You’re primarily a live performer who is used to getting an enthusiastic response from an audience. You think, “I’m ready to do a CD of my songs and see if I can get a record deal” (or publishing deal, manager, film and TV placement, good reviews, better gigs, etc.).
So you save up your cash and record those songs – the ones they love with the arrangements they love in the clubs. Then you start sending them out and get comments like:
- “I like your style but you need better songs”
- “Good singer but I don’t hear any hits”
- “I suggest you find better songs”
- “Nothing here of interest but let me know when you have some more songs.”
You can’t believe it! Your audiences love these songs. They even request them. After all, aren’t these the people who’re gonna buy your records anyway?
Why can’t these so-called “music professionals” hear how great these songs are?
Welcome To The Live Vs. Recording Disconnect
Your audience will almost always respond to a high-energy, enthusiastic performance, a heartfelt delivery, and to a performer with conviction and personal charisma, especially if you’ve spent some time honing your live-performance skills.
But the positive response a writer/artist/band gets from a live performance can be very misleading when he/she/they don’t separate the PERFORMANCE from the SONG.
As a writer/performer, you may take your excellent performing ability for granted. Chances are, though, that you’re connected to your songs in a much more personal way. So the songs, in your mind, take the focus and you assume that people are applauding the songs rather than the performance.
When people go to a club and pay a $10 cover charge and another $20 or more on drinks and food, they’re willing to go more than halfway to be entertained.
If you’re a performer with the qualities mentioned above, you may easily satisfy that customer. But when you take those same songs on a demo to a hard-nosed publisher or a record company A&R rep who’s separating the performance from the song and looking for a hit, it’s a whole new situation. Since they can’t SEE your performance or be moved by your charisma, and aren’t communicated to via facial expressions and body language, the song has to stand on its own.
A lot of music works in clubs that would never work as a hit single. A ten-minute vamp will work for a dancing crowd and a ten-minute guitar or drum solo can bring a club or concert crowd to a frenzy, but put it on the radio and even the same person who loved it in concert may change the station. What about jam bands like the Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic who sell tons of records of their performances?
The fact is that most of their CDs are sold to those concert-goers who relive the concert experience through the recording, not because the group has a hit single.
An interesting side note is that when Dave Matthews got together with hit producer Glen Ballard to write the “Everyday” album, (and that hit single) he had to learn a whole new process for writing songs. At some point in the process, they had to map out the songs to insure the tightness and maximum dynamics of the structures for radio as opposed to letting the songs develop organically in live performance.
Also, solos had to be restricted in the arrangements to a few choice bars of what, in live performance, could take several minutes.
Unless you’re a jam band with a mega following, a music industry pro must rely on the million-dollar gamble that someone who has never seen you perform live will be captivated by the song and performance of the recording on the radio.
“But,” you say, “I’m not looking for a hit record. I’m just trying to sell my own records and give people who buy them a great experience. What do I need to know that will make my recorded songs better?” There are several factors that are much more important on record than they are live:
Producers often complain that the biggest problem in producing artists and bands who have created their songs for a live performance context, is that the songs often need to be re-structured.
Structure is one of the major tools in “selling” a song to an audience (and the music industry).
In live performance, it’s important to generate energy, particularly for bands. So in the effort to keep the performance amped up, there’s a natural tendency to set up a great groove and just lean on it instead of going into a couple of new sections to break it up. You can also do a long instrumental section and stretch that song to ten minutes, (something we’d frequently do in bands when we didn’t have enough material).On a recording, the visual aspect of the band or the vibe of a roomful of people isn’t there to enhance the experience, so the predictability/surprise, tension/release dynamic has to be there instead.
A verse/chorus, verse/chorus setup gives us the predictability factor, then the surprise element of a totally different bridge, then back home to a chorus and out – is a time-tested structure that, given enough contrast in each section, will almost hold an audience’s attention by itself. There are lots of effective structures.
Find more at my website.
A totally different melody, chord changes, groove and lyric meter in your chorus than your verse are powerful attention-getters whether live or on CD.
More subtle contrasts like a different rhyme scheme in the chorus will work better on CD than live. That great, dynamic 2-bar phrase or 4-bar pre-chorus that telegraphs the arrival of the chorus will not only work on CD but bring a live audience to its feet. But unless you think of making it part of your song when you write it, you’ll never know what it COULD do if written differently.
Chances are that you’ll still be able to get by (and please your crowd live) with all the other attributes you’ve got going for you but it won’t work nearly as well on the CD.
Read my chapter on dynamics.
In a club, particularly with rock bands, (because rock bands work largely with intensity, energy and attitude) we rarely hear all or any of the words.
On a CD, we may hear all, or most of them. And if they’re not only saying something, but saying it well, it ceases to fulfill its potential as a factor that captivates and delights us.
In a club, we’re “spoken to” with body language and facial gestures, and what we “think” they’re saying may work fine or we’ll pick up a catch-phrase that we can hook a meaning on for ourselves. We’re captivated by lights and sounds, but if we hear a song for the first time with those stripped away, we need to have a lyric that works by itself.