The line between pro songwriters and aspiring pro songwriters is primarily a line of thought. Pro songwriters learn to think differently as they write. That different line of thinking usually involves a series of questions that they keep asking as they write. Those questions cause the song to be more commercial than it would have been without them. Here are the four primary questions a pro asks while songwriting.
What would this song do to a crowd?
There are plenty of great things to write about that are NOT commercial. Alcoholism/Addiction, abuse, eating disorders, political topics, controversial religious topics, etc. BUT, writing about those things makes getting a song recorded much less likely than writing about more “user-friendly” topics. Why is that? Artists are ALWAYS thinking about what a song will do to their live show. Writing about heavy or depressing topics brings a crowd down. When a crowd is down, they are less likely to enjoy themselves, less likely to come back to another show, less likely to buy a t-shirt – less likely to do ALL of the things that help artists make a living. If artists are choosing songs based on how they will affect their live audience, pro writers are writing songs based on that idea.
Who would sing this?
I’ve heard (and written) many great songs that have not been cut simply because they don’t fit any current performer’s “brand”. If I had asked this question while I was writing the song, I probably could have increased my chances of a cut significantly. For instance, I heard a song recently that was a PERFECT fit for Miranda Lambert musically. It sounded exactly like something she would do. However, topically, it was about a woman who had been rejected, so she was sitting home on a Friday night eating a TV dinner. That’s not Miranda’s brand at all. She is the girl who is going to be out dancing on tables and living it up if you break her heart. She’s not going to portray herself as a weak or pitiful woman. If the writer had written the song lyrically to fit Miranda as well as it did musically, they would have had a real shot.
What does this song make ME feel?
If I’m only looking at my song from an “academic” viewpoint – making sure it rhymes and is structured well, etc, it probably isn’t going to get a good response from many people. Why? Very few people simply appreciate a well written song. They want a song to move them in some way. They want to laugh, cry, or dance along with the singer. That starts with the writer. If it doesn’t make me want to laugh, cry, dance or feel SOMETHING, then it isn’t likely to do that for anyone else. If it’s a funny song, pros laugh a lot while they write it. If it’s a sad song, they can’t expect tears from an audience unless it moves them to tears as well. Make sure the song elicits the response in YOU that you hope to inspire in others.
This is a big one. I can’t count the times that I have critiqued songs that were written very well, but did not connect with me in any way. For a song to be commercial, it has to connect to me in some way. Otherwise, I’m asking people to watch a 3 minute home movie. Even if my song moves me, it also has to connect to the audience in order to move them. You might appreciate my horribly sad song about my grandmother, but unless it connects you to YOUR grandmother, it probably doesn’t have a chance of commercial success. Pros are always looking for that connection – a way to make the listener care enough to keep listening. If I give listeners a reason to care, I have a shot.
Let those 4 questions guide you as you write and you’ll start thinking and writing more like a pro.