Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Max_Martin.jpg
Well first, if the post title caught your attention … then Great. Because blog post titles are like song title concepts. They’re supposed to do their thing and make you want to click (or turn the music up) to hear more.
So what does Max Martin know that you don’t? First of all, Swedish. Second of all, a whole hell of a lot of things, including how to write a hit song. But most importantly and knowing Max personally and many of those in his circle, there’s one key thing that most songwriters lack, which is the willingness to work, and work, and work, and work, and work, and rewrite, and rewrite, and write, and fine tune, and fine tune, perfect, and perfect, and rewrite some more (ad infinitum) until they have … a masterpiece.
(And if you are reading this and don’t know who Max Martin is … he basically wrote all of your favorite pop songs from Taylor Swift, Britney, PINK, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, etc. and has literally written more hits than Paul McCartney with over 21 #1 Billboard Hot 100 smash hits to his credit. See more here.)
And masterpieces. We all want one of those right?! I’m not talking “Moonlight Sonata” or “McArthurs Park” but you know, a pop masterpiece that’s going to make $5MM +. Or maybe you do want to write “McArthurs Park” - that’s great.
You probably know this...but Max doesn’t write 50 songs a year. He might write 10 (???) (Look, I don’t have any idea cuz I’m just throwing that out there … and that’s the rumor and that’s what I would guess). But those 10 COUNT - BIG TIME, and he takes his time like a fine sculptor paying attention to the last 1% of detail and quality.
I’m sure he’s also an expert at objectively picking what’s worth working on and refining, and ditching his just “good +” songs and chalking that up as “material to dig through” to get to the gold (HINT - gold panning metaphor forthcoming later in this post) to get to the gold.
I’m bringing this up because I want to be directly vocal and specific with all of you. And this is REALLY IMPORTANT and a mind-shift pattern I’m requesting to be shifted for this year.
Often, I might ask for a rewrite, a different version, to try something, to elevate a production etc. and often I won’t get it back, the comment gets rejected or falls into the “whatever” category. And to me, you could have just said to me instead “Hey, thanks but, I have to go and take this next mediocre session instead of mining that gold gem out of the ground for you.” Either that or “Thanks...but I don’t want to work too hard. My good + song is “good enough.”
Or if I do get a rewrite, it’s months later … when we finally have an only (sadly) B+ level artist to cut your only (sadly again) B+ level song. When instead you could have been matching a superstar song with … a superstar.
Now, if I do ask for a rewrite, or to consider changes, there’s actually a reason I’m asking for it. And it’s not to spin your wheels. Trust me. It’s because you are very close to striking gold and will likely strike gold if you nail it.
Look, I’ve done this gig now for 25 years (which is more than some of you have been alive) and it’s been rare that I’m adamant about something and am not right. That sounds fucking egotistical as hell but it’s also facts. Zing.
Let me tell you a quick story. I was interviewing Savan Kotecha at SXSW (Savan was my first signing ever, and is a MASTER songcrafter and multiple #1 hit maker himself), and we ended the interview with him telling a story on how he adopted the Max Martin mindset after working with him for years and now over a decade. He was telling me about a song he was writing for Ariana Grande, I forget which one, but that’s not the point. He said, they just couldn’t nail the pre-chorus and kept trying and trying. Mind you this is the pre-chorus (which could be argued is meh … not so important … ##buzzer sound## WRONG.). “Well Savan, how many pre-choruses did you write?”
“We wrote 65 pre-choruses before we found the right one.”
65!!! That’s the “Max Martin Mindset.” And that’s why Max Martin makes $100MM a year in royalties (and Savan $10MM + / year, if I were to guess?!) and you don’t.
Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re being constantly conditioned to accept mediocrity. Just look at the weekly releases that come out and get a smidge of attention. The bar of what gets any type of attention, playlisting, etc. is SO LOW. Those are not the songs you want to aspire to be “as good as.” Do you think anyone other than say Max Martin and the other Top 5 songwriters in the world are working “that” hard to make a masterpiece? Nope. Is that an opportunity for you?
Another example. Regardless of your media opinion or what you think of him, Dr. Luke is also notorious for quality control (someone who also happens to have been closely in the Max circle, right? That’s not a mistake.). And one of the greatest producers ever, Mutt Lange … same category. Even those broey guys LMFAO (Redfoo, I actually think is a secret genius), did 100 mixes of “Party Rock Anthem” to get it right. I’m not making it up. And yes, I do think “Party Rock Anthem” is a pop masterpiece
The point is … when you get it “right” … you really “GET IT RIGHT.” And then you get a perennial seller on your hands and a song that stands the test of time and make oodles of royalties every year. Why? Because you decided to make a change in your thinking...and go the extra 5, 4, 3, 2 1% level of quality to chip away at your song until it was a perfect piece of songcraft.
That’s what home runs are all about. And listen, SOMETIMES THEY WILL JUST HAPPEN TOO! Awesome. 15 minutes smashes can write themselves. Beautiful! But when you are circling a hit, sometimes it’s all too tempting to just go to that next session and write that next song. It’s more exciting to start something new, and yeah, it’s a drag to go back and open up all those session files and try to crack the code.
What’s that quote? 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. That’s what we’re talking about here.
But this is my sometimes mind boggling question … why...in songwriting don’t we focus on where the “gold” is likely to be?
What I’m asking for...is in some cases, for you to adopt a mindset shift. To get excited about working and perfecting and polishing - those potential smash hits. Look...to be honest...you’re better off in some cases just canceling all your writing sessions for the week and working on that one gem. Because that’s probably where your million dollars is, not working on some other rando cowrites.
That’s where the money is and there is “gold in dem hills.”
Speaking of which … there’s another metaphor here. And I’m going to use a gold prospecting metaphor since a) it totally works and super appropriate and b) some of you know I prospect and find gold in the hills for real.
Gold prospecting and finding hit songs are way too similar. One thing about gold prospecting is … it ISN’T EMOTIONAL. When we’re in the field, we’re not wrapped up in emotions, or finding a need to be right about our precious “line” or chorus lyric that could probably be better...we just want the gold. So if I’m getting into a gold “pocket” and finding “evidence” of gold -- do you really think I’m just going to put down my sampling pan and say “well there’s probably a 3 oz. nugget in there but hey, fuck it, I’m going to try someplace else.” Hell no! I’m going to work that pocket until I get that gold.
But you’d be astonished objectively on how many songwriters are “in the gold” but then just give up. Or sometimes they just need help seeing it and instead “meh... I’m going to take these 10 average cowrites instead and maybe I’ll randomly hit gold there.” In my opinion, a lot of this comes from the mindset of “this is good enough,” which in today’s climate is the worst mindset to have.
It’s simple. You are on top of the gold. Keep digging.
Quick 1-minute clip here on Dave McCracken, my gold mining mentor (literally the Indiana Jones of North America) and see if there’s not a metaphor here for songwriting. https://youtu.be/-dRQ6OWO0m4?t=68. Notice his words about “screening” and talking about “material” and “put your effort into where it is MOST LIKELY to produce the best result.”
And you know what, one more thing. If you do two rewrites, a third, maybe four to five different approaches to a production or a mix and still don’t have it, or if I still don’t think you have it...is that the time to give up and think you’ve done your job and put in your time and think it’s “good enough.” Hell no.
There’s a question here. And answer this honestly. Are you willing to, like Savan Kotecha, make 65 pre-choruses to make sure your song is legendary? If so, great. If not, please do not expect the heavenly songwriting gate of mega royalties to open easily for you.
This shit is hard. That’s what these guys and gals get paid for, because there’s only 1% of songwriters out there usually willing to work that hard for it.
So, if you do get asked for a rewrite or remix, or asked to try a different production from me, an A&R person, an artist, your cowriter or anyone else … it’s a time to rejoice and get excited. Instead of being like “man this is a drag I gotta do these friggin rewrites.” GET EXCITED because you’re probably on top of the gold.
There’s one more CRUCIAL part of this. I wanted to turn you on to a short, yet legendary blog post, from a legendary thinker and one of my favorites, Seth Godin. This blog post is called “Hardly Worth The Effort.” The crux of this post is that...what the handful of superstars in any field get PAID for … (not just get paid for but make millions more exponentially) than their competitors, is those people go the last 5%, the last 1% to get the full 100% of quality. That’s the signal. Everyone else can do 90%. Why? Because that’s the EASY part. The last 5% is what you get paid for big time. Here’s the link. Please read. Seth Godin - “Hardly Worth The Effort.”
That’s what separates the global, legendary, AND CONSISTENT superstar hitmakers from you.
And why they have 8 figures of royalties per year and you don’t.