Last time we talked it was about whether artists should write their own songs or not. The legendary record mogul and executive Clive Davis says “no.” Here’s what he said: “Many entertainers lose their careers by not concentrating on finding hit songs — no matter who they are written by. The odds are always against you, you have got to go over the best material, and that should win out, not withstanding any track record. I don’t care how many No. 1‘s you have written in the past; have you written a new No. 1?”
Did you see Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl half-time performance? Now, there is an artist who understands the difference between entertaining an audience and self-indulgence! Unfortunately, that’s something too few artists understand today. These young artists somehow have the mistaken notion that the world wants to hear about their opinions or personal lives, and pay them big bucks for the privilege to hear about it.
So how does one know if a song has “hit” potential? I suppose the first thing I should do is to define my definition of a “hit” song. And to do that, let me begin by saying a hit song isn’t necessarily a “great song.” And vice-versa. But a hit song is a song that a large number of people (hopefully millions around the world), want to hear again and again and again, to the extent that they are ready to part with hard earned cash for the privilege to possess it so they can play it at their leisure. Now this is different than a song that people “enjoy,” (as in “…everyone enjoys listening to my songs…”) or one that dancers at a club want to dance to. Back in the 80’s I used to notice a phenomenon that I called a “dance-club” hit. DJ’s know what I’m talking about. It’s a record/song that everyone liked to dance to (“great beats”, “I love the track”), but no one ran out to buy it the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. In other words it barely sold any copies at all. Its first cousin was – and still is — called a “radio hit.” There have been thousands of both.
That’s when I began to try and figure out why two records – both getting the same amount of airplay, exposure and promotional dollars, both heard as much, yet one sold extremely well, the other didn’t. Was it because the producers were different? Were the songwriters different? What if they were both the same person and further, what if the artist recorded both songs? Did everything Mozart ever composed become an “Andante from Concerto No. 21 in C major” – aka Theme from “Elvira Madigan”? Mozart composed some 500 compositions in his short life (35 years). And most of them were good – but not so many gems. Suffice it to say that neither were all the songs written by, without argument, the most successful songwriting band in Rock-and-Roll history, The Beatles.
I have often been asked when I mention the Beatles (more specifically Lennon & McCartney), what made them so great? The answer was always clear to me that any group who could learn and play close to 500 classic cover songs in 3 languages, had to eventually become excellent songwriters! Most people don’t know that the craft of writing “hit” songs again and again and again, is exactly that… a craft.
Next Time: Learning the Craft of Songwriting.
Samm Brown III is a record industry executive who is an award winning record producer, songwriter, arranger, orchestrator, and conductor, who has had 9 number 1 records, (Michael Jackson, Maxine Nightingale, New Edition). He is currently a film/TV composer, artist manager and hosts a weekly radio show on KPFK (90.7 fm), Sunday afternoons at 2 pm (PST) called “Samm Brown’s FOR THE RECORD”, a one-hour talk show exclusively focusing on the behind-the-scenes of the record, film/TV music industry. He can be reached at: sbrownKPFK@aol.com.