to be known by six people for something
you're proud of
than to be known by sixty million
you're not." – actor Albert Brooks
fleeting. Obscurity is
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead,
either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." -- Benjamin
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
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
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
How Would You Like to Have
Another 10,000 Fans ?
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
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.
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
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
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.
and Mass Appeal
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
2 – When in front of a person, it must penetrate that
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
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
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.
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"
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")
Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times" – Charles
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
for it to be regarded as the worst film of all time).
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 http://www.songcrafterscoloringbook.com
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 (www.lunchensemble.com). 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 www.billpere.com, www.ctsongwriting.com, www.songcrafterscoloringbook.com, and www.lunchensemble.com