Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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March Goals (Some Advice from Steve Martin)

“Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” – Steve Martin, Comedian, Actor, Musician

steve-martin-bookI’m in the middle of reading Steve Martin’s book “Born Standing Up” and have been highlighting lines and paragraphs like crazy (wild and crazy, that is ;-). I relate so much to the joys, setbacks, highs and lows he describes because in any kind of creative pursuit from stand-up comedy to songwriting, there are commonalities: We are starting with nothing and trying to create something tangible with the intention of moving an audience emotionally. We are trying to find our original voice while at the same time being relatable. We are constantly mining our inner resources and confidence to keep moving forward. We continue learning new tricks and developing our skills even as our work is being rejected over and over. But somehow the pursuit is a thing of beauty in itself.

Martin says, “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”

What are some of your objectives to keep learning and refining this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them. Big or small, it doesn’t matter as long as we keep moving in the right direction. Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 

 


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What Are Your Goals for February 2017?

“In a world full of temporary things you are a perpetual feeling.” – Sanober Khan, Poet

heart

While February is the shortest month of the year, it can sometimes feel like the longest. Between the colder, grayer days, and the New Year’s resolutions slump, and the barage of chocolate-filled hearts weighing us down, our motivation may wane. So in February, let’s try to be extra gentle with ourselves and wake up remembering that every day is a new beginning. Try to find some simple ways to reignite your creative spark and find the song in your heart.

What are some of your songwriting (or other) plans, hopes and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them. Big or small, it doesn’t matter as long as we keep moving in the right direction. Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 

 


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Why Are Most of the Pitch Leads Country?

Image-2-2015-BillboardChartWe’re often asked why so many of the SongU.com pitch leads for original songs are for the Country genre. The reason is a fairly simple one: Country is one of the rare popular genres of music in which many of the major artists are open to recording “outside” songs. What does that mean? It means that they are willing to listen to and record a song that they did not write or co-write themselves.  My friend, song plugger Jeffrey Nelson, regularly compiles a list of major-label Country artists who have recorded outside songs. In the last part of last year, he counted 27 Country artists who recorded 50-100% outside songs on their albums, and another large group who recorded at least one or more outside song. Some of those songs were written by songwriters who hadn’t previously had a major-label artist record their songs. In other words, there are still many big Country artists who believe in the power of a great song no matter where it comes from. Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride, and Faith Hill are all notorious for recording great outside songs. Thus, they all can boast an incredible number of hits.

This is in sharp contrast with most of the Pop and Hip-Hop stars, who create their hits in the studio together with a group of other musicians and songwriters who contribute beats/tracks, topline melodies, lyrics, and hooks. Often these major artists rely on only the hottest hit makers and producers like Max Martin or Dr. Luke or Pharrell, making it much more difficult for an untested songwriter to insert themselves into their projects.

Justin Timberlake talks about working with Pharrell, Timbaland, Max Martin

Admittedly, some of the iconic pop singers like Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston, for example, always depended on great outside songs, as have some of the more current pop stars such as Rhianna. And while this year’s Shawn Mendes’ hit song “Stiches” was written by Daniel Parker, Teddy Geiger, and Daniel Kyriakides, and Selena Gomez didn’t write her hit “Same Old Love”, major-label pop opportunities are decidedly tougher to come by. Rock/Pop bands tend to build their reputation on the strength of their own sound and their own self-written songs and unique vibe.

If I don’t write Country, how do I get my songs recorded?

Where does that leave you in terms of pitching if you’re writing Pop, Rock, Hip-Hop, Electronic, Retro, Americana, Classical-Operatic, or a variety of other valid genres?

1) Independent Artists.  – If smaller indie artists cut your song on their album, it probably won’t net you much (if any) income, but there are still many advantages. First, it’s simply flattering that your song speaks to an artist so much that they want to sing it and record it for their audience. Also, it’s a good way to get a new recording (demo) of your song that you can use to pitch to bigger artists. In addition, it’s exposure for your song. Songwriter Jon Ims, for example, tells the story of how a local band had recorded one of his songs on their album and took it to Nashville in hopes of landing a record deal. While in Nashville, they played it for a big record producer. That producer, Garth Fundis, had no interest in signing the band, but loved the song Jon wrote called “She’s In Love With The Boy”. Fundis decided to record that song on his new act, Trisha Yearwood. Needless to say, “She’s In Love With The Boy” became Trisha’s breakout single and launched a stellar career for her AND for songwriter Jon Ims (who after moving from Colorado to Nashville that same year had another hit single “Fallin’ Out of Love” for Reba McEntire).

2) Placements in Film/TV/Media. – Films, TV shows, commercials and other alternative media always need music but don’t want to pay top dollar to get big hits by by big stars. That leaves the door open for you if you’re writing songs that have a certain “sound” or specific genre that they just happen to need. We had several members get Country songs placed in the TV show “Nashville” for example. But the song needs are as vast and varied as the media itself. If you’re writing in any genre, there’s a chance to get your song placed.

  • At SongU.com we offer regular opportunities by our guest music supervisor, Nancy Peacock, who will give us current leads from her contacts with production companies. She’s taken our members’ songs for specific leads, but also for a non-exclusive contract to pitch on comp tapes that she sends out when there is a need (i.e. love songs for Valentine’s Day commercials that can also be used for background music in a movie or TV show).
  • The occasional unexpected opportunities come along too. Through an odd encounter I had at the Jersey shore, I was able to put up an exclusive listing for our members to submit their songs to the music supervisor for the NBC Olympic Games in Beijiing. Over 50 songs from our members went to those games!
  • We have a great series of DIY webcasts by Benn Cutarelli and Dan Robinson called “The Next Rung” all about how to get your songs into film/TV/and media. They’ll let you how their song got into the major motion picture “The Longest Yard.” Go to the DIY course catalog to find these courses.

3) Network and Collaborate. – The Jon Ims story above reminds us that networking at any level, even locally, has the potential to yield big results. Other important network outlets are music publishers and songpluggers, performing rights organization reps, and of course your peers. The new songwriters and aspiring artists of today, might be the next big thing tomorrow.

kelsea-ballerini

Breakout Country music superstar, Kelsea Ballerini, said in an interview recently that her first album is a bunch of songs written by her and her friends. Her friends were unknown emerging songwriters that had been networking and co-writing and sticking with it. They were all just doing the “hang in there” thing that we do when we’re creative people wanting to earn a living through our efforts. Sometimes you get lucky. It paid off for one of our SongU.com alumni, Lance Carpenter, who was one Kelsea’s co-writer friends on her #1 Platinum-certified breakout song “Love Me Like You Mean It” which skyrocketed her into the spotlight. Chalk one up for breaking in to the music business! (Also known as ten years to overnight success.)

Additonally, several of our members have had great success with smaller music markets. Two different members, Barbara Wilkinson and Ed Williams both had #1 songs on the Bluegrass Charts with separate artists. Another, Don Eidman, was nominated for a Dove Award for best Christian song (Bluegrass), and another, Pat Kelley, had a single with a major Christian artist as well. Just this month, Canadian-based SongU.com member, Stephen Adrian Lawrance, broke into the major-label Canadian Country market with an “outside” song for Aaron Pritchett, “When a Momma’s Boy Meets a Daddy’s Girl”  (co-written with A. Godvin/M. Webber) with the assistance of previously-mentioned song plugger Jeffrey Nelson, who he met through SongU.com. Find details of those successes here.

Remember that you can choose to look beyond the roadblocks and find alternative routes to success. The only real reason to write songs is because you love doing it. There are no guarantees except the ability to enjoy the ride. Sure, that ride can be bumpy, maybe take longer than you anticipated (“Mom, when are we gonna get there!”), but it’s always rewarding, not to mention fun, to follow your passion.


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The Power of Simplicity by Danny Arena

On December 31st, when discussing what our guiding words would be for the new year, I chose the word “joy”, and Danny chose the word “simplify”. So with no further ado, it gives me great joy to offer up one of Danny’s timeless music related articles for songwriters. Read on to find out how to simplify your music. 

-Sara


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The Power of Simplicity – by Danny Arena

As the boundaries of popular forms of music continue to expand, it’s easy to get so caught up in modulations and syncopated rhythms that we can forget the power that a strong, simple melody can have. In my songwriting classes, after covering several new musical techniques, I always make a point of giving an assignment to write something simple musically. 

Simple Isn’t Easy
While a melody may be described as “simple,” the writing of it is usually far from easy. It involves achieving a perfectly natural balance between repetition and change so that the song is easily singable, but not boring. In this column, we’ll look at two of the components that make up a strong, simple melody. We have a tendency to think our own melodies may become dull when a musical phrase is repeated two or three times. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, it’s easy to end up with a song that has too many melodic ideas. In truth, some of the most well-known melodies like, “Yesterday” (Lennon/McCartney) and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (Leigh) rely heavily on repetition. If one of our main goals as a songwriter is to write something that’s easily memorable, then by far the best technique available is the power of repetition.

Using Variation
The downside of repetition is that too much of it can bore the listener. I like to think of it this way:

Suppose you were eating spaghetti with red sauce for dinner four nights in a row. Probably by the time the third or fourth night rolled around, you’d be tired of eating the same exact meal. Now, imagine that you change the meal slightly each night: the first night – spaghetti with red sauce; the second night – Chinese sesame noodles; the third night – lasagna; the fourth night – penne pasta with garlic and olive oil. By making a few changes, the same meal can still be satisfying. It’s like that with your music – a little variation goes a long way

An Example
As an example of the power of repetition with change, let’s take a look at the John Michael Montgomery hit single, “Home To You” written by Arlos Smith and Sara Light (my lovely wife). The verse consists of a total of eight measures, but only two musical ideas, one of which is the following two-measure pattern that starts the song:

Home to You – Example 1a:

musicnotes1-powerofsimplicity

What makes the melody particularly memorable is the fact that this musical idea or motif is immediately repeated two more times (see example 1b below).

By the time the second verse rolls around, the melody is very familiar.

Example 1b:

musicnotes2-powerofsimplicity

From the song, “Home To You” written by Sara Light & Arlos Smith. © 1999 Mamalama Music (ASCAP)/Good Ol Delta Boy Music (SESAC). All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Although the initial musical idea (in example 1a) is repeated three times in a row, there are several subtle variations employed that help keep us tuned in to the music, allowing the repetition to work its magic without us becoming bored.

Notice the first time the musical idea appears, the chord pattern is a G chord followed by D (with an F# bass). But when the musical idea is repeated, the chord pattern changes and an Em7 chord is substituted for the G, which is then followed by C chord. This small harmonic variation in chord structure the second time allows us to return to the initial chord pattern again (G, D/F#) for the third time with fresh ears. Also, notice that each time the two measure musical pattern repeats, the melody begins the same, but ends a little differently. This is a type of variation commonly known as melodic variation and it is often due to the changing of the chords in the musical motif as in the case here. Finally, notice that rhythm of the melody changes slightly each time the musical phrase is repeated but is close enough to the original musical idea that it still reinforces it.

So the next time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio, try to listen for some of those subtle variations in the music. They may be small, but they can make a big difference.

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

Image-0-Danny Headshot1

Danny Arena is a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.


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One Word of Inspiration for the New Year 2017

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language; and next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot, poet

If you were to choose one word as a guide in the new year, what would it be?

Share  it in the comment area.

 

 


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Goals for November/December 2016

“You need a little bit of insanity to do great things.” – Henry Rollins

winterWhat are some of your plans and objectives for the last two months of 2016? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them! Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goals are as long as we keep moving in the right direction.

Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 


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Goals for October 2016

“Starting a new way is never easy so…keep starting until the start sticks.” – Tim Fargo, Author

Jump in! A new month, a new beginovember-3-finalnning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them!

Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area.