Many times when I’m mentoring SongTown songwriters, I come across a truly great song that no one is ever likely to record. For a multitude of reasons, it’s possible to write something awesome that artists just aren’t willing to sing. I’m going to explain some of the top “cut killers” in this article to help you learn to avoid those mistakes and start writing lyrics an artist would sing.
The most common issue I come across is that a lyric that makes the singer look bad. Most artists aren’t going to sing a song about cheating on their spouses. If they sing a song like that, every girl in the audience who has been cheated on instantly hates them because they remind her of her scumbag ex. Artists are hyper-conscious of the way a song will make them look to their audience. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, an artist is going to stay “on brand.” They are going to sing songs that reflect an accurate picture of who their fans think they are. Artists also don’t want their audience thinking they are cheating scumbags.
A related issue—less common but likely even more deadly—is a lyric that makes an artist’s family member look bad. Early in my career, I wrote a great song called “The Shadow of a Man.” It was a story about the singer as a teenager seeing his father sneaking into the house across the street. He sees the shadows of his father embracing the woman who lives there through the curtains. The son loses all respect for his father and the dad becomes a “shadow of a man” to him. When I turned it in, my publisher said, “This is the best song I’ve heard that will never get cut.” I was so disappointed and asked him why.
He explained to me that if Luke Bryan cut that song, lots of people would think it was true. They would believe that his dad actually cheated on Luke’s mom. Everywhere they went in their little hometown, people would be thinking or asking, “Did you really cheat on her?” or “I can’t believe you stayed with him after he cheated!” Luke isn’t going to do that to his parents. It’s just not going to happen. An artist is never going to record a song that hurts their spouse or any other family member. Many artists let their spouses help them pick the songs they record, so you’re going to get a sure veto if the song puts down or hurts anyone in the family. Additionally, most spouses of artists don’t want their significant other singing about being a cheater because that opens the door for eager groupies or fans to try to get that to happen. If you’re trying to write commercially, you have to be super aware of the implications your lyric could have on the family members of the artist.
The third big reason songs are often “written for no one to sing” is that they don’t have a big enough idea. I heard a great song one time about barbecue. It was really well written, but it was such a niche topic that it’s unlikely to get recorded. It went into all of the different kinds of rubs and super detailed information that you’d likely only know if you were on the competitive barbecue circuit.
Artists are usually looking for songs with really wide appeal. They don’t want to sing a song that only 10 people in their audience care about. They want to find bigger, broader ideas that EVERYONE in the crowd can relate to. That’s why so many songs are about life, love, and loss. We have all experienced those things so we can relate. We haven’t all competed in the barbecue world.
When you are trying to write lyrics an artist would sing, you want to be sure that the idea appeals to everyone, or almost everyone, in the audience that the artist sings to.
Finally, another “cut killer” is asking too much of the audience. If I’m writing a song for Bruno Mars and my song talks about the singer working on an assembly line, I’m asking the audience to forget who Bruno Mars really is and pretend along with him that he’s working in a factory. Most audiences aren’t going to be willing to go along with that. They would likely be saying to their friends, “Does he really think we’re going to believe this?” Fans know who the artist is. They likely paid big bucks to come to the show and this person is a superstar to them. We have to keep that in mind if we want an artist to sing our songs.
Don’t ask the audience to suspend reality too often or in a big way. Like we talked about earlier, you have to stay “on brand” for your artist and that includes writing lyrics that sound genuine and honest coming out of the artist’s mouth. The highest compliment you can be paid as a commercial songwriter is to have an artist’s fans think that the artist wrote the song. When that happens, you know you’ve done your job well.
Pay attention to those “cut killers” and you can improve your chances of writing a song an artist would sing.