Goodnight Kiss Music (BMI) & Scene Stealer Music (ASCAP)
Harriet Schock, songwriter, advocate and friend, has graciously given us a chapter from her book to share. Enjoy!
Customs & Critics & Rules (Oh, My)
A very special article by Pro Songwriter
from her book, "Becoming
Remarkable", reprinted with permission,
EVERYONE WHO'S STUDIED MUSIC THEORY has heard about the period of history when the interval of the augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) was considered "the devil's interval" and was not allowed. We've come a long way, baby . . . or have we?
I'm constantly running into songwriters who want very much to be "contemporary." They eschew anything that has a sound-musically or lyrically-that doesn't sound like the week they're living in. But this can be a dangerous way to write. What was customary 40, even 20, years ago is not necessarily customary today. So the song which was very hip at the time, very trendy, will seem quite dated today, whereas a song which was simply well written, unusually beautiful and universally true may still be getting played. So bowing to the custom of the time is not necessarily a wise move, especially for a writer who has something to say. The statement may be lost in the costume of a time that will pass. It's like those album covers where the artist has on the very latest fashion. Ten years later, the artist is kicking herself with her own go-go boots, platform shoes, or Mary Janes.
A living lesson in timelessness was hearing Joni Mitchell perform as she accepted the NAS Lifetime Achievement Award (along with Leiber and Stoller and Smokey Robinson). When Graham Nash introduced her, he pointed out she always followed her own artistic path, never being governed by trends or musical fashions. He then eloquently stated that she had brought to songwriting "exquisite poetry, vision, and intimacy." She then came on stage and proved how true his statement was.
Songwriters frequently confront me with "rules" they have learned or picked up at pitches. A publisher or A&R person will tell the songwriter there are certain things s/he must do or must not do. Ever heard the one about not using the same word twice in a song? Or how about "You must get to the chorus immediately, so never have a second verse before the chorus." This is ridiculous. Obviously, there are certain conventions of songwriting that have been successful in pleasing and moving audiences for decades. It might be a good idea to know these conventions. But a lot of people who will listen to your songs are not actually creative people. They have had to memorize rules to "qualify" them to do what they do. Would you take your car to a bank teller who memorized rules about automotive repair? And yet people frequently get all upset because some totally unqualified person gave them some arbitrary rule about songwriting which they cannot implement with any success.
I had lunch with a refreshingly honest attorney the other day. He was giving me the inside scoop on a band he got signed, which every label in town was fighting over. The attorney said that he, himself, actually knows very little about songs, which-in his own words-qualifies him very well to be an A&R man. If he was kidding when he said this, he is more droll than I thought. Anyway, this band has an enthusiastic following which really likes the rhythm and energy of the band. Basically, no one on a business level knows what the songs are about or whether they're crafted well, but they did love the fact that the band filled the Roxy. The band is very careful not to indulge in too much melody, for fear their fans will think they're trying for airplay. That, in the minds of the band, would alienate their fans who would think they'd "sold out." The label who won their hearts plans to sell records without airplay, as they did for their predecessors, with whom they're going on tour.
Now, if this is all you know about the music business, you could adopt some pretty scary customs and rules for yourself: Don't be melodic, shun airplay, and assume both your attorney and your label executives know or care very little about the quality of the songs you write. The only problem with this is that there are attorneys who do know songs, many label executives consider great songs a prerequisite, and most labels need for you to get airplay to help them sell your records. So it's a little like the 3 blind people feeling and describing the elephant. Depending upon what part you're exposing yourself to, your perception from feeling the trunk will be quite different from the perception of the person feeling the tail or the rump. So until you see the big picture, it might be a good idea not to put your rules in indelible ink.
After having said all that, of course, I'm going to propose a rule of my own: Find the people who will genuinely like what you do. That's what the band I mentioned did. They had been playing for a long time and developing a following. If you're not a performer, a songwriter only, you can still develop fans-people who love your writing. This will happen for you more easily after your songs are well crafted, original and written in your own, well-honed style. On the way to that point, you will run into some "critiquers" and critics. When they tell you what's wrong or how to become stronger, try it. If it works, keep it. If, when you use it, it doesn't make your song stronger or, worst case scenario, if it simply makes you feel like quitting, it is probably bogus information.
To the person who loves dark, hard-edged metal music, a perfectly legitimate song in a softer genre will seem "wimpy." And yet, in the right place, that softer, more melodic piece might work perfectly. It's like trying to sell an orange in an apple market. It's not wrong, it's simply an orange. If the person you show it to can see the big picture, he will tell you that. If not, he will tell you how the skin is all bumpy and the wrong color. That is from his perspective-he sells apples. Is your orange really all wrong? No. It's just all wrong for him.
All of us go through periods with our writing during which there's one particular person we feel we must please. If he doesn't "hear" it, it's like the tree in the forest that really doesn't fall. If trying to please that person makes you a better writer, then go for it. But if you begin hearing a voice in your head censoring everything you write before it comes out, that person may be harming your writing-wittingly or unwittingly. Keep the river flowing. The banks will come from your own taste, artistic viewpoint and focus. All I do as a consultant is get the river to flow again for people and help with the focus. But rules are the flotsam in the river that stops the flow. Pretty soon we have a stagnant pool. And who ever heard of a person getting better as a writer if he doesn't write? Living can only do so much, and then writing has to take place to make you better at the craft.
So if a critic, a
mentor, a publisher, their rules, or your own rules help you to
expand as a writer, that person or rule is helping you. If you
dare to reach for things heretofore not tried by you, then keep
that influence around you. But if you're getting information that
makes the process more baffling, more frightening, less safe to
try the untried, lose them. I guess the important thing is to
work on your skills until they're exceptional, then simply write
or write and sing the way you naturally do it, without
imprisoning your art in a trendy costume, and then find your
audience. Probably your audience will find you. Then keep your
focus on the listeners who like what you do, not on the
disgruntled critic. He is simply not in your target audience.
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