Casting: The Right Song For The Right Artist
“Kelly (or Josh, Faith, etc.) could sing this song really great!” This statement, and the ignorance behind it, has been the cause of countless unnecessary rejections of songs. Though it’s certainly not the only cause, it ranks right up there with poorly crafted songs. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s say both the demo and song are excellent. But is it appropriate? It’s not a question of whether they could do it. They could make bus schedule sound good. But from the artist’s point of view it’s about whether they need to record your song.
If you’re writing for yourself in a band or solo artist context and don’t think this information applies to you, don’t stop reading just yet. The history of pop music is filled with songs written by self-contained artists who had no idea their songs could be recorded by other artists. After all, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) probably never would have dreamed that Johnny Cash would cover “Hurt.” Cash covered it because he said it was “the best anti-drug song he ever heard.” Someone had the skills to recognize that those songs were right for those other artists. Wouldn’t it be better to develop these skills yourself rather than reward skillful publishers/managers with a substantial percentage of your income for it?
The skill is called “casting,” knowing which song is appropriate for which artist.
First, there’s a process of elimination. Forget about artists who write their own songs. Not that they wouldn’t ever record a song they didn’t write, but generally speaking, they’re not motivated financially to record “outside” songs (written by someone other than themselves or their producer). With substantial royalties for sales and airplay on a hit, they’d rather fill their CDs with their own songs, for better or worse. Sometimes worse. Record buyers are getting tired of buying an album with only two or three good songs on it. Though “good” is certainly in the ear of the beholder, things are changing now that single tracks can be bought online.
Who Not To Pitch To-Playing the Odds
If you’re playing the odds, you’ll leave self-contained artists until last. First, you’ll read the Billboard magazine charts to find those artists who record outside songs. How can you tell? You look at the “Hot 100” chart and your favorite genre singles chart: “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs,” “Hot Country Songs” or “Hot Latin Songs.” (The other charts don’t list writers.) You look to the left under the name of the song, and the first name is the producer’s, the second (in parentheses) is the name(s) of the songwriter(s). If the same name is in both places, the producer is the writer. Then, if you see, in the column to the right, that the artist’s name is the same as the writer, you know the odds are bad. You may have a hard time telling who wrote the songs when the artist is a group (although if there are four or more writers listed, you can often assume the group did or they’re using samples of other songs). Check it out by going online to their record companies and look up the artists’ bios. If they wrote the songs they’ll want everybody to know it.
You’ll end up with a list of about 25 percent of the hits on the “Hot 100” on which the artist sings an outside song. About 2/3 of those will be Country. On the “Hot Country” chart about 60-70 percent are outside songs. Check the charts periodically. Record “countdown” radio or cable TV shows (MTV, VH1, BMT, CMT) of current hits so you can listen more than once and analyze them without having to stay tuned all day (Or just go to i-tunes or Amazon.com and buy a few.) Keep your Billboard handy for reference. If you’re an Internet user you can go to Web radio sites like Live365 and pick your genre. Last time I looked there were more than two hundred country Web radio stations playing country songs, and those are divided into subgenres.
Doing the Research
A critical step in casting is to get all the information possible about the artist to save yourself the embarrassment of pitching something totally wrong. Your best move is to buy the CDs of any artist in your style who records outside songs. Listen to each cut on the album with special emphasis on the successful singles and determine the following:
- Style. If it’s rock, is it influenced by pop, blues, funk, punk, metal, or world music? If country, is it on the rock, traditional, pop, or Texas swing side? You may find different influences in different songs on any given CD, but they’ll give you some boundaries of style.
- Are there any songs the artist did write? Pay particular attention to the style of these. Also try to determine the common factors of the outside songs. Chances are, the artist or producer had some input into those choices.
- Lyric message. The shaping of an artist’s image is based largely on their personal philosophies and attitudes about life and love, how they handle disappointments, etc. Those attitudes show up in their song lyrics regardless of who writes them. Read or listen to the lyric of each song and answer the following:
a. Is the lyric positive or negative, up or down? Do the down songs show some hope in the end? Are the songs in first, second, or third person? Are they about winners or losers?
b. Does the lyric have a payoff, a final “moral”? Is it based on a high concept such as Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” (written by Craig Nichols and Tim Wiseman) or is it just a straight ahead love song?
c. Is the artist young, naive, inexperienced, hopeful, or more mature, experienced, a little world-weary, sexy? A song I once heard pitched for a former Gospel artist looking for secular songs was a sex-oriented song that would have worked great for almost anyone but an artist, who didn’t want to lose his Gospel following altogether. You’d know this if you’d read some interviews with the artist. I heard a song that was pitched for an established country star but it was about how he had to return to his little town in defeat because he had not attained his dream of stardom. Remember that a successful artist is singing your song and needs to believe the lyric, and that it has to reflect the artist’s self-image and personal story. Songs that say, “I’m a terrible human being” don’t work unless maybe you’re apologizing to someone you’ve done wrong. Remember the prime audience for country is 25- to 40-year-old women (and they love to hear a man apologize).
- Lyrics as vocal platforms. In addition to vocal range, you need to consider whether your lyric allows the artist room to sing. When I see a lyric sheet literally covered with lyric, and hear the words sung so tightly that there’s no space for the singer to style the song in his own unique way, I know it’s going in the reject pile. Great singers love to hold notes (particularly vowels at the ends of lines) and play with them, embellishing the melody. It may be a wonderful story and brilliant lyric but so much a product of your own unique style that it won’t work in their style. A group like Third Eye Blind, for instance, writes unique songs that other artists would have difficulty covering without sounding like them.
- Who is the artist’s audience? Pre-teens and early teens are fans of bright, young pop artists who quickly outgrow the style at the same quick rate as their audience. Listeners in their mid-to-late teens generally become more genre-specific (rock, pop, alternative, rap, hip-hop, or country) and tend to fragment along those styles. You’ll need to gear your song and demo to that style or recognize whether or not you write in that style or for that audience.
- Vocal range. Listen to the song with the highest and lowest notes and you’ve got the range. Does the artist have a wide vocal range like Celine Dion or Kelly Clarkson, or Josh Groban? Odds are they’ll choose a song that will show it off. If the artist has a limited range, a two-octave stretch won’t work. Also, look for a place in the artist’s range that she favors because there may be a unique quality or timbre there. It’s been referred to as a “sweet spot.” Make sure the song allows them to use that spot.
- Structure. Do the artist’s successful songs use a repeated chorus, pre-chorus sections, or classic AABA (verse-verse-bridge-verse a la “Yesterday”)? AABA structures are rarely recorded, except by self-contained artists. It’s easier for a listener to learn a song with a repeating chorus, so verse/chorus songs are seen as being more commercial.
Along with analyzing the song, collect articles about and interviews with the artist from fanzines, trade magazines, and the artist’s personal and fan Web sites. You can find some great clues to the artist’s image and values. Don’t send a recovering alcoholic or drug addict your song about the bottle being your best friend. But the song about getting your life together might work. It may help to know that the artist is a parent, donates money to organizations that help kids, just got divorced, is a womanizer, feels women deserve more respect, feels women should stay at home, is a born-again Christian, etc.
Another level of casting expertise involves projecting, based on past success and artist image, where you feel the artist could go. This is a common strategy of writer/producer/arrangers and publishers who can conjure a vision of the artist’s next step and, in the process, become the artist’s producer, at least on the producer’s own songs. This requires a thorough knowledge of the artist and, in the best case, the ability to produce tracks that would provide the artist with a fresh sound. There is a point in a very successful career where an artist looks for a stretch away from the too familiar and into adventureland. You can either anticipate that move or help to create it.
Regardless of all the homework you do on an artist, you can still strike out, though the odds will be considerably better if you’ve done the research. A major benefit is that you now have a great frame of reference when you talk to the manager, record company A&R representative for the artist, or the new producer who may be taking the artist in a different direction. In my experience, those people speak to and listen to demos from so many writers who are clueless about their artists that they welcome a conversation with someone who knows what makes their artist special. It also gives you a level of confidence in that call or meeting that communicates that you should be taken seriously.