Fact: the path to hit songwriting success and having multiple hits per year is basically writing with as many writers, writer combos and artist configurations as humanly possible, right? We need a jam-packed schedule and even some “back to backs” where we can make certain that every session results in a finished song in a day – of course!
Hmm … well, let’s take a moment on that presumption. What if we were to take a look back through history at the best hits of all time and the environments and mindset in which those songs were created.
That’s right - I decided to take a look back over the last 40 years, and I mean the last 40 years where actual copyrights were being made. (That’s right, 2003 - 2022+, in my opinion, you’re part of the problem).
Now, let’s be honest and clear about something. I have nothing against the great songs that are being written today which are actually on the charts, or what I would call “perennial songs” (songs not on the Hot 100 but have 100 million - 250 million + Spotify streams, and just keep on going up and up).
I have a hunch (actually, I know for a fact) that there is a different environment for writers (and certainly artists) today, versus say looking back at 1965, 1975 and 1985. Those are the decades (1960-2000) where I personally think the best, most valuable songs, which are still getting played on the radio, streamed, consumed, sampled and synched were created. Are you with me here?
So, here are some things I noticed. And I’m going to go out on a limb here. Kinda.
In regards to songwriting and the atmosphere and mindset for hit making, there’s a lot of things that were so “right” back in the day – that really empowered and provided the environment for those hit songs to show up. Today…well, maybe - or perhaps not so much!
Here are some thoughts:
The best hits were often written by THE SAME, CONSISTENT writing pairs or trios. Of course we also had: Jimmy Webb, Dianne Warren, Jim Steinman and Billy Joel, who’s genius compelled them to write everything 100% on their own.
But let’s take a look at some of the best writing teams of the past 50-60 years. Ready?
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Not to mention all the tin pan alley songs and musicals from Rodgers & Hammerstein (or Hart), George & Ira Gershwin, Mancini / Mercer, etc.
*** If you’re a songwriter or artist and you are not familiar with most of the above --- please, please, PLEASE – STOP listening to the “transient,” “new music” releases of the day and dive into the above so you can “stand on the shoulders of giants.” (We’ll get into what that means, later).
Now, those names and combinations are just “off the cuff” … Starting to see a trend here?
In other words, I dare you, no I TRIPLE DARE YOU to find a CLASSIC hit from the time period of 1930 – 1988 written by 8 or more writers who were “semi-randomly” in a room together. Or something that was “frankensteined” together.
I mean literally, if you go to the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s website – you’ll see that most of those inductees and their “towering songs” were written by - are you ready for it … consistent teams!
And before we continue, if you want to check out the courses I’ve created on Teachable, unpacking my 30 years of publishing experience and signing / working with hit songwriters – check them out here or click below.
“Things that make you go, hmm” as Arsenio Hall once said.
If you’re a songwriter in your teens, 20s and 30s bouncing around from session to session with no “grounding” of how historical hits were made – this may or may not start making sense. But I’m really asking you to be open here.
Let’s imagine your upcoming schedule this month. I bet there might be 10 new co-writes, where some might be exciting and some on the “meh” side. This is versus, say, the type of writing schedule you might have had in 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978 or 1988 where you knew exactly who you’re going to be writing with for the next 6 months. That’s right - your consistent writing team member(s)!!
For the most part - the idea of “consistent collaboration” is just absolutely NOT what is happening today (for the most part).
More often than not, we just have a bunch of talented people bouncing around being, perhaps, too promiscuous (can I use that word?) with their time and energy. Now of course, often this can work and does – and sure, you have to date before getting married.
So yes, “playing the field” is part of the process to find who you creatively click with. But I would encourage you, if you’re maybe now in this game professionally for 5 + years now, to take a good look at who you generate your best songs with? Where is the success? Which of your songs make the most royalties and who have you written them with?!
Note, sadly, there are also writers I know (and a few I work with) who continually like to write with the same people they “vibe” with vs with whom they actually get results.
Think about that for a moment.
Who are you creating the most hits with?
What are your most successful songs / Who’s in that room?
Is there a common thread there?
What would happen if you discovered all your best songs have one or two common writers in the mix? What if you wrote with this person every day for a week – every month, or forget that – what if this was your primary team member and collaborator for the entire year?! Sure, even use this as a foundation to add artists to or other top liners.
But ideally, I’m talking about creating a core.
Now, think of that person – and get that person in your head … yes, imagine writing for a full month back to back with that person…the one whom you GET RESULTS with.
Here’s what I think is just one benefit you might witness:
The pressure to create something fully formed and done in 1 day goes way the “f” down. Why? Because you know you’re going to write with this person tomorrow and the next day and next day after that. There's trust. There’s a vulnerability. A ton of pressure to deliver a finished song in one day (which may or may not be realistic, if we are talking about a new, true classic) has just evaporated.
In that environment, you can work for days or a whole week on just making the most massive chorus of the year (yes, just the chorus, I say!). There’s less to prove to your trusted partner! There’s also a whole other level of honesty and a symbiotic relationship and chemistry! More of a foundation to TAKE A RISK! What about taking the time to write a masterpiece (versus a song on a “new music” playlist that no one cares about in two months.
Oh – you didn’t finish a whole song in one day? Aww. Who the F cares!!
I’d much rather have one of the writers I work with spend a week on a chorus that’s a smash, than 5 finished songs that are a “B+.”
I think we all know what happens to the “B+” songs. We’re lucky if we can get any action at all. They go in the SongSpace or Disco or Dropbox landfill. Sorry, it’s the truth. I’m getting real here.
And what happens to the “unicorn” A+ songs that the top A&R person, manager or artist is lucky to hear only a few times a year? EVERY RECORD EXECUTIVE IS FIGHTING FOR THAT SONG - TOOTH AND NAIL FOR THEIR ARTIST!
Yes! I’ve always said that it is a WRITER’S MARKET. If you can deliver a song in the realm of what I affectionately call the “Songs I Need More Of” playlist (please check that playlist out right now) – you’ll be getting hit up every damn day from every A&R person (who previously didn’t have time for you) – guaranteed!
P.S. We will now take a break in this article for a word from our sponsor aka me.
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And now back to our normal scheduled programming.
That’s right - let me tell you something – and I’m speaking to those who need to hear it more.
We (meaning publishers) actually need less songs from you – not more! What we do need is more A+ brilliant “FIRE level” hit songs. In fact – we just need (really) one of those massive hits from you per year. (But I’ll take all the “fire” you can deliver!)
So yeah - that “fire level” song - what if you could deliver that every month? Every week? Every other day?!
So yes, please. When it comes to sessions – please consider – what is the environment? How can you stack the deck to deliver smash hits? Is variety really the spice of life to your collaborations? Sure, adding an artist into your consistent, “standing writing date” with your writing duo or trio, or inserting an extra key hitmaker is great – but do you need to write with someone new every other day?
Look. Do we really need 8 people to write 1 mediocre song?
WTF even is that?
I would strongly suggest you look at history, and then:
Please - proceed with gusto.
This is moreso for writing with artists – either yourself with the artist or writing with that consistent writer … you know, your “partner in crime” (from Part 1 above).
The idea here is really setting aside extended back-to-back writing time with that artist.
Now, I don’t mean that - if you have 5 days with this artist … to then go and schedule September 3rd, 10th, 13th, 25th and 29th (and let’s be real, where at least one of those dates gets canceled). No, I’m talking about September 3rd – 10th on lock down.
I really learned this one from maestro, Patrick Leonard, who I signed a decade ago. If you’re writing with an artist - it’s likely magic may not happen on Day “1.” Sure – it can happen, but a lesson and insight I took from Patrick, who’s been the most consistent writer of hits (more than 10 of them) over decades with Madonna, Patrick was not just being a “cog in the wheel” of a series of producer / artist co-writes with the artist writing with everyone in town. Patrick told me (if I remember correctly) that his very best songs with artists, including Madonna – usually happened in week 2 or later of writing back-to-back sessions. In other words, building momentum, rapport, safety, authenticity, comfortability, risk taking, and an actual “flow” state to occur where the natural by-product of this is SMASH HITS that last forever.
Or you could just write something that gets on New Music Friday that (mostly) everyone forgets about next month. Aww. So gwwood for wyoo, bb!
So, what can you do? If you’re working with an artist or even a new co-writer, how about asking for a minimum – and I really mean a minimum of two to three days, ideally back-to-back. That’s just to get started.
Now sure, even if I was managing an artist, I don’t know if I would give an entire week to someone, unknowingly – especially when it’s the first time being in the room together or they’re on an international trip. But hmm - maybe I would?
The risk is also there on the other side too…what if it doesn’t work out? Well, in the real world - what if someone drives into your oncoming lane of traffic? These are risks we have to take, every day. We have to TRUST and go with our gut.
So, can you get 2-3 days back-to-back instead of just 1?
If 2-3 days back-to-back starts resulting in greatness, then move on to locking in 2-3 weeks or more.
And if you get those 2-3 dates back-to-back – can you be generous with each other, open, non-critical, non-judgmental? Like - imagine being on a first date. Will that person really be “themselves” on a first date? I guarantee each of your beautiful weirdness will not be present. And then leaving that 1st date thinking “Hmm…that was OK. Well, maybe I’ll try a 2nd date.” And then that 2nd date turns into a love affair that lasts 20 years. If you never have the 2nd and 3rd date – you’ll never know.
And look – maybe the 1st session is just terrible and you know it’s not a match, but more and more, as a publisher, I’m looking to lock in 2-3 days back-to-back. So, if you’re reading this or I forward you this article along with my request - you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from.
What’s the worst that can happen? You cancel the other days. The best thing that can happen is that MAGIC HAPPENS in a way that WAS THE NORM through the 1930s – 1990s (especially with consistent SONGWRITING TEAMS).
Because in my opinion, this is where greatness lives!
Or you can do the same thing you’ve been doing and expect the same “type” of results.
And - How’s that working out for you?
In summary, can we create your hit making future by modeling what’s worked in the past for other hitmakers – where the best songs of all time were legitimately created? You bet!
In order to create the future - we have to look at the past and do what is uncommon today – to make uncommon, historical greatness.
So, get out your crystal ball – dive into the past to see the future. Yes – see what those masters of songwriting were doing “back then” to make those magical copyrights today!
Part of the answers are here for you in this post. There’s much more to be revealed.
But this is enough right now to change your world (and your royalty statements).
Take some actions. Ruffle some feathers. Take some chances!
Invest in your future by investing in your consistent writing partner and if this resonates with you – try giving session culture the long kiss goodbye.
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