Magician’s Rule #2 for Songwriters

Rabbit in hatby Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer

Most people know that a magician’s Rule Number One is, “Never tell the secret,” but did you know what Rule Number Two is?  Never perform the same trick twice for the same audience. This rule exists because, the second time around, the audience will no longer be  engaged by the magician’s patter and will be watching for the secret.  If the magician loses the element of surprise, he/she is unable to produce the “magic.”   Think about it.  If you’ve seen the magician pull a rabbit from her hat, the next time she presents her top hat, will you be looking in the hat?  No, you’ll be looking everywhere BUT her hat to figure out how she gets the rabbit in there.In my role as a producer, I look for a number of ways for songs to deliver  satisfaction and surprise.  The groove needs to FEEL good.  The music needs to SOUND good.  The instrumental elements should BALANCE themselves in their interchanges throughout a song’s trajectory.  But melodically, structurally, and thematically, I increasingly look to be SURPRISED.  We know that audiences are interested in being moved, but we must recognize that they have been over-saturated with songs.  To move listeners, you need to satisfy their desire for feel/sound/balance/comfort, but also provide enough unexpected content to keep them engaged.Thematically, songs that surprise us are not easy to find.  Here are a few songs I feel have surprising plot lines and developments:

  • Viva La Vida:  Coldplay (for it’s non-traditional theme)
  • The Walrus:  The Beatles (for its sheer innovation)
  • Umbrella: Rihanna (for its playful wording)

Each of these songs is successful partially because it delights and entertains [satisfies] and stands out as a unique and memorable work.   Each contains the element of surprise. As a writer, how do you arrive at surprise? What are your processes for interrupting your patterns in your writing? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read lyrics and poetry.
  • Read widely, not only in your own song-writing genre.
  • Co-write with new writers
  • Write with a specific artist in mind
  • Play games:  Decide on a specific and complex rhyme scheme before you start writing,  decide to use alliteration instead of a rhyme scheme, decide to use metaphors or hyperbole or any poetic device that you don’t ordinarily use.
  • Write in a different setting or with a different instrument—this might be gimmicky but it could shake you out of your patterns.
  • Take a meaningful family story and turn it into a narrative song.
  • Take your drafts of two songs that are not working well and combine them into one song.  See what happens.

More On Pants – Songwriting Gimmicks versus The Real Thing

by Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer

Most of us have noticed a recent trend in pants, namely so-called “low-rise jeans.”  These are pants cut so low as to reveal the upper inch or so of a person’s butt separation.   This style was derived from the sagging pants worn by urban youth and hip hop artists in the 1990s, and originally attributed to prison pants, where belts are prohibited.  I wonder if this trend is a new low in men’s fashion? Perhaps a cheeky new kind of feminism?   In my household [consisting of me and three women], they are called “plumber-butt or roadie pants.”

I’d like to draw a parallel in contemporary radio, namely Autotune, made popular first by Cher, Kanye West and T Pain.   Some have dubbed the phenomenom “Vocoder Pop,” although this isn’t an entirely accurate descriptor, since the sonic effect is created using pitch correction software, not the classic synth filtering technology that was made popular by Kraftwerk, ELO and the Cylons from 1970’s Battlestar Galactica.

Both these trends will come to an end.  I predict that in no less than fifteen years, when 2010 enters the “vintage” era [yes, kids, your favourite music will eventually be termed “retro”], we’ll be making fun of fads like these.  Movies will have a field day with low-rise jeans, with scenes underscored by vocoder pop songs.  They will be added to the growing laughingstock of ridiculed trends, like mullets, tamagotchis and wearing curlers to bed.

Art has a basic function, to entertain and enlighten, and, essentially, fads that fail this basic functionality test cannot sustain themselves.  Vocoder pop music meets about half of the requirements in the functionality department.  While it entertains for a short time [as much derivative, sensationalistic forms do], it fails to enlighten.  Beyond, “we all want to get laid,” what more does it say?  The writing is appallingly repetitive, the themes are monotone and the formula has become tired beyond belief [cut to Caribbean rapper].  While some listeners on the dance floor don’t care, we can see why this kind of music lacks appeal to writers concerned with craft and singers compelled by authenticity.

There are plenty of reasons why the Autotune trend has continued.  Producers need to deliver tracks that draw attention to their artists, and Autotune has been successful in launching a number of new artists while driving the careers of established ones.  Vocoder Pop is relatively cheap to produce, since the tracks are created entirely inside a computer workstation.  If writers get lazy and deliver mediocre songs, producers are sometimes obligated to use gimmicks to keep audiences listening.

This trend will pass, and songwriters should continue to focus on the real work of song writing.  Melody, harmony, thematic development, moving listeners through the linear journey of the song – these are the building blocks that never go out of vogue.  While gimmicks grab our attention for a short while, great songs make a profound cultural contribution.

So when you get up in the morning, put your pants on one leg at a time, and pull them up over the crack in your arse.  Then go to work and get song writing!

How good do you look in your jeans? – more on the craft of producing “hit records”

by Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer

Douglas Romanow
Douglas Romanow

I first started shopping master recordings to labels when I was about twenty-four years old, and admittedly, I was entirely new to the game.  I was so green, in fact, that I was surprised by the consistent question, “How old is the artist?”  I thought, “Pardon me Mr. A&R Man, but is it possible that, perhaps you’ve missed the point?!  Can you not hear how great this artist is?  Can’t you hear the quality of the performances, the arrangements, the [ahem] respectful and adventurous record production?  And even if you didn’t ‘get the music,’ your question seems somehow irrelevant, given that I just asked, ‘What do you think of the music?”

I felt that focusing on the age of the artist was a tad crass in light of the high art being presented.  It surely can’t be any great secret that artists and producers spend many months [in some cases, years] detailing every aspect of their recordings, from song lyrics to arrangements, from the mix to the song sequence.   It is also common knowledge, that music was/is one of life’s highest callings.  That we are here not simply to entertain or titillate, but to contribute to the betterment of the human experience, to move people to a greater sense of fun/joy/truth/catharthis.

What possible relevance could the artist’s age be?  Of course, what the label representatives are really asking is, are the artists attractive and young enough so that they can work the projects for a number of years and make enough money?  They need to make videos with great shots of their asses.  Sign them at 16, work them for a few years, and then drop them at 22 if the numbers don’t crunch for that fiscal quarter.   Nothing new, and no one should be surprised.

I know that the record business is struggling to sell music and ‘move units.’  And I have a solution.  Do you want to be a star?  Do you want tangible success in the music business?  Yes, you’ll need a good photo shoot and a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  Some old school print ads or posters can help.  A clean, professional EPK is important.  A great label/distributor/publicist/tracker team is invaluable.  But here’s the real solution:  Make the best damn music you can make.  And certainly, make it  better than the glossy-packaged dance/pop that is being rammed down the FM stations every day.  I call it Placeholder Music – bullshit, low-budget programmed tracks without imagination or thematic variation that is churned out quickly and cheaply to maintain control over the airspace until such time as a real artist shows up.  We have a dearth of real artists.  Become a real artist.

As a side note, you do look great in your jeans.  By this I mean that every artist I’ve ever worked with shines like the sun once they’ve delivered the performance of their lives.  On a basic and profound level, all artists are attractive/sexy/marketable when they do what they’re made to do and do it exceedingly well.   Awesome music sells itself.

The Formula for Producing a “Hit Record”

by Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer

Douglas Romanow
Douglas Romanow in his element.

Someone once told me that the formula for producing a ‘hit record’ was easy:  record a hit artist singing a hit song.   And really, it’s not any harder than that.  [Except that finding a “hit artist” with a “hit song” is perhaps not as easy as stated].  But I’d like to begin this blog by stating that after producing records for twenty years, I’ve discovered a textbook truth for myself:   no one really cares who the producer is, who the engineer is, who the drummer / bass player /guitar players are, where the track was recorded or who mixed / mastered it.  The record-buying public cares about one thing only:  that they feel something.  If one can bottle emotional impact, one can bottle the potential for hits.

Emotional impact is best conveyed through two primary elements:  composition and delivery.  Songs and Singers.  The rest of us are involved in facilitating the presentation of these elements to the world.  This Truth [that the song still rules, delivered by an emotionally empowered artist] has focused my approach to record production, where I push for clear emotional delivery, moving artists into their peak performance state.  Should we care about snare drums?  Yes.  Should we care about mix detailing?  Most definitely.  What about time-locked tremolos and reverse samples and vintage instruments?  You bet!  But how much should we care?  Personally, if I had to weight these production elements, I’d give them [a significant] 30%.  The other 70% belongs to  melody, text/subtext and vocal delivery.   This is where music producers can really shine, bringing out the best in each artist and connecting the emotional truth of each song to the listener.   I’ll spend the next few posts looking at “finding truth” for recording artists, from the perspective of composition and performance.