Can you write a song "to spec"?

Can you write a song "to spec"?
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#1

This is mainly a question in terms of looking for commercial success. I have a particular paradigm for how I like to look at “artistry”, which I’ll use for example. My view for as long as I can remember is that there is a spectrum or continuum for creativity, where it can be a very ‘pure’ expression of art, or it can be commercially motivated. I saw this over and over in old classic bands where I’d love their first album, or first several, and then as their audience (and sales) evolved they would become more ‘commercial’ and seem to “sell out”. Then I didn’t like them anymore. Many times I don’t think it was purposeful … just some kind of natural evolution based on motivation and psychology theory. And record company pressure, etc.

So for pure artistry, I think what some of us do here can be an example, in that your only or strongest motivation is to: pull music out of your soul, get it recorded and produced, mixed and mastered, then play it for your wife/girlfriend (and/or BTR) and your dog. :slightly_smiling_face: There is no compelling commercial aspiration necessarily, though at some point you may post it online and see what the reactions are. You are mainly doing it for the sheer joy of the process and/or to prove to yourself that you can do it. :wink:

Now, what if we turn that around, and are looking to make something that potentially has commercial success in one form or another? We may still look at our strengths and preferences in making music, but can we ‘fit’ those into some kind of contemporary category where someone would like to buy it or use it? This is what I mean by ‘commercial’; looking out at the ‘market’ and seeing how we might be able to prosper by giving consumers what they want.

If you don’t get or care for my “artistry” definition, maybe think of it like deductive vs. inductive reasoning - for one (pure) you start with a general “here’s what I want” and work your way toward a specific that is based on what you wanted, and the other (commercial) you start with a specific “I need a product that will sell” (i.e. “to spec” in the market) and then go about figuring out how to create the steps that will lead to that goal.

I’d appreciate thoughts on this, have you ever tried to write “to spec”, do you think about things like this, or just sit down with The Muse and see what comes out?


#2

There are resources for outlets and instruction regarding writing songs to spec.

Taxi https://www.taxi.com/ seems to be a big one; although I am not a member. They also have a lot of useful youtube videos interview those “in the biz”

For example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xs82sWpuuY

Any books published by Berklee professors like Pat Pattison and Andrea Stolpe, or materials by Robin Frederick, or Dean Krippaehne.

Another outlet you could try is https://singmeastory.org/

I’ve written a couple songs at sing me a story and written for a local school’s musicals, but nothing on the paid level yet.

I have tried this as well since I am an ESL teacher and write grammar songs for my students:

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Mr-James-Esl-Songs


#3

The closest I’ve come to writing to spec are the songs I write now and then for friends or family with a wedding or 50th birthday, a good colleague that deserves a retirement song, that sort of thing. Usually its a form of collaboration (although I usually do at least 90% because I’m just quite good at this and can’t stand it when amateurs spoil my song :sunglasses:). Others contribute anecdotes and juicy stories about the person in question, a favourite song to use as a template and I turn it into lyrics that work, often with elements of the original song quite recognisably there. Although it has nothing to do with writing a hit there are similarities. You need to have instant recognition, you only get one shot. Its has to have a fantastic hook, as good as the original, etc.
For my stepson’s wedding I did a take on Wanderwall by Oasis (he used to play it all the time). And I recorded it and sold the single (on CD) - about 40 - at the wedding for 10 Australian dollars each! The fact that the bride and groom got the proceeds might have helped sell my only hit record :star_struck:
On more rare occasions I wrote a full original (e.g. for my daughters wedding). It’s easier because you can make the lyrics and song fit each other without having to use a recognisable template, but on the other hand a much bigger challenge because nobody knows the song, and they’ll only get to hear it once. So it really has to comply to all the rules of a commercial song I guess. I don’t use a checklist for that, I just follow my instincts.


#4

Wow, I’m glad I asked! Thank you!

I have known about TAXI for quite some time, but never joined either. I probably haven’t seen their YouTube videos so that’s a resource. I took a MOOC (massive open online course) with Pat a few years back, a songwriting course, and there were certainly a lot of guidelines about intentional lyric writing and song composition.

Interesting aspect with the educational avenue, I hadn’t really thought about that.


#5

This is another good example I think. You have a specific goal to connect a group through music. A shared experience.


#6

Yes! I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. It’s not hugely commercial per se, but it’s I am writing with a particular audience and “spec” in mind. I’ve been basing most of my songs on video games or other such things. Like my latest song for example was based on Red Dead Redemption 2, which is game set in the American west around 1900. It’s got a feel to it, and I tried to capture that feeling with my song as well as the production. I did one aiming to feel like The Last of Us. And a lot of songs that aim to feel like Life is Strange. I’m told by people who play those games that I did a good job!

It’s been fun. I’ve seen it as kind of an exercise to improve my skills. No shortage of inspiration there, and I thought I could make it sort of my niche. Sadly I haven’t had enough time/energy to invest in music to really grow an audience, and have largely given up on it. So I might start going back to that “purely artistic” route once again. It’s starting to get on my nerves that my most beloved song is one that I wrote 6 years ago or so, before I ever started trying to build an audience. For the past couple of years I have felt that my songs were solid, good songs. But maybe they’re missing that extra spark that enters in when I’m writing a song that I truly need to hear. The really personal ones. I put something personal into all of my songs, whether they are meant to invoke a game or not. But the songs that come from my own life are more special to me. That’s how I feel about it anyway.


#7

A soundcloud buddy of mine finally got a song accepted by Taxi but when I congratulated him he said it was after over 100 submissions…

eek… now that is tenacity!!!

The best example of spec writing for me is my !*coffee ad which plays widely on local radio here and is loved or hated… it drove me nuts to write and I have about 10 versions which rotate but I need to write a new set as the basic tracks are flawed… grrrr

It is by far my most played music
hahahahaha


#8

That points out something to me which I was probably aware of but hadn’t clarified for myself; inspiration can come from an internal, subjective, deeply emotional experience … or a more external, objective, impressionist experience. It could be either, or both (at the same time), in terms of a songwriting idea. It might help to be more intentional and conscious of this.

It could help move through “writer’s block” too, in terms of picking something mentally interesting and stimulating, rather than depending on an emotive response to make it happen.


#9

Yes, that’s definitely a commercial application. Targeting an audience for a very specific reaction. Writing “jingles” is interesting in terms of being short and impactful.


#10

I am definitely in the camp that favors routine. There is so much to learn taking a song from idea to recorded product (even just a demo which is what I usually do). So even with a “bad” song, you can still learn a lot along the way and treat a song like a “chop shop”; keeping good bits and adding them to other songs in the future.

If you figure about 10% of what you produce is going to be worth sharing, you have to produce a lot to squeeze out that 10%. When I look at my “keeper” songs. There was really no pattern of the song before building up to a good song, or the song after being better; it’s not a linear process.


#11

Interesting! I spent most of my 20+ years of music making avoiding the commercially obvious when it came to song writing.
BUT… this year - I am a Primary (Elementary) School music teacher and we have a house system (Like house teams - Harry Potter sort of thing). I decided over the summer I’d write each one an anthem.
I had to consider that 5 year olds would need to be able to sing/chant some parts, but also convey a team spirit and motivation as well as our school values.
I had to NOT make it 9.5 minutes long in 7/8 time with multiple changes and complex overlapping sequences. I had to make it…gulp…commercial.

AND GUESS WHAT!!! I had an absolute BLAST making them. Yes, I took liberty with influence and some of that is very obvious, but I am actually REALLY proud of the results and the school loves them. I even made a documentary of the songwriting and recording process for the first song as I did it and showed the kids which they loved too!

You can see them here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7KjGx-tS3I&list=PLNxoCSvTFT01-YfY9evIHrkOc6-XEMqTT
and the doco here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swq_0Nv_CWc

So I guess in the end, if asked or the need was there, I know I can do it and I will surprisingly enjoy it. But I still prefer my stuff to be less commercial…


#12

The closest I’ve come to writing “to spec” is in trying to keep songs between 3 and 4 minutes long.

Thanks for starting this topic. Definitely something interesting to discuss. :smiley:


#13

Great point! This is something I mean to do a lot, but I find that the emotional aspect tends to have a strong influence (either unbridled enthusiasm or apathetic futility). There are some great examples of this I have read/seen, such as Steven Pressfield (book: The War of Art), Maya Angelou (in writing studio every day even if poetry comes out crap), and a guy (can’t remember his name) on YouTube who did some kind of ‘spec’ music (cinematic composition IIRC) and made himself compose 3 minutes of music per day - just the habit of doing that helped him improve constantly.

Yes, the creative process as I understand it is very non-linear, and requires opening up to possibilities and trusting that something (eventually) will come through that is inspired and fulfilling. I have studied The Artist’s Way for some years, which talks a lot about this.

Something I have mentioned on threads before, from reading lots of interviews with musicians/artists/producers/etc in the past, is that the record-company model of business drove deadlines for producing albums and (sometimes) budget restrictions on costly studio time. What would happen a lot of times is that musicians/artists would come into the studio with 30-40 songs written, at least in basic form, and would then flesh out with the producer which ones ‘worked’ (had album-worthy potential) and/or had hit-record potential. Their goal was 10-12 songs on the album. Sometimes material that didn’t make it on that album would make it on the next one, so it wasn’t in vain. This was a very “full bore” method of creating, but resulted in some of the greatest music ever made IMO. The potential downside of having so much capability and affordability now (digital) is there isn’t as much of that hurdle to overcome just to create something - which can actually drive the creative process (i.e. suffer for your art).


#14

Yes, chest-beating anthems at that. :grin: Very cool!

My favorite was the Allen House song, as it seems a little more complex and cinematic. Interesting musical influences in that one too.

That’s really awesome, and educational and fun for the kids I’m sure. Cool that you showed all the ‘mistakes’ and gaffs, as I think it shows you don’t have to be ‘perfect’ to be an artist … there can be warts and flaws, but in the end it can come out really cool after the work is done.

Satisfying the soul has been a strong one for me too, but that doesn’t mean it has to limit us in our expression at all. Plus, I think putting ourselves in other peoples shoes (as you did) and writing toward their awareness can actually expand our own awareness and increase our potential for writing better and greater things.


#15

Yes, that’s probably what I’d call “pop sensibility” (a term music critics used to use); writing toward what an audience attention span will support. As opposed to the lengthy (but awesome) indulgent ‘craft’ songs, epic dramas, and minutes-long guitar solos of days gone by. :slightly_smiling_face:

I saw a clip from the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (haven’t seen the actual movie yet) where the EMI guys point out the 6 minutes thing. I love the scene where Freddie (Rami) makes the quip about feeling sorry for that guys’ wife. :grin: It looks like Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers) was a fictional character, but representing a real life Norman Sheffield (I think heard this story long long ago).


#16

That scene was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Mike Myers nailed that character and his reference to Wayne’s World was subtle and hilarious. I think that only a few of us in the theater even caught that reference.


#17

@Stan_Halen
Thanks man. The influences where (I thought) fairly obvious overall. Allen was based of of Zep’s Kashmir, Potter was based on the end of Aussie band The Living End’s “prisoner of society” and Howard is the most obvious with links to Imagine Dragon’s Believer.

You picked up on the point of the doco (thanks for watching!!!) which was to show kids it takes practice, mistakes, failings and persistence to make something work. Also wanted to show that i am not great at a lot of these instruments, but that that doesn’t mean you can’t play them!

Cheers


#18

You say that as though the two are mutually exclusive Stan. I always write with potential commercial success in mind.


#19

In the OP I did, as I was trying to demonstrate the opposite ends of the continuum (as I see it). I was going for ‘effect’ there, to describe the archetypes. I did later say this:

That may not clarify it perfectly, but what I was going for there with “or both (at the same time)” was that many times its probably a blend of motivations and intentions. And this was part of what I was asking … what are the initial ‘sparks’ of motivation and intention when saying to yourself “I want to write a song”?

Yes, I understand that. And you do very well at that endeavor. I also realize (and experience myself) that some of us on this forum enjoy just making music that simply pleases ourselves, at least at times.

And since you bring it up, I would be very interested in how you approach writing with commercial success in mind. I think it’s related to the idea of “to spec”, in that if you have a commercial audience in mind you likely have some stylistic or musical goals specific to that. The idea of “to spec” can be external (a client) or it can be internal (your own enterprising ambitions). Or again, it could both at the same time. If possible, I’d like to untie how the “both at the same time” works as well.

One example, which I don’t think I mentioned above, was back in the “hair metal band” days in the 1980’s, the bands would frequently write and put on an album one “power ballad” song. A slower, perhaps more melancholy or romantic song, with pretty melodies - though still worthy of a Rock band. They did this intentionally, as I understand it, to bring in a female audience to augment their typically male “hard rock” audience. It became a well-known formula in the music business.

Since your band does NWOBHM (that’s how you used to describe it), it seems like there would be an inherent style (or spec) that you’re writing to in order to serve your audience. Can you explain how you approach that?


#20

But that was my point, they are not mutually exclusive. My enjoyment comes from getting as close to the real deal as possible.

We’ve got three on our next album. We’ve had at least one on every album we’ve recorded.

The precedents have all been set. There is nothing new to be learned. Once you have accepted that fact, it all becomes a little easier. Uniqueness comes from performances and arrangements, not from the songs themselves. Successful, popular songs all have one or more specific features; you need to incorporate those known features in your own songs.

Most of us here advocate the use of reference tracks - for me, that includes the song itself, not just the mix. If you try to re-invent the wheel you’re going to come unstuck.