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COURTING APPEAL: Getting Fan #1001, or The Secret of Ullage
By Bill Pere - 01/17/2011 - 09:33 AM EST

   "It's better to be known by six people for something

   you're proud of than to be known by sixty million

    for something you're not." –  actor Albert Brooks

"Fame is fleeting.  Obscurity is forever" – Napoleon

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." -- Benjamin Franklin

In the Four Fader paradigm discussed in a previous article,  Faders # 3 and 4 deal with the parameter of appeal.  A "hit" is essentially a song with mass appeal.  That does not necessarily mean it’s a well-crafted song, or an effective song (Faders #1 and 2).  If you take away all the hit-making reasons that are not part of the song itself (artist popularity, advertising budget, industry connections,  great production, etc),  then you start to find a greater relationship between well written, effective songs, and mass appeal. 

It is essentially impossible to write a song that absolutely everyone will like -- but it is equally impossible to write a song that no one will like – even if you try your best to make it absolutely awful, someone somewhere is going find a reason to like it.  This too is a double-edged sword.  It’s great to know that you can always find a few people outside of your inner circle who will like what you’ve created.  However, this can create a sense of complacency and make one feel satisfied settling for an Olympic  "3", a "5", a "7" instead of striving for that "10"

Think carefully about the link between your definition of "success" and the appeal of your song.  If you know you are writing a specialty song that only a narrow demographic will appreciate (niche market) then a hundred pats on the back may mean success for you.  You’ve consciouslychosen to set Fader #3, Breadth of Appeal, at a lower level, hoping to achieve a higher level of Depth of Appeal (Fader #4) as more people in the defined niche are likely to appreciate the song.  But if you’re going for truly wide-ranging appeal, across the general population, then a hundred affirmations doesn’t even get you on the radar.

From a commercial perspective, aside from artist popularity or marketing budgets, songs find success because of their mood/groove, or because of the impact of their story or message.  Either element alone can generate broad appeal.  Songs that sit in between, which have no distinct musical or emotive identity and which do not have a clear and cinematic lyric, are the ones that are going to need some re-thinking.

Also, remembering the principle that listeners do not want to work any harder than necessary to invest themselves in a song, a song that  is ‘listener-friendly’ i.e., that makes it easy for a listener to understand, follow, and remember, is going to have the edge when it comes to mass appeal.

How Would You Like to Have Another 10,000 Fans ?

A Little Goes a Long Way:  The Power of Big Numbers and Small Increments

When you write songs that others want to hear, you create negotiating power for yourself.  If you’ve written a hundred songs that no one cares to listen to, you are still a songwriter, but you have added no value to your business side of the equation.  Advertising rates for TV shows are based on the number of viewers (usually determined by Neilson ratings or similar polling).  Small changes in percentages either way translate to significant advertising dollars.  Newspaper ad rates are based on circulation – the number of eyes reading the paper.  Website ad revenue is based on number of clicks.  Again, small changes translate to significant revenue.

The principle is no different with songs.  The greater the number of people who want to hear your song, the more leverage you gain as a songwriter to get whatever it is that most matters to you.  Small differences in percentages either way can mean big numbers in terms of listeners and fans.  Thus it simply makes sense to always try for the biggest numbers, every time, with every song, while still maintaining the artistic values that are important to you.  No one will succeed in writing a hit every time.  Like an Olympian, you’ll fall short of perfection more often than not, but by going for the gold with each attempt, you will ultimately maximize your successes.

One great song does not make you a consistent hit writer.  It is certainly possible to live off the royalties from one song if it becomes a worldwide standard, but do you want be like below-average pitcher Don Larsen, who had one moment of brilliance (World Series perfect game) or do you want to be like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, or Michael Jordan, who are widely associated with career-long greatness in their respective fields.  That of course always remains your choice.   

Leverage and negotiating power do not come instantly with your first great song –  they are built up over time, one song at a time.  The most valuable asset you can have is a proven track record for being able to consistently write good songs, rather than just happen to have one gem amidst an otherwise unremarkable catalog. All the names that are typically mentioned when discussing ‘great’ songwriters are folks who have shown the ability to apply a consistently high level of craftsmanship.  Their names did not  immediately enter that elite circle with their first hit, nor are there any one-hit writers who are generally considered ‘great’ songwriters.

Look at the Ullage

I learned a new word today: "Ullage" – the difference between what a container holds and what it could potentially hold.  I found this immediately applicable to the concept of maximizing your appeal by focusing on the difference between how many people like your song and how many could potentially like your song.  It’s an effective way to avoid complacency.

If your song is played for an audience of 100, and after the show, 60 or 70 people crowd around you, and tell you how much they enjoyed it and that they plan to download your track,  it’s natural to bask in that success and never ask the question:  "Why did 30-40% of the people who heard my song not like it enough to say anything or buy it, and is there something I could have done to change their opinion ? 

At a critique session, twenty people comment on your song.  Eighteen of them like it and two say there is something that bothers them about a particular line  (that’s different than a song simply not appealing to a person’s stylistic taste).  It’s easy to dismiss the two as simply not worth trying to please, because you have such a huge positive reaction.  Those two represent 10% of the listeners. If your song is then played on a radio station which reaches 100,000 listeners, that  10% now becomes 10,000 potential fans, not just two.  And the revenue that could mean for you is not trivial.

Obviously you don’t want to try to please everyone, because that’s not possible, but the point is this: By at least asking the question "Is there something I could do that would convert even a small percentage of listeners into fans?", you are opening up new possibilities.  Maybe there won’t be anything you can do in a particular song to broaden its appeal, but the question should always be asked.  If it’s just a matter of taste, then there’s not much you can do. However, when a person’s comments are about some specific element of the song, they can often be addressed, and perhaps expand your fan base.

You’d be surprised how often a small, simple adjustment can make a difference – and one or two converts in a room of 100 becomes thousands in a city of a hundred thousand.  Always think percent, not absolute numbers.  You may have 10,000 fans in a region of  100,000 listeners, but that means 90% of the listeners are not your fans – that’s huge potential for additional supporters if you’re willing to try to reach out to them. 

Your fan base grows only when you reach out to  people who previously were not your fans !

Here is an example:  At a critique session, I brought a new song for input.

The critiques came – nine comments, and seven of them were highly positive.  Enough to make any songwriter feel good.  Then a small but mighty voice from the corner chimed in that although she liked the story (which involved snow accumulation in a storm),  she was bothered by the phrase "now it’s two inches later", and a second person then agreed.  Now I could easily have dismissed those two comments in the face of seven other positive ones, however, the ullage of the situation, (2 out of 9) was 22%.  Was there something I could do to address the discomfort of those persons (and all others like them), while still keeping the song intactand artistically satisfying? 

Knowing that 7 out of 10 people generally prefer to hear things in concrete terms and tend to look at words literally (see Songcrafters' Coloring Book) the phrase "Now it’s two inches later"  requires an intuitive leap, converting time to snow accumulation, so I could understand why it might have bothered them.  Rather than dismiss the comment, I gave it some thought and made a revision,  changing "Now it's two inches later" to "Two hours, two inches later", which I think was ultimately a better phrase.

Thus, no change was required to the song structure or story – just some word changes, and this could potentially increase the appeal by 22%. Upon re-submission to critique, it fared much better with those who had problems the first time, converting them from critics to supporters.

Another example:  A good friend of mine and phenomenal songwriter with multiple national awards, wrote a love song with the hook line "I love you forever for now".  In critique, although the song had many great elements, there was something about that line which bothered several listeners.  Looking at its meaning, the words "for now" suggest a temporary state that is going to change , i.e., a love of convenience rather than commitment.  The writer bounced the song off the great producer and songwriter Paul Leka who immediately saw the problem and offered a simple suggestion:  Change it to "I love you forever right now."  That small change makes a huge difference in the sentiment conveyed.  The emotion is brought into the current moment ("right now") and is a strong statement of commitment and duration ("I will love you forever,  and I feel that way right here right now").  Upon re-submission for critique, the overall response was significantly more positive.

I’ve seen hundreds of similar examples of a small change making a significant difference in the overall appeal of a song, across many different styles.  The key is to be willing to look at the ullage (the percentage of those who are not relating to the song) and rather than dismissing them, ask yourself if there is some reasonable and artistically acceptable adjustment you can make that would broaden the appeal of the song.  As always, the choices and final decisions  are yours.

Quality and Mass Appeal

Something which has inherent quality always has the potential to have mass appeal,  but two other factors are required:

1 – It must be put in front of a large number of people

2 – When in front of a person, it must penetrate that person’s awareness

Only then can elements of effectiveness and craftsmanship begin to take hold.  The greatest music in the world will be "liked" by no one if it only sits on the creator’s shelf OR if it is in a plain brown wrapper that never grabs attention.

Conversely, if you take something with little substance, put it in a very attention-getting package, and use a large amount of money to get it in front of a wide audience, it will evoke comment and curiosity for awhile, and appear to be popular, but in the absence of quality and substance it is not likely to endure.  One of your fundamental choices is whether you are trying to create fleeting popularity, or a long-term legacy.  Today’s world is an attention-driven economy where you’re constantly competing for people’s attention.   There are many things you can do to GET attention, but quality HOLDS attention over time.

An area of particular importance where you need  to have your Eyes Wide Open is not confusing the performance with the song.  Performance (like production) is certainly an art form with its own parameters (stagecraft for live performance, studiocraft for recording) but it is not songwriting (songcraft).  I meet many young artists and bands who are truly talented performers and who write their own material.  They can get on a stage and hold an audience spellbound – however, they do themselves a great disservice by believing that the audience is appreciating their songs (songcraft) as opposed to their performance(stagecraft).

Take attractive men and women, flaunting that attractiveness, coupled with real vocal and instrumental talent, and a high-energy visual display --  it certainly gets attention and is appreciated for all those elements.  But, take away the visual aspect of a live stage or of YouTube, and all that remains is the song and the listener’s ears.  Will the song stand up to a stranger’s ears devoid of all the visual support and live energy?  Would a stranger want to listen to a whole CD of this?  Would another artist want to cover the song?  The performance is the delivery mechanism, a flamboyant package for the song.  It can get the initial attention, but the song must have intrinsic quality to stand on its own.   

An important and often difficult choice an artist or band must make is finding the line between the attention-grabbing elements of their package, and the degree to which those elements can divert attention away from the real substance, the songs.  Unless the artist makes the informed choice to be a great performer of not-so-great material.

Songs About "Me "

Ian Rogers of Yahoo Media, at his address to the Creative Artists Agency Conference in Aspen CO,  2007,  talked about  how it ‘s important not to confuse quality with relevance.  He said  "People choose to listen to something [or watch it or attend it] because they consider it relevant in their world"

In the hit song written by  Ed Hill and Shaye Smith, Trace Adkins sings "They're songs about me,  and who I am, songs about loving and living , and good hearted women and family and God, yeah they're all just songs about me".

The key point for songwriters is that the "me" in "about me" refers to the listeners, not the writer or performer.  Certainly you want to write and sing about what is meaningful to you, but if you have your Eyes Wide Open, you’ll know that no one else particularly cares what matters to you any more than you care about what matters to strangers.  People care about what matters to them.  Your job as a songwriter is to take what matters to you and deliver it in a way that also makes it relevant to a broad spectrum of listeners.  This does not mean allowing everyone to come away with their own interpretation of your meaning, i.e. their own personal truth --  to do that would mean you’ve connected with no one.  Your goal is to enable listeners to come away with a personalized version of your truth.  Personalized enough to make it relevant to them, and enough of your intended message so that you’ve connected and communicated.

So many writers pour their personal lives, and their honest emotions into their songs, but never ask the central questions: Why should a stranger care about this?  Does this outpouring of my emotion give a stranger a reason to invest time, effort and money into it?   The essence of songcraft is to create the setting, the motivations, the situation and the supporting characters, then exit the song and allow space for the listener to put themselves into it --  no so much so that they can re-shape your reality to suit their own, but with enough flexibility for them to personalize it.  (This is discussed in more detail in a previous article on "Interpreting Interpretation")

"It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times"  – Charles Dickens

One final aspect in our discussion of mass appeal:

Would you like to be widely known and have a fanatical cult following?  Would you like to receive a distinguished award for your creative work?  Would you like a serious movie to be made about your life as an artist?  You probably answered yes, yes, and yes.  Now, the important question:   Would you still like it if you had those things because you were regarded as the worst singer-songwriter of all-time ?  

When it comes to art, there is rarely agreement on what is "best or worst" of anything.  However, ask hundreds of movie fans what the worst movie of all time is, and you get surprisingly wide agreement on the Ed Woods film "Plan 9 From Outer Space".  Ed Woods, described in Wikipedia as having "evident zeal and honest love of movie production", was posthumously given the Golden Turkey Award as Worst Director of All Time.  I admit, I have "Plan 9 From Outer Space" in my collection, and yes, it is awful even by Grade-B 1950’s Sci-Fi standards.

But Ed Woods’ love for his art and lack of conventional filmmaking ability has made him well known, and has even spawned a big-budget biographical movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, which won two Academy Awards.  "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is a perfect example of creative output which is popular, but not well-crafted and not effective (Ed Woods did not intend for it to be regarded as the worst film of all time).  

Thus, appeal can come not only from exceptional quality, it can also come from an exceptional and unintended lack of quality.  (This is the whole premise of the hit musical "The Producers").  Just think of the people shown auditioning for programs like "American Idol" and "America’s Got Talent", who have lots of confidence and painfully little talent.  They have no chance of winning, but are shown on national TV to help make for memorable and (unfortunately) entertaining watching.

So the bottom line is that there are four dimensions that go into determining the overall artistic and commercial success of a song, and they may or may not align. 

You as the writer have full control over how you set your own goals and how you define success for yourself.   To give yourself the best possible chance of achieving success, however you define it,  the one fader that you have total control over is Fader # 2, the craft that goes into your songs.   The higher you set this level, the greater  influence you can have on the other faders, and thus, the effectiveness and appeal of your song.   Understand the four faders and make your choices with your eyes wide open.

For more, visit


Bill Pere was named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry"  by Music Connection Magazine.  With more than 30 years in the music business, as a recording artist, award winning songwriter, performer, and educator  Bill is well known  for his superbly crafted  lyrics, with lasting impact.   Bill has released 16 CD's , and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association.  Bill is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble (   Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year,  Bill  is a qualified MBTI practitioner, a member of  MENC,  and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy he helps develop young talent in songwriting,  performing, and learning about the music business.  Bill's song analyses and critiques are considered  among the best in the industry.

© Copyright 2010  Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any way without permission of the author.  For  workshops,  consultation, performances,  or other songwriter services,  contact Bill via his web sites, at,,, and

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