Music Business

What Do Publishers Look For In Songs?

by Clay Mills
Apr 7, 2024

For many songwriters and artists, trying to figure out what publishers look for in songs can often feel like stumbling through an endless maze. Often this search for what someone else is looking for leaves an artists or writer losing touch with their own talent and uniqueness.

Throughout my career I’ve managed to navigate this dilemma with consistent success, so I want to share with you some things I believe can help you on your writing journey.


I asked long time hit publisher John Ozier what he looks for in a song. He said, “I want the hair to stand up on the back of my neck.” That might surprise you. Often writers think they have to write clever or sound like the latest fad. But ultimately publishers are looking for writers that can make them feel something with their music. Whether it makes them cry, dance, or wanna call a friend they haven’t talked to in years.

Write really unique ideas.

Think about debut songs that break an artist and launch them into superstardom. Many of those songs are fresh ideas and lyrics that say something in a way that hasn’t been said before. Again, it’s MUCH easier to make a publisher feel something if it’s fresh to them. they hear 100’s of songs a month.  So dig deeper for cool, original ideas. say something in a deeper way, an edgier way, or a funnier way. Strive to be you. We each have a unique voice, so be patient and develop it.

Write strong uptempo songs.

We’ve all heard this. Just look at the charts. 95% uptempo and 5% ballads. The thing is, most writers easily fall into the ballad category on many of their songs. You feel something deeply and you emote it through your music. So the really successful writers learn to express other emotions that make you wanna dance. Once I was writing with Craig Wiseman at BMG publishing. Craig has written 29 #1 songs. He’s no slacker. As we walked past several writing rooms. He said “Listen. They are all writing ballads. We’re gonna write the hit today because we’re not!”

I’m not saying to never write a ballad. But, if you do sit down today, ask yourself if your idea is worthy of song of the year status. Because, fo an artist to cut a ballad and get it up the charts, it needs to be so good that it’s in the running for song of the year. Think songs like “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Or The House That Built Me by Miranda Lambert. Those were successful Ballads.

Publishers - SongTown on Songwriting

Write with artists.

Writing with artists not only increase your chances of a cut. It also makes you more attractive to publishers. If you come in with some artist relationships already in place, the publisher knows that they’ve got a better shot at making their money back because you are likely to get cuts on those artists’ albums. A book like The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting can help you level-up your co-writing game if you need guidance in that arena.

I suggest you find local artists around you to start working with. Artists you feel are talented and have a shot at one day being successful recording artist. Don’t worry if they are not famous already. As they become successful, you can also… if you start writing with them now.

If you want to impress publishers, write songs that they don’t have.

A common mistake for a writer is to try to work with a publisher who publishes songs similar to the ones they write. The problem with that strategy is that the publisher probably already has writers who do what you do. Try to find a publisher in the genre that you write that DOESN’T have a writer like you. If a publisher can hear your music and feel that you can help fill a niche they are missing then your songs will be more attractive to that publisher. Here again, being original and true to your own voice will help you be more original.

Be versatile.

Build a well rounded song catalog. Don’t just write one style or type of song. The more different types of artists you have songs for, the more attractive you are to a publisher. If you only write one style (Bro-Country for instance), the publisher knows that YOU will be out of luck once that type of song is out of style. Diversify your portfolio. Write all sorts of things! As a great writer told me once, Do what is uncomfortable. It’s the only way to grow and develop your own voice. Doing the same thing over and over is a fast way to writing stale and having no career as a writer.

If you can do these 5 things in mind as you write each day, you’ve got an exponentially better chance at impressing  a publisher who can invest in you. Good luck!

Write On! CM

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

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.


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