Often songwriters in our SongTown classes ask, “How do I write commercial music without selling out?”
They are writers who would like to have commercial success and hear one of their songs on the radio or an album. But they want to know how to accomplish this and still be true to themselves. They don’t want to sell-out.
The definition of commercial music generally means: music that is heard by millions and/or purchased by millions. That number could be hundreds, depending on your level of commercial success 😉 Over my years as a professional songwriter, I’ve lived a rollercoaster ride of commercial success, some years with three songs playing on the radio at once, and some years with no songs playing. So, here is my take on commercial music.
First: Decide what type of songwriter you are.
If you listen to radio consistently, you’ll hear cutting edge songs AND throwback classic songs that sound as if they could’ve been written 10-20 years ago. I have a friend who writes classic music, typically a ballad to mid tempo songs. Every three to four years, he has a big hit on radio. He’s extremely good at writing these types of songs… he has to be, because there aren’t as many of these being cut as contemporary songs. He’s decided to stick to what he does well and do it the best he can. That being said, he doesn’t sit around listening to music written 20 years ago. Rather, he is constantly listening to new music,the latest new band, the latest singer-songwriter, and the latest pop diva. He soaks it all in so that his music, even though classic in form and style, has modern influences. His songs still sound fresh.
The other type of commercial writer writes contemporary music. Most of us start out this way. We are teenagers listening to the hottest, latest music with our friends. We pick up a guitar and learn our favorite tunes, then we start writing that style. A lot of my pro writer friends write this style of music. More slots are available on albums for the latest, most exciting music. If you decide this is who you are as a writer, then this also requires that you listen to a lot of new music coming out every year. You want to be aware of current styles and try to put your own spin on it.
Second: Your music has to resonate with a lot of listeners.
I don’t mean you have to pander to the latest demographic buying records, but rather, resonate with them. What creates this resonance? My top rule in writing: Be real. Be believable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something I love: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius.”
If you dig deep enough to the core of any emotion, sadness or joy, and write it well, then most people will feel that same emotion. It will reverberate in their soul on some level.
So, I’ve laid out my top two keys for creating great commercial music. I feel I’ve managed a long songwriting career with steady success by keeping these things in mind, by growing daily as a writer, and by always writing with integrity. I don’t view commercial music as selling out. I don’t view commercial music as a choice that we must make to write a great song vs. a hit song. I approach each day with an open heart and mind, learning from music all around me and trying to write the best song I can. I know that if I do this daily, then on some of these days, I create magic that resonates with millions of people.
Write On! Live On! Clay
Clay Mills Co-found of SongTown Pro Songwriter/Producer/Performer