The Realities of Radioplay

by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2000
Writing from the Listener's Point of View:

You have just written an incredible song!! You have worked hard on it. Everyone who has heard the demo (mostly your family and friends) thinks it is a "hit waiting to happen." You are convinced that your song is as good as or better than most of the songs you hear on the radio. So what is the secret to getting your song played?

Experienced songwriters and artists know that getting radioplay can be an extremely dicey deal. There are several realities -- both from the creative side and the business side of songwriting -- that must be understood before you and your song become "household names."

The first reality is simply that the radio is not primarily about songs -- it is about listeners!! While music and songs may be essential ingredients of radio programming, the primary focus of radio stations is to reach and keep listeners. Competition among stations these days is fierce, and program directors literally lose sleep trying to come up with new ways to attract listeners and then keep them from changing channels. Ratings are all about numbers of listeners, and stations with the most listeners lure the best and highest paying advertisers. The bottom line with radio -- as with any business -- is consumers. Songs and music, therefore, become the means to the end -- the way the station can increase its power and ultimately its income.

In the light of this reality, you -- the songwriter -- have a task before you. Your mission (if you choose to accept it) is not simply to write a song that expresses your own emotions in music but rather, to write a song that will actually communicate to the hearts and minds of millions of listeners. The goal of every songwriter should be that when their song is played, those who hear it will say in their hearts -- or to their friends -- "That song is me! It expresses exactly what I feel!"

How do you do that? The answer is simple...but not easy. You must learn to think and write from the listener's perspective. Resist the urge to write only for the incredible rush of venting emotions through a song, or to see how many inventive chord progressions you can put together to impress your musical colleagues. While these experiences may be personally satisfying to you as a writer or a performer, they may not even begin to appeal to John Q. Listener who knows nothing about music except whether or not he likes a song. And -- remember -- it is the millions of John Q. Listeners that the radio is trying to capture. To get a song on the radio, you need to determine what radio audiences like and then write songs that "hook" them.

How do you learn to think like a listener? First of all, you have to listen! Listen to all kinds of radio. I recommend that you have every button on your car radio set to a different genre of music. Pay attention to which songs are getting the heaviest airplay on which stations. If a station has a Request and Dedication Program at night, pay special attention to the songs the listening audience requests. Keep a log for a month and see which songs are requested most. Then analyze those songs. It is really not that important for this exercise whether or not they appeal to your personal musical taste. If a song is selling millions of copies, there will be something about it that you can learn from. Ask yourself:
What is it about this song that "hooks" people?
What lyrical techniques capture the listener's ear?
What melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements in this song appeal to listeners?
What universal emotions are being expressed?
A second way to begin thinking and writing from the listener's perspective is to train yourself to objectively examine your own songs from the audience's viewpoint. As a writer, your task is to craft a song so skillfully that the listener will immediately "get the point" of the song. As you write both the words and the music, keep asking yourself if there are enough musical and lyrical clues to bring the listener to that Eureka Moment that comes with actually understanding the emotions that you, the writer, have been trying to communicate. Be objective. Remember that your listener may be hearing your song for the first and only time. Deliberate carefully over every note and word so that each is doing its part to help the listener arrive at the emotional payoff of the song. One hit songwriter has very wisely said, "If we expect a listener to give us 3-4 minutes of his undivided attention, we certainly should be willing to at least give the song 3-4 months of careful tweaking to make it the best it can be."

Thirdly, after you have polished and honed your song to the very best of your ability, make a simple demo of it. It doesn't have to be a full production -- just something you can listen to again and again and again -- in your car, in your headset or on your stereo at home. As you listen to the demo, consider every musical and lyrical nuance. Imagine that you are a listener tuning into a station that is playing your song. Would you stay tuned? Be honest. If the answer is, "No," it is time to go back to the drawing board and do some re-writing.

The fourth and last way to think like a listener is simply to let lots of other people listen to your song. Don't just approach people who will tell you what you want to hear. Go to some "non-partisan" critics who will give you dead-on honest opinions. They don't have to be music professionals -- on the contrary, it is much better if they aren't. Remember, you are going for John Q. Listener's opinion -- the people with little to no music training that give radio their ratings. One songwriter I correspond with was so eager to have her songs critiqued honestly that she took her demo and a tape recorder to the mall, stopped a hundred people and asked them to fill out a questionnaire that would provide her with feedback on her song. That's the kind of spirit it takes to begin thinking like a listener.

Lest you think I am making too much of an issue out of this matter...consider the phenomenal success of the Dixie Chicks. They are a Dallas-based girls group that were active in our community for years before they became the international stars they are today. In Dallas music circles the Chicks were almost a joke at times -- they were known for being willing to sing anywhere. They literally started out on street corners in the West End of Dallas. They performed at birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, big gigs, small gigs -- it didn't matter. When the event was so low profile that no one else would consider performing, you could bet that the Dixie Chicks would be there. And therein was their genius! They learned to hone their music and their style to what listeners wanted to hear. They studied their audiences and they learned how to communicate with them. When they finally got their shot at a record deal, the Chicks were ready -- and everything since has turned to gold for them. Radio loves them because listeners love them, and they NEVER have trouble getting radioplay.

It's a matter of perspective. Learn to write songs that communicate to millions of listeners and your songs will find a way to radio ... I guarantee it!

Come back next time and we will explore the Mystery of the Listener's Mind.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet, and is the only on-air songwriting workshop either on radio or the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®, and is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area. You can reach Mary at: mary@cqkmusic.com

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