How high is the bar for songwriters? When you mention the word “bar” to songwriters, most of them start craving a beer. But that’s not the bar I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the “How good does my song have to be to get it recorded by an artist?” kind of bar. Not every songwriter wants massive commercial success. But if that’s your goal, learning where that bar is may be the most important thing an aspiring commercial songwriter has to do.
The biggest hurdle. The problem with many songwriters, when confronted with the height of the real bar, is that instead of taking steps to learn how to get over the bar, they start trying to find a lower bar that helps them feel better about their music. It’s the equivalent of an aspiring NBA basketball player trying out for the Celtics and not making the team on his first try. So, instead of getting more coaching and improving his game, he goes to the Y and signs up for a pick-up basketball league. He feels better. He finally “made the team”.
Co-Writing songs is a lot like dating. It takes work to find and develop good co-writing relationships. And, not every date is going to work out. So, you keep kissing frogs until you find a prince, metaphorically speaking. If you treat songwriting relationships like real relationships, you can avoid some of these mistakes that I’ve seen lots of people make. Here are some real life relationship rules that you can apply to make your co-writing relationships better.
If I introduce you to my girlfriend, don’t ask her out behind my back. Unfortunately this is a common mistake in the co-writing arena. If a co-writer of mine brings an artist in to work with us, I don’t go behind his or her back and try to get the artist to write with me alone next time. This happens to me at times as well. A writer friend of mine asks if I will write with him and a friend of his. As soon as the guy I know goes to the bathroom, the one that I don’t know starts saying “We should get together sometime, just you and me.” Bad form – in life or in co-writing. If someone introduces you to an artist or to a hit co-writer, show your appreciation by continuing to write with the two of them. That’s what I would call basic manners.
Any time people complain to me that they aren’t having the success that they want with their songs; I tell them to “write better song”. I’m not trying to be cute or clever when I say that, either. Writing better songs is the only answer I know to lack of success as a songwriter. Whenever I’m frustrated with my own lack of activity with my songs, I remind myself that I need to buckle up and write better songs. I recently found out that I had a song recorded by a rock band. I didn’t try to write a song for them. I had honestly never heard of them. And, no one I knew had a connection to them at the time. The day I wrote “Take Me To The Mountain” I was just trying to write a great song. I didn’t worry whether or not it was country or pop or rock. I didn’t agonize over who might record it. I just wrote the best song I could write that day. Fast forward about two years, they just liked the songs and cut them. Numerous times in my career, I got a cut “out of the blue” just by focusing on writing better songs and showing up to write day after day after day. That’s the ticket.
Someone asked me the other day, “What is your secret to co-writing with a band?” Over the years I’ve been blessed to co-write songs with some great Iranian and international bands. As a songwriter, it can be tricky to sit down with three or four other people in one room and make magic happen. Is there a secret to it? I don’t know about that, but over the years I have developed a few techniques that helped me. I’ll tell you the secrets but, shush, don’t tell anyone...
Do Your Homework. Whenever possible, I like to listen to the band’s material a few days ahead of time – very casually so as not to mimic what they already do or limit myself to their past material. I listen just enough to get a feel or vibe for who they are. This isn’t always an option with a new band that hasn’t recorded any albums yet, but you can ask management if demos are available. Just listening to their existing stuff will give you an overall understanding on what musical environment they are in and what is the general feel of their music.
In many ways, I am the least likely person to become a hit songwriter. I grew up with serious self-esteem issues. I’ve always been told by my father to be humble and never talk myself up and never express my thoughts and feelings directly - exactly opposite of the two main requirements for being a songwriter; be confident and be expressive! I was always extremely self-conscious for most of my life because growing up in a Persian family means no matter what you achieve, the family always say it’s not enough and you must do better. On the other hand, because of my rough attitude and just being into sports and being pretty much of a “boy-boy” I was never popular in school. Even until today that I am running my own label and dealing with a number of artists, producers and songwriters, I still am painfully shy and introverted. I grew up believing that you should always make the safe choice.
I believe that “perspective” may be one of the most powerful concepts in our lives. Your perspective can totally change your experience of an event. Siblings can have dramatically different takes on a traumatic home situation because they take different perspectives on what occurred.
When I was in high school, my English teacher and theater director was always challenging us to look at things in different ways and from different angles. He lived a small apartment and would grade our papers at a makeshift desk he laid across his bathtub. When we practiced our plays, we would sometimes look out to see him standing on his head in the seats of the auditorium, just to “get a different perspective” on the play. His unique view of life was a catalyst that made me start looking at my own life and challenging many things I had accepted as ‘fact’ before I met him.
I read an article about Adele, after she had broken the record for the biggest debut for an album ever. She was asked why it took her 4 years to come out with a new album. Her respond to that question was quite interesting. She had recorded more than another album’s worth of songs in the meantime and scrapped all of it to start over. Her response was, “You’re only as good as your next album”. She explained that she wanted the album to be great and that the previous material was good, but not great. This is one thing that I actually believe in, but also on the other hand I disagree when the uprising artists work one year on one track and a few years on an album. The reason this theory is that when an artist is just upcoming and trying to build a brand out of their name and their music, they should work harder and release as many quality songs as they can. When that name / brand is built, then it's time to take it slower and release only the songs that they're confident enough about them that they can bet their life on.
I hear people all the time talking about “trusting their gut”. While I am a big proponent of that in many ways, I have discovered that the “trust your gut” strategy has cost me thousands of wasted dollars when it comes to my songs.
When I got my first writing deal, my gut had urged me to demo around 20 songs at a cost of $6,000 or more out of my own pocket. That same gut told me that these songs were awesome. Awesome enough to get cut. Awesome enough to be on the radio. I had pitched these songs around the town and met only with rejection. I was perplexed because my gut is usually right in other areas of my life. It has literally saved my life on several occasions. So, I blamed the people hearing my songs. “They don’t know a good song when they hear it.” “They just want the same old thing.” “They are biased in favour of ‘their’ writers.” You know the drill. But...
I am primarily a composer and producer. I contribute to lyrics on my songs, but that’s not my strength when it comes to English language songs. Because my vocabulary is not that wide (yes, I am still working on it) and more importantly because most of the time I “think in Persian” language. So, I try to stay with my strength and put most of my energy on composing melodies, arrangement and whole production.
By definition, a lyricist is someone who writes the lyrics (words) for a song. If you write without any regard for how those lyrics will work musically, you are a poet, not a lyricist. I can’t build a car part without any regard for how and where it will fit into the car. I have to work hard to make sure MY part fits into the car and works with the other parts. So, if you only write lyrics, here are some things I would suggest.
A lot of folks’ emails are asking if I can tell them whether an idea is good and worth pursuing. Though I’d love to give an answer, I generally believe it’s better to teach a man to fish, than hand him a fish. This is what my mentors did for me and I’m lucky he didn’t give me the answers. Instead, they gave me questions! So, I’d like to share with you some questions I ask myself before spending too much time on an idea:
Does your song idea feel real or clever? Real always trumps intellectual or clever in my book! I like to find a lot of ideas that happen naturally in conversation. Like when I, or the person I’m talking to, says something with conviction. I’ve gotten some of my biggest songs this way. Especially with artist co-writes. Artists are great at expressing themselves. That’s their job! So, I like to take things they say and feel — and then write it!
I can spot the affliction of Write-Up-Itis among songwriters immediately, the moment I see them, because I have battled this dreadful and potentially fatal disease in the past. The symptoms generally start after you write the first song that you think is really commercially viable. A slight fever starts to develop. You get what I call “the bug”. The bug leads to hallucinations. You see yourself driving along in your car when you hear a familiar intro come on the radio. The RADIO. Not the CD player. The real live FM radio! The intro fades into an opening line that you would know anywhere.
You wrote it. A SUPERSTAR is singing it. Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kenny Chesney. You pull over and just soak in the moment. Then, the guy behind you starts to honk and you are jolted back to reality. That’s not your song on the radio. It’s another one written by Mrs. X, the hottest writer in town.
What Does Creative Flow Feel Like? 1. You feel completely focused. So much so that you forget your personal needs. You may even forget to eat for hours while you are working! 2. You have a clear vision of what your art should sound or look like while working on it. 3. You are certain the task at hand is attainable. You find that perfect balance of your current skill level and the challenge that is in from of you 4. You feel an energizing power that seems to come from outside of you. Even if you were tired and brain dead before beginning, the work revitalizes you and gives you energy you didn’t know you had. 5. You lose yourself in completely in your work and feel totally at peace.
If you are trying to get a song recorded on a major artist, you are competing with professional writers who write a song almost every day. Those professionals are pumping out more than 200 songs a year in many cases. The sheer volume of material they produce increases their chances of getting a cut exponentially. Why, you might ask? Here is a story to illustrate. Recently, I pitched a song to an A&R person for a big shot artist. She responded that she loved the song, but she thought that it had already been cut. I told her that I had no knowledge of it being recorded.
I had my former publisher (who published the song in question) look into the situation. They discovered that the song was scheduled to be the first single for a rising star artist that had just been signed to a major record deal. Neither I nor my publisher had any idea that the artist in question was planning to cut the song.
I have discovered that there are many reasons people write songs. Sometimes we assume that everyone writing a song must want a major artist to record it. While that is true for many writers, it’s not the real motivation for many others. Based on my “survey” through my fellow writers, here are some of the more popular reasons people write songs:
They feel like they have something to say. Many people write because they have a message they want to share with the world. Sometimes the message is religious or moral. Sometimes it’s an attempt to share something positive with the world. Other times, the writer is promoting an idea or cause they believe in.
They were “inspired” to write. I have had many people tell me that they just “woke up with this song in their head” or that they were “given” a song and didn’t really know where it came from. Sometimes inspiration just strikes, and it seems as if we are simply writing it down as it comes to us.
One ordinary Tuesday, I went to a co-write with really low expectations. My co-writer and I were going to try to finish a song that I wasn’t really in love with. But we had decided we would finish it, so I drove to his house. We started working on the song and when lunch time came, we had not even added one word to the song. So, we decided to take a break and come back to the song after we ate. On the way back from lunch, he asked “Do you like the song we are working on?” I replied, “Not really, but I thought you liked it.” He laughed and said, “I don’t like it – I thought you did!” Beside the fact that we both were happy about our mutual respect (without saying it out loud), for working on a song we didn’t like but we thought the other one likes it and we were rolling in, we were both relieved that we didn’t have to work on a song that we didn’t like any longer. When we got back to his house, we talked about music we loved, and we discovered that we both really like R&B feels. Then the conversation turned to the lack of that kind of feel on modern country radio. At that point, he said “Let’s just write something with an R&B feel that people can make out to.”
Here are 5 things I try to do every day. Doing these 5 things helps me feel like I’m making progress in every area of my songwriting.
Learn something. I’m trying to learn to play harmonica now. Yes, sometimes I work on learning an alternative tuning on the guitar. I want to try to learn something that makes me better each day. This way I’m constantly forcing my brain to be active and don’t go lazy. Brain is just like the muscles on your body. The more you use it, the stronger it will get. Plus, learning all these can be fun and you never know when they come handy.
Here are some ways you can work smarter. If you work harder AND smarter than most people, you can be a force to be reckoned with. Working smart is pretty easy. Check these tips out:
Write great ideas. The better your foundation, the better your song. A great idea puts you way ahead from the very beginning. When I started writing, I worked on ideas 2 days a week and wrote an expansion of those ideas for 3 days a week. That paid off. I got the reputation for always having great ideas. It got me into co-writes I didn’t deserve to be in. And I wrote better songs because I had solid ideas. Someone recently said to me “You spend a lot of time talking about writing great ideas but most of the songs on the chart aren’t great ideas.” I pulled out the chart and showed them that half of the top ten songs had really creative ideas.
Map out an outline of the song as soon as you decide on a hook. Knowing where you are going helps you avoid saying too much before you get to the 2nd verse. Second verses are not that difficult if you have planned out your whole song’s structure and you already know what you are going to say in advance, and you avoid saying those things earlier in the song. A map will help you do that.
Say ONE thing in each verse that supports your hook. Don’t try to say 5 different things in one verse. Say one thing at the time and elaborate on it to develop it well. If you communicate one clear message, you’ve done your job.
I believe that to be successful as a songwriter, you have to be very versatile. I have had songs recorded by a very wide variety of artists. But, the area in which I have had the most success is writing my life. When I have written the experiences that have shaped and melded me, I have had success. In my former life, I was a youth “wise guy”. So, I saw the good, bad and ugly of street life. Those experiences creep into my writing often. There is a spiritual thread that runs through much of my writing. In many ways, I process and “work through” that time in my life through my writing. I am a very passionate person, so that part of me runs through my music as well. I believe that your unique life experiences give you the BEST shot at crafting a song that stands out. Nobody has lived YOUR life. So, write it. Don’t try to shine it up or make it sound better than it has been. Just write it. Be raw and real.
Songwriting is all about connection. Whether you write for yourself, or you are writing for commercial purposes, the goal is still the same. It’s all about connection. Even people who aren’t trying to get their songs recorded are generally interested in playing their songs for people and moving those people with their music. I don’t know anyone who truly writes ONLY for themselves. So, if you write songs and only play them for yourself in your home, this article may not be for you. But, if you EVER play your music for other people, I’m talking to you.
One of the worst feelings as a writer is playing your song for someone and seeing that glassy stare that says, “this isn’t doing anything for me”. When I’m playing my songs for people, I love to see a smile break out on their face, a tear roll down their cheek, or their foot tapping.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “How in the world do you come up with a new song every day?” Here’s the short answer on how I pull that off.
Ideas. I have a database that includes over 600 titles. I can always find something interesting there to write. It saves time, so I rarely sit around for an extended time trying to figure out what to write. I come in prepared and that makes getting started easier.
Map. As soon as we choose an idea to pursue, we map out where we want to go with the idea. We try to come up with every angle we can think of and then choose the best, more interesting one to chase. Then, we map out what we are going to say in each separate part of the song. Coming up with a one sentence summary of each verse, the chorus and the bridge (if needed) makes writing the song easy. This is sometimes the most time-consuming part of the process. The map serves as our outline as we write and keeps us focused.
For centuries tales of Monster Dragons have been told in folklore, art, and in the last century, motion pictures. As kids, we believe Dragons are REAL! They seem like giant fire spitting creatures with bulging eyes — unbeatable. But as we grow older, we realize they aren’t real. Monster Dragons are made up, and they lose their magical power of us.
When I turned 15, dreaming of pursuing a career of songwriting and rapping, I moved to out of my family house and rented a little apartment upstairs of Tehran’s one of most famous studios, The Pop Studio. After a few years, I found myself fortunate to be programming tracks in that recording studio and making a good living doing demos and recordings of OTHER PEOPLE’S music. I told myself I’d get to my own music one day.
What kind of song are you looking for? Hopefully, they will answer with something more than just “a hit”, but unfortunately that’s the most common answer I get from the artists. Their response to this question can tell you a lot about the song you should write if they are willing to share. Best case scenario is when they say something like “I need an up-tempo song like blah blah that talks about blah blah”. If they give you a precise answer, then you have a much better chance of writing specifically what they need.
Are there any slots on your album that you haven’t filled yet? Sometimes, I ask this question and discover that they have 8 ballads that they love and 10 up tempos, but really nothing in the mid-tempo range. That kind of info is GOLD. I don’t want to be in the pile with 8 other ballads or 10 other up tempos. I want to be in the pile with little or no competition.
Be the kind of co-writer you hope to find. If you are organized and professional, then you will be more likely to attract that kind of person. If you listen more than you talk, you will find co-writers who listen to YOU. The more respect you give the more you will receive.
Be open to lots of different things. People who are willing to try new things get more opportunities. I am on a writing retreat with an artist that I just found out about the day before the event. I was a last-minute call because someone dropped out and they knew that I would be open to being a last minute replacement.
At least twice a week I get an email seeking advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For many songwriters the worst part of the whole writing experience is just getting started. Those times when we sit down to write, and nothing comes out. We feel like we have nothing to say. Well here are 5 techniques I’ve used to permanently eliminate writers block and free up creativity.