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 them!.

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 record.

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.

Songwriting Suggestions

See you on the charts!

This article, like most things in the music business, is strictly  opinion. 

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