All songs exhibit a balance between what could be thought of as typical traditional songwriting structures, and innovative elements. And this is quite a delicate balance; A song that has too many traditional elements risks being predictable and boring. And a song with too much innovation risks being just weird. It’s a dilemma because unless you can set your song apart from all the other songs out there, it just becomes one more song that no one listens to. And yet, innovation itself often scares away listeners who already seem to know what they like. How do you strike the right balance?
There is an aspect of a good song that has nothing much to do with actual songwriting skill; it’s called trust. An audience needs to trust you, needs to know that a new song by you is going to be worth the listen. Once you’ve got an audience’s trust, you’ve got them where you want them. Think of it this way: are you likely to go on a journey with someone you don’t know and don’t trust? Not likely. But if that person is your friend, or someone you know really well, you’re more likely to trust that person, and more likely to let them take you somewhere you’ve never been before.
The Beatle’s music is a good example of this trust element in music. When they started in the business, Lennon and McCartney were followers, not leaders. They were always trying to discover what the best performers were doing that was so successful, and then copy it in their own way. Their innovation was subtle: their sound, their hair and their rapport with society. And very quickly audiences learned to trust the Beatles. Once they had built this trust, their writing style became much, much more innovative. Sergeant Pepper was an album filled with extraordinary songwriting techniques – weird tape effects, orchestral accompaniments, complex lyrics that few understood at the time, and more. And yet that album was a pivotal, world-changing work of art. The White album had songs that were just plain weird (Revolution 9, for example.) And it has remained as one of the best-selling albums of all time.
But the issue here is that, if you’re wanting to sell songs, weirdness only works if your audience trusts you. If you’re looking to build an audience, don’t start with weird; start with typical. If it’s millions-selling songs you’re looking to write, you need to build an audience, and that means that you need to follow this basic rule: In the balance between traditional technique and innovation, your songs need to lean more heavily toward traditional. Once you’ve got an audience, you’re in a better position to incorporate innovative elements into your music, because your audience trusts you.
So if your songs aren’t getting attention, consider the possibility that they’re just too weird… for now. And consider this: If the Beatles first album had been Sergeant Pepper, I seriously doubt we’d even know who the Beatles were.
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website