Guest author Howard Dobson condenses two decades of radio play and cover version success into 10 top tips.
1. Don’t do everything yourself – use a producer
These days it’s tempting and cost-effective to do everything yourself – it’s the age of the singer/songwriter/producer. Collaborating brings an extra level of energy to a work though. If you really can’t share the songwriting and singing duties, at very least work with a producer who can bring out your best ideas and performances.
2. Use other people’s songs
Up until the 1980s albums contained 10 or 12 songs. CDs were more expensive and artists started to record 14 songs per album on average to compensate. That’s a lot of songwriting! In my experience artists struggle to keep up the quality throughout a 14-song album – particularly if they’re under pressure to issue a release every year or two. There are plenty of excellent songwriters out there who don’t sing or perform. Take a tip from the biggest names in the industry and source songs from other people. Then you can concentrate on making your best songs even better.
3. Send your songs to other artists
Think of it the other way round too. You may have some great tracks on your album that deserve to be heard by more people. Brilliant songs should be covered by other artists. Sell them into musicians or their managers quoting your radio play and encouraging statistics from PRS and/or CCLI.
4. Don’t write on a computer
There is an optimum time to put your ideas down on disk – but let your song develop in your mind for a while first before you start introducing technology. Computers make our songwriting too formulaic; copying and pasting makes us lazy and removes originality and imagination. Finish most of the song in your head before making a demo in the digital world.
5. Start with the melody line
This is for worship songwriters particularly. If a church music group is going to play your song live, they probably won’t have the ability to copy your full band version. It may just be one person with a guitar. In which case the only part of your arrangement to survive will be the melody line. If it’s strong anyone will be able to play it live no matter how limited their musical resources. Worship songs built around funky basslines and pumping rhythms may get played on radio but they will be too difficult for churches to perform.
6. Contribute to a joint album
There is often strength in numbers. Instead of slaving over an album for years why not get together with other musicians and release a joint album with a name reflecting the local area? You can all put your best songs together to produce an album that is really worth buying. Radio stations will be more likely to take note of something special containing an assortment of memorable tracks.
7. Be original
Everyone at some time wanted to be the next Beatles or U2. What the world really wants is something as fresh and original as they were when they appeared on the scene. By developing your own sound you will score better reviews and be perceived as the best in your field. Especially when others start to follow what you are pioneering.
8. Join PRS, PPL and CCLI
This is a no-brainer. It’s not just making sure you get the songwriting, record company and performing royalties you are entitled to; joining means you get valuable information about which songs are being used and where. You might be getting airplay in New York that you don’t know about.
9. Don’t give up on a good song
Sometimes a song stays fairly dormant for years before someone, somewhere, picks up on it. Music publishing is a pipeline and you may find it takes a while for new songs to emerge at the other end, perhaps as a track on other people’s albums or part of worship sets in another country. Keep your songs and demos available permanently on music-sharing websites. They won’t be discovered if you keep them to yourself.
10. Write with the end use in mind
There are so many great songs out there so why should anyone want to buy or play mine? That’s the question you should be asking yourself before writing and recording. If you don’t aim at an end use you’re risking the possibility of a great song going nowhere. Ask radio presenters what’s missing from their playlists; see if a local organisation needs a fund-raising theme; base a worship song on people’s favourite psalms. In the end it’s all about supply and demand.