Polishing Songs Has a Limit

Scott Borchetta is an American record executive, known mostly as the founder of Big Machine Label Group. You may not know who he is, but suffice it to say that he’s spent a lot of his career working in the business end of music. He started Big Machine Records, and his first major client was a then-14-year-old Taylor Swift.

Once in a while I like reading what executives say about music, because they are driven by the need to see tangible examples of musical success. Execs don’t live in a dream world. They are very much “show me the money” kinds of people, both virtually and literally.

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I mention Borchetta because he once said something that every songwriter needs to hear:

“If you don’t have great songs, it doesn’t matter the marketing or how many times you are on TV; you can only polish it so much.”

If you think that success is going to depend on the media coverage and/or record deals you get, it’s fair to say that you are missing the most important part of the formula for success: consistently excellent songwriting.

It takes excellent production to make a great song. But no producer, no matter how good they are, can be successful if the song isn’t excellent in the first place. If you want the music business to notice you as a songwriter, one good song will not do it, and it doesn’t matter how good that song is.

The only thing that matters is consistent excellence.

So if you’re a songwriter, you need to be listening to lots of songs from lots of genres and figuring out why the good ones are so good. The successful songwriters are the ones who can learn those lessons and apply them to their own songwriting.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Gary,

    Yes, I believe popular music has always basically been about *who* is singing the song, as well as the song itself, and it’s specific production “sound”. A marketing exercise in appealing to a specific buying audience.

    You have the best training about songwriting that I, personally, have seen. I enjoy your articles.

  2. Donna Evans makes a great point. Popular music for the past many decades has been a corporate production that take a songwriter and creates a marketable product.

    They sell aspiration, idolization, and music that exclaims the feelings and thoughts that a certain targeted young audience will want to purchase so they can regularly enjoy powerful feelings.

    As an musical artist, I think of my songwriting like being a baker making my own recipe of tasty cookies. People buy the taste of the cookie, they don’t buy me and will not even know my name unless I perform my songs myself..And even then, I will only appeal to a certain demographic.

    • Hi Glenn:

      Thanks for these excellent observations. The only thing I’d add is… I wonder if, in a way, it’s always been that way. For me at my age, I find the whole way music, songwriters and performers are packaged and delivered to the public to be rather repugnant. But, as I say, I wonder if it’s always been that way. If you take a look at early rock & roll musicians (Elvis, Buddy Holly, etc.) you could easily make the case that producers and other industry execs sold aspiration, idolization, targeting a mainly youth audience.

      And there has always been those excellent few who did what they did almost in spite of what industry thought was best. They were being like you envision your own musical contributions to be: a baker making his own recipe of tasty cookies.

      Musician Rick Beato recently did a live stream video called “Why Boomers Hate Pop Music“, and mentions this sort of issue. You might find that interesting.

      Thanks again for weighing in on this, Glenn.

  3. My observation after years observing the songwriting and music business is that every year good fortune essentially picks a few names out of a hat that is full of thousands of names of current *very hardworking and talented songwriters and musicians*.

    Those “picked” get the *promotion and then the luck to become successful.

    But importantly, you cannot even get your name into the hat unless you are already pretty special. Most never get picked (Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his entire lifetime, except to his brother who supported is art) . But to even be in the running you have to be top notch.

  4. I’m a long term business executive myself and thought your article today looking at the music business from that perspective was long overdue. I do agree consistent quality content is key, however there’s a lot more that I think is worth mentioning. Taylor Swift was like many of us, a decent songwriter, she was not Mozart. But she was young, pretty, photogenic and appealed to the right genre. She could be a product marketed to those who purchase more music. The music execs hired professional writers to assist the productions. I daresay just on her own the quality and consistency could not have been what she was made into.

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