What Is a Commercial Song?
by Seth Jackson
While there is no absolute "right" and "wrong" when it comes to songwriting,
there are certain factors which tend to increase the likelihood that your
song will appeal to a wide audience and become a hit. I don't believe that
their is a "formula" for creating hit songs. The word "formula" is
often used to imply that, by following a simple set of rules, anyone can
write a hit, and that the only thing separating the hits from the rest
is whether or not the writer has connections. That's just not reality.
The truth is that commercial songwriting is both an art and a craft that
takes talent, study, and lots of practice. Connections come into play only
after one has mastered the art and the craft.
In my various songwriting-related activities, I've come across several
myths regarding commercial songwriting that I'd like to address.
Commercial Songwriting Myths
Now that we've put those myths behind us, we can begin to talk about what
makes a song commercial. First, it's important to distinguish between
two types of commercial songs: the inside song and the outside song. An
inside song, often referred to as an "artist song", is one that's
written by the artist, producer, or someone else close to the artist. Songs
like this are usually very specific to the one particular artist that wrote
them, and are usually not the kind of song that could successfully be shopped
by a publisher to artists seeking material. Songs like this can get recorded
even though they violate many of the commonly taught songwriting rules.
The reason is that they have a ready-made market - the artists who write
I don't want to learn the craft, because learing rules would destroy
my creativity. This is a fear that seems to be unique to modern musicians
and songwriters. If you look at the great composers, artists, and writers
throughout history, you'll see that virtually all of them spent years studying
and perfecting their craft before they went on to achieve greatness. The
purpose of craft is to help you to communicate your ideas more effectively,
not to stifle your expression. Different commercial radio formats may have
restrictions that may limit your range if you hope to write hits, but the
craft itself is about making choices. It provides a set of tools you can
use to refine your art to meet whatever goals you have for your work.
I want to write from the heart, not from the wallet. Many writers
believe that trying to write a hit means watering down your work to make
it as bland as possible in order to appeal to a wide audience. This is
exactly the wrong approach. Audiences respond to songs that move them in
some way. They like songs that provoke some emotion. What this means, paradoxically,
is that if you want to write from the wallet, the best way to do it is
to write from the heart. Write a song that people relate to so strongly
that they'll want to go out and spend their hard-earned money to buy it.
It's good to avoid being specific. Omitting details allows listeners
to fill in the blanks with their own experiences. Many beginning
writers are afraid to actually come out and make it clear as to what the
song is about for fear that being specific would make it too personal,
and that others won't relate to it. In fact, the opposite is true.
If you want listeners to fill in the blanks with their own experiences,
you first have to get the listener to care enough about your song to even
bother. If you present the listener with vague generalities, they're
most likely going to be confused, bored, or both. If you tell a story
in which the listener can see, hear, and feel the characters and situation,
and if the story contains some real emotion, then the listener is likely
to "fill in the blanks" with their own story in which they felt a similar
My friends, family, and/or fans love it, so I know it's a hit. Your
friends, family, and fans are not impartial sources of feedback. They are
predisposed to like whatever you play for them. Response to a live performance
can be misleading, because the audience can be responding a lot of things
other than the song itself, such as your stage presence, energy level,
vocal performance, the way you move your hips, the guitar solo, etc.
A great song, as opposed to a great show or a great production,
should sound great recorded on tape with just a single instrument like
a guitar or piano, and a solo vocal. This isn't to suggest that you shouldn't
make a fully produced demo when it comes time to pitch your song; it's
simply to help us differentiate between the song and the production.
Outside songs are songs written by a songwriter for the purpose of having
someone else record them. These songs generally must adhere to a narrower
range of parameters than inside songs, since they need to be the type of
songs that can be pitched to a number of different artists. While I believe
that we should always strive to write the best songs possible, the truth
is that outside songs are held to a higher standard than inside songs.
Outside songs have to go through more levels of screening, and there is
usually not an artist waiting to record them as soon as they're written.
Because of the distinction between inside and outside songs, it's not
good enough to write songs as good as the ones on the radio. Many of those
songs are inside songs. If your song is as good as the one written by the
artist or producer, why would they need it? They'd rather record theirs
and keep all the money for themselves. In order for your song to get recorded,
it has to be better than the ones on the radio. A lot better.
There are lots of great, great songs out there that aren't considered
commercial, and will probably never become hits. So, what makes a song
commercial? As I said earlier, there is no formula for creating a
hit, but there are certain characteristics shared by most songs that do
become hits. The following are some of the main characteristics that publishers,
A&R people, producers, and artists look for when choosing songs to
Characteristics of Commercial Songs
A commercial song:
Now that we have an idea of what makes a song commercial, here are some
rules of thumb to follow that will help you create songs with these characteristics.
Communicates real emotion that andiences want to relate to. People
will buy songs that make them feel something they want to feel. Everyone
likes to feel happy, which is why so many love songs and fun dance songs
become hits. They also like to feel the comfort of knowing that sad or
painful experiences they've had in their lives are shared by others, which
is why we hear so many songs about lost love and loneliness. People don't
want to be depressed, though, which is why most sad songs that become hits
include a ray of hope that the singer will somehow deal with the pain and
that things will get better. Audiences usually don't want to be preached
at or have fingers pointed at them. The most successful message songs are
ones that tell a story that draws the listener in, and then leads the listener
to draw his own conclusion. Most audiences don't want to be grossed out
with graphic images of violence, although some audiences, mostly teens,
do like this sort of thing.
Fits within an identifiable genre that is played on the radio. A
perhaps unfortunate reality of the music business is that it is
a business, and most record companies spend money to create a product that
they think is likely to make a profit. If you love to write Ethiopian drum
music, for example, you should take a look at the market for Ethiopian
drum music to assess your chances of getting your material recorded and
played on the radio. If there are no radio stations playing that kind of
music, then it's going to be very difficult to have a hit in that genre.
If you write country, pop, or rock music, however, there are radio stations
throughout the country that play these formats, so you may stand a chance
of having a hit record if you write music in one of these genres. Markets
do exist for even the most obscure types of music, so if that's your passion,
seek out those markets and promote your music there, but realize that the
amount of money to be made is likely to be modest.
Fits within the constraints of the genre. If you listen to country
radio, for example, you may notice that most songs are around three minutes
long, tell a clear story in plain, simple language, and have a definite
structure that includes a repeating "hook line". Therefore, if you hope
to write hits for this market, it's probably a good idea for your song
to include these features. If you listen to "alternative" rock radio, you
may notice that a lot of the songs contain strong, vivid images that conjure
strong emotions without necessarily telling a clear story. So, songs like
this have a chance at success in the "alternative" genre. On the other
hand, you should be aware that in the alternative rock market, most of
the artists write all their own material. Usually, the only way to get
a song recorded with these artists is to co-write with the artist or producer.
Is something that a recording artist will want to sing. Most recording
artists have concerns above and beyond their current hit song. Artists
need hits, but they're also concerned with developing their careers. They
generally want to stay around for a long time and to give themselves the
best possible chance of becoming a star. The songs they choose to record
are going to be songs that they believe will help them achieve that goal.
A star is someone that fans look up to and admire. Therefore, artists are
going to want to sing songs that portray them as someone that people can
look up to. They probably aren't going to want to sing songs that make
them appear to be weak, helpless, hopeless, or stupid. If they do take
on that sort of material, it's most likely to be a something humorous or
tongue-in-cheek. Songs that are recorded usually portray the artist as
someone real and human who experiences both joy and pain, but has the strength
and self-confidence to face and deal with his problems.
Says what it needs to say as concisely, uniquely, and as powerfully
as possible. There are thousands and thousands of songs competing for
each slot on an album. In order for your song to get chosen, the decision-makers
need to feel that your song is better than all the others. They want to
hear something fresh and original, something that stands out, something
that makes a strong emotional impact. It's often true that the more concisely
you can state something, the more power it has. Consider: "Try
as I may, I continually fail in my efforts to achieve a state of contentment"
vs. "I can't get no satisfaction". Which makes a stronger
impact? Originality means coming up with unique and interesting ways of
saying things rather than relying on old cliches. For example, consider
these two song titles: "My Buddies at the Honky-Tonk" vs. "Friends
in Low Places". Which one is more original and provocative?
Is believable. People will relate better to characters and situations
that come across as real and believable. Ironically, basing a song on a
true story does not guarantee that the song will come across as real believable.
It's not important whether or not the story actually did happen in real
life; what's important is for the writer to convince the audience that
the situation did or could happen. The situation and the behavior of the
characters must make logical and emotional sense to the audience.
Is memorable. Hit songs are usually songs that are easy and
fun to sing along with. This means a strong, catchy melody, and a structure
that provides a balance of variety and repetition. Structure is important
because it gives the audience something to grasp onto. It allows them to
be involved in the song. It allows them to remember the song and hum it
in their heads. If there are too many sections, or if there's no logical
flow from one section to the next, most people won't be able to follow
the melody, and they'll lose interest. On the other hand, if your melody
is too predictable, it will probably be boring. Song structure
helps create interest by creating natural points within the song for melodic
See you on the charts!
Choose an interesting title that conveys some sense of drama or emotion,
and then make sure every line of the song serves to develop and support
that title. The title is the summation of the song's message or story.
Place the title in the most melodically memorable part of the song,
and make sure it's repeated more than any other phrase in the song.
Stick to one topic, story or message. Anything that's not necessary
to support the title is something that doesn't need to be in the song.
Less is more. Be concise, and make your point in the fewest number of words
possible. Make every line and every word count.
Keep a consistent emotion and point of view throughout the song.
Hit songs succeed by creating an emotional response in listeners. While
a full-length feature film can probe a wide range of emotions over a 90-minute
span, songs are too short to do that effectively. In three minutes, it's
enough of a challenge to successfully convey a single emotion. If the emotion
changes within the song, the audience will probably get confused or disappointed,
and they'll lose interest. If the singer's attitude or character changes
during the song, it will be confusing, and it will not ring true to the
audience. If the singer is singing to another person, then the entire song
should be sung to that same person. Switching from "you" to "he or she"
makes the story hard to follow.
Make the song self-explanatory. This is one of the hardest parts
of lyric writing, but it's essential. The listener is not privy to what's
going on in the writer's head as the song is being written, and the songwriter
will not be there on the radio to explain the story to the listener. Therefore,
the listener is going to need to get all the required information from
the song itself. If there's any room for ambiguity, chances are that a
good portion of the listeners will misunderstand what you're trying to
say or will be confused. Once the listener is confused, you've lost him.
You need to put yourself in the listener's shoes and imagine how he would
interpret what's being said, given no prior knowledge. It's often a good
idea to run your songs past some other writers to see how they react. Be
sure never to explain anything about the song before playing it, or you
will defeat the purpose of getting feedback. The song must speak for itself.
Use conversational language. Write lyrics they way the singer would
actually say them in real life. Don't use big words or flowery, poetic
sentences that people wouldn't normally say in the situation being portrayed.
Don't invert words and sentences to force rhymes. For example, you wouldn't
say "There I want to go" in conversation, so don't say that in your song
just because you need to rhyme with "know". If I had a dollar for every
time I've heard a writer attempt to justify a bad line with, "I needed
a rhyme", I'd be rich by now. There's no room for bad lines in a marketplace
that's flooded with thousands and thousands of writers who don't
write those kind of lines.
Make the music and the words work together. The emotional tone of
the music should enhance, not fight against the emotional tone of the lyric.
Uptempo, major-key music would probably work best for a happy, celebratory
lyric. A tender love song might work best as a soft, slow ballad. A sad
lyric, might work with slow, minor key music, but this can also work against
the song by making it too depressing. Sometimes it can be effective to
put sad lyrics to uptempo music to create a tongue-in-cheek effect, or
an attitude that implies that the singer is dealing with the situation.
It's also important to make sure the words are singable with the melody.
Songs are meant to be sung, and if there are too many syllables crammed
into a short space, or if accents fall on the wrong syllables of words,
singers are not going to feel comfortable singing your song.
Rules are made to be broken. Rules exist as guidelines, and they're
taught because they've been observed to work. But they don't always apply
the same way to every song. The truth is that each song has its own set
of rules, and the goal of learning the craft is to come to a point where
you can determine the set of rules that work best for each song you write.
Having a full toolbox allows you to pick and choose which tools will best
serve the song you are working on, or to improvise new tools if that's
what it takes to make the song as strong as it can be.
Have fun. If you don't enjoy the process of writing, then why bother?
It's true that you can make a lot of money if you get lucky and "hit the
jackpot" with a smash single, but if it's money you're after, you'd be
better off selling insurance. The reality is that very, very few songwriters
earn any money at all from their writing, and fewer still make a living
at it. The only reason to be in this business is because it's what you
love doing more than anything else you can imagine.
Keep writing! Like with any other skill, practice makes perfect.
The more you write, the better your songs will get. Study other songs and
songwriters, read books, attend workshops, and anything else that can help
you learn the craft. Be persistent, be open to feedback, and believe in
what you're doing.
This article, like most things in the music business, is strictly