USING THE PAST AS A BLUEPRINT FOR FUTURE SUCCESS
Special thanks to researcher Bryce Mims and assembler Kaitlin Thome
“May you live in interesting times” entreats an old Chinese curse. For songwriters, every day is an “interesting time.” Doing what we love is not only essential to us and our families financially, but we need the approval and validation that having a hit brings on a creative level. 2008 was twelve months of amazing change in many areas. My last study of No. 1 hits was written in 2004, so now seemed a great time to take another look at the business of what holds women's attention from the burger commercial to the car jingle. Basically, how creators do their best to help our radio friends keep their listeners and make a living at drive time. Writers follow their heart, but when it comes to pitch time we have to think like horse breeders. We have to be smart about which of our ‘ponies’ are capable of functioning in the situation we place them. Some will be brilliant at harness racing, some have personalities that make them great for children to ride, some will be perfect at pulling carriages, and a few, very few, will be entered in the Kentucky Derby. Even fewer will win! Similarly, some songs work at drive time, most don’t! OBSERVATIONS—The No. 1 Songs of 2008 Less Writers Benefitting: We have seen the annual number of No.1’s on the Billboard country chart rise in the last few years (’04—21; ’06—24; ’07—25; ’08—26) 2008's 26 chart toppers is up 25% from 2004, but unfortunately, the number of writers participating in that rush grew less than 10% not 25% as you would expect. For example, in 2004 46 writers shared credit on the 21 No. 1s. In ’08, there were 49 sharing 26 No. 1s. The Race to No. 1 Accelerated: “Love Story,” – (Swift) screamed up the charts in just nine weeks and only seven of the 26 No. 1s took twenty weeks or more to reach the top. James Otto’s “Just Got Started Loving You” – (Otto/Femino/Williams) made the most leisurely journey (29 wks). By comparison, in ’07 songs like “If You’re Going Through Hell” – (and “Before He Cheats” – (Tompkins/Kear) each took 30 and 35 weeks respectively to reach the top. What a difference a year makes. Artist Writers: Fully 50% of this past year's No. 1s were written or co-written by the artist. Yes, 13 of these hits had the artist involved, and six of the 13 were written by the artist alone. Leading that pack of lone writers was Taylor Swift with three, “Love Story,” “Should’ve Said No,” and “Our Song.” Alan Jackson with two, “Good Time” and “Small Town Southern Man.” Brad Paisley really did write to himself, “Letter To Me” by himself, but as an artist invited his pals to join him at the top with “I’m Still A Guy” – (Paisley/Miller/Lovelace) and “Waitin’ On A Woman” – (Sampson/Varble). Of the three No. 1s Carrie Underwood enjoyed, the only one she was not a co-writer on was “Just A Dream” – (McEwan/Lindsey/Sampson). Other artist/writers included, James Otto, Sugarland, Darius Rucker and Zac Brown Band. So with 50% of the ’08 No. 1s written by the artists, more songs achieving No. 1 status, songs spending less time on the charts and sales plummeting 24% from ‘07, “May you live in interesting times’ has taken on new meaning for non-performing, stand alone writers and publishers. Tempo/Intro: There was only one waltz, “I’m Still A Guy” – (Paisley/Miller/Lovelace). Everything else relied upon the 4/4 time signature. Sixty-five percent were mid-to-uptempo, a drive time staple. Strangely enough, all the ballads were written by stand-alone writers, not artist/writers as A&R execs usually expect. We've been told since the dawn of radio, that intros should be 13 seconds. In ’08, the average intro length was 15 seconds. Only two songs “Should’ve Said No” – (Swift) and “You Look Good In My Shirt” – (Martin/Sharpiro/Nesler) were longer than 20 seconds, the rest stayed in the teens. In line with “get me to the hook/title on time” i.e. 60 seconds from the top of the record, 62% did just that. Actually if you consider the intro separately and start timing from the vocal, all but one, “Cleaning This Gun,” – (Cannon-Goodman/Beathard) arrived right on time. Person: The pronouns used in 14 of the songs were strictly first person ‘you and me,’ which means the writer made the song a conversation between the singer and the listener, inviting the listener in on a personal level. Themes: A country song should never whine, preach, or vent at drive time, UNLESS it’s done with humor, irony, and detail which most of the No. 1s did skillfully. For example, using the third person pronoun in “Just A Dream” – (McEwan/Lindsey/Sampson) allowed the singer to tell the story, but not be the main character. “You’re Gonna Miss This” - (Gorley/Miller) kept Trace Adkins from being preachy by having the mom and dad doing the preaching. Carrie Underwood got to brag about an “All-American Girl” – (Gorley/Lovelace/Underwood) without it really being about her. And those that were simply young and dumb redeemed themselves in “Back When I Knew It All" – (Willmon/O’Donnell/Hannan). With only a few exceptions, the songs behaved exactly as they were intended—to make the singer look good to women at the worst time of day possible, drive time. Professional writers realize that singers—unlike actors—are fairly consistent character-wise, from song to song. They are not irredeemably bad in one song and then good in the next. So, if the song is out of character for the artist, having it in third person [he, she, them] makes the singer the commentator, and not the main character. This allows the artist to sing about losers and old people, and not be one! Themes were pretty much as you would expect. Romantic Love: “Just Got Started Loving You” – (Otto/Femino/Williams) and “Home” – (Buble/Foster/Chang) Love of Family: “You’re Gonna Miss This” – (Gorley/Miller) and “Small Town Southern Man” – (Jackson) Love Lost: “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” – (Rucker/Mills) and “Just A Dream” – (McEwan/Lindsey/Sampson) Good Times/Party: “Chicken Fried” – (Brown/Durrette) and “Good Time” – (Jackson) Revenge/Satisfaction: “Should’ve Said No” – (Swift) and “Do You Believe Me Now” – (Pahanish/West/Johnson) Life Lessons: “Cleaning This Gun” – (Cannon-Goodman/Beathard) and “Back When I Knew It All” – (Willmon/O’Donnell/Hannan) Morality: “I Saw God Today” – (Clawson/Criswell/Kirby) and “Everybody Wants To Go” – (Collins/Dodson) So, there you have it. Love in all its glory. Romantic love, love of family, good times, country, God, plus love lost, revenge, life lessons and morality plays. Now there’s your country! Song Length: The writer and artist of the longest song in ’08 was Alan Jackson, who spent the full 5 minutes of his record having a “Good Time” – (Jackson). Seven or 27% of the songs stood proud at 4 or more minutes in length. At the end of some of these records there are 39-45 seconds of instrumental with no vocal, that the DJ probably talked over. Some definitely could have been a lot shorter! The rest of the records were between 3 and 4 minutes. That seems to be the majority. Not one squeezed in under 3 minutes. SONG FORMS Much as movie scripts are written pretty much the same, there are 6 basic song shapes that the listener expects to receive information in. Five were used in ’08. Second form: [verse-chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental-chorus.] The variations on this form are infinite, forgiving and flexible. In rock, it accommodates musical riffs that become a major part of the record [think heavy metal]. In folk, urban, hip-hop, etc, it is expandable to include as many verses as necessary to tell the story and is very arrangement friendly. The writer is not confined by a middle 8 or bridge. In country, the story telling potential is obvious. Using it to success were Alan Jackson “Good Time” – (Jackson), Carrie Underwood “Last Name" – (Lindsey/Laird/Underwood), and Darius Rucker “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” – (Rucker/Mills). Third form: [verse- (verse optional) chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – instrumental – chorus.] The comfortable third form seemed to be the message carrier of choice with almost 50% (12 out of 26) songs written that way. Songs like “You’re Gonna Miss This" – (Gorley/Miller), “Back When I Knew It All” – (Willmon/O’Donnell/Hannan), and “Do You Believe Me Now” – (Pahanish/West/Johnson) illustrate the structure perfectly. Fourth form: [verse- lift- chorus- verse- lift-chorus (bridge optional)- instrumental (lift optional) – chorus.] Fourth form was used in five of ’08s No. 1s. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “lift,” it is also called a climb, channel, pre-chorus, etc. In England, it’s called a bridge whereas in the US, the bridge and middle 8 are the same thing. A couple of illustrations of that form are “Love Story” – (Swift) and “Letter To Me” – (Paisley). Fifth form: [the old AABA form] [verse - verse –bridge – verse -bridge – verse optional] sent five songs to the top. The biggest example of fifth form was “Just Got Started Loving You” – (Otto/Femino/Williams) which was also Billboard's most performed song of the year. “Home” is another good example. Sixth form: [chorus – verse- chorus – instrumental – bridge – chorus etc.] Sixth form, or rondeau, snuck in almost at years end. Zac Brown and his co-writer Wyatt Durette bent it a little bit, much like the Oak Ridge Boys used to, and ended their year in fine style. ANYTHING ELSE WORTH LOOKING AT Repetition: The number of title repetitions is worth taking a look at because, as noted before, as a record gets more airplay, the repetitions get more wearing and create a “burn factor.” Repetition was important thirty years ago to help grind the title in the listener’s memory, because back then a record got fewer spins on radio. Now repetition is not always a good thing. Less has become more. Representing traditional country, Alan Jackson’s “Good Time” had 25 uses of title. Next was Blake Shelton’s “Home” – (Buble/Foster/Chang) with 14. “Last Name” – (Lindsey/Laird/Underwood) and “Waitin' On A Woman” – (Sampson/Varble) clocked 12 repetitions each. “All I Wanna Do” – (Nettles/Bush/Pinson) had 11 and four more had eight. Well over half the No. 1 songs had 3-7 repetitions of title (15 out of 26). Humor, Irony & Detail: Aside from the repetitions, humor, irony and detail are major items in a hit song. Humor, because smiling and feeling good is apparently not a bad thing. Irony, because it goes well with humor. Detail, because women are detail oriented and that is country radio’s key audience. To illustrate all that detail, if you look at “Waffle House,” “pig in the ground,” “calloused hands,” “pinto,” “sixpence in a shoe,” “hair undone,” “Elvis lip,” “SUV,” “18 hours,” “the pearly gates,” and so many, many more, the amount of "ear candy" or "furniture" as Don Schlitz calls it, is very impressive. Story/Conversational: Ten of the No. 1s were story songs pure and simple, i.e. “Waitin' On A Woman" – (Sampson/Varble). Three were mostly conversations with perhaps a little story included for detail and illustration, e.g. “I’m Still A Guy" – (Paisley/Miller/Lovelace). Thirteen were conversations. Advice & Best Bets: To succeed, catch the listeners ear with a 4/4 mid-to-uptempo riff for about 15 seconds and put some humor, irony and detail in your story/conversation to get their attention. Be sure to get the listener to the hook in 60 seconds or less and then give the audience more story/information in the second verse. After the second chorus, hand them a middle eight/bridge that gives them a perspective on the song, with either information not heard in the before, or the other side of the story, then wrap it up possibly adding new information on the way out. Be sure to move them to the Burger King commercial in under four minutes and you are a winner...or not!! CONCLUSION Craft is alive and well in Nashville. The songs still reach out to the listeners, and work well. They are like “calling cards” that invite the listener to take a closer look. Perhaps sometimes we as an industry have been too eager to pack the whole album with “calling cards” and not gone a little deeper. After the initial attraction of the hit single I would go buy (yes, I said buy) the album or CD, and listen at my leisure to get to know more about the artist. Most of the time it was just OK. Occasionally it was magical. An artist who doesn’t write, but has the ability to choose material well, will reflect his or her depth creating the "legs" that create careers. Longevity for an artist has always revolved around a song, and that song always has to invite the listener in. Many thanks to the women and men who invited us “in” in 2008.