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The Journey of a Hit

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Read Time: 9 min

When a hit song 'happens', the 'arrival' tends to appear sudden and expected. A songwriter with a recent stack of hits gleaming under his or her belt might well prove this true. However, there is another twisting, turning route that a song often follows, and it has no guarantee of arrival whatsoever! Here are ten, sometimes agonizing milestones along that journey.

1. The Creation

It has often been said that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I personally would give inspiration a little more credit. A songwriter can boost his creativity by keeping his ears and eyes open to the subtle cues that the universe seems to send to the creative folk. Keeping a book of hooks and ideas is a good idea. Keeping it close by at all times is even better because an idea often strikes in the wee hours and gets forgotten by dawn if not recorded. 

Snatches of melody seem to appear out of nowhere sometimes, and vanish just as easily. A recording app on your phone comes in handy for these times. I have another pre-iPhone method where I write down the words, mark the downbeats, and notate the notes and chords numerically. It served me well for many a year!

There are hooks and melodies floating around out there that are so good, they practically write themselves. For a song to advance in its journey, it needs to stick out from the crowd. Don't settle. Dig deeply for the really good stuff and then advance to Milestone #2.

2. The Worktape

You and any co-writers are now satisfied with your masterpiece, but need to put it into listenable form. Even if you are perfectly capable of rendering it live for the powers that be, it is a good idea to record and listen through the song several times. Things like a lack of breathing spots will surface this way, plus the song won't be partially forgotten. 

After making any necessary tweaks, it is time to run the song by your publisher or some other respected opinion. Some publishers get very involved, and seem to feel the need to make changes whether or not they are indicated. Others are very insightful and can spot a flaw that you simply couldn't see. 

We know what we mean, but oftentimes we end up confusing the listener. Now and then a song is too rangy and might scare off potential artists. Songs have been known to offend people, too. A publisher seeks to limit the reasons why a song in his catalog fails to get cut. 

Don't give them a reason not to cut it", one of my publishers was fond of saying.

If it is decided that the song is worthy of moving forward, advance to Milestone #3.

3. The Demo

When a publisher makes a decision to demo a song, he is investing in his belief that he can generate income from the song. If you are your own publisher, your own wallet is being tapped, so be careful not to fool yourself. 

A demo being pitched to an artist or A and R staffer needs to be of higher caliber than a demo being pitched to a publisher for the purpose of getting a staff writing deal. That being said, many a song has gotten cut from a simple studio guitar or piano vocal that was well rendered and simply but properly recorded. 

Staff writers book studio time, usually a three hour block and cut as many as five songs at once during a live session. Some smaller studios build from the ground up. This is a less expensive option where the engineer is usually the guitar player, the drum and bass programmer, and the studio owner. I have cut some excellent demos in such a setting. 

When you have a good mix with an up front vocal and a typed up lyric sheet, advance to Milestone #4.

4. The Pitching

Once a demo is completed, it is turned into the writer's publisher and songplugging staff. If the writer does not have a staff deal, he has to either hire an independent songplugger or wear the pitching hat himself. 

Nashville has several excellent pitch sheets available to learn what artists and labels are looking for and for whom. The best known is and it is available for a yearly fee.  Even writers lucky enough to have others pitching their material should still do some pitching on their own. Nobody will have more enthusiasm for your creations than you, the parent, will!

Songs can be pitched to artists, A and R staffs at record labels, producers, managers, agents, band members, etc. The hairdresser route just might make you look a little desperate. Kris Kristofferson used a helicopter when approaching Johnny Cash and it worked out nicely for him! 

Live meetings are better than drop-offs, but you do what you can do. Always present your song or songs on CD with a typed label and lyric sheet. Indicate the artist to whom you are pitching the song. Professionalism is everything when you are dealing with professionals. I can assure you that cassettes with pencilled labels will be chucked straight into file 13!

Live meetings are usually brief, so don't bring more than three or four songs and one speaks even louder. Don't profess your song's attributes. The song needs to speak for itself. Keep your fingers crossed and hope to advance to Milestone #5.

5. The Hold

Nashville has an exasperating habit of putting songs on hold. It is a good thing because it can propel a song forward. It is a bad thing because it ties up a song for a decent period of time, and usually results in absolutely nothing. Many a town meeting has explored better solutions. 

Most labels do not even offer a small stipend for holding a song. A song that is cutting edge might no longer be fresh when it is dropped after a two month hold. I have my own hold horror stories to tell, as do most staff writers. 

When a song is put on hold, it is understood that it will not be pitched to anyone else for a certain period of time. This is supposed to give the label the opportunity to show the song to the artist and other powers that be. Frequently, the song is simply in a slush pile while the person that placed the hold narrows down their preferences. 

I am certain the songs are sometimes put on hold just to make the writer or songplugger feel good, only to be immediately forgotten. I have heard of as many as 200 songs being put on hold for a 10 song CD! Lots of disappointed writers walk around Music Row on any given week.

The process is deemed a necessary evil at this point in time, and when the fates point in a favorable direction, the process works. Many record label staff members will listen to the recommended song. Finally the producer and artist will hear it, if it continues to be propelled up the ladder. When there is a consensus, the song joyously advances to Milestone #6.

6. The Cut

The number of songs that receive the full recording treatment for a given album is probably in the neighborhood of twenty. It is an expensive process, so there is limited excess. 

Sorry to say, many songs get cut but do not end up in record stores. My husband had such an experience on a Faith Hill album. The song was not only cut, but performed in concert for six months before being bumped from the album. Ouch!

There are many meetings at the record label to determine the final group of songs on an album. There needs to be sufficient variety and at least three singles. I would advise caution in getting too celebratory until the very final pressing. As the saying goes:

It ain't final till it sees vinyl.

Take a deep breath and hopefully advance to Milestone #7.

7. The Single

More meetings upon meetings determine which cuts will become radio singles. This is often determined a little at a time, based on how the record is doing on the charts. 

A strong album might yield as many as five singles. Naturally these are coveted slots, because they generate airplay revenue in addition to record sales. A lot of street credit comes with having a single on the charts as well. Back to back single ballads are not likely. A first single on a new artist is sometimes a sacrificial lamb. Pacing heavily comes into play. 

Even seasons of the year can determine singles. Alan Jackson's hit "Chattahoochee" was certainly a summer release. At any rate, if you get to hear the sweet words that your song will be a single, advance to Milestone #8.

8. The Promotion

A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes on the promotion of a radio single. Promotional packages are sent out to radio programmers while phone and live interviews happen at radio stations all over the country. 

This step can literally make or break a single. Many an excellent songs dies at #100 because the label chose not to invest much in the way of promotion money. A friend of mine once lamented to me that her song was at #80 with an anchor! 

Assuming your song is responding well to promotion and flying down the charts with a bullet, advance to Milestone #9.

9. The Video

Videos are considered to be a promotional tool and do not directly benefit the songwriter. Indirectly however, they give a song a lot of additional exposure and like any other marketing campaign help to increase revenue. 

Not every single has a video, but in country music, the majority of them do. As a viewer, videos have both ruined songs for me and made them far more endearing than they would otherwise have been. The presence of a celebrity  actor or actress in a video can bring in a whole new following. 

Here's hoping an award-winning video propels you and your song to Milestone #10.

10. Arrival at #1

A song certainly does not have to go to Number One in order to be considered a hit. Anywhere in the top ten is a major coup. Sit back and bask in the glory of the tremendous odds you have beaten. Appreciate all the many people involved in the journey of your song. Attend your number one party and soak it all in. Lightning may or may not strike twice! 

If I have made it sound next to impossible to achieve a hit, think again. I myself have never had a number one song, but I know so many songwriters with journeys much like mine who have. Every step you take in the advancement of your songwriting career increases your odds a thousand fold. By the time I scored my first staff writing deal, my odds of a hit were very high and I very nearly got one my first year. With steady progress, it is not that impossible at all!

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