In this series of articles, we’re exploring the idea of self-imposed limitations. This is an important thing to remember as songwriters, and even more important as story-tellers. We touched on this notion as it applies to writing songs for commercial country radio, and I’d like to explore this idea a little further in this article.
Writing uptempo songs was always a good idea for pitching to artists for singles on country radio, but even more important today as the full-length CD goes the way of the cassette. Record labels spend a lot of money on research which indicates that the primary listeners are of a certain sex, age, and economic demographic, and they want their radio to rock rather than to roll. This may be an over-simplification, but ask any song-plugger in town, and I bet they would agree: Ballads are harder to get cut (unless the artist himself/herself is a cowriter).
I keep a playlist of uptempo songs and ones with unique “feels” as a reference when beginning a cowrite. Listening to just a few seconds kicks me out of my pretty-chord-mid-to-slow-tempo sandbox, and into the world of the more commercially viable. Once I’m there, I’m there all day — it’s just not where I typically start out.
Another thing to consider is this: By the time you and I have a shot at getting a song on a record, most of them are already spoken for; by the artist, the producer, the artist’s girlfriend, the producer’s girlfriend, etc. Pitching a song written in a particular style or with a unique feel has a better chance of “filling out the record.” For example: songs in 6/8, with an R&B feel, a Reggae feel, in a minor key, with a train-beat, or a cowboy cha-cha. How about a minor key, R&B Reggae kinda-thing in 6/8!
If approaching songwriting in this manner seems “too intentional,” or “not artful enough,” I urge you to consider these self-imposed limitations as just another type of picture frame, tennis court, or sonnet, which narrows our focus, and concentrates our energies.
We’re involved with a process that drives an outcome. Without any particular outcome in mind, you may play without a net. If you want to achieve a particular goal, establishing limitations can produce the most freedom of all.
Steve Leslie is a professional songwriter and publisher in Nashville. He teaches songwriting at www.songassembly.co