Excellence is a quality that renders your ability to predict the future of music irrelevant.
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You might think that if we could predict what direction songwriting was going, we’d have a leg-up on everyone else in the industry. There’s nothing like being a leader in a world where almost everyone is a follower.
In a sense, every time we write something new, we’re either predicting the future of music, or we’re responding to something new. Writing something that deliberately sounds dated is a waste of time, unless retro is your schtick.
Wouldn’t it be great if something you wrote became the new direction in music? Imagine: in a very few short years, everyone would be trying to write music that builds on your success, or at least rides the same wave.
Predicting the future of music (something different from predicting the future of songwriting) is, for all practical purposes, impossible. That’s because the world of music, and its appeal, is wrapped up in the world of performers. Sometimes, the fame and/or notoriety of a performer has as much to do with the success of the music they’re singing than the actual music. And with every new singer that enters the market, their influence moves the industry in a new and largely unpredictable direction.
Being successful as a performer does not require being excellent. Just because more people buy Big Macs than porterhouse steaks does not mean that a Big Mac is better than a steak. There’s a lot more to the equation.
Success in songwriting is not the same thing as success as a performer. We don’t usually talk about predicting the future of songwriting, because songwriting style largely happens when your songs are performed. And it’s style that grabs attention first, not usually songwriting excellence.
And while performing style is changing quickly and constantly, the basic principles and structures of songwriting change very slowly, much slower than changes in performance style. It’s easy to make a song from the early 70s sound like a song from today, usually by simply updating the performance. With a good producer, a 40-year-old song can sound like it was written this morning.
So there’s no sense in predicting the future direction of songwriting, simply because it’s more-or-less irrelevant. What gets your songs noticed is two things: 1- excellence, and 2- consistency.
You need to be writing excellent music, and doing it consistently. Excellence is a difficult quality to define, and in fact it’s easier to describe the effect that excellent music has on a listener: it takes them on a coherent musical journey that entices them to keep listening.
Oh. Is that what it is?
Excellence requires you to understand the basic guiding principles of good musical composition. How to shape a melody, how to craft a chord progression, and how to design your song to keep the audience riveted. Those principles really haven’t changed much over the past 50 or 60 years.
Sixty years ago, it was true that verses were mainly narrative and choruses were mainly emotional commentaries. And the same is true today. Sixty years ago, verses were pitched lower than choruses, music was louder and more rhythmically active in the chorus, song bridges typically moved into a new key area, and an enticing chorus hook was important. And the same is true today.
For those of you wishing that you could become the new direction in music, it doesn’t lie in your skills to predict. It relies on your ability to write well-constructed music consistently. That’s something that can be studied and practiced.
Because you will likely be the person that introduces your music to the world, performing is certainly important. No one would ever have heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” if it was written by a person who played in a lousy band. So I certainly don’t want to say that performing style is unimportant. In a certain way, it could be vital to your songs’ success.
But with regard to songwriting, excellence and consistency are the best ways you have of getting attention in the music world. Your music will get noticed if industry personnel see you as someone reliable, and reliably good.
-Gary Ewer (follow Gary on Twitter)
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