Can you write a song "to spec"?

Can you write a song "to spec"?


Yeah, there’s a saying, can’t remember it exactly, but something like “If you’re music doesn’t piss some people off, you’re probably not doing anything important.” :wink: Probably the last thing you want is a “meh” reaction. If some people love it and some hate it, you’ll definitely have some fans, and the others will at least serve as publicity (“there’s no such thing as bad publicity”). Take the KISS example we were talking about … most people either loved them or hated them, and the ones that hated them just made them even more well known and popular (with people who may have never heard of them except for the bad publicity).


Now there’s a problem I have never had, or have I? I suppose it could be said my problem is I never cultivated a core audience. Even as a hobbyist, I never chose a style and genre beyond all over the place and yet simultaneously always sounding a lot like me and my limited abilities.

There is a continuum of creativity, Stan, and I think we all have aspired to learn how to make music we like, and simultaneously aspired to learn to make music “to spec”, as if the formulae for hits are secret. I personally probably have more songs I wrote to be ‘hits’ than I do actually avante garde cool progressive experimental post pop rock songs.

And beyond the improvement in tech, which is incredible (I started with a Tascam 4-track and Amiga 1000 computer), I rarely feel my final version is worthy of the song idea because I do not do all aspects of a song well. This is especially true for those theoretical hit songs, if only a pop star would cover just one I’d be famous.

But meanwhile, back at the ranch, those classic bands found incarnations that they formulized popularly. That was a set of songs and style. My wife is reading this set of Stephanie Plum books, which she enjoys. She is on number 13 right now. She has up to 20 out of the 25 in the series. My point is that some bands can just keep churning out their music, and some will feel the need to try totally new things out even if not overly inspired to be particularly different, but many will just stick to the act.

Sometimes an artist does abandon pop to pursue loftier musical projects, such as Scott Walker or David Bowie. Sometimes they just turn country. It was a dark day when the Bee Gees went disco, I tell you. Also when they finally went really big.

So consider the case of Greta Van Fleet. Here is a young band that sounds like Led Zeppelin I to a ridiculous degree (according to Robert Plant himself). On the other hand, they do it so well you are happy to hear them do it. Will Zep fans like where they go next as much or more than say where Plant is going? How many early Zep fans stuck around for all the later albums?

If, however, I were Greta Van Fleet, I would write a new Stairway to Heaven epic rock song, complete with all the emotional swings and the faux rock wisdom we long for, but it will not be precisely the same at all. I would be thinking about Simon and Garfunkel and Judy Garland meets Pink Floyd or something full of requisite angst but original to Zeppify, Penthouse Elevator (still thinking on that one). It is about a man and woman who get on an elevator that goes nonstop to the penthouse, where the woman is staying. The man is on the wrong elevator. The lyrics are their thoughts as they ride up, his thoughts as he rides back down alone.

Flip side I’d do a cover of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

So whoever you can and do sound like that people are already familiar with will influence their opinion of you. If you sound like what they like, it next falls to what new your song brings to the table they like, that hooks them. Could it be the barely spoken elevator soap opera of two strangers? Theoretically.

But your original problem was that when a band went commercial they often started playing to their sponsor’s preferences, especially if they seem to have run out of interesting new song ideas. The formula must be partially refreshed. And that is the challenge- to find the seed of old to plant in the new.


Many times influences can be hidden or disguised though. Not necessarily on purpose, but simply integrated into one’s own style. After Eddie Van Halen became famous, he stated in interviews that Eric Clapton had been a huge influence on him and his playing. He had even known and played all of Clapton’s guitar solos (at least the Cream era) by heart. His playing sounds nothing like Clapton’s, really, but if you took away that influence in his early years would he have developed the same talent he eventually did?

Other times you can hear and identify an influence coming through someone’s playing, though subtle enough that you have to really be paying attention and squint a little bit. Kind of a ‘nod’ to it without being obvious.

Yes, I also remember that some artists who had made a number of albums would decide to go “back to their roots”, whether that was blues, or country, or folk, or classic rock, or whatever. Like they lost their soul in the music industry and had to go back and find it. At which point, some of their audience would “get it”, but others wouldn’t - the ones who expected them to “evolve” I guess.

I think the band Rush struggled with this, and overall had great success, but as a fan it could be bewildering at times. There’s even a hint about this in the song “The Spirit Of Radio”, where Geddy sings “All this machinery … making modern music … can still be open-hearted. Not so coldly charted, it’s really just a question of your honesty, yeah your honesty.” And the ultimate encapsulation of my sell-out theory: “One likes to believe in the freedom of music. But glittering prizes and endless compromises … shatter the illusion of integrity”.


No, that doesn’t stifle my creativity at all because it doesn’t stop me from writing anything that I choose. I wouldn’t necessarily release my lighter/ mellower songs under my hard rock brand/ band though.

Yeah, you might be right about that. It’s pretty likely I would eventually include some of my softer material along with the heavier stuff. I’m sure I would feel too stifled if I limit myself. I would want people to hear the variety of music that I’m capable of creating.