I have to admit that I’ve long suspected this, but when you are young and impressionable you want to believe that those in elite positions of power in the industry know exactly what is big, what will be big, and that every decision they make is infallible. As I have moved forward, meeting more and more people on higher and higher levels, I have discovered that answers to the same questions vary wildly from person to person.
I want to preface this piece by saying that a number of my close mentors and peers are immensely talented and humble. To me the mark of a real great is someone that admits they might be wrong. I find it intimidating when someone acts as if they know all the answers, and that you are feeble-minded if you disagree. An example would be Simon Cowell’s persona on whatever show he is currently on (I have no idea if this is really how he is on a personal level, but it certainly is the character he plays on television).
The Only Real Objective Claim
The only thing that we can all (probably) objectively agree on is whether the quality of music is good or bad. Even this is subject to varying opinions, but I think if you sat down a number of professionals in a room and played them a recording of a non-musician versus a musician, they would be able to tell you which one was out of tune, out of time, repeating the same word for eight minutes, bad at their instrument, etc. Just one relatable example, the people that claim Maroon 5 can’t play music are objectively wrong. They all play their instruments, Adam Levine can sing, and they can obviously write hit songs. You might hate their music, which is fine, but you can’t argue with the fact that they ARE musicians.
Beyond this fact, everything is subjective. We have seen hit songs range from the simple to the complicated, from the well recorded to the poorly recorded, from the unattractive singer to the attractive singer. The list of well-known artists throughout the decades that were rejected by major labels could stretch across a state if you wrote them all down. Ed Sheeran was told he was too unattractive and no one would buy his music. Lady Gaga was rejected by multiple labels (who knows why, probably because she was doing something slightly new and different). They both persevered and ended up beginning to achieve their dreams.
At the 2019 Oscars, Lady Gaga said this:
If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion, it’s not about how many times you are rejected or you fall down or you’re beaten up, it’s about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going.
I love this quote. All we can do is make the best quality music we can, and continue to push through rejection upon rejection. If you know deep down that you are truly working as hard as you can, that’s all anyone can ask.
Some Personal Examples
I was told once by a publishing company that the lyrics to one of my songs, “Bestill My Heart”, were too simple and it would never be a success. The song won a Great American Songwriting Award the following year. I knew they were crazy initially, but there was still part of me that doubted it… you tell me. Here is the first section of “Baby” by Justin Bieber, a massive smash hit…
Ooh whoa, ooh whoa, ooh whoa
You know you love me, I know you care
Just shout whenever and I’ll be there
You are my love, you are my heart
And we will never, ever, ever be apart
Are we an item? Girl quit playin’
We’re just friends, what are you sayin’
Said there’s another, look right in my eyes
My first love, broke my heart for the first time
And I was like baby, baby, baby oh
Like baby, baby, baby no
Like baby, baby, baby oh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)
Baby, baby, baby oh
Like baby, baby, baby no
Like baby, baby, baby ooh
I thought you’d always be mine
And here is the first verse and chorus of my track “Bestill My Heart”…
Hey girl, can I ask you to be my world?
Everytime that I see you
I know I’d do anything for you
We can be anything we want
I am a man who is so in love
Someday I’ll be on my knees for you
I love you girl, and always will
Through time and space I’ll be with you yet and still
And until death do us part, I’m gonna love you girl
Bestill my heart
Maybe a slight difference? If anything I would argue that my track is a little deeper and more engaging, with the reference to time and space providing some food for thought. Either way, the point is there is not a big difference, and whomever said that was just using it as an excuse to not try something that might have been slightly different than what they were comfortable with.
This was also discussed in an earlier post here.
Songwriter Vs. Artist
Awhile back I received an email inquiry from the publishing arm of an extremely recognizable company. In fact the company was connected to my favorite singer of all time. It was like a dream come true. We scheduled a call, just a feeling-out session of sorts. I asked all sorts of questions, advice on what direction I should go, while also letting them know that all of my released songs were being used as something of a resume, and were available for licensing/publishing etc.
The response from the executive shocked me so much I had to ask follow up questions to clarify that he really meant what he said.
His advice to me was to pull everything I had written and released under my own name off iTunes, Spotify, my own website, etc. He said this would discourage publishers from wanting to use my songs. This was a bizarre opinion to me, because I know more than one songwriter who had significant success with one of their songs being placed with a major artist after it was released by them. The process is pretty simple. You sign a contract with a company allowing them to use your song for a different artist, and you agree to pull of that song for an agreed upon period of time so the two aren’t competing with each other. I had never heard of pulling everything off before you even get a deal lol.
Luckily I didn’t follow this advice, because less than a year later I would have a mentor session with a Nashville songwriter with tons of placements, and a record deal, who said essentially the opposite. He said it was pretty much the accepted standard that a songwriter going for success would release music under their own name first. That’s how you get noticed. Plus, you never want to rule out the slight possibility that one of your songs goes viral or becomes a hit on its own, in which case most songwriters would gladly hit the road and tour under their own name.
And Last… Sleep
When I was much younger, I was told by a very successful producer who came up assisting Dr. Luke while he worked with Ke$ha, that sleep was for the lazy, and if I needed eight hours of sleep a night then I was weak.
This is quite possibly the stupidest and worst advice I’ve ever gotten. As I’ve gotten more and more into health and fitness, and understood what my body needs, I’ve realized that the opposite of this is true. LeBron James, perhaps the most gifted athlete on planet earth, has said he tries to get 9-10 hours of sleep a night. That is too much for me, but I understand what he is saying. Your body needs sleep to recharge. Food and sleep are the body’s fuel. To consistently work on 2-3 hours sleep is the equivalent of constantly driving your car with the gas tank near empty.
For whatever reason, working on little sleep has become a badge of honor. I have now come to the realization that I have no interest in wearing this badge.
You out there reading this, keep doing your thing. I still take voice lessons, I study piano players online, and I continuously attend songwriting retreats and seminars in order to hone my craft. When I write, I do it with 150% effort, and the same thing when I create demos or full albums. Don’t half-ass things, you will regret it later. If you are doing all this, then that’s all anyone can ask. If your music is slightly different than anything that is currently culturally massive, it will most likely be rejected out of hand. If you copy exactly what’s popular it will be rejected as being too similar. You just can’t win. All you can do is be yourself, write from the heart, keep meeting new people, and hope for a little luck along the way.