Songwriters; stop trying too hard!

There is a temptation to spend too long getting one song just right.

It’s even harder when you’re working in your own home studio; there’s no “I’m paying by the hour!” time-pressure to get things done.

Plus, with unlimited tracks and an undo button at your fingertips, there’s even less need to to get it right first-time, or even finish the song at all…there’s always something else you can add…

(like more cowbell)

Equally, songwriters are often given this sort of “sage advice” from industry songwriting veterans;

“Make each part of each song as great as it can be, don’t just settle for the first thing that comes, work on it, sculpt it and craft it into something exceptional!”

Whereas the theory of this is great, in practice, this can stifle a creative flow, one that if left slightly more unchecked might reward you with something far greater than anything you’ll consciously carve out of an average song.

Recently I heard Fraser T. Smith – a man who has contributed writing or production skills to fifteen number 1 albums – say words to the effect of:

“I write around 125 songs per year. And I don’t mean ideas on my iPhone, I mean full-demoed songs. Of them perhaps I’ll get 10-20 cuts and, if I’m lucky, a couple of hits.”

Here is a guy who’s worked with Adele, Sam Smith, Kaiser Chiefs, Drake, Britney Spears, Rita Ora, Plan B, Craig David, etc. He has had many hits. He really doesn’t need to work too hard to raise his profile.

Yet he writes – and completes – a song roughly every three days!

For Fraser quantity of output is a way to unearth a gem of quality.

My all-time favourite single artist, Prince, is another person who embodies this ideal.

According to this article, he wrote 39 studio albums and released 104 singles. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of finished but unreleased songs he apparently had locked up in a vault at Paisley Park, nor perhaps the songs and hits he wrote for other artists.

Whereas a lot of his songs might not be too memorable he has such a quantity of exceptional ones it’s easy to think he had the Midas touch for hit songwriting.

Or take The Beatles, often considered the finest of pop/rock songwriters. With 12 studio albums, 13 EPs and 22 singles in just 8 years they put out a lot of material in such a short period. Is it surprising that they crafted so many classic songs in that time?

Moving much further back in the history of music, there was a study conducted a few years ago on classical composers. Specifically, it focused on the correlation between those with the most “masterpieces” and their total number of published works.

Guess what? Yep, the composers we often think about as having the most masterpieces – i.e. those with the most “hits” – are those who produced the most amount of work overall.

If you only write 100 songs, and have a hit-rate of 1%, you’ll only have one great song.

If you write 500 songs your craft will improve, so probably your “hit rate” too (i.e. that 1% may become 5%).

So instead of 5 great songs out of 500 (i.e. 1%) you’ll have 25 to you name (i.e. 5%).

Since non-hits are often forgotten very quickly, to the casual observer you’ll seem like a genius, a prolific hit-machine, compared to the average writer.

To you, it’s nothing special, just the by-product of continuous, focused, productive work.

(N.B. these percentages are just for illustration purposes, I can’t guarantee any of us will write a great song, no matter how many times we try!!)

Songwriting (and composing!) is an art, for sure, but it is also a craft.

To get better at any craft one must practice.

To get great at any craft one must practice a lot.

Songwriters practice by writing songs, not just snippets of a verse here or chorus there.

Sure, any song can probably be made a little better by spending more time on it, but no amount of time will ever turn an average song into a great one.

Often our best songs are written in the shortest time; they just “come to you“.

Perhaps it’s better to just let songs be; don’t try to overthink them, or over-craft them. Add a few quick, obvious improvements and move on.

The key to improving and finding your best work is to keep writing as many songs as possible.

We’re looking for quality, unearthed by quantity.

So, as the famous quote goes;

“Don’t get it right. Get it written.”