To do it right, we stand a better chance if we know what the goal is, why we’re doing it, and how to do achieve it. The goal is to sell or otherwise distribute recordings of your song. Why you are writing it, only you can answer. Although touching on both of these areas this article deals mainly with achieving the mind set necessary to achieve this goal.
This article is written mainly from the songwriters' perspective, however much of the contents will also apply to arrangement, performance, engineering and production. With many, if not most, songwriters now acting in all these roles it is important to realise the breadth of the principles described. The music world is now full of home recording songwriter / artist / producers trying to be the next Moby, Portishead or David Gray. Now more than ever you need to know exactly what you are doing and why.
In terms of business, the commercial potential of a song is essentially a measure of the expected level of sales that the song will generate. It is an in-exact science based on experience, taste and knowledge of current trends. It involves identifying the appeal of the song, the strength of that appeal and recognising the potential number of customers that are likely to be drawn by that appeal. This is simplified by categorising the new music we hear into existing music categories or genres. Each genre has a current market size. Obviously if a song contains elements of an other genre or elements common to several genres then there may be the possibility of generating sales within the those markets. Simply put the broader the appeal, and the stronger the appeal, the higher the potential commercial value of the song.
So what does this all mean to the songwriter?
The fact is that some songs are more appealing than other songs. The songwriter, or songwriters, provides a song with an initial commercial appeal. If it has been written well the performers, engineers, producers, managers and promoters have a far easier job of turning the basic song into a commercial success. But how do you build that initial commercial appeal into your songs?
It's all in the blend?
For songwriters commercial appeal is effectively a hard to define blend of familiarity and originality. Simply put, listeners can more easily accept new ideas presented to them, when they are accompanied by elements that they are already used to and comfortable with.
Let's face it, songwriters want people to like their songs, or at least listen to them, and hopefully buy them when they are released. Although there are other factors (such as image, marketing, sponsorship, and press coverage) commercial appeal of music is one of the key factors in music sales. In other words songwriters need their songs to have a significant level of commercial appeal in order to achieve success.
One skill that both songwriters and performers have in common is their need to communicate with an audience. The ability to communicate is something that even the most natural of communicators still has to work on. The communication itself has to be relevant and interesting to as many people as possible, that is if the musical foundations of commercial success are to be laid.
For the lyricist / songwriter, for example, there has to be an understanding of the lyrical / melodic / rhythmic content and phrasing required to communicate with the intended, or target audience. There are no secret formulae that will guarantee success, but by giving some thought to what you are doing, you will improve your chances.
Originality and Familiarity
Originality in music can come in many forms. Sometimes it is the use of the latest in technology. Think how the invention of the electric guitar, the synthesiser or sampler has changed the face of popular music. Amongst the most common, if not the most common expression of originality in music, is when the songwriter, or arranger or producer takes music elements of different genres and combines them to create something that sounds new and fresh.
Familiarity can be simply defined in this context as something we already know. Music genres are defined by music elements common to songs by a variety of artists. These are the features that make the style of the song distinctive. For example blues and the use of the pentatonic scale or the 12 bar structure. Progressive rock uses tempo, time signature and key changes linked by synchronised arpeggio based bridges.
There are many challenges that face a songwriter. Amongst them is achieving the correct commercial balance between those elements that draw on the targeted genre and those elements that come from other genres. The chords, melody and lyrics that are chosen can strike this balance. But the balance of the song can then be emphasised, de-emphasised, or changed using a particular arrangement or mix.
How do I achieve the correct blend?
If a song, or set of songs, is too focused on a particular genre the result is likely to seem bland and unadventurous. Songs like this are formulaic, and although they might generate an initial appeal, people quickly tire of the song and sales will drop. This approach can bring short-term dividends, but be aware there might be long term consequences! An example song of this style can be a song that you hear once, instantly love it or hate it, but you can't get it out of your head! Either way the listening public is likely to get fed up with it pretty soon.
If you include too many elements outside of your targeted genre you will lose fans in your target market. You might gain some fans in other market areas, especially if the other elements in the song draw on only one other distinct musical style. This approach is difficult, as it requires longer exposure to the song before it starts to win fans. This means altogether a longer-term investment of time while the listening public is 'educated' to the point that they find the unique blend, you have created, acceptable. This requires an audience to really think about if they like it or not, something fans don't often do when the performer is an unknown. Sometimes this works, more often not. When this does work, however, it can end up creating a new genre or distinct branch of a known genre. An example song of this type could be a song that you think is strange or weird when you first hear it, but each time you hear it the song either grows on you to the point where you love it or you hate it to the point of screaming.
If you strike the correct balance, however, it will challenge your fans to think about and still connect with your music. This gives you the opportunity to introduce longevity into the material you produce and at the same time retain an amount of instant appeal. This means that an individual song can remain popular for a long time, which maximises the revenue generated from any particular song. An example song of this type could be a song that you find appealing but you are not too sure about when you first hear it, but each time you hear it the song grows on you to the point where you love it.
In summary, if you are too focused on one genre, it is easy to connect with your target audience but it is harder to maintain their interest. If the choice of genres you draw on are many and diverse it is harder to connect with your target audience (if you can define it!), but you could create something that defines a whole new style. If you strike the correct balance it is reasonable to assume that listeners will not have too much trouble connecting to the music, and there is enough interesting new things happening to maintain their interest.
Generic/ Broad Appeal Song Writing
Otherwise known as 'broad appeal'. Songs like this tend to be comprised of elements common to a broader selection of musical genres. An example of this could be 'easy listening' music or maybe blues / country derived music forms. Most of these songs are relatively neutral and can be easily re-arranged and performed by artists in a number of specific genres that use the elements of the song common to their particular genre as a link with their fans. This approach is favoured by contracted songwriters, and songwriters who do not write for only one artist. The reasons for this are obvious: the more versions of your song that are available in the market place, the more money you make; your success is not dependant on only one artist or genre.
The length and success of your career in the music business depends on many things but by having clear, focused approach and response to the music market place you will improve your chances of achieving success and staying successful.
If you look at the changing successes of a variety of artists over time some are one hit wonders, others enjoy the limelight for a few albums then disappear. Some enjoy the odd revival, and some never seem to quite go away, instead they maintain significant sales through a loyal but generally dwindling cult or subculture following. A select few, however, spend several decades at the top of the pop charts. But what are the differences that define the level and type of success?
Is it talent? Image? Contacts? Being in the right place at the right time? All of these points certainly make a difference, but the success of your career fundamentally boils down to two things. Having the right product for the music market, at the right time or, purely as a songwriter, having the ability to spread your musical bets by writing songs with an appeal to several musical styles. Either or both of these will interest the music businessmen. Obviously an established name will attract the same businessmen for a while, but without either or both of the above qualities their interest will often disappear along with the sales.
You have to move with the market and experiment. If you look at Madonna or David Bowie, they have constantly kept up with trends. In Pop music the speed of change can be very fast and varied, the trouble is picking the ones that are good and the ones that are bad. At the very top you may define the main trends, but emerging artists and styles will still inspire you. In country music the embracing of new technologies and rhythms etc has been far slower. This is because basic country music still has a massive market and the need to appeal to the latest fad is less urgent.
People are awkward creatures. They need enough familiarity for them to connect with a piece of music, but not so much that it becomes boring or predictable. Equally they require enough originality to engage their interest, but not so much that they can't understand what you're on about. The mix is up to you, but ignore either at your peril.
Experiment, let people with differing tastes and experience hear what you are doing and listen to their feedback. You don't have to do everything they say but look for the common points they suggest and duly consider all their suggestions. You will soon sort out the people that just say everything is great, no matter what they really think, and the people who just put down what you do, from those around you who offer genuine constructive criticism. Criticism is often hard to take, but learning to listen can be one of the most valuable tools you can have when it comes to fine tuning your own unique blend.
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