SEARCHING FOR SUBJECTS

There is nothing quite as deflating in songwriting as working for months on some song, writing, re-writing, tweaking it, getting critiques, playing it out, showing your family, and getting it PERFECT, and then going to a writers night, and hearing five to eight people do virtually the SAME SONG, with the same point of view, same rhymes, same message, similar melodies. Or sitting down with some industry pro, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, NSAI, publisher, private appointments, and having them calmly turn it off in the first verse, saying “Already heard this a thousand times, we have twenty of these in our catalogue, this was just a hit on the radio, or this is a really lame, overdone idea.”

How does that happen? Is it an International CONSPIRACY of people scanning our brains, and stealing our ideas? Is the Government behind this? Are we all gunie pigs in some evil conspiracy? The answer? NOPE. We just all write the same stuff.

We can’t help it. We are bombarded by information all day long every day. Talk show and news junkies like me see it in front of us endlessly. If you are emmersed in it all day, every day, you have a little better sense. If you are physically around other writers, artists, web sites, forums, music, you get a sense of it. But if you are kind of isolated, in your own corner of the world, or don’t spend a lot of time listening to others, you are going to run into it. Trust me. If you can think of it, with billions of people on this planet and 100 plus years of recorded music history, it has probably been done.

We can’t avoid that. But we can avoid running into the “topic of the moment”, the trends, subject matter that is out there all the time.
Here are a few “rules of thumb.”

TOPICAL ISSUE OF THE MOMENTS:
Right now, we are immersed in the Boston Marathon bombing. It is fresh on our minds, and overwhelming our television and computer screens. A few days ago we were in the “Govt. takeover of guns. Before that it was Sandy Hook, before that the elections, before that Katrina, 9-11, black helicopters, the economy (always a favorite), and whatever issue there is. Writers see that and write it. All the time.
And while that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clearly state your opinion on it, understand you are going to have a lot of company. You will hear them continuously and they overwhelm you. Most are very preachy, finger pointing, isolating, and not very good. Some are syrupy, built to pull on the heart strings. And most of those are not very good either.
Issues are a tough sell to the industry and artists because most alienate audiences. And no one wants to do that. Even well intentioned, witness the current Brad Paisley/LL Cool J “Accidental Rascist” controversy. Even though Brad had the best intentions, is a big star and is trying to do what everyone claims they want, have a dialogue, he has been pilloried in the press, with people standing up calling him naïve, stupid and LL COOL J an “Uncle Tom” for going along with it.
When it comes to controversial subjects, no matter how well intentioned, it reminds me of a saying my Father had. “No Good deed goes unpunished.”

ANGELS AND OTHER HEAVENLY BODIES.
We all feel (or a lot of us feel) like there is “someone up there” looking over us. Angels are a huge part of the culture, just like Devils, Heaven, Hell, God, Demons, etc. They are out there, real and imagined. Which lead a lot of songwriters to put them in songs. And they go in cycles. After 9-11, we went through a “collective group hug” in this country. Everyone wanted to believe in a higher power. So they started, and four about five years, they were everywhere. In television, movies, random phrases in the culture. And in songs. They were everywhere, particularly in country music. Concrete Angels, Ten Thousand Angels, Angels in the outfield, Devils and angels, man they were EVERYWHERE. Led Songwriting Guru, Ralph Murphy to declare at one point “The era of the ANGELS IS OVER!” To a packed NSAI event. To collective groans and gasps. To me,applause.
Again, it is not that you should or should not write them. Do what you feel drawn to. But understand the “other side of the desk” from a producer, label exect, publisher, who probably has a drawer full of them that personally THEY love but couldn’t get them cut with a thousand dollar bill attached. We’ve got plenty.

DRINKING, (MYBUDDIES JACK,JOHNNY, JIM BEAM, MILLER, BUD, ) WHATEVER.
While a LOT of these make it to the big time, (these artists are playing to a lot of weekends, parties, lakes, oceans, etc. where alcohol is VERY involved, again, they are something that everyone seems to do and they are VERY predictable. Of course, this is coming from a guy who had a major cut called “I’VE GOT TOO MUCH BLOOD IN MY ALCOHOL LEVEL.”, Of course, having taken 13 years from writing to having that one recorded, I know the difficulty involved with those types of songs. They better be VERY well written and VERY different than what is out there.
And you have to keep in mind things like “MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) the cultural pressures of an alcoholic aware public, that might be likely to suggest seminars from alcohol abuse.

This can also be said about the other side of the coin, the reformed alcoholic, substance abuser, etc. These can come off as preachy or self-serving, and have to be approached with their own sensibilities. You never want to preach in songs. And if you think about songs being played in bars, lakes and places that people are imbibing, they can very easily come off preachy and for someone into his third beer floating on a raft in the middle of a lake, the LAST thing they want to have is someone preaching at them. Approach with caution.

So much has to be discounted when you consider the songs that make the radio in these subjects are usually written with the artist or their inside teams. If you work yourself into those inside teams, you are in good shape. But you are going to have a LOT OF COMPANY in them.

So what do you do? I have no idea. Write what you want. But always keep an ear to what is going on OUT THERE. Listen to music, be around other writers. Find out what the pulse is. It helps to be around a town like Nashville where it is all over the place. But without that, attend the Internet, go to public songwriter related events. Immerse yourself in the craft. Might save you some embarrassment in one of those very rare publisher appointments.
You need every edge you can get.

MAB

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