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Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly songwright.co.uk)

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Songwriting Rules and How to Break Them – Write for the Market (Part 1)

There is one songwriting rule that forms the basis of countless books, blogs and magazine articles, a rule that is so central to some songwriters’ methods that it often goes unspoken:- You should write songs for the market.

The assumption that songwriters should compose songs to be sold and earn money is hardly a new one, and for many decades it has been a viable goal. Indeed, the idea of the performer as songwriter has only been around in popular music since the 60s when the Beatles made it the norm, and countless artists before and since made their living by singing someone elses songs.

Songwriting ‘factories’ from Tin Pan Alley to Motown records and Stock, Aitken and Waterman have all manufactured songs for artists to perform and had great successes, sometimes artistically, most often commerically. There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing a song to be sold, if that’s what you want to do, and no-one would deny that wonderful songwriting was done in Tin Pan Alley and under the Motown label (whether anything worthwhile was produced by SAW is perhaps harder to argue).

In his book ‘Future Hit DNA’, (which argues that songwriters should allow the market and technology to dictate how they compose) Jay Frank suggests that motivations and ideas such as music coming from the soul, being lead by the artist are fine only if ‘music is nothing more than a hobby’, not worthy of consideration by a professional musician who needs to earn a living. Berklee offers a course that promises to teach you the ‘structures and techniques that work best’ in creating hit songs, and there are countless other songwriting blogs and websites that work from the same basis. The goal of writing a top 40 hit is held up as important. Other motiviations are ignored or implicitly (or in Frank’s case explicitly) denigrated.

Ralph Murphy, composer of insipid country hits such as ‘Talking in your Sleep,’ boasts of analysing only number 1 songs, implying that commercial success is what makes a song worth writing. Of course, from his point of view it is. He advises songwriters to think of audience first, to stick to proven formulas, to write for ‘women listening at 10am’ because they are the people that buy records. His website is full of such advice, (and almost never mentions music at all, except in the vaguest terms such as counting the number of verses in a song) all of it designed to help songwriters turn out songs as bland and pointless as the ones he has written.

In business it is quite normal to tailor a product to the customer, to start with market research and from there design a product with the intention of it selling. Similarly, it is possible to treat the songwriting process like the design of a product, and for some it is succesful. The question I’m interested in, is whether it is right to think of the market as you compose. I believe it is not.

If you really want to, there is nothing wrong with writing songs with the intention of having another artist sing their way into a chart somewhere. I would argue however, that it’s a bad idea for two reasons. One, the very idea of a homogenous market of hit singles is out of date, and two (which we’ll take a look at in part two of this article), there are better reasons for writing songs. Some of those reasons are even likely to make you money, if that’s what you’re after.

Do you mean we should ignore the listener?

There’s a vast difference between the market and the listener. The listener is a human being, with tastes, with needs, with emotions. Writing for the listener means making musical decisions that will move, suprise and delight. Writing for a market means making musical decisions that won’t offend, that don’t suprise, that says the same things, in the same way, as a thousand songs you’ve heard before.

The two are diametrically opposed. You can write for a listener, or write for a market.

There are no more hits

Commercial songwriting depends on the existence of a mass market. It needs the world of number 1 records, best selling albums, omnipresent hit artists of the Michael Jackson, Madonna type. Unfortunately, that version of the record business is all but dead. Physical sales have collapsed, single sales likewise. The peak year was 1999, and since then everything has been in decline. Teenagers are listening to streams or downloading without paying; the market is fragmenting. Never again will we have a world of ubiquitous hit singles.

A financial times article on Radiohead’s manager Brian Message puts it succinctly –

“Record labels know how to drive hits,” Message says. But in an age when revenues from recorded music are on the slide, the hit-based approach is growing obsolete. UK industry revenues rose 4.7 per cent to £3.9bn last year, boosted by the popularity of live music. But album sales were 3.5 per cent down on the previous year. It’s worse in the US, where album sales in the first half of 2010 were 11 per cent down on the same period last year. Japan, the world’s second biggest market, is registering similar falls. With recorded music revenue falling and other forms of income such as concerts getting more lucrative, the balance of power between talent and labels has shifted.

Is the death of the mass music market a bad thing? No. Mass markets require blandness. As Andrew Dubber on the New Music Strategies blog says, the music industry in 1999 was ‘A world of a few stars selling millions of copies of safe and frequently dull music’. It was a lifeless place, as mass markets always are. Interesting, exciting, expressive art is not found in the mass market, it is found at the edges, outside the mainstream. Every now and then something exceptional breaks through, something innovative and new, but those unusual hits like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, occur in spite of the market, not because of it.

As the market fragments all that will be left are those edges – smaller markets, each with their own songwriting idiosyncracies. All the lessons that the mass market songwriter has learnt – the standard chord changes, the three minute limit, the stock structures – are useless in this world. At the edges, innovation is needed. Listeners need something new, not the same old rubbish they’ve always been given. If the way to get noticed, the measure of success is no longer blandness and the ability to not offend any listener, the songwriter has no choice but to look outside the mainstream.

The mass music market was unusual anyway, founded on a monopoly of musical discovery channels that came into existence during the twentieth century, only to be destroyed by the internet.

The idea of a mass market hit will soon be a thing of the past and anyone telling you to write for it is out of date. If this means songwriters will stop thinking of the market before they write, it can only be a good thing.

Part two will look at some better motivatins for writing songs

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