What to do with that gem of a song when it's all finished.
Loads of us turn out songs by the million, and for many that's enough. But if you're really intent on getting your songs accepted by a publisher, performed, and into the release sheets, it's an uphill struggle all the way before the royalties start dribbling in. We can't promise to give you a 100% chance of making it as a songwriter, but, as Robert White of Smite Music shows, it's as well to know the approaches that present the best chances of success...
With record producers frequently stressing the importance of having a good song and recording artistes constantly being on the look-out for original material, one would imagine that for aspiring songwriters the entire spectrum of today's music industry would be their oyster - but not so! For when the last lyrical hook-line has been added to that hopefully instantly commercial melody, then the problems of getting the completed song accepted are only just beginning.
As with the majority of aspects associated with the popular music business, two of the most important elements that a songwriter needs to succeed are plenty of determination and a lot of luck. There are just as many talented, undiscovered songwriters around as there are singers and musicians — all hoping for that lucky break. However, accepting that luck is the elusive ingredient of show business on which one is prepared to gamble, then there are other problems which a songwriter must consider in order to get his work published and performed.
Having completed a song, the writer must look for a suitable market for his product and the most accepted and traditional method of selling a song is to submit to a music publisher. There are over 500 music publishing houses in the UK alone who are constantly considering material for publication in their catalogues which are consulted by artistes, A&R men, musical arrangers and so on. Publishers are of course very busy people who do not have the time to listen to long tapes or wade through endless sheets of music. Songwriters should therefore submit only one or two numbers at a time for consideration.
According to its type or style, a song may be particularly suited to certain recording artistes and it could perhaps be worthwhile approaching an artiste or their management direct and asking them to consider the material. This form of contact is one which can pay dividends and is not used only by unknown writers. For example in 1970, when three of Britain's most successful songwriters, Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway and Tony Macaulay jointly penned Home Lovin' Man they knew that the song was ideal recording material for Andy Williams. So, being relatively unknown in the States, one of the writers flew to America and tracked down the singer on a golf course, introduced himself and literally handed him a demonstration recording of the song, together with the arrangements. Andy played the demo, liked the song and with a telephone call fixed a recording session for the following day. I am not suggesting of course that would-be songwriters should immediately try to contact international stars in such a dramatic way; but there are many talented, lesser known singers around eager for new material and the principle of approaching their agent or manager direct is one way in which a songwriter might overcome the problem of getting his material heard.
If the songwriter is also a performer, possibly a member of a group, then he could contemplate approaching a record company in conjunction with the band, as artistes who are capable of both writing and playing good original material are generally of interest to record producers.
Having decided on a suitable market for his songs, the songwriter is then faced with the problem of how to best to present his work. In the early days of Tin Pan Alley, writers would nearly always submit a tune to a publisher in manuscript form, perhaps showing only the melody line and the lyrics. This is still accepted today of course, but most writers have a musical picture of how they envisage a song should sound, so it's often preferable to make a demonstration recording of the number on either tape or disc. This ensures that the original interpretation and feeling of the song can be conveyed to the listener - a difficult thing to put over on sheet music alone. If the writer is unable, through a lack of formal musical training, to put down his song in manuscript form, then a recording of the number is even more essential.
With the amazing resources, facilities and techniques of the modern day recording studio at his disposal, to what extent should the songwriter go in producing a demonstration tape? Well, initially one should consider the factors of cost and quality. Studio time is relatively expensive and whilst a writer can get a good recording made for a reasonable fee, this in no way guarantees the success of a song. In the end the composition will be judged on its basic melodic merits. Cost is obviously a major consideration - according to one's personal finances - and as most songwriters are musicians of one sort or another they can, either by multi-tracking or with the help of musician friends, produce a perfectly acceptable demonstration recording in a cheap studio or even on home hi-fi equipment. When producing such a recording the songwriter should concentrate on the basic song without becoming too involved in complicated recording techniques or attempting difficult arrangements. If the song is accepted, these aspects will become the responsibility of whoever produces the commercial recording.
If, as I mentioned earlier, the writer is a member of a group or band, or even a solo singer, then a good quality recording is most essential in order to showcase the performance, as a record company will also be listening to the overall sound. If a songwriter is fortunate enough to come into contact with talented, unknown artistes who are seriously striving for a recording contract, he or she should consider offering them any suitable original material, as the artistes continued efforts in contacting potential record companies will provide additional exposure for the songwriter's work.
Having produced a suitable demo recording, the song will then be in fierce competition with the hundreds of numbers which are submitted to music publishers every week by aspiring songwriters. A writer should therefore ensure that his work has the chance of a sympathetic hearing by the people who matter, by submitting the song to a suitable publisher or record company. For example a melodic country and western ballad is unlikely to cause a riot at Virgin Records! This is where some in-depth research by the writer can prove worthwhile. A serious songwriter should study the general trends in pop music and try to keep up with them. Composers should be aware of the constant subtle changes in the likes and dislikes of the record buying public and, according to their particular approach, either be able to cater for these varying tastes or create a completely new trend, flavoured with the writer's own brand of originality. Careful analysis of the popular music charts in relation to publishers and producers of hit songs can reveal which companies specialise in certain brands of music and consequently have good outlets in that field, and which ones are creative and prepared to experiment with something new. 'Horses for courses' may be a hackneyed, old-fashioned saying, but it particularly applies when considering marketing a song.
Once the song has actually been submitted for consideration, then the composer should concentrate on developing that previously mentioned characteristic so essential in songwriters — perseverance. For more than likely the carefully nurtured and treasured masterpiece will be returned, accompanied by a rejection slip, again and again and again. This is where those funny remarks about papering the office wall with uninterested replies start to become a reality and present the songwriter with his greatest problem - that of continuing to believe in his or her ability, despite the apparent negative reaction to their work. The ability to write songs is a gift: you've either got it or you haven't, and fortunately the majority of those who are able to write songs are gluttons for punishment and keep coming back for more. If a songwriter can remain determined and continue to develop a personal style, possibly taking into account any constructive criticism offered along the way, then hopefully all that is needed is for lady luck to play a hand. But that, of course, is just another problem!
Feature by Robert White
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!