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Casting :: Pitching Your Songs to A-list Singers

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


10 Ways to Get Your Songs Recorded

Now that you’ve got that great song written and demoed, it deserves to be recorded so you can start earning the compensation you so richly deserve. In the broad scheme of things, there are two ways to get your songs recorded. You either become your own publisher or sign a contract with a publisher in which the publisher finds users for your song, negotiates fees for their use, then collects the money and splits it with you on a 50/50 basis. The following are some ways that can take place with or without a publisher. Without a publisher, the negotiation and collection still has to take place but you hire a copyright administrator or an attorney with that expertise to do it for you. You just take on the task of “selling” the song and experiencing the rejection yourself. Here are some strategies:

1. Find a Music Publisher to represent your songs.
If you have no inclination to be on the phones making cold calls and researching recording, TV and film projects and negotiating deals and you have no existing contacts in the industry you’ll want to go this route. If you have internet access, search the data-bases of ascap.com, bmi.com, sesac.com, in the U.S.A. or the performing rights organization in your country . Search for song titles and writers in your style and find out who publishes them. Call for permission to submit your songs. There are also other resources for the names of publishers. Go to your library, find Billboard Magazine, look up songs on the Hot 100, R&B or Country charts in the style of your songs and see the accompanying list of publishers. You may also be able to also get referrals from your performing rights representative if your songs are exceptionally good.

2. Pitch songs directly to recording artists.
If there are artists you truly believe should record your song (Not “they’d really sound great singing it”) and it fits their image, attitudes, style, vocal range, go after them in any way you can. If they’re playing in your town, try to get back stage or run into them in the hotel lobby. Tell them you have a song you feel is right for them and ask if it’s all right to give it to them. Often, to protect them from future lawsuits, their attorneys will have advised them not to accept tapes. In that case, ask if you may present it to their manager or record company A&R (Artist and Repertoire) representative. (See also: Casting)

3. Have an entertainment attorney submit your tapes.
Entertainment attorneys have industry contacts and if they feel your songs merit referral, they’ll shop them for their usual fee (roughly $100-$300 per hour) or may do it on spec. Not all attorneys will shop tapes, however.

4. Submit your songs or music into film, TV, production music libraries or multimedia productions.
There are increasing opportunities in these industries for not only songwriters but for composers of instrumental music who have master-quality recordings. Start your research in the phone book and ask the companies if they use original music in their productions. Some will use music from production music libraries or services that supply prerecorded music to film and video productions. Ask them for the names and phone numbers of those whose services they use and follow up to submit your music. If they like what they hear they’ll usually do a contract exclusively for visual use which means you’ll still be free to use it on your own audio recordings. You’ll be paid as the music is used and you’ll also receive royalties through your performing rights organization, after your music appears on television. How much you’ll receive depends on a variety of factors including the terms of your contract.

5. Offer a percent of the income from publishing royalties to anyone associated with the artist.
This time-honored sales incentive can work if those contacts aren’t prevented by their employers from participating in that type of transaction. Contacts may include, limo drivers, hairdressers, road managers, touring musicians and crew, recording engineers, relatives. How much? 5-10% of the publishing half of the song’s “mechanical” income (from sales of CDs and tapes). Only offer the percentage of income from that specific recording. Do not offer the percentage of ownership of the copyright, which will last the life of the copyright and include income from other recordings of the song.

6. Produce an artist/band and write for or with them.
If you have developed some production skills and have access to a good studio, find an exceptional local group with a great singer or singers and write for them, creating a style with the songs you write for or with them. The Glen Ballard /Alanis Morrisette collaboration is a good example of this strategy. Shop the masters to record companies.

7. Be your own artist, produce your own CD and sell it at your gigs.
This is a good route if you have a working band with a following, a database of fan addresses and somebody in the band with a good business head. (Read How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording by Diane Rapaport and Tim Sweeney’s Guide to Releasing Independent Records)

8. Find a local group to write with.
If you’re a good lyricist, whether or not you can write melodies, find a group with a great lead singer and write with him or her. That way, the singer can infuse the song with an individual style and also be motivated by participation in the writing royalties.

9. Submit songs via a respected service organization.
The best one I know is TAXI, an innovative tip-sheet/independent A&R service. Members, world-wide, receive listings every two weeks by major and independent labels, film music supervisors and publishers looking for writers, writer/artists, bands. All submissions are pre-screened and critiqued by industry pros. All styles including instrumentals.

Another service worth looking into is SongCatalog.com where, for a fee, you can post your songs online and, by way of entering specific search criteria, potential users can find your song and contact you or your publisher.

10. Attend seminars and meetings of songwriting and music industry organizations.
These events and organizations invite record company representatives, music publishers, record producers and managers to speak and screen songs at their meetings. You can meet them and hopefully begin to form ongoing relationships with them and continue to submit songs.

This is an updated version of an article that was written for Canadian Musician Magazine.