A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post about my recent experience of shopping one of my new songs around, “I Will Fly”. In case you missed that post, I talked about how the original version was accepted by about half of the places I sent it to and rejected by the other half due to vocal and production issues. Read the full post here.
So, even though my producer, Gary, and I were pretty pleased with our 50% success rate, we decided to do a second version of the track using a different vocalist (I sang on the original version) and make some changes to the production to make the track sound a little more current and fun.
The very first song I licensed back in 2002 I performed the vocals on. But over the years, about 75% of the tracks I’ve licensed have featured different vocalists. My vocal range is fairly limited, and I can usually tell right away whether or not my vocals will work for a song. When in doubt, I bring on someone else who can handle the vocal duties better than I can. This has almost always proved to be a good idea, and I’ve gotten a lot more placements than I would have otherwise. By using different vocalists, as opposed to trying to sing everything myself, I’ve expanded my catalog of songs that are licensing appropriate greatly.
As an artist, I aim to write songs that are a reflection of who I am as a person and songwriter. But as a professional songwriter licensing my music, my sole aim is to write and produce music with the best chance of getting licensed. Of course I try to write songs I genuinely like and feel good about. But ultimately, I want to write and produce songs that work. I’m not trying to change the world, at least in the context of songs I write for licensing. What I am trying to do, is write really good songs and deliver really solid performances, so that they’ll stand the best chance of being used in tv shows, films, ads and so on.
Some of the songs I write, I know right away won’t work for licensing. If I write a song that I fall in love with, but I know it won’t work for licensing, I still finish it. Some of these songs end up being released on my CDs and digital releases, and other times, nothing comes of them at all. They just get stored on my hard drive in my digital vault of music that may or may not ever see the light of day. The point is, I’m not only writing songs for licensing, I’m simply trying to write the best songs I can, and then figure out how to best monetize them and best put them to use. But I recognize the difference in terms of what songs have the best chance licensing wise, and which ones are better to use for other projects, and I pitch them (or not) accordingly.
I recently interviewed the CEO of Crucial Music, Tanvi Patel, for my podcast. During our interview, I asked Tanvi what types of songs work best for licensing. Her response was that, “a great song is a great song, whether it’s used in licensing or on the radio”. The one caveat she mentioned is that songs used in the context of licensing, need to work “within the scope of licensing”. By this she meant that lyrically and stylistically they need to be aligned with what works for licensing. In other words, a great song is a great song, but there are a few considerations when it comes to what works best for licensing.
See my free course on “How To Write Songs For Licensing”, for more on this topic.
So, back to my latest song and using a different vocalist. The bottom line, is that if I’m writing a song with the goal of licensing it, I want to cover all my bases, licensing wise, and make sure it has the strongest chance of being licensed based on what I’ve seen work, over and over, with other songs that have been licensed.
I want to make sure the following things are in order:
For my latest track, “I Will Fly”, based on the initial feedback we received, we felt it would be safest to have two different versions, for anyone who didn’t take to my admittedly quirky voice. Some people love my voice, and others don’t appreciate it as much. I’m not attached one way or the other. I just want to do what’s best for the song and what will generate the most deals and ultimately the most placements.
Since we changed the production, we’ve added two more deals, for a total of six now in just two weeks. Gary (my producer) and I agreed to give the vocalist a percentage of any back end money we made in exchange for our vocalist singing on the track. The vocalist was happy to do this, to build his resume, get additional exposure and to, most likely, make money on the back end.
So, without further ado, here are the before and after versions of my latest track, featuring myself singing on the former and vocalist Travis Nilan, singing on the latter.
"I Will Fly" Original Version [Before]
"I Will Fly" Featuring Travis Nilan [After]
What do you think of the track? What do you think of the vocals and production? Let us know in the comments!
Today I want to address a topic that is a little more esoteric than the technical aspects of the music business that I often discuss, but nonetheless is just as important. The topic is how to cultivate the right mindset and attitude for achieving success in the music industry.
I really think to be successful in the music industry you need to have both talent and very thick skin, and the latter is probably the most important. You need to be extremely determined, ambitious and motivated. I know I'm not telling you something you don't already know, but let's think about what this really means and how it relates to you.
Let's break it down, step by step.
The music industry is an industry a lot of people are drawn to because, let's face it, writing and playing music is an incredible amount of fun! There’s a reason a lot of teenagers grow up wanting to become rock stars. For a lot of people, playing music is their ultimate dream job. The idea of travelling the world, doing something you love, being adored by the public and getting paid handsomely, is the ultimate fantasy. Who wouldn’t want that life?
Because of how appealing the idea of being a successful musician is, a lot of people pursue music, both as a hobby and as a profession. This creates a lot of competition, on all levels. Everything from getting a good slot at a nightclub, or getting your song onto a TV show or Film, or landing a record deal, involve in one way or another, you competing with somebody else.
Now I don't think competition in its modern day form is insidious or bad. For the most part, here in the western world, we are not beating each other with clubs to get what we want. Competition has a tendency to make us work harder, and if embraced in a healthy way can make us better musicians and better people. When we know something isn't easy we tend to work harder for it and are forced to expand and grow and we also appreciate our success that much more if and when it happens.
It's when the inevitable rejections and setbacks we face get the best of us that the competitive nature of the music industry turns into an ugly and insidious thing. But if we cultivate the right mindset we can take these events in stride and move forward un-phased.
A few years ago I ended what was nearly a six year relationship with my girlfriend at the time. After about six months or so of being single and not dating very much at all I asked a girl out who was drop dead gorgeous and to my surprise she said yes. We went out and I was a complete nervous wreck. I placed so much pressure on myself and on her to make this night a success that I came across as stilted and weird and I never heard from her again.
I was disappointed the next few days but I immediately realized what had happened. I then decided to cast a much wider net, so to speak. I started meeting girls online, in clubs, on the street, in trains. When I really opened my eyes I realized there were opportunities to meet girls literally everywhere. Over the next few months I started actively dating many different women and what happened was really amazing and eye opening. I was meeting so many different women that I stopped looking at each date and interaction as such a big deal. This allowed me to be myself and just meet women being very present and in the moment. As a result my interactions were much more successful and enjoyable and I eventually met another girl who I ended up dating for several years.
Why am I telling you this story? Why I am sharing such a personal detail about my private life? Well, I realized a valuable lesson from this period of my life that has served me in all aspects of life. I think this same sort of strategy and mindset can be applied to anything and works particularly well when applied to your music career.
When you're pursuing one or two opportunities it's easy to get discouraged when they don't work out. But if you're pursuing many different opportunities, not only are you exponentially increasing your odds that one of them will come through for you, but you will relax when you realize that in reality there are many different ways to achieve success with your music. If you don't get your music on one show, pursue another. If you don't get booked into club x, pursue club z. This is the mindset you need. Don’t get hung up any single opportunity. Instead pursue so many opportunities that some of them inevitably come through.
Now, of course, you still need to listen to the feedback that you get. Not everyone will like everything you do. But if you get consistent feedback that something about your tracks are not working, use that information and make changes if you need to. If you’re single and going on dates, not everyone you meet is going to fall in love with you. But if you go out with a hundred people, and they all say you have a body odor problem, you should probably address that. In the same way, if you send your tracks to a hundred people and they all say you have a production issue or a performance issue, then you should take their feedback seriously.
Your job is to separate the people that are rejecting your music for reasons that you can’t change, from the people who are passing on your music for reasons that you can. I can’t make every girl I go out with like me, but by doing things like going to the gym, dressing well, not being a drug addict, having a stable job and so on, I can greatly increasing my odds of connecting with someone. In the same way, by doing things like producing your tracks really well, writing great songs that work for tv and film, performing your songs really well and so on, you will greatly increase your odds of finding licensing success.
The reality is that not everyone is going to like everything you do. But if you’re writing great songs and you’re taking massive action, you will find people who appreciate and support your work. Don't worry about any one particular goal, pursue them all with equal fervor and enthusiasm and success will become a matter of when and not if.
I recently signed a new song of mine called “I Will Fly” to several different libraries and publishers. In the process of shopping the track around I got a wide range of responses, some of them positive and some of them negative. One of the great things about running my website and working with so many different people in the music business, is that I have a network of people I can turn to who will, at the very least, listen to my music and give me their honest, uncensored feedback. This is extremely valuable, because often times when people pass on your music you don’t even know why. Is it the song? The production? The vocals? If there’s no feedback, it’s hard to know for sure.
When you don’t get feedback when someone passes on your music, all you can do is speculate as to why they passed. When you get honest feedback, you can use that to improve your music going forward. It’s important to point out that not everyone hears music the same way. You can submit the same song to ten different places and get ten different responses. However, if you make enough submissions, and gather enough feedback, you start to get a pretty clear idea of how your music stacks up against the competition and how people in the industry perceive what it is you do.
Not everyone is going to like everything you do. However, if you’re trying to license your music, your job as a songwriter is to write music that will move and inspire the people you pitch it to. Your job, in a sense, is to know the industry well enough to know the kinds of songs that will interest those that you’re pitching to and then write those. To put it another way, if the majority of people you pitch your music to are passing on your material, you’re off track. At least with regards to your goal of getting your music licensed. Maybe you’ve written a great song but it just doesn’t work for licensing. Great, you have a great song you can do something else with. But if you’re trying to license your material, you need to figure out why certain songs work and why others don’t. This is your job. It’s not the job of other people in the industry to teach you. For better or worse, this is up to you to figure out.
One of the hardest things to do as songwriters and musicians is to be truly objective about our own material. When you write and record a song, there’s a certain sense of excitement about the process that can cloud your judgement. It’s exciting to see your songs come to life. So exciting in fact, that it’s all too easy to rush to judgement prematurely about how great or on target your material truly is. It’s a good idea to wait a few days after you finish a song and go back to it with fresh ears. Listen to it again and compare it to a few other tracks that have done well, licensing wise, in a similar genre. Does it truly stand up? Does your track have the same punch, clarity, catchiness and so on? These are all important questions to ask when you’re writing and producing material. Don’t get lost in the excitement of the creative process so much that you lose sight of whether or not what you’re creating is ultimately commercially viable.
There’s a subjective quality to music that is unavoidable. Some people like songs that others don’t. But when it comes to licensing, there are a lot of elements that aren’t subjective at all. They’re actually quite easy to quantify and evaluate. Things like production quality, vocal performance, lyrics and so on, are all very easy to measure and gather a consensus on. If you compare a really well produced song to a not so well produced song, it’s very easy to hear. The same can be said for a great vocal performance vs a subpar vocal performance. There’s nothing subjective about these things at all. If you submit the same song to enough places, there usually will be a consensus among the people you’re pitching to that you are either on track, or off.
Here are some of the responses I got about one of my newest tracks, “I Will Fly” that my prodicer and I have been shopping around. The interesting thing about this track is that I decided to take a crack at singing the lead vocals on this one. I’ve licensed some of my music that I sing lead on, but most of the tracks I’ve licensed over the years I’ve used other vocalists on or has been instrumental music. Although I was reluctant to sing lead on this track because I felt the melody was out of my range, after some prodding by my producer and friends I decided to sing lead and pitch the track with my vocals.
Notice how some of the responses seem to contradict each other, but in the end about half of the responses point to the fact that the song needs some changes.
Here was the first response from a publisher I pitched to, who has a long track record of placing music in tv and films:
“Intro is ok, but from the start of the 1st verse, I’m having trouble digesting the vocals. The doubled up vocal production needs work. The doubling up is not a good sound. It’s not harmonized well. It sounds harsh, electronic and not pleasing like a real harmony would be and it’s overused. I think you should ease so the vocals don’t have that continuous doubled up effect. That’s just my initial feeling.”
Ouch. Ok, I can take constructive criticism…
Here’s the second response we got from another publisher:
"I don’t think it sounds like something I can hear in a film or tv show…
I don’t find the singer’s voice pleasant
the song isn’t bad but …
the instrumentation sounds / feels a bit dated - 90’s ish…
just my opinion.
I’m not always right."
Damn! At this point, I’m feeling a bit defeated to be honest.
Then, this was the third response I got from the next person I sent the track to who does a lot of ad work. I sent several unsigned tracks that I sing on to this particular contact, including my newest track, I Will Fly:
Aaron I really like your music . I Will Fly is very licensable for advertising . The others as well perhaps more for film and TV . You have an indie sound with a interesting vocal presentation that works well and is consistent with the arrangements and instrumentation . I would be happy to try to help get these licensed . M
Ok, cool! I’m starting to feel a little better. I have an “interesting” vocal sound and the song is “very licensable for advertising. Nice! I actually wrote this track with advertising in mind, so this response was encouraging and more in line with what I expected to hear.
Here’s the fourth response we got:
Sorry, I don’t think I can use this guys. It sounds a little dated to me.
Ok, again with the “dated” comment. Duly noted.
Here's another positive response we got from a different publisher in LA that I sent "I Will Fly" and a few other tracks that I sing on:
First, thanks for sending your tracks. I listened to them today and loved what I heard. You capture a very authentic feel in your music. Great stuff! Tell me more about what your currently doing with your music. Are you working with any libraries for higher exposure / placements or just managing
your music on your own?
Here’s the final response I got of the six initial places we sent the song to:
Great stuff man!! Sure we can get it up and feature it!
This one was positive, but didn’t really have a lot specific to say. But still another positive response from a major library that wants to feature my music, so in the end I'm feeling pretty positive, but still concerned about some of the critiques we received.
Of the six places we sent the song to, three declined for very specific reasons. Of the three places that accepted the track, only one indicated specifically why they liked the track and what they thought it would be good for.
In the end, Gary (my producer) and I decided to re-work the track using a different vocalist and trying a different approach to the production and instrumentation. Although getting accepted into three out of six places isn’t bad at all, we still decided to make some changes to the track based on the feedback we received, before we pitch the track any further. The final result is a more modern sounding track with a more solid vocal performance that I anticipate will generate even more interest.
I don’t expect everyone to love everything I do, but if the majority of people I send my tracks to, or even half, feel like something is off or needs changed, I take their advice seriously. Although everyone hears music differently and there is a subjective quality to music, I also believe there is a sort of collective wisdom that people in the industry with a lot of experience have. I want my music to impress more people than not.
At this point, I don’t take rejection personally. Sure, I want people to like my tracks, but I’m always open to criticism and ways of improving the work that I do. Rejection is simply feedback.
[Note: I plan to do a follow up post in the next couple weeks and share both versions of the track, the one with my vocals and our original production, and then the one with a different vocalist we selected and a different production strategy. We’re still putting the finishing touches on the final version]
How do you deal with rejection? Do you just keep going and move on? Do you take it with a grain of salt or do you try to adapt to the feedback you receive? Let me know in the comments below.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.