d.b.a. Songwriters: Are You Sure You Want To Be On The Radio?

Videos by American Songwriter

Are you sure you want to be on the radio?

Did you know that to select songs that will be played on the radio, consultants conduct interviews by phone and ask people to rate 7-second clips of various songs from 1 to 5 (worst to best)? Not a bad approach in principle, I’m sure you’ll agree. But did you know that when it’s all done they throw out all the 1’s and the 5’s and only recommend the 2s, 3s and 4s?

But why, you ask, do they throw out the 5’s? Because it’s been proven statistically that songs that people think are great are songs that tend to be polarizing. It seems just as many people will hate those same songs. Can’t have any hate on when we’re selling deodorant, now, can we?

So these highly paid consultants came up with a most curious solution; only keep what’s “okay.” What you hear now is what has been deemed “tolerable” — not offensive, not bad…but definitely not great. When you think about it, the perfect radio song is one that isn’t all that noticeable.

But why? Because it works.

History has shown repeatedly that radio stations that play great music ultimately fail. Now radio stations make money, even though nobody can stand them! Isn’t that weird? Now you know why radio sounds okay at best. Oddly, it’s by design. (And here I thought I was just getting old ‘cause I couldn’t find something new on the radio that I really liked.)

Where does this leave us as songwriters? Let me back up a little bit….

I love teaching. I love passing on the information that’s been given to me, and I especially love it when I see that information have an impact on a songwriter’s creative path. While it doesn’t happen very often, now and then someone will approach me for guidance who isn’t yet cynical, angry, rejected, wounded, or defensive. Instead, they’re wide-eyed, enthusiastic, and bubbling with creativity. They sing me songs over the phone that they would bet their mortgages on as “sure hits.” Yes, it’s annoying to be sung to over the phone by a complete stranger, but I can’t help but love them for what they love: Music. They all have that one thing in common.

Unfortunately, the large majority of people who contact me can’t stop complaining, and for pretty darn good reason when you include radio in the equation. But that’s not the half of it. Today it’s the lack of fairness in the industry; tomorrow it’s the low-quality product that assaults us from Clear Channel-owned stations with 8-song play lists; yesterday it was the rigid guidelines that must be adhered to in pitching songs. Most of all, they can’t stand the fact that they hear this crap on the radio, yet they’re told their songs don’t have a chance. That would make just about any creator a little hot under the collar. The point is that many of the gripes are justified.

But once in a while someone will contact me who hasn’t been chewed up and spit out by the two-minute-50-second up-tempo song-growing machine that calls itself Music Row … yet. They still think there’s a place for something a little different that doesn’t necessarily sound like something off the Top 20 countdown. They believe that a great song is a great song and that cream floats to the top. They aren’t concerned that all the artists are now writing their own stuff or that, for all intents and purposes, it’s impossible to get a cut unless you write with an artist or you’re part of an inside job. Maybe they don’t know. Or maybe the word “impossible” isn’t in their vocabulary. They dream and they have visions of success. These are people who come to Nashville and like Nashville because of what it has to offer. They come and they stay. Most importantly, they learn.

I had a client contact me close to three years ago who had some songs he wanted me to hear. With all due respect, he had a lot to learn about a lot of things. His demos, while full of passion and exuberance, were, shall we say, a little rough around the edges, as was his writing. The fundamentals often hadn’t been addressed. But the passion was there. His enthusiasm and his passion for music hooked me and I found myself talking to him on the phone constantly. I was teaching him about songwriting, and boy, did he want to learn. As a test of his seriousness, I made a few suggestions. I told him to go to the Bluebird and listen to other writers. He took my suggestions. He couldn’t get enough. He was a mile-deep sponge with a thirst for knowledge.

I hadn’t heard from him in a very long time, until tonight. He sent me a song that made me smile. I thought I’d share part of my response to him with you:

Your recordings have improved significantly, as has your vocal performance and everything else about your music. You’ve used your time in Nashville very wisely. You’ve been an open-minded and eager student and it shows through in your music loud and clear. Keep up the good work!!!!!

Some things that will serve as barriers in terms of getting this song cut are: 1) it’s a bit dated in its sound, and 2) it’s not country. This town demands contemporary country music in sound, style and content if you want to play the Nashville game. Your demos have to sound like they fit into this market, and this market has very rigorous demands. But this market is one market among many.

Bear in mind that these comments about pitching your song in Nashville do not take anything away from your music or your lyric. It’s a matter completely separate from the music itself…it’s the business part of the music business. Pitching this song in Nashville would be like trying to sell surfboards in Kansas rather than a beach town. Does that mean your surfboards are terrible? Of course not. The question is, do you have the desire to change your product to fit the market, or would you rather find a market for your existing product? Or, put another way, do you want to write music like the stuff you hear on country radio? Or do you want to write and record the music near and dear to your heart? I will never criticize anyone for writing what they love, what they feel, and what they embrace personally. Selling a song in Nashville doesn’t have anything to do with creating a song in Nashville. You’ve used Nashville to become a better writer, producer, and all-around creator. That doesn’t mean you are now obligated to pitch this song to Kenny Chesney, regardless of what others might tell you. You’re ahead and it’s still your serve.

If you produced your demo with a contemporary country sound and got a Nashville demo singer, you might be closer to the game, but the reality is this: this song isn’t a country song. It’s a pop song. As is, your song probably won’t get a lot of action in this town…not until it sounds like what you hear on the radio AND doesn’t sound like what you hear on the radio (at the same time). But I will remind you yet again that that remark does not take a single thing away from your music. It simply states that you’re trying to sell a red tie to someone who is looking for blue ties.

It may not be fair, it may not be right, but it’s the way it is. You either learn all the rules of the game and then figure out how to break them, or you simply pick a different game. But none of that has anything to do with the quality of your music. That’s about SELLING your music in this one single town: Nashville.

My advice to you: Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep writing, keep making demos, and don’t think about pitching and selling for at least another year or so. You’re learning, you’re improving, and I bet you’re really enjoying yourself. I bet you love this song, don’t you!? Keep going to writers’ nights. Meet people! Love what they do! Share your music with them. Be positive, open-minded, and have fun. Be an artist!!!! Don’t get intimidated. Get awed by the amazing talent this town has to offer. It will rub off on you and make you not just a better musician, but if you accept what you hear with an open mind and learn how to appreciate the different, the unknown, and the unfamiliar, it’ll make you a better person as well.

Sure, it would be nice to eventually hear your songs on the radio. But if you’re creating music, and you love what you’re creating, and you’re constantly improving, and generally you’re loving what you do, I’d say that’s a pretty good plan in the meantime, wouldn’t you? Plus, if you really do keep improving your craft, I believe you’ll find that some of this music business stuff will take care of itself.

If you do these things with your time in Nashville, rather than sit around counting the days until you hear your song on the radio, you’ll have a great time here.

These are things people told me. Just passing them on.

Go forth and create!

Take care!



* * *
Bill Renfrew has an extensive background in teaching songwriting and evaluating songs, and has years of professional experience consulting on songwriting and song rewriting, which he does through his website. He owns and operates Write THIS Music, an independent music publishing company, and Bombshelter Recording Studio, both of which are located in Nashville, TN. For more Renfrew, check out Writethismusic.com.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

The Billy Reid Candlelight Sessions: Andrew Duhon, Part 2

New Roundup: St. Vincent, Otis Redding, Radiohead, Wilco