I have to admit I found a few holes in Jason Blume’s “rules” as I read his book, Six Steps to Songwriting Success. For instance, in Chapter One he says that every hit song has to have the title in the chorus, I immediately thought of “Coward of the County,” “The Gambler,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Heart Hotels” and I’m sure countless others on my all-time favorite list.I have to admit I found a few holes in Jason Blume’s “rules” as I read his book, Six Steps to Songwriting Success. For instance, in Chapter One he says that every hit song has to have the title in the chorus, I immediately thought of “Coward of the County,” “The Gambler,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Heart Hotels” and I’m sure countless others on my all-time favorite list.
In his book Blume states, “alternative” bands try to hide their title in the chorus. He used The Wallflowers as an example. He wrote it took him a while to realize that the song was called “In the Middle” when the title was actually “Me and Cinderella.” I hate to tell Jason this, but the song is, in fact, named “One Headlight.”
All criticisms aside, I realized as I sat with Jason and as I read through to the end of Chapter Two and the rest of his book, that his focus was extraordinary and he truly wished no harm on writers with an original voice. He even dedicated a whole chapter on writing for specialty markets. Jason also frequently reminds the reader and student that rules are meant to be learned, then broken.
How does one write a song to appeal to the masses? How does one decide that this is, in fact, a good thing to reach those masses by any means necessary? Once one decides to write a hit song, how does one acquire the knowledge to do so? If one acquires this knowledge, why does one decide to take the path of teaching these skills?
“It’s interesting,” Jason explained, “from the first seminar on songwriting I attended in 1979, I knew I wanted to teach songwriting. As the years went by and I became a staff writer in Nashville, I was approached by NSAI (Nashville Songwriter’s Association International) to do lessons that would be used in their chapters all around the world.”
Blume developed lessons that were followed by exercises. After he had finished 18 of them, he realized that he had a big part of a book. “Teaching songwriting is my passion and writing a book was the best way to reach literally tens-of-thousands of people.”
I followed up by asking Jason how he arrived at the six-step process to writing hit songs. “I think what I’ve been doing for a lot of years,” he answered, “is trying to analyze what are the recurring elements in the hit songs that are on the radio. As I boiled them down I realized that 99 percent of the songs, that are not written by the artist, that are on radio, seem to use one of a handful of structures. So that became the first thing: developing successful song structures. It was clear that the first step had to be incorporating structure into your songs. I found that structure doesn’t alter the creativity in any way; it’s a matter of how you’re going to express your creativity. It’s the box that you present your creativity in.”
Blume went on to explain that he realized virtually every successful song was communicating lyrically in some way. Step two: “Writing Effective Lyrics” emerged from his examinations of lyrics from different hit songs. He describes them as “songs that communicate in some way.”
Step three of his book is: “Composing Memorable Melodies.” What is a memorable melody? “It’s a melody that people remember,” he said. Jason came to realize, from attending so many seminars, that, without a melody as a “vehicle” to deliver the lyrics that everyone was always dissecting, the song would be lost. “It didn’t matter what the lyric said because no one was going to hear it.”
Jason added that he feels that he has less musical and technical experience than 95 percent of the people he teaches. He was determined not to let this get in his way. Conversely, he felt that it actually helped him not to get bogged down by what the next predictable or expected chord change would be. He learned to just “sing” the strongest melody and have someone else come in to write the chords around it.
“The thing I want to stress the most about melody writing is melody re-writing. To think, the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you sit down to write a song is the strongest most catchy melody you could write – that’s just arrogance.”
Step four in Blume’s process is “Producing Great Demos.” He asserted a truism I’ve experienced first hand: that a song is nothing without a great demo. He noted that too often songwriters insist on singing their own demos when they shouldn’t, or the idea of not spending too much money on a demo because people should be able to hear through a good work tape.
“It’s foolish for songwriters to get so into their ego and to try to save 50 bucks by singing their own demos. You can always go back and sing a version for yourself.”
He explained that you couldn’t spend enough money or put enough thought into demoing your song properly, once the song is finished. “I’m not saying go out and spend a ton of money on demos,” he clarified, “I encourage writers to come to my seminars with a work tape. There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money on a demo and then finding out in a workshop that the song itself needs work.”
Steps five and six involve taking care of what many songwriters dread: the “biz.” Still I found his comments encouraging. Developing persistence often means taking yourself at face value and getting serious about not taking things too personally.
“There are many writers I’ve worked with along the way who are far more talented than I am but they didn’t have the ability to persevere and handle the rejection that comes with the music business. Without taking care of business,” he continued, “there is no business to take care of. This involves things like networking, pitching songs, how to get a publisher and why.”
It’s no wonder Jason emphasizes this last point so strongly and tells the story of his first big rejection so well. It just so happens to be the cornerstone of his philosophy towards the songwriting process. When Jason first moved to Los Angeles he thought he had a great song that would make him millions. He found out about some workshops that were going on in the local area and proceeded to attend them.
At the first one he was devastated at the response of the panelists to his song. He remembers the teacher telling him that his song wasn’t any good. Jason was so depressed that he went home that very night and did some real soul-searching. He stayed up all night and finally realized that he needed to learn how to write a song.
“That was the beginning of the process that brought me to where I am today,” he says, “I had to make a conscious decision to dedicate myself to the craft of writing songs that connected with other people.”
That initial wake-up call was what brought him to eventually write the song that would become his first big hit: the top five single “Change My Mind,” recorded by John Berry.
Other cuts include “Back to Your Heart,” recorded by Backstreet Boys on their Millenium CD, which debuted at number one in the U.S. as well as in seven other countries and sold 22 million records worldwide. He also wrote “Dear Diary,” recorded by Brittany Spears on her Oops I Did It Again CD, which was his second cut with her. Upcoming releases include cuts by 3 of Hearts and Boyz and Girlz United.
With such great success under his belt I was curious to know how Jason feels about his songs today compared to when he first started.
“That’s a profound question,” he replied, “I used to write songs from my heart for Jason, assuming that if I understood the song it would have the same effect on everyone else. It never occurred to me that songwriting is supposed to be an art of communication. Communicating involves two parties, not just the communicator which was me, and I wasn’t even trying to communicate to an audience, to a listener. I was just writing from my heart, for me. Now that’s great. Writing from your heart is so important but I realized there had to be a second part to the equation. It didn’t matter if it came from my heart if it didn’t reach out and touch 30 million other hearts.”
“I’ve been told and have told other writers and artists that ‘I don’t really care how you felt when you wrote that song if I don’t feel it when I hear the song.’ I was writing the song for me and then got frustrated because nobody else would record them. After that night (of rejection in L.A.) I realized that there are recurring elements in hit songs, why these songs were on the radio and mine were not.”
What is a success? What is a successful song? Ultimately a song must communicate. Blume made a choice to reach over 45 million. What choice will you make?