  All they want is for you to pay them money to record your song.

    When the songwriter who contacted me sent me a copy of the contract, my suspicions were confirmed.  This was all about paying money to get a song recorded.  And not only that, but you get a bonus of $30,000 when you get a number 1 hit!  Wow, so now, let me see…somehow getting a recording of your song done by them, which you pay them for, could be a number 1 hit??  How might that happen?   That’s the other ‘service’ they provide…they’ll send your song to a bunch of radio stations on a compilation CD!  That’s how it will become a hit.  It’s just that you have to pay for being on the compilation CD too.  Oh well, chump change compared to that $30,000 you’re going to make, right?  They’re going to send it out to hundreds of radio stations!  But here’s the twist:  most radio stations pay absolutely no attention to these compilation CDs.  The only CDs they will listen to come from legitimate and big name record labels.  I know…I worked at a radio station.  The CD your song is on gets filed under “G” for garbage.

    The ‘contract’ that was sent to this songwriter was, in fact, a glorified invoice.  Please pay us $500+ dollars.  Oh, and your song could be a hit.

    Don’t feel stupid if this has happened to you or if it does in the future.  It has happened to many, many songwriters over the years.  Heck, I still get an annual post card from a “big time” producer, gushing about my song (and he always gets the title wrong) and how he can make it a big hit for me down in Nashville.  I’ve received a post card every year for about ten years, and that’s not exaggerating.   I probably sent the song out there to a few places years ago and that’s how he got my address.  I laugh, but then I wonder how many others he does this to every year, and how many of them fall for it just because they really believe in their songs and want it to be true.

    These guys are nothing but scam artists pulling at your heartstrings.

    If you have any questions about any publishers or song pluggers, send them to me.  I am not a lawyer so if you get a big, long contract with a bunch of legalize in it, I won’t be able to decipher it much more than you will.  However, if it’s anything like the contract this songwriter sent me to look at, I can tell you right away if it’s a scam or not!

    In the meantime, be careful out there.


    PS…I occasionally receive emails from so-called song pluggers or people who want to collaborate and who claim they have written hits for certain artists, etc.   I usually research them first to see if they are legitimate by simply searching for their names in the ASCAP and BMI databases (or check with the PRO from whatever country they reside in).  If I can’t find their names registered anywhere, I’ll simply reply to their email and ask them what name they register their songs under.  If they are legitimate, they’ll tell you, if they don’t answer back, you’ve learned that either they are scammers or that they are not willing to share their info, which makes them highly suspicious.  As I always say, arm yourself with knowledge! ~ IJ