Unfortunately, the last time I checked, a well-crafted, lyrically compelling serenade outside of your landlord’s door doesn’t preempt the eviction notice from getting tacked onto yours. In fact, most songwriters know all too well the difficulty in establishing real value for their work. While performing rights organizations like BMI and ASCAP are poised to collect the money that’s coming to you from any public performance of your song, this means very little if your would-be-platinum-selling song isn’t being played anywhere.
So if you’re a writer, there is this race to place your music with the latest and greatest artists who would consider recording a song that you have written. In a lot of cases, you may be the best artist to perform your own song. But whether you’re writing for yourself, for an outside artist, or writing to license in other media, your chance for success is greater with a great song coupled with the best possible presentation of that song.
Doing what comes naturally?
So let’s assume that you have an undeniable song on your hands. What kinds of things do you need to be concerned with when it comes to recording it for the purpose of generating income? Well, many of those considerations not only hold true for commercial music applications, but also for when you have a specific goal to communicate something to your listener.
Because it’s so competitive out there, I always recommend that stylistically, you don’t spread yourself too thin. In the beginning I think it’s better to be known as “the polka-fusion” guy rather than not known at all. Start with what comes most naturally to you, even if you suspect that there may be not much of a market for it. You’d be surprised how specialized media outlets have become. Plus, you’ll be most effective in your element as you put your best foot forward.
With this goal of producing a perfect backdrop for your song, it could be the first time that you’ll be ‘forced’ to think like an actual producer and less like a self-indulgent artist who focuses on all the wrong details. Most of your production decisions will revolve around an effort to communicate your musical ideas more clearly. After all, it’s not just about making you happy anymore. You’ll have gained the perspective of what it’s like to be the listener, who, in most cases, knows nothing about music production or recording.
Taking the song apart
Across the board, whether you’re making your own record or writing music to be licensed for cartoons, there are some universal truths worth reviewing as far a production goes. You will be thinking about the tempo, the key of the song, the groove, the dynamics, and the song structure from a new, all-accountable perspective. Yes, it can be important to become a little less precious with your ideas in order for your song to go the full distance for you.
An unnecessarily long intro may prevent your listener from even getting to the award-winning chorus set two minutes into your masterpiece. I say hack it down. If you even suspect that a guitar part or sound is conflicting with the vocal line, change it up. You don’t want to leave that sort of thing to chance. Poor production may not kill an undeniable song, but it will certainly make it harder for others to realize that it is in fact undeniable.
Putting the song together
There’s quite a lot of pressure to be able to record your soon-to-be chart-topping hit with the treatment it deserves. It’s an entirely different skill set than merely songwriting. Whether you’re looking for a record deal, a publishing deal, film licensing, or another artist to record your song, one fundamental truth definitely applies. Your song must sound professionally produced.
Although some industry folks may claim to be able to hear the merit in a song in a bare-bones state, I’ve found that without a radio-ready, major label-sounding product, you run the risk of them not hearing it the way that you do. This is especially true when seeking licensing opportunities for your song. Now more than in any other era, when you’re sending stuff out into the world, there is no such thing as a “demo”.
Do not trust your livelihood to anyone’s imagination but your own. Aim to make it a no-brainer for them to say “yes”. Your competition will be A-list songwriters with whom they already have a working relationship. A lot of times, the only shot you have to get on that list yourself is to make sure that your stuff sounds better than everyone else’s. Just know that you’re competing against the guy whose basement looks like an ad for pro audio gear. But for all that he has in rack gear, you can make up for with better songs and smarter production.
So toward what opportunities should you be tailoring your production? More than ever, movies and TV shows will license independent music with vocals. For the most part, they’re looking for accessible music that is cutting-edge and current-sounding. For this purpose, it can help if you sound like the “flavor of the minute” popular band. You may want to consider steering your song production in that direction. Smaller-budget movies and cable shows may not be able to afford the rights to license the major-label song, and opt for your cheaper “generic brand” version of what they really wanted. Maybe it’s a little less than ideal, but it can provide some cash and decent exposure until other opportunities arise.
To keep your song eligible for this type of licensing, some basic rules of thumb always apply. Keep your mixes tight and clean. Things that are out of tune or out of time work against you. Music editors are always looking for ways to dice up your song to correspond with a visual element. You can make it easier for them by making your arrangements edit-friendly (keep to a minimum the kinds of elements that pick up or carry through to other sections).
Make sure that every element in the mix is at the optimal level and frequency range to perform the function for which it was recorded in the first place. For example, do your kick drum and bass work together and provide a solid low end, or are they competing for the same sonic real estate? (If so, check our April 2006 issue for lots of good advice.) Do you need a de-esser so that you can get the overall level of your vocal up without killing the listener with sibilance? If anything pulls your attention away from the vocal line, then it’s ultimately working against your efforts in communicating your song.
Voice or not?
If your production caters to lyric and melody, you’ll most likely increase your chances for finding a good home for that song. But if you’re looking to avoid pawning your PC for grocery money, then you may want to look into licensing the instrumental version of your song. If promoting yourself as an artist, singer or lyricist is not a priority, this may be a good avenue for you. Every time you hear music on TV, in a film, movie trailer, commercial, or video game, someone’s making money. Why can’t that person be you?
Well, for starters, you need to have your music configured properly, so that it could get a music supervisor’s attention. If your song wasn’t written as an instrumental, just muting the vocals doesn’t guarantee that it will be instantly “licensable”. Take the time to listen to the song as an instrumental piece. You many need to add elements, cut sections out, re-record parts, and/or re-balance the mix for it to stand alone.
As with a vocal song, it’s your job to outline the hooks. Your arrangement and production should highlight the more memorable parts of your song. While it ultimately could be shoved into the background of a TV trailer with sound effects and a voice-over obscuring your priceless chords, it needs to impress a music supervisor somewhere along the line for it to get there.
With lyrics or without, your mix represents you and your ability as a writer and producer without disclaimers. It’s the only way you can bring a virtually unlimited number of people into your world for an exclusive playback of your song. The only variable is their listening environment. The more balanced your mix is (eliminate excess of any frequencies), the louder you or your mastering engineer will be able to push the overall compression, so that your final product will be louder. I hate to say it, but many people mistake louder for better sounding, even though I find the opposite is true. So this may come at the expense of the overall sound, but as long as it’s not distorting, you don’t want your track sounding weaker next to an inferior song that was mastered louder. In other words, it’s a necessary evil.
Do your best
Just the idea of playing your songs for someone who needs to be very discriminating in their musical selection can be a very healthy way to push yourself to become a better songwriter and producer. In most cases, the industry isn’t going to dispense any constructive feedback to help you improve. You just won’t get the song placed. No one is under any obligation to teach you anything out there, so you need to learn these lessons on your own. You never have complete control over what someone is looking for, but you do have control over your writing and the way those songs are presented. It’s in your best interest to do that with the highest quality possible, so when they are looking for a neo-classical ranchero tune, or whatever your specialty is, they think of you.
There are a lot of steps and expertise that go into taking a melody from your head to the ears of millions of people, but the ones that are initially the most important have less to do with other people and deal more with exorcising the writing and production demons from your music. Next month we’ll take on the demons outside of your studio, with strategies for getting your now-professionally written and produced songs to the right people out there.
Frank Gryner is a Los Angeles-based producer/engineer whose credits include Rob Zombie, A Perfect Circle, The Removal Act, and Stever.