The Music Lab: Three Ways Writing for Sync Prepared Me to Write Hit Songs

When I lived in New York City, I was in the epicenter of the sync music world. Major ad agencies, TV/film studios, and a dizzying array of world-class recording studios surrounded me. And yet, I had never considered writing music for sync until the question was posed, “Can you write a song for a major ad campaign for OrangeCrush soda? Something rock. Something cool. Something…orange?” 

I remembered, “Always say YES.” This is the best career advice—heck, life advice—I’ve ever gotten. 

Of course, I had no idea what “something orange” meant, but I said YES. I said yes and stayed up all night working on my best song—they wanted it in the studio the next morning. That sleepless night kicked off six years of writing music for everything from movie songs to Armed Forces national ad spots. One day I might be asked to write and record a club/dance tune for Seventeen Magazine followed by a day of programming a classical string piece for a TV show trailer.  

Programming music tracks, singing, writing, recording and mixing TV stars…whew, looking back, it was a blurry rollercoaster ride. 

Saying YES prepared me (or, maybe it propelled me?) toward my ultimate goal: writing songs for major artists and having hit records that the world would sing along to. Back then, there was no real schooling for conquering the record business and writing hit songs. (Choices like SongTown for real-world learning in music didn’t exist.) I knew then, however, that I needed to focus my energies on the “record world” and figure it out. 

One day, I put together a five-song demo in my studio and approached a Nashville publisher. That led to my first pub deal with EMI Music and moving down south to dive full-time into writing for recording artists.  

To my surprise, those six years of writing for sync taught me every skill I needed to write my first Billboard hit songs: be creative on demand, be versatile, be music-first focused. 

Be Creative On Demand 

In the sync world, the turnaround time can be brutal. You might get a brief memo in the afternoon stating that a supervisor needs the perfect music in his/her inbox by the next morning. There’s zero time for writer’s block. Those short deadlines forced me to be creative and be creative in any moment. It’s much the same in the record world now. If I get a call to hop over to a studio for two hours to write with Darius Rucker while he has a small window in his schedule between soundcheck and the show, I’ll be there knocking out a tune that could potentially be his next single. The last thing I should say is “I don’t feel it today” or “Let’s wait until I’m inspired.” If I did that, I’d likely not get a call back the next time. 

Be Versatile 

Being versatile is a skill that has carried me through my songwriting career. Remember when I mentioned I’d jump from genre to genre, decade to decade? Versatility was crucial to building my confidence as a writer. I discovered I could show up one day and write a country pop tune with Lady A or Little Big Town, and then the next, write with Jack Ingram in his rockin’ Texas style.  

Be Music-First Focused 

Sync tunes enhance the visual on the screen. When writing for sync, you are setting the mood and attitude, musically, as the audience watches the action on the screen. Words often get in the way in sync. Lyrics that are too specific can clash with the story of the script. So, there is increased importance on the musical side of the songs written for sync. When I’m writing for a recording artist, having a music-first focus enables me to walk into a studio for a co-write and musically nail what the artist is looking for. Words are important to songwriting for sure, but if you are not capturing the artist’s vibe, attitude, swagger, and brand, it won’t matter what the lyric is saying. That’s not the way to grab a slot on his/her project. This is exactly why so many writers today, in multiple genres, like to start by creating hooky music and melody first.  

I’m a big believer that everything we do today builds on itself and shapes our future. When someone asks me, “Out of the 5,000-plus songs you’ve written, what percentage have been recorded and earned money?” My answer is always, “All of them.” Every song leads to the next, which opens the door to another opportunity, and so on. There is no such thing as a wasted day in songwriting.  

Write on! 

Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown.com, the worlds leading songwriter education site, and is the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing & The Songwriter’s Guide to Mastering Co-writing. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about his own writing. 

Photo credit: Denise Jans on Unsplash

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