How brilliant is London, where you can spend an afternoon listening to a multi-platinum selling songwriter for free? Superfuckingbrilliant, that’s how!
Alex Von Soos gives great seminar: straight talking experience, presented with disarming humility and humour. He also gave me renewed appreciation for commercial music: maybe because I could understand the techniques better; or maybe because he played it loud, through crystal clear and awesome speakers.
What follows is an abridged report of a condensed seminar.* So kick back, crack a beer, and let’s get our math on.
Give your song a Current or Retro vibe. For Retro, think Adele, Christina and the latest hot, young thing, Lana. Current is probably anything in the Top 10 that doesn’t have a Retro vibe. Check what’s going down on Radio 1 (or your equivalent), popular blogs, and anywhere else the cool kids hang out.**
Incorporate a magical Hook. That could be a compelling, melodic rhythm, as long as it’s interesting enough to stand by itself. Test it by clapping or drumming it on the table and if you can’t resist getting funky, you know you’ve got a winner. It could also be an interesting emotional pitch, like in Chasing Cars, ‘…if I LAY here, if I just LAY here…’. Introduce it early and make it last long enough to create a magical moment.
Got it? Just to make sure, see if you can pick the pitch in this piece of inspired genius (hint: there are a few before the end of the first chorus, but the first one is in the third line).
.Contrast and Prosody. Create contrast between the verse and chorus through tessiture, melodic rhythm, phrase length, phrase start, phrase shape, chord change, frequency, arrangement, etc. Create musical prosody with a combination of melody, graduation, chords, lyrics, and vocal tones that sound like they belong together.
For help translating the above paragraph, try this.
Amazing voice. Score a Sia, I mean singer who sounds unique, appealing, and confident, with a technically sound vocal performance that makes the lyrics seem believable. Also, be sure your singer is the right age for your target market. Like, you wouldn’t make Engelbert Humperdink your 2012 Eurovision entrant. Oh, wait…
Moving Lyrics. The words need meaning. Write what you know and make your experiences count to give your song a personal, believable, emotional tone. Make it sound professional with natural rhymes and imagery, and include at least one memorable word or line as early as possible: check 'Check Yes' by We the Kings. Then give your song a unique title with a compelling concept.
Technical excellence. Once upon a time, you’d turn up at the record company, play the nice man an acoustic song, share a cigar and a hearty handshake, and within a week you’d recorded a number one album. These days, you’re expected to turn up with a piece of pre-prepared audio. It probably wouldn’t hurt to supply the Cubans, too.
So, make your audio clear, loud: a well balanced mix, with tastefully chosen modern or retro sounds (see CRv), a tight, compelling arrangement and with at least one unique sound or surprise audio element. Look to Maroon 5 for inspiration.
But all of that means nothing without a good dose of fate or fortune (depending how you look at it).
Genius and Execution. That is, pulling ideas out of thin air – which requires some talent and a lot of luck. You can’t do much about luck, but you can exercise your skills by writing, writing, writing. Make time to write because the more you practice, the easier it flows. Write, write, write first, then edit.
Also, the best idea is not your first one, so maybe put that into a verse instead. Lastly, rest assured you can’t completely fail because the most unwanted song has already been made.
Star quality. Get a singer with that super lucky magic something. Again, it takes luck to find that special ingredient, definitely not money.
Marketing and Promotion. More luck to make sure your A&R rep doesn’t develop a coke habit and snort the profits of your first platinum CD (true story, it happened to a friend of a friend. Kind of).
Otherwise, Marketing and Promotion is all about the usual stuff as well as creating a buzz for yourself in the blogoshphere, on YouTube, Twitter, BBC 1, etc.
And that takes you full circle, only now you’ve got some rock and roll war wounds to draw upon for your next song – and, of course, show off at the pub.
* Disclaimer: as such, this does not guarantee chart success or unlimited groupies. For that, please deal directly with Alex Von Soos.
** ‘Cool’: target demographic.