This article is inspired by a recent conversation with someone who knows, I mean really knows, about the business of songwriting.
A lot of people will say that songs today are nowhere near as good as the best songs from the 1970s and earlier, thinking back as far even as the 1940s and 1930s too.
Well, that would be a matter of opinion that you might not share. Even so, as an opinion it is a very popular one, if not universal.
But what about your songs? You have studio technology right there in your home that is technically way in advance of anything in even the best studios of the 1970s or earlier.
So how come you are not writing great songs? I mean really great songs that would challenge the best, of any decade.
You have the technology, so why isn't it helping you turn your dreams into reality?
Great gear equals great recording. Right?
Unless you have made some stunningly bad equipment and software choices, you have a home studio that is perfectly capable of turning out work that is every bit as good as you hear in commercial releases.
So technically, there is nothing holding you back from having a hit record.
So if you wrote a good enough song, you would be able to make a recording that would propel your name, as writer and producer, right to the top of the charts.
The problem is, of course, writing that 'good enough' song. If you haven't done that yet, you need to figure out what it is that is holding you back.
Let's look at the process of writing and recording a song…
First you need to write the song. Perhaps you'll do it with a guitar, a pencil and a notebook. Perhaps you'll do it with a master keyboard, software instrument and word processor. Perhaps you'll do it entirely in your head! Any way is fine.
Next you need to make a recording. So call your singer, create an arrangement, record it, mix it and master it. Job done!
Ah, but here is a problem. Although you have the equipment and software to make a recording of professional quality, you don't quite have the necessary skills in production to pull it off. As brilliant as your song is, your finished recording sounds just a little bit… well, amateur.
Now I would say there's nothing wrong with this. Firstly I don't subscribe to the idea that the professionals 'own' music in any way. Music is the property of the people, in the words of Magic Michael that have resonated down the years. Secondly, it isn't reasonable to expect that anyone working at home in their spare time can compete as an absolute equal with seasoned studio professionals who have done nothing but make records twelve or more hours a day since they were seventeen years old.
Oddly enough, a part-time songwriter can compete with a professional, because writing songs comes more from inspiration than experience and time-honed slickness.
So although you might have the ability to write a great song, in all probability you don't have the ability to produce a finished recording of truly professional quality.
(OK, maybe you do, but stick with me…)
Can't make a master? Then make a demo!
Let's suppose that you have written a great song, but realistically you don't believe that you can take it all the way to becoming a commercially-successful recording. But there's nothing stopping you making a demo!
All you have to do is make a recording that puts the song across well, so that a publisher, producer or A&R manager might take a liking to it and take it on to the next stage. This is how the industry has worked for decades, although in an earlier era the demo would have been a live performance at the piano in a publisher's office rather than a recording.
Here comes my point…
The problem is now that so many people have home recording studios, and many of them are able to make recordings that are close to professional standards. So to make the grade with a demo, you have to arrange, record, mix and master your song to a similar near-professional standard. Otherwise no-one, literally no-one, in the industry will be prepared to spend any of their valuable time listening to it. They will consider that you haven't put enough effort in, so why should they?
So rather than putting all of your energy into your writing and knocking out a quick demo on a Revox or Portastudio, you're burning the midnight oil trying to make a great-sounding production. In all likelihood, whatever magic there was in your song will become diluted or hidden. If it is a truly great song, then it should sound great just with voice and guitar, and that should be all that is necessary for a demo.
My conclusion is that many of us are spending far too much time and effort trying to make professional-sounding recordings, which is sapping time and energy from what is really important, which is the songwriting process.
Rather than spending hour after hour building up layer after layer of virtual instrument tracks, checking out plug-in after plug-in to get the compression exactly right, it would be better to work with just a singer and a guitarist to get a really, really good performance of your song. A really good performance. And that means spending time on the music, not the equipment and software.
You know, in an era characterized by over-production, that might just be the way to make your song stand out!