Feb. 9, 2013

How to Tell if Your Song is Getting The Job Done!

(This is an article I wrote a few years back for Music Connection Magazine on Songwriting)

By Marc Platt

As singer/songwriters, we listen to a lot of good, bad and ugly songs by an assortment of writer/artists. Some are by accomplished writers with hit songs on their resumes and some are by newer, younger and less-polished writers. What can we do as writers to better our material and make it listenable to the audience we are trying to grab?

      Don't Bore Us, Get To The Chorus. This is a basic flaw that most pop writers fall into. They go on forever before they get to their hook. Some of the best pop songs ever written, start with the chorus. I'll give you a great example, "Good Day Sunshine" by our very own Lennon/McCartney slams right into that hooky chorus and never let's up the entire 2-minutes plus. Which brings me to my next point:

      Not Every Song HAS to be "Stairway to Heaven." No one will penalize you as a writer for writing a great song UNDER three minutes, BUT most people will turn your brilliant song off after a couple of minutes if it meanders. You really have about 30 seconds to grab a listener (and I'm being generous). If the listener feels this is going nowhere, it will be on to the next one.

     What About My Great Production? Have you ever heard the term glossing over crap, or turning a turd into a diamond? It can't be done! If you have a bad song, do not waste your money getting great musicians to turn your "flawed masterpiece" into a classic. You don't want to be compared to Milli Vanilli, the poster children of non-writing talent of the 1980s. There are hundreds of acts I could name, but we don't have the room.

      How to know if your song is cutting the mustard. Play the song out at open mics, or at your live shows before committing it to tape. This is easy to do if you are patient enough to get an audience reaction. When you play a song to a live audience, you will know almost instantly if it has wings, or if it will need some tweaking. You may want to play a song several times and KEEP working on it, before you record it. The legendary Bob Dylan has remarked several times that he is still working on the Blood on the Tracks-classic "Tangled Up In Blue." That song came out in 1974 and is regarded as one of Dylan's best songs.

      Be Willing to Scrap Songs That Aren't Working. This is a tough one. We all think of our songs as children and we certainly can't get rid of a kid because he/she is bad. My suggestion is DON'T think of your song as a kid. While it can be a living breathing work of art if it works on all levels, it can also be considered a "bad song" by the rest of us consumers. Take a step back. Be critical to the point where YOU have to look at the song as a consumer. Ask yourself honestly, "Is this song saying something to the audience?" Do you think people will seriously relate to the message? If the answer is yes to both of these important questions, then continue to work on it until it is complete.

      Trusting People You Respect to Be Honest With You. Another tough one. Look, if great songwriting was that easy, everyone would be hit writers. You need to find a good sounding board. Someone you can play your songs to who won't always pat you on the back and tell you how great you are. They can be an average listener, or an accomplished writer themselves, BUT they need to be objective. I was very fortunate in my impressionable 20's to hang out with some amazing artists like Elvis Costello. He once told me that when he was starting out, his peers would never be honest with him. Maybe because they didn't truly want him to succeed. They may have wanted him to stay with them at their level. You as an artist need to be able to distinguish among other people's agendas and find someone who can objectively tell you if your songs are moving them, or what they may lack. Be a good listener when they are giving you a reaction. They don't have to be accomplished, but if they say something like "that's a long one," or "I don't get the 2nd verse," pay attention to those comments and re-examine your work.

      Make Sure You Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say. You can get to the point in very few words if you are truthful and insightful. Van Morrison wrote "Brown Eyed Girl" at a young age and was brilliant in his economy of words "Hey where did we go/Days when the rains came/Down in the hollow/Playin' a new game." Each of those lines says a lot in 4-5 words per each line of that first verse. You have a unique opportunity to move and entertain people with your songs. Take advantage and say things the best way you can without being too vague. I always like to say "if my grandma can understand it, it's probably pretty good."