Have you ever seen a sailboat tacking into the wind? No one with any definite destination would ever consider just getting into a sailboat and letting the wind decide. It’s a constant process of correcting and correcting. Eventually the wind takes the boat where the sailor wants to go.
Why is it any different with songs? We start with a first draft (no pun intended). We show it to someone we trust. By his/her response, we discover whether we’ve accomplished what we intended with the communication. This was pointed up clearly at a recent seminar at which I was a guest speaker. It was easy to see which songs had true emotional impact and which ones were depending on a vocal quality or a rhythm track to communicate at all. The most effective ones, of course, were those which communicated something universally felt, exactly as the writer intended, in both melody and lyrics, and this communication was strengthened by the track and the vocal. Others were almost there, but there was something in one part—melody, lyric or chord progression—which was crippling the rest of the song.
There was one song in which a woman was the central character. Most of the people disliked her by the time the song was over. The consensus was that the melody and track were working but that no one would want to be identified with this character enough to sing the song. The woman in the song was living out a situation which happens a lot, but it was presented in a way that made her look like she had no integrity or courage, was a victim and a complainer. I questioned the writers why the character did what she did, and they pointed to one line in a verse that turned out to be a clue to the solution. I suggested some new lines in the bridge which would expound on the idea which was buried in the verse. When the seminar was over, they brought me the new bridge. They took my suggestions for lines in the bridge, giving the character a redeeming quality which made her human, likable, and someone with whom many of us could identify.
I was surprised to discover after this incident that, although people show their songs all the time, they rarely come out of the experience with a rewrite or even a direction for one. Apparently, what usually happens is this: A songwriter goes to a pitch session. The person listening is a publisher or A&R rep. For the most part—and there are some exceptions which I’ll get to—these critiquers are not writers. They are business people. Their job is to sell. They are looking for something they can sell. They may have a firm idea of what that is through past experience, parameters given them by their employer, etc. So they’re listening for a sound or for something that seems to be salable and will enhance their income or position or both. They provide the wind part of the sailboat analogy. They can’t tell you how to move the sail to go where you want to go; they just know what they want (hopefully). Their wind blows pretty much in one direction all the time. It’s your job (with any songwriting coach you may be using) to get the song into shape, so that it will at least say what you want, both lyrically and melodically, and tack into the wind to take you to your destination. Sometimes that destination is just to make a good impression on this person, so that next time you’ll be heard and not ignored.
So often a student will make a remark to me like, “I can’t have any words that repeat in the song. No repetition.” I’ll ask where they ever heard such a thing, and it will invariably trace back to one of these pitch sessions. Riddled with and inhibited by “You can’t do that in a song,” they’re even farther away from writing a song that will affect someone emotionally. Sometimes it’s the songwriter himself who has made the rule based on something the critiquer has said. Sometimes it’s the publisher/A&R rep who’s giving out this not-so-helpful advice. But, from what I’ve seen, all these rules really clutter up the creative process. Such critiquers would serve the songwriter better by merely passing on the song. When they start suggesting what’s wrong with it, they frequently do more harm than good, giving bogus, if well-intended advice. If Neil Simon had a scene that wasn’t working, I don’t think he’d go to his agent for advice. It’s as simple as that.
I mentioned earlier that there were some exceptions to publishers and A&R people being mainly on the selling side, rather than the creating side. One of these is Tony Berg, a very well-respected producer who spent years in A&R at Geffen. He’s a musician, composer, and songwriter and exceptionally well-qualified to comment on songs. He used to be the only person I would go to with a new song, and his comments were always insightful and inspiring. Nik Venet also had an uncanny ability to hear a song and not only find what might make it stronger, but also to see into its future—where it belongs, how it should be dressed, and to whom it should be presented. And I don’t mean matching it up with artists only. I also mean finding its audiences, surrounding it with the right songs on an album or in a live set—creative vision of that nature. This vision could also account for his finding or producing the right vehicles for launching the careers of Linda Ronstadt, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, Jim Croce, John Stewart, Lou Rawls. Dory Previn, and all the rest. Both of these producers are well-versed in all the arts, not just the recording arts.
There are some people on the business side who have quite a lot of things to say to us. But they are still coming from a creative place. It’s sort of like the role of an editor in literature. You may have heard of Maxwell Perkins, who had a larger role in the lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, et al., than their mothers and agents put together. These writers, plus many others—though they often fought with Perkins—knew to trust him. So much of our great literature is here in its present form because of him.
May you find your own Maxwell Perkins, or Tony Berg, or Nik Venet. And in the meantime, it might be healthy to take all criticism with a grain, if not a gram, of salt.
Harriet Schock is a songwriter, recording artist, author and songwriting coach. www.harrietschock.com