Vol 1, Issue 7: Creating Music with Mass Appeal

I’m sure by the very title of this piece that some of you are rolling your eyes at the concept of me providing you with guidelines about how to write sellable music. I will give you this: there is no one-to-ten detailed instructional manual outlining how to write the perfect song.

For that matter, I feel that songwriting is an art form requiring a great deal of skill that cannot be mastered by everyone. However, songs that have been able to cross generations, cultures, and time barriers do share some commonalities, which I don’t believe is mere coincidence.

The tunes that make an impact and continue to maintain their popularity 20 years later are memorable for more than just their catchy melodies. The songs to which I’m referring have been repeatedly listed in the Top 100 lists year after year. Though these songs are dissimilar in genre and methodology, what makes each and every one of them able to claim “greatness” is this: simply put, they are extremely well-written, and therefore have mass appeal.

For starters, the lyrical content of said songs tends to prey on social and/or political mentalities/issues that drive a solid point home with the listener. But, the message of each of these songs is presented in such a fashion that it is accessible to even the status quo. Nothing too complicated. Nothing too convoluted.

When John Lennon asked us to “Imagine” a world without violence, poverty, hunger, and religion, he painted a crystal clear picture. He blatantly probed listeners to question their existence, and rethink the structure of society. He ended on a hopeful note stating that he knows others like himself are out there, and he looks forward to the day in which everyone in the world, despite their differences, will learn to “live as one.” The purpose of his song is self-evident: to make listeners question that which is presented to them, rather than just accepting things as they are.

Another strategy of writing strong lyrics is delving into concepts that are relatable on a personal level. Everyone has had a point in their life in which they’ve felt like Mick Jagger: unable to get any “Satisfaction.” Though Jagger was referring to satisfaction in the sexual sense, a listener does not have to interpret the song in that manner because the lyrics remain open-ended enough to suggest otherwise.

Audiences appreciate the opportunity to take a song and apply it to their personal situation. As a consequence, most often songs that encompass complex metaphors don’t become hit singles, because audiences can’t get a grasp of what the songwriter is trying to say.

I’ve found that the best songs out there cover issues that are common and easy to understand. Hence, the reasons as to why we have so many popular cliché love songs. Everyone experiences love, romance, bad breakups, and broken hearts (hopefully not always in that order).

Next, comes the melody.

Writing a song that gets stuck in a listener’s head may seem like an easy task, however you want your melody to be unforgettable because it’s well structured, not because it’s extremely annoying.

I can count several instances in which I’ve had Britney Spears’(sorry to pick on her again, but it’s just so easy) songs stuck in my head on repeat, but it’s not as though it was an enjoyable experience. No one likes a broken record. Although Spears’ songwriters manage to write her material that is “catchy,” it’s not always catchy in a good way. There is a difference between good and bad catchy.

Good catchiness makes a listener want to sing along with the track after hearing only a few short moments, and without knowledge of the majority of the lyrics. Good catchiness also tends to stimulate movement; whether it be head bobbing, toe tapping, air guitaring, or drumming on the nearest object. These are the songs that you listen to loud and proud while cruising down the highway with all the windows open; songs such as ACDC’s “Back in Black” or Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” They are more than just an auditory experience.

And by melody, I’m not just referring to the vocal line. All of the instruments play a crucial part in writing a well-structured song. A great singer needs a strong band to back him/her, just as a talented musical act needs a charismatic vocalist to front them. Therefore, dynamics are of the utmost importance. A band needs to know when to go all out, and when to draw back depending upon what the lyrics suggest. Different dynamics constitute different emotional reactions. Thus, the instrumentation and the lyrics need to be in synch with each other in order to maximize the impact of your message.

Additionally, your songs need to be able to maintain the listener’s attention all the way through. Add solos, riffs, bridges, breakdowns, and highlight each of your instrumentalists’ individual talent. Keep switching it up so that the listener becomes entranced, dying to know what’s coming next. But, be careful not to go overboard with your verses, as above all, your chorus should be the section that sells the song.

When it comes to writing songs with mass appeal, writing a champion chorus is by far the greatest feat, and it definitely takes time to master. Eventually, songwriters are able to develop their own style, but not without years of practice and experimentation. Despite this, understanding the following general principle makes it easier to get a grip on chorus writing.

Using as few words as needed to get the main message across, and repetition of words and phrases will definitely assist in making your chorus a powerful tool. For that matter, some of the best choruses written in history revolve entirely around the repetition of a single phrase such as Alanis Morissette’s, “You Oughta Know.” It’s bold, in-your-face, and straight to the point.

Even if a listener only hears the chorus of this song, the main message Morissette is trying to make is still apparent. Nothing beyond those three simple words really needs to be said. With a single phrase, Morissette managed to write one of the most impactful songs of the 90s, especially for feminists, and one of the best “fuck-you” songs of all time.

The last rule of thumb that I will be discussing in regards to writing strong material doesn’t really come into play, until your group is ready to approach radio stations for airplay and/or record labels for roster consideration.

Few are aware of the fact that the first 30 seconds of a song is the determining factor in terms of whether or not a band gets radio play and/or a record deal. May I repeat, only the first 30 seconds of a given song! You’ll note that this is a very short period of time to grasp a listener’s attention. So, suffice it to say, you better make it good.

If you do manage to present something of interest within that time frame, both station managers and A&R reps will quickly flip through your other tracks to see if it was just a fluke, or if your band has genuine marketability. Therefore, your material must be consistently captivating.

When it comes to creating compositions that have the potential for mass appeal, keeping it simple in all respects predominantly seems to be the key to success. However, I will note that there are always exceptions to these general guidelines, and one can never be certain whether they’ve stumbled upon greatness or failure without testing their material amongst different audiences to gage opinion. By providing these songwriting principles I’m not trying to stifle your creativity, nor am I suggesting that the only songs that are any good are simple. Hell, I like my Deep Purple and The Doors every now and again. All I’m saying is that if you want your band to have commercial success, you'll need to buy into this formula to a certain extent.

Irrespective of this, the tendency these days is to release albums with only two to three strong singles. Therefore, if you’re a prog-rocker at heart, you may just be in luck. There’s definitely a market for what I like to refer to as “stoner rock,” but keep in mind, in order for songs of that nature to attain success, they usually need to break in through an underground movement first, which will obviously pose a greater challenge to your band. In addition, they will more than likely require a radio edit that will substantially cut down your 10-minute guitar solos. Though, I do wish you all the power in the world, if this is the route you choose to undertake.

Rather, if you are simply a musician who creates art for art sake, never let these guidelines constrict your passion. They are merely meant to be used as a tool for bands wishing to obtain commercial success, and with that comes financial remuneration. And…let me tell you, there’s nothing better than getting paid for something you really enjoy doing.

About the Author:

Rose Cora Perry is the frontwoman for Canadian hard rock band ANTI-HERO known as “The 21st Century Answer to Nirvana”, as well as the sole owner and operator of HER Records, a management company in which she offers marketing, promotion, publicity, tour booking, and artist development services.

Her band ANTI-HERO has toured extensively across North America playing notable festivals such as Warped Tour, Canadian Music Week, NorthbyNorthEast, Wakefest, and MEANYFest.

Voted “Best Rock Act of the Year” by numerous industry publications, their critically acclaimed debut album, "Unpretty" is available worldwide for purchase.

Rose Cora Perry is a dedicated promoter of D.I.Y. ethics, and an avid supporter of independent musicians.For more information on Rose Cora Perry and her band's accomplishments, please visit http://www.anti-hero.ca/ or http://www.rosecoraperry.com/