The other day I went to a birthday party. One of the other guests was a songwriter. I’d love to get specific about who he was, but as I haven’t asked him if I can write this post I’m going to keep him anonymous. However, he has written one of the 20 best-selling songs of all time in the US, and in one of the last ten years he wrote the best-selling single of the year (a different song). So he’s pretty good.
If you’re anything like me you’ll be both impressed and fascinated by that, which is why I asked him a load of questions and will now write down his pearls of wisdom for your interest and education.
Apparently some artists are much better songwriters than others. For example, Taylor Swift is really, really good. She knows exactly what she wants and is very sharp about what works and what doesn’t. She controls every aspect of her career and is so utterly assured that it’s slightly scary. Also scary are about 5-10 of her stalkers – the ones who threaten to lock her up in a dungeon and all that jazz. How does she deal with that? Brilliantly she stalks her stalkers. Her team analyses the stalkers’ credit card purchases, finds out when they buy plane tickets and follow them when they land anywhere near Taylor. Then she gets alerts whenever anyone dangerous is within ten miles of her.
Anyway, back to the songwriting: Beyonce, on the other hand, is not a good songwriter. Then again, she’s amazing at everything else, AND she does occasionally come up with great stuff, like when she brought the ‘To the left…’ phrase out of a verse of Irreplaceable and made it a cornerstone of the song.
We then discussed hit-for-shit ratios. Despite being enormously successful, he estimated his hit rate at something like 20 out of 1000 and said that the same probably applies to all the super pop writers out there (who all seem to be Scandinavian, oddly enough. I think it’s all down to the legacy of ABBA). You can write a song in a day. but you only need a couple each year to really work in order to make a career out of it.
I then asked him if he knew when he was writing a big hit. He said he had no idea. Partly that’s down to other factors, such as the artist who does or doesn’t take it on. It told him my ‘Yesterday’ theory (that if Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’ last week and put it on his next album no one would give a toss, or certainly not the toss they currently give about that song) and he entirely agreed: it’s not the fundamental song that is the driver of the success, but the combination of song, performer, timing etc. that needs to be just right for a huge hit to happen.
He loves the way that you can really see the effect one of your songs is having out there in the real world by watching YouTube. I thought he meant the number of views each song might have but he meant the way in which people take a song on and make their own versions of it. That gives him enormous satisfaction.
We then started discussing novel writing, which he found as difficult, fascinating and mysterious as I find songwriting. So there you go: everything’s bloody hard unless you’re really good at it, and even then, it’s still probably bloody hard.