Canadian Music Week wrapped up last Saturday with a special SAC Words and Music Demo Listening Session at the Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre. I have attended a few Date With A Demo sessions before, but this was by far and away the best yet, for a couple of reasons.
First, the 23 songs auditioned by the panel during the two-hour session were, as a group, of much higher quality than I had seen at any SAC session before; and second, because the panelists themselves, drawn from different sectors of the industry that are all relevant to aspiring songwriters, gave such precise prescriptions for making good songs great.
Moderated by SAC’s own Ania Ziemirska, the panel included Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Melanie Doane; radio promotion and music director Andrea Morris; Juno Award-winning producer Gavin Brown; and internationally acclaimed producer-songwriter Brett Rosenberg. As Brown said, their job was to provide analysis, not criticism. For those who were unable to attend, here’s a distillation of their advice, in no particular order.
General production advice
- Keep intros short. This was hammered home many times during the session. Listeners will give an unknown song about 40 seconds, at most a minute, before moving on to something else. This is particularly true for radio programmers, who need to be grabbed immediately. No one will get to hear a great bridge if they’re not hooked by the first verse and chorus.
- A demo produced for other people to sing should sound like a finished hit. Try not to allow the production to sound dated. However, a very simple demo, such as piano and voice, may allow a creative producer to imagine the song as it might be produced for different genres.
- Leave room at the beginning to build up excitement as the song progresses. A song that doesn’t change much from beginning to end will tend to sound boring. Make it quieter and louder, not just loud the whole time.
- Ensure that the low end isn’t muddy. Roll off the low frequencies in the mix and see if that improves the song.
- If singing from a first person singular point-of-view, maybe it’s best not to have multiple voices harmonizing on the word “I” when it comes around.
- Make sure the lyrics are always clear. Don’t bury the vocal in the mix.
- Ensure that the singer’s point-of-view is clear and unambiguous. Be careful not to slip from a first person (“I”) to a second person (“you”) or a third person (“she”) point of view as the lyrics unfold, unless the story demands it.
- Above all, make sure the message is clear. A song is a vehicle for communicating. If a line isn’t communicating anything or isn’t amazing, it shouldn’t be in the song. The re-writing process is tremendously important. As the panel pointed out, prose writers rewrite constantly and have editors who help them revisit the text many times.
- Look at the building blocks of the song and ask what emotion is in each part. Make sure the different blocks don’t contradict each other.
- Avoid clichés. Don’t sing what you wouldn’t say. Extend the lyric to its logical conclusion and make sure you haven’t left anything important unsaid.
- Always avoid awkward lyrics. If a line sounds weird or stilted when spoken out loud, then consider recasting it for the song.
- Lyrically, something has to happen more than once, or else you’re writing a poem. If working with an extended metaphor, try to milk every association out of it, and make the whole song relate to that one thing.
Verse and chorus
- Work on the melody. Then work some more. Don’t just sing over the chords. Try singing different notes of the triads or scale. Make the melody memorable.
- Work on different melodic elements in the music track and the vocal so that they are different but complementary, rather than parallel and similar. For example, the guitar or piano should not be playing the melody in unison with the voice.
- The title should be the hook. Make sure the song title is clearly stated, perhaps as the last line of the chorus. If you can’t fit it in naturally, then add a beat or two to let it fit. Or if that doesn’t work and it doesn’t fit in the lead vocal more than once, then try to have it sung in the backing vocals.
- Don’t take too long to get to the chorus. The lift or pre-chorus should be followed immediately by the chorus without being repeated.
- The chorus should be set up convincingly—most often it is set up on the fifth or dominant chord. A chorus should be awesome. Make it soaring, triumphant. If a chorus doesn’t sound triumphant, then keep trying. Experiment with big interval jumps. Big intervals are exciting.
- Differentiate between the chords in the verse and the chorus.
- Take care not to go to half-time or drop beats in the chorus.
- Don’t let the drummer play over the payoff or the song’s title line in the chorus.
- Scream it and mean it.
Writing for radio
- If you’re going to write songs for radio, make sure the song fits the conventions of radio. Listen to the radio, and figure out what stations and formats you’re targeting—even if not every song you write is intended for radio. If you’re new, you can’t start out by doing your own thing—you need to have already established your identity as an artist to pull that off.
- If sound effects are absolutely essential to the song, then keep them for the album version and provide a stripped down remix for radio play, especially if the effects are at the beginning of the song.
- Beware of using sexually-tinged lyrics; even a word as innocuous as “virgin” may limit a song’s potential for radio play.
- Jump into the lyric right out of the gate and make the intro short. A radio programmers’ music meeting is not likely to listen past the first minute of your song, if that.
The quality of the songs was truly impressive. Due to time constraints, only the first verse and chorus of each song was played, but on several occasions, the panelists expressed a desire to hear more of a song. A few songs even elicited spontaneous applause from the audience: Kat Leonard’s witty, off-the-wall I’m My Own Asshole; David Keeble’s liberating, stripped down demo Maybe Freedom; Steve Onotera’s The Field of White with melodic acoustic guitar accompaniment; and—illustrating a soaring, triumphant chorus—Catherine Bacque’s Stand.
Moderator Ania Ziemirska laboured valiantly through a lingering cold to keep panelists on track and play as many songs as possible, skipping songs if the writer was not present. Noting that some of the other CMW sessions were running late, she graciously returned to songs that were skipped, after the writers were able to join the session.
Speaking with the participants after the wrap-up, I can say that most were deeply appreciative of the depth and originality of the advice offered by the panelists, and the gentle candour with which they analyzed each song. There were no bruised egos in evidence, but more than once I heard a writer say, “That was great—now where do we go from here with our songs?” From that, it’s clear that most found this version of Date With A Demo to be both motivating and inspiring. Given the other sessions that were on offer at the CMW Songwriters Summit, like How Artists Are Being Discovered and Publishing 101, SAC’s Demo Listening session provided an excellent springboard for writers to move forward with their songs.
Alan Hardiman produces music and provides sound design for large scale events and exhibits, feature films, television, and live theatre. For more info: www.abcbuzz.com