Songwriting Tip : The Song Concept Is King

Gruhn's Guitars, NashvilleMy songwriting mentor, Michael O’Connor of Michael O’Conner Music, based in Studio City, CA constantly stressed the importance of a unique song concept. His company hits were mostly middle of the road and pop songs. (Note that there’s a Michael O’Conner based in Texas who publishes his own songs: not the same guy.) When I got into country music and moved to Nashville I quickly realized that what Michael applied to pop songwriting was even more true when writing country where the chord progressions are often simple and in many cases very little except the lyric separates one song from another. There are many techniques country songwriters employ but I think it’s safe to say, in country, developing a unique song concept is king of the hill.

A unique concept can be defined simply as the “idea of the song” or “what the song is about.” But the concept can also encompass the title. In fact, coming up with a great, unique title is the starting point for many hits.

When you want to write about a particular subject your first thought will likely be a cliché. Write down the cliché then try to outdo it with something that says that same thing in a way no one ever has before. Locked Out Of Heaven by Bruno Mars is a great example of a concept title that’s unique. A good country example is the Jamey Johnson penned In Color. The singer is looking through his Grandfather’s old black & white photos taken at highly emotional moments in his Grandfather’s life as his Grandfather discusses them. Grandad ends each chorus with, “You should have seen it in color.” Powerful. It’s the kind of hook line that resonates so deeply the first time you hear it, it takes your breath away.

Why do you want to mess with this title creating and lyric crafting stuff, why not just let the words pour out and let the chips fall where they may? Because publishers are your best pathway to getting a song cut and publishers know they have a much better chance of making that happen if a song has a unique concept/title than something bland and unimaginative. So their antennas are up for great titles. Impress them with a great one that’s developed into a complete, equally well developed lyric and a phone call to contract your song probably isn’t more than five minutes away. Anyone can write “My Grandad showed me some old pictures and wished I had been there to see it for myself.” Not everyone can boil it down to, “You should have seen it in color.”

The paradox for most songwriters is when they look at the pop or country charts and see clichés or common phrases used as titles and think,”That dude at Play It Again Demos telling me about the importance of great titles and concepts doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Or they listen to the radio and think, “Hey my song is better, therefore it should be a hit.” If the unpublished songwriter’s song really is better it’s usually because the artist songs were written by the artist or someone with an inside track to them. It’s the artist’s fan base and clout that get the song on the charts and garner sales.

Yes, Hank Williams, Sr. wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You” two songs that almost surely were outpourings of emotion that came out ready to cut as-is, no tweaking necessary. And both writers had enough experience to know that injecting craft and cleverness was the wrong way to go for those particular songs. But both had their share of songs that obviously were crafted to the max. And most songs by less experienced songwriters fall far short of that out-of-the-gate perfection.

Only compare your work to “outside” songs on the charts that were written by writers who have to run the same gamut of gatekeepers song publishers, producers, etc. you do. In most of those cases you’ll find a unique concept is the catalyst that propelled the outside song all the way to its current position on the charts- Bill Watson



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