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Writing For Country Music Publishers:
Songwriting News From Nashville

by Richard V. Tuttell

The following article contains songwriting tips from an experienced songwriter who recounts
his professional experiences with the music business in Nashville, Tenn.

TOP TIPS ON HOW TO WRITE A HIT SONG!

Country music publishers in Nashville want hit songs. Yes, strong album cuts are also welcome. But smartly written commercial songs aimed at the heart of mass appeal are what gets country music publishers really excited!

1.) Set your hook early and often

As we all know, “hooking” is the key in commercial songs. Hooking is the ability to grab the attention and interest of a listener. According to Ralph Murphy at ASCAP, a song should hook the listener within 60 seconds.

While hooks are usually placed in a song's chorus, “hooklets” can be sprinkled throughout the song in both the music and lyrics.

2.) Don’t bore us / get to the chorus!

The chorus is the most important part of a commercial song, so get to it quickly. As hit songwriter Jerry Vandiver noted, “Nobody walks down Second Avenue humming a verse.”

Great choruses separate themselves by a change in melody or meter. (This was one of the flaws pointed out in my song at an ASCAP critique session – and which was confirmed in a TAXI review. Jerry commented that if he hadn't had my lyric sheet he wouldn't have been able to tell where the chorus started.)

Ralph Murphy said hit songs usually have five to seven repetitions of the title, but he cautions not to overdo it. It takes an average of 26 weeks on the charts for a song to reach the number one spot, and you can burn out the title during that time.

BMG publisher Michael Puryear noted that radio is very finicky about needing a chorus. He also said the chorus needs to provide a solution to the problem you isolated in the verse. For praise and worship music, he says it's better to have a full chorus, and to find a positive twist in the hook of the chorus.

3.) Keep it simple

During an ASCAP Sound Source session I was told by Jerry Vandiver that my song was too complicated and to adhere to the acronym KISS (keep it simple, songwriter). But at a Songwriters Guild seminar with Chris DuBois (a songwriter and partner with Brad Paisley and Frank Rogers in Sea Gayle Music), he advised against too much simplicity. Contrary advice? Not really.

Jerry noted that my song seemed to be trying to tell two or three different stories rather than sticking to just one. Chris was referring to imagery, and noted, “You can't be too descriptive in a song.” He said the more unique you can be the better, and that a song needs to have an identity in and of itself.

Chris says the best thing is to play it for somebody, and ask, “Did you understand what was going on?”

4.) Start yourself up!

Songwriters need to be disciplined self-starters. Ralph Murphy said a typical day is spent writing for three hours and then conducting businesses such as pitching songs to publishers, promotion and tending to financial aspects.

Persistence and patience were emphasized as important traits. (At an ASCAP Sound Source critique session one writer was discouraged that he had spent five years trying to get a cut. Jerry Vandiver responded that it took one successful songwriter 15 years to find success.)

5.) Focus on the music first

Focusing on the music and songs is the best way to spend your time, according to Chris DuBois. He said songwriters need time to write and grow. They have to figure out how to get their songs to the next level.

Nashville is a writer's town where you are judged by your song, not how you look. Chris says he still writes every day. Good writers have the gift of perception, which they are born with; everything else is craft, which can be learned and developed.

Rewriting is a very important part of the process. One of the best analogies I heard all week was at a Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) pitch session with BMG publisher Michael Puryear. He advised writers to take time to develop a good idea. He compared songwriting to cooking where all the right ingredients are there to make a dish but if you don't bake it long enough, it won't taste as good as it could have.

6.) Don't flash your cash

Singer-songwriters with money to self-promote do not necessarily have an advantage when they approach publishing companies, according to Chris DuBois. If the writer has a good song most companies will be more than willing to pay an advance and pay for recording the demo. "The real issue is the whether the music is as good as it needs to be," said Chris.

He added that it's also important to conduct yourself in a professional manner, which may seem obvious, but too often is advice that is lost on some artists. Some would-be stars over promote themselves to the point that they become pests and publishers are no longer willing to listen to anything they have to offer.

7.) Give your song its best chance

Jerry Vandiver noted that homemade demos are okay for purposes of pitching a song with a simple guitar/piano vocal. If the song is accepted by a publisher a demo will usually be made to pitch it to performers.

Michael Puryear suggests hiring a professional singer for a demo because using someone who has a “commanding voice” will hold the listener's attention and put the song in its best light. Michael also suggests skipping any special effects (rain storm, engine racing noise) on demos. It can be distracting and delay getting to the meat of the song.


Jerry also suggests skipping extended instrumentals in a demo. He says a 20-second solo can seem two hours long. And he
recommends keeping lyrics to one page, because more than that makes the song look too long. (You don't have to print out the chorus every time if the words stay the same.)

Michael suggests leaving the copyright date off the lyric sheets so a publisher doesn't think he's listening to an old song.

8.) Choose the right topic

Jerry Vandiver noted that subject matter is important because you have to persuade a singer to do your song. BMG publisher Michael Puryear suggests that songwriters ask themselves “Who would record this song?”

Because we live in a “me” society, he advises directing songs to the listeners and engage them by saying “you.”

At the ASCAP critique session a demo was played on which the female singer in the chorus sang that she wanted to do a duet with a specific country singer, which limited the market for the song. Ideally, a commercially viable song should relate to as wide a range of people as possible.

(In my meeting with a BMI representative he questioned a reference in one of my songs to “Dr. Wu,” a name from a Steely Dan song that would probably confuse many listeners.)

Ralph Murphy adds that humor and irony are needed now in country music.

Another standard used to judge potential hits is whether the subject matter is appropriate for the coveted 7 a.m. drive time audience.

9.) Supply what's in demand

As far as country music publishing goes, most people I spoke to in Nashville believe the contemporary pop movement has stopped working. They cite disappointing sales of new albums by big crossover country stars.

Jerry Vandiver agrees there has been a “pop backlash,” and that “organic, rootsy” music is coming to the forefront. That shift may become evident in radio play in the future. Country music publisher Ken Earls says “Something deeply rooted in traditional will survive.”

10.) Find a writing partner

As noted, collaborating (co-writing) is a big deal in Nashville. At every songwriter's night I attended singer-songwriters introduced their songs by crediting their songwriting collaborators.

Jerry Vandiver says a great co-writer can be a great editor. (Editing was something that was noted as lacking on my song, which I was told was about one verse too long.) A co-writer allows you to get an objective perspective on song ideas and can serve as a catalyst for developing new ideas.

In conclusion, the important contributions made by songwriters to the country music business was uniformly praised.

Ralph Murphy noted that without the songwriters there would be no music industry.

Publisher Ken Earls noted that Nashville is a song-driven market, and songwriters hold the key to change people's careers – creating them, extending them and reviving them.

© RICHARD TUTTELL

Richard V. Tuttell is a songwriter and the author of "Good Press: An insider's Guide To
Publicizing Business and Community News."

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