“Today’s music sucks. The stuff artists are putting out is bad music—and it all sounds the same!!” We hear it all the time from songwriters, I used to say it myself. But the truth is, changing your attitude and outlook on contemporary music can actually help you write better songs.
Not long ago at Bongo Java Coffee in Nashville, an aspiring songwriter waiting in line behind me offered to buy my cup of Joe. He wondered if he could talk to me about songwriting for a few minutes. I was early for a writing appointment, so I said, “Sure.” First of all, he wanted to thank Marty and me for starting SongTown and inspiring folks like him to keep writing. He was a sincere and nice guy. I asked him what he wanted more than anything.
Without hesitation he said, “I want to get one of my songs recorded by a major artist and make a living writing.”
“Great goal,” I thought. I told him I had been in the same place 15 years ago!
The next thing out of his mouth was a small rant about how today’s music “sucks” and “there’s nothing good out there” and “the artists look good, but can’t sing.” He went on to say he spends most of his time listening to classic music.
“Hmmm…” I thought, “this is something I hear often in internet writing forums.” I have to admit, early in my career I had these same thoughts more than once. So, I shared a story about a week that forever changed my life and career and why I’ve never looked at contemporary music the same since then.
When I first moved to Nashville nearly 20 years ago, my publisher pulled some strings and convinced two Hall-of-Fame writers to write with me.
It was in these writing sessions that I learned how attitude and outlook on contemporary music affect your songwriting.
Appointment with Hall-of-Fame Songwriter #1:
The morning I showed up to write with Songwriter #1, he invited me into his office. I noticed at least ten gold records on the wall. I was blown away. That’s what I hoped for one day—a wall like that! To me, it looked like a Christmas tree. I knew this writer’s work. He’d had a great run of hits for about ten years. I sat down and took my guitar out of my case. Before I could tune, Songwriter #1 asked me point-blank, “You’re not one of these new pop-country writers, are you? Because this crap on the radio today ain’t music.” It was clear Songwriter #1 did not have a good outlook on contemporary music.
Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to say. “Well, let’s write some real music then,” I said. But, the entire time we wrote, he complained. He complained about the radio, about how no one today could sing, about how songs weren’t any good because they all said the same stuff. Even though this was 20 years ago, does it sound familiar?
As a result, that day I finished a decent song with Songwriter #1. When I played it for my publisher, her response was that it was just an “okay” song. I agreed.
The next day: Appointment with Hall-of-Fame Songwriter #2:
I met Songwriter #2 at his home studio in Nashville. As I walked into his recording studio/writing room, I noticed there were no gold records on the wall. Hmmm…I knew he’d had a ton of hits, so where were the signs? We sat down and started talking. He was excited about two new singles he had coming out in the next few weeks. Then, he asked me if I had heard of a new young artist who had been signed recently to Sony. Songwriter #2 loved how this new kid was “gonna change everything,” how he didn’t sound like anything he’d ever heard. I thought to myself, and Songwriter #2 wrote the classic country songs I grew up listening to. He’s been in the Hall-of-Fame for years. And he likes this new kid who’s gonna turn country music upside down? Wow.
During the entire co-writing session, Songwriter #2 stayed focused on writing something fresh. In fact, if a melody line sounded like it had been sung or played before, he said, “Toss it and try something else.” Boy, did he love writing! And, it showed in the song we wrote together.
Songwriter #2 had a completed different attitude and outlook on contemporary music, and guess what happened?
When I played the song I wrote with songwriter #2 for my publisher, she jumped up and down with excitement. So, it wasn’t surprising to me when, eventually, the song got recorded.
I wished my new Starbucks friend a good day and hoped my story would help nudge him into a more positive, creative outlook on his musical journey.
Later that day, I pondered our conversation about the current music scene and how this writer, and writers like him, might change a negative attitude and outlook to achieve musical goals.
So, here we are: if you find yourself hating the music that’s getting played today, then having one of these artists record your songs will most likely NEVER happen. In fact, almost all of the successful writers I work with will not waste time complaining about music they don’t like. Why? Because they are too busy creating new music, working on their own sound, and talking about the cool, new stuff they’re currently into.
It’s really about FOCUS and INTENTION.
If you believe contemporary radio and streaming only play bad music, you’re likely not going to write radio songs. And, that’s okay. However, know your goal. If your goal is to create music better than the radio, then find artists who sing those kinds of songs and spend your time pursuing that goal. Every second we spend complaining about “today’s music,” steals our energy away from creating and doing what we love.
In my Mastering Modern Melody book, I teach a method called “Inspired Listening.” It’s based on listening for inspiration every time you hear music, whether you like it or not.
If your goal is to get a song on the radio, then I challenge you to immerse yourself in the songs recorded by radio artists you like—even if that’s only 10 songs this year. Ask yourself questions like this when you listen: “What makes these songs special to me?” “Can I soak up what’s good about these songs?” Then, strive to write songs of that quality or better.
The bottom line: be clear about what you want for your life and your songwriting, and then, chase that positively!
Write On! ~Clay
Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.