A Great Way To Get Noticed As A Songwriter

Man vs. PRO

What’s worse than having someone hate your song?  Having them immediately forget it.

It’s easy to listen to today’s country or Christian (or pop, or…) radio and think, “Wow – most of these songs are written within a pretty small box.  Most of them are pretty similar, and there aren’t many risks being taken.  I guess if I want cuts, I have to play it safe, too.”

Or maybe you get so much advice about, “don’t make the singer look bad,” “don’t alienate the listener, etc.” (and I admit I’ve said that, too), that you only want to play your “safe radio” songs for publishers or other people in the biz.

I think playing it safe is sometimes a big mistake.

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Nashville is all stocked up with safe, sound-alike songs.  We don’t need yours.  We already have writers and artists that are really good at writing what’s already on the radio.  And they’re more connected than you.  Plus, most other aspiring hit songwriters are playing the same kind of stuff all up and down Music Row.

You can’t stand out in a sea of sameness by bringing in more of the same.

sea of sameness

You need to bring something new to the table.  Fresh melodies, fresh ideas, crazy tracks.  Bottom line: they’re not looking for what they already have.  Here’s a piece of advice:

Write some songs that feel “too real for radio.”

too real for radio

Write some songs that are so honest that you feel a little uncomfortable playing them across the desk from a publisher.  Don’t just write what you think a songwriter would say.  Tell the truth.  The truth- the raw, honest truth- is always fresh and relevant.

truth relevant

The point is not to make the publisher or whoever stand up and shout, “This is so great, it’s gonna change our whole format!”  No, the point is to make the listener think, “Wow. This person is a songWRITER.”  Let them know that you can access honest, real emotions.  Yeah, sure- also bring in a song or two that shows them you know how to play in the safe commercial sandbox.  But it’s really important to show them that you can draw on things a lot deeper than pickup trucks and riverbanks.

The honest line you want to rewrite because it’s “too honest” is exactly the line that will make the listener feel something.

After all, didn’t you feel something when you wrote it?  Chase that!  If you felt an honest emotion, maybe the listener will, too.

It’s better to be too real than too safe.

I’m not talking about adding in shock value just for the sake of shock value.  No, I’m talking about fearless honesty.  Maybe these aren’t the ones that’ll get cut.  It’s a success if the publisher says, “Wow. That’s great.  It’ll never get on the radio, but it’s great.”  It might feel like a back-handed compliment, but it’s actually a very good compliment.

I had a publisher tell me once, “Too many writers get so concerned about what will or what won’t get on the radio that they knock all the cool stuff off their songs in the writers room.  Don’t worry about going too far- that’s MY job!  I can always reign you in, but I can’t draw you out.”

Oh, and the comment about, “It’s great, but it’ll never get on the radio…”

That’s what people said about my song, “Monday Morning Church.”  And that song became a top 5 single for Alan Jackson.

Hmm…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Have you gotten a “too real for radio” reaction?  Or a “too vanilla” reaction?  Please leave a comment!

If you want to become a songwriting pro (in how you think, write songs or do business), then a great place to start is RIGHT HERE.  I want to help you on your songwriting journey.  I’ve been in the music business for years, and I’m here to help you get the cuts – and avoid the bruises.  CLICK HERE TO START HERE.

God Bless and Enjoy the Journey,

Brent

Brent Baxter is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ruthie Collins, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.

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25 thoughts on “A Great Way To Get Noticed As A Songwriter”

  1. You said it, and you said it well. There have been many times I got caught up in the race of writing for the radio. Hated it! I would rather walk out back into the woods on a sunny afternoon, sit next to a extra large Maple tree with roots as a bench on top of a wooded hill and sing my songs playing an acoustic guitar. However, saying that, I still need help getting them heard.

  2. Hi Brent,
    I am a writer. I met you over at NSAI a couple of times. Anyway, few years ago I decided to to exactly what you are talking about. At the end of the day I want a catalog of songs that I like and not a catalog I chased the radio for. Back in 2003 and 2004 I studied music industry and served an internship at ASCAP in LA. In saying all that, when I post a new song on http://www.numberonemusic.com it will get over 100 plays a day and the mail starts coming in. I send it to my ASCAP rep in Nashville, I gather the same cookie cutter letter. “I don’t think this song will compete in the country market” and I smile.
    Where I am going with this is, Hugh Press wood once told me “just write songs”. I just have to add to that ” just write songs that you like” cause at the end of the day you will have a fan base that listens and enjoys what you
    write.

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  3. I always get the impression that there’s only so much ‘real’ the commercial market can stand. Anything that would present the artist in a bad light is out, as is anything that would offend the listener. So no songs about being a psycho stalker or a drunken wife beater, no songs about controversial subjects, no blaspheming, no swear words. Luckily, I have no ambitions to be a pro songwriter, I just hang around trying to pick up pro hints and tips that I can incorporate into my edgy material.

  4. I’ll say this. I couldn’t agree more. You have to have songs that are better than what the established Nashville writers are pitching and you need to offer something fresh and different, or you need to offer something that hasn’t been played in a long time. Like a truly great traditional country song with a fresh angle. “Girl Crush” was a perfect example of that. Traditional melody, new angle. “Peter Pan” is an example of great and new. If your songs don’t stand out and above what the established Nashville writers are pitching, you don’t stand a chance of getting a cut.

  5. Hey Brent.
    You hit the nail on the head, so to speak, for me. In a comment I made to one of your previous posts, I wrote that I don’t write what mainstream publishers are looking for…top 40 hits for radio airplay. Your “too real for radio” defines my market/s exactly. I also included in that comment that I allow “wiggle room”, because anything is possible. Funny that you mention “Monday Morning Church” in this post. When I was writing that ‘wiggle room’ line, “Monday Morning Church”, and others like “The House That Built Me”, was exactly the ‘anything is possible’ I was referring to.

    Personally, I believe it’s time for some “real” in the top 40 market. I think listeners are wanting something they can connect to on a more personal basis. Today’s back roads and tailgates songs are good feel good tunes. They’re great for when a listener wants to stay on the surface and not think about real life. But since we haven’t had any ‘real heart’ tunes on the radio in quite a while, I think listeners are hungry for depth. Something with heart and a real life message. And I believe there is room for both surface and depth songs on radio today. But, I wonder, since we’ve had such a long strand of ‘feel good’ tunes on the radio, would a publishing house rep know a good ‘real life’ tune when they heard it? And I say this with the utmost respect to mainstream publishing.

    I believe it’s very possible that an older, more seasoned publishing rep would ‘get’ and understand a song written with heart. But it seems that many of the reps, (ones I’ve seen in pitch sessions anyway) are young and grew up educating on the more surface type tunes.

    In a pitch session I attended last year for feedback purposes only, the room was packed because the session was with a major publishing house. An Americana writer sitting beside me had one of his songs up for pitch purposes. During these sessions, I’m use to reps only listening to a verse and a chorus before making a decision and/or giving feedback, so I was a bit surprised when this rep listened to this writer’s song all the way through. I thought maybe that was a good sign for tune…until I listened to her feedback to the writer. The rep suggested that the writer not end each verse with the hook/title line, but put it in the chorus, where she pointed out to the writer he had failed to mentioned the hook/title at all. She also suggested to the writer to repeat the chorus more than once. I was saddened to realize that there are publishing reps looking for and giving feedback on songs based on the verse/chorus format & today’s ‘radio’ songs, simply because that’s all they know.

    I’m not knocking this young rep for her lack of knowledge so much as wondering why a publishing company would send a rep out to a pitch session with such a lack of knowledge about songwriting. This rep was so wrapped up in ‘correcting’ the song’s structure, she left herself no room to hear the beauty and message of the song, which I might add was written very well, (in my opinion), in the AABA song format.

    Another pitch-to-publisher session I attended around the same time, again for feedback purposes, was completely opposite of the session I describe above. This time I included one of my ‘depth’ songs for feedback. Truth is I already knew the seasoned rep and her reputation of understanding ‘real’ when she heard it. And she already knew my style of writing from a previous ‘listening’ session, where she had heard one of my tunes. At this later session, she was very honest in telling me that my tune wasn’t top 40, which I already knew and wasn’t surprised. As a matter of fact, I was expecting that comment. I knew the song didn’t fit into ‘radio’ status.

    I was there for a seasoned rep’s feedback on my tune, itself. I knew she was very educated in all genres and markets and would give feedback based on the song and its market. She ended that ‘not a top 40 market’ sentence with, ‘but don’t change to writing top 40’. She gave my little tune high marks for the market it’s in and strongly suggested I continue to write for that market. Having my “not top 40” style of writing validated by a top A&R rep, as having a real place and need in the industry, left me knowing I was writing right where I should be writing.

    Considering these two very different scenarios, it makes for good argument that it’s in the writer’s best interest to first research and then seek out publishing reps who understand ‘real life’ songs before pitching ‘real life’ songs. For me, the ‘status’ or rank of the publishing company a writer pitches to is very minor compared to the education and ‘industry’ experience of the rep who hears the song. If the rep, whom the writer is pitching to, can not ‘hear’ outside the ‘top 40/radio’ box, the ‘real life’ song’s not going to make it past that rep’s desk, anyway.

  6. That is a really great article and you caught it exactly right – don’t write for shock value (quite a lot doing this actually – miley Cyrus) and a have a good think about that off-kilter where you think “can I say this”. Happened to me recently with one of my songs on a difficult theme so encouraging to find I did the right by keeping the line in! Another thing now is that radio airplay is so tight that the chances of an outsider getting played is possibly the worst it’s been so you might as well write for yourself.

  7. I definitely write out of the box most the time and get the comment “good song but I don’t know who will cut it” a lot. But I keep trying and getting better and maybe that box will move a bit and I’ll be right in it. Gotta have great songs and hope the timing is right.

    1. I love reading all these comments! And I’m happy that some of y’all are bending some people’s ears (in a good way) with some different stuff!

  8. I wrote a song called “An Innkeeper’s Tale” several years ago. It is a song that tells about the birth and even the death if Jesus from the Innkeeper’s perspective. I played it at a NSAI publisher pitch a few years back while in Nashville. You know the drill-the publishers usually play a verse and chorus, comment(maybe) and then either take or pass on the song. This was not a Christian publisher pitch, and the song is a Christian ballad, too long for radio by about 2 minutes. How it got to even be played is a story in itself; the disc I had was not CD format, and if not for some awesome help from the NSAI staff to convert it, I would have totally missed the opportunity(lesson about preparedness learned). Anyway, the song finally got played. He played through the first verse and chorus, and motioned to keep the song playing. He ended up playing the entire song! And he took it with him. Said it was too long and mentioned something about extraneous, BUT, the reason he took it is because he said he had never heard a Christian song written from that point if view. At best it will be a song in a Christmas play or cantata, but that’s alright. I’ll put it on my Christmas album. A song does not have to be commercial to be great, not to imply that this song is. Conversely, a song does not have to be great to be commercial. But when a song is both great and commercial, that’s a song that will live on and on.

  9. I have a song out called The Hardway! It is the story of me finding out by my best that my wife was stepping out on me and him worried me finding out The Hardway! Which is the best way? Now, in time after I put my songwriter shoes back on! I used that experience and some Fictional Irony to create a song of Fright, Gossip, Irony and Karma together! You got to take risks safe is not me!

  10. Hi Brent,
    Just checked out your post, some good info in there. I sometimes self-edit, thinking a song is too cliché or too cheesy. I did that with a song I wrote called Tired Fears. I thought it was too cheesy but when I played it at gigs it got a really positive response. Go figure. It’s hard to know what’s going to resonate.
    Thanks for the advice.

  11. Bernard Herrmann was scoring Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” in London. One night, he went to a small club in Liverpool, and there was a band playing. He loved them so much, he bought all their 45s and took them back to L.A. with him to share them with the music department at the studio he was working at. They turned their noses up and scoffed at the notion that a British band would ever be popular in America. That band was the Beatles. The music industry is full of executives with tired ears who have a hard time knowing a good song when they hear it any more. They are, however, very skilled at taking chicken s*** and turning it into chicken salad. It may be frustrating to be a songwriter these days, but it is very rewarding on a personal level just knowing you’re writing the best you possibly can. Doug Cohen told me one time that if you want to do this, you have to do it because you love it, not because you think you’ll make a lot of money doing it. Money never made anyone happy. Great artistry and hard work, however, can make you happy, but even that only goes so far. We’ve got to tap into joy, which is far superior to happiness, and comes from the Source, along with any talent we have to begin with.

  12. Loved this article. I will take it to heart. Been writing to please others but this has given me something to really think about. Thanks.

  13. Thank you for this Brent! So true. Some songs are written from the heart and may not follow the “standard” format but that truly may be what makes them special.

  14. I have been writing such songs for over forty years but have never focused on any serious career moves. Now age 56 I feel that I am neglecting my purpose and am returned to my hopes of my youth to market my music to the artists and producers who are in the position to share my artistic creations to the larger population of music listeners whom I need to feel I’ve touched in part by my creations. I am unsure how to present my originals to those targeted profesionals. It’s a who you know industry. My attempts at the social networking has yielded a large web of professionals in the music world, mostly musicians and producers. But just because they like your Facebook pages doesn’t mean anyone is listening. Most have no interest in reviewing material for even an honest critique.
    How do I land the fish?

    1. Most of the songs on country radio aren’t “country.” Doing something outside the box might just be the thing to make a publisher sit up an take notice. If it’s great, it’s great. But if you’re not aiming for country, and you’re asking about using this strategy in different genres, I’d assume it still applies.

  15. I’ve been doing a lot of writing toward Margo Price these days. Her style, sound and lyrics are definitely out of the box compared to most of what’s heard on country radio today. She’s bringing back the good ol’ heart-wrenching story songs. Ones that let you connect with real life. Ones with truth and meaning. And they’re not all ballads. She puts some good kick butt attitude, like Loretta, in some of her tunes. And lots of steel. I was tickled to hear some of her tunes from her recently released debut album on WSM. We’ll be hearing a lot more about her, pretty fast, I figure. Jack White’s got her rolling out there in gigs, promoting her album.

  16. I wonder how the concert explosion has influenced what gets cut for radio. Concerts used to be a venue to see the artist perform live and to just enjoy their music. Now they are a huge show and dance-a-thon.
    Thanks for the article Brent. How timely. I’m trying to wrap up a couple of tunes and get them to you for the “Play for a Publisher’ thing you have going. It’s funny because I wanted to include one I know will get tossed due to it’s structure and honesty. Decision’s made.

  17. Brent, I received one of those comments last week from NSAI. They thought the music was
    great but the subject matter was not something an artist would cut. The song, Break Me, is a song about domestic violence and how the singer escapes. And her attitude is, “I’ll be damned if I let you break me.”

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