by Dan Reifsnyder, GSC Reporter
Dan Reifsnyder: Thank you Avrim, Donna and Scott for sitting down with us today! First off, do you have a particular system or work philosophy when it comes to songwriting?
Donna De Sopo: I’m a purpose-driven commercial songwriter. Before I start writing a song, I must know whether I’m writing for an artist, film/TV placement, consumer brand or creative brief. Each one is different so I need to think a bit differently depending on the task at hand. Overall, it’s important for me to not only focus on the song itself but also capture the right vibe, emotion, lyrical tone or character, and melody that best serves the integrity of the artist, scene, or brand. If I’m writing with a new artist, I need to spend some time getting to know who the artist is, what the artist wants to say, understand vocal range or capabilities, and make sure that I’m elevating the authenticity of that artist.
Once we land on a hook or idea, I typically ask the writer(s) in the room: “What’s this song about in 1 sentence”. That way, we are all on the same page, the story line or lyrics won’t meander or “fall off the line of the song”, and move seamlessly from one thought to another in a straight line right to the hook. If the song drifts away from the single-minded idea, the listener will drift away as well. We want them to stay with us on a musical journey from beginning to end.
While writing songs, I worked as a staff writer for healthcare advertising agencies, launching and building blockbuster pharmaceutical brands. I developed concepts and created promotional and educational communications for 3 distinct target audiences—direct-to-physician, direct-to-consumer, and managed markets. A few years ago, realized that there are many similarities between songwriting and copywriting. When we turn on the radio, we hear commercial ads play before and after a series of songs sung by artists or “brands”. These 2 audible ideas, commercials and songs, share the same goal in moving us emotionally so that we part with the dollars in our pockets and buy that brand’s product.
Currently, I’m in the process of writing a book with the working title, What Makes a Great Ad Makes a Great Song, which explores 5 key ideals or criteria that make for award-winning ad campaigns and Grammy-winning songs. I use these 5 ideals as a checklist to determine whether or not my song hits the mark. To reach the level of greatness, my song must be:
- Visually arresting
- Do my lyrics paint a picture like the visual in a print ad?
- Intellectually stimulating
- Am I conveying an interesting message? (“Make me think but not too much”)
- Emotionally powerful
- How do I want the listener to feel?
- Culturally relevant
- Is my song resonating with the masses?
- Sonically delicious
- Are my melodies undeniably delicious using contour, forward movement, riveting lyrics and melodic hooks?
- Does my production include more “ear candy” to further elevate the song?
DR: Wow. Excellent answer. How about you, Scott?
Scott Barrier: I had to start looking myself as a business owner who is in charge of running my career. So, I starting scheduling my day, much the way someone who goes to an office and has tasks to finish by a certain time, or laying out certain priorities to get done during a business day. I started this process by blocking out a morning write and an afternoon write. I also had to block out days for recording, and pitching songs. I’m still working on getting a better flow between the three, because each part of the process is important as the other.
I also had to start writing in a strategic way that would most benefit each song that I write and/or co-write. If I’m writing with an artist, we look at writing a song the artist will record and release to the public, and not just write for fun with no specific purpose, where the song may never go anywhere. If it’s for a major label pitch, my co-writers and I look at what kind of song (theme, vibe, style) will fit the needs of a given major label artist so he or she will want to record it. For film/tv sync placement songs, my co-writers and I map out what type of vibe and theme will fit a particular ask from a music supervisor for given a TV show or film. Becoming more strategic with the songs, and also running my career as a business, has really helped move me forward in the music industry.
DR: Yes! Making the best use of our limited time is crucial. Avrim, what are your thoughts?
Avrim Topel: While I’ve been writing songs regularly for most of my life, I decided to take my craft to the next level about 10 years ago when I discovered one could actually study songwriting. I know, it’s like I was living under a rock, but the truth is once I stopped performing when I was in my early 20’s, I always wrote alone and just for me, (or an occasional friend or lover), and my self-imposed isolation hurt me in several ways.
Fast forward to nowadays, I still write first and foremost for the joy it brings me. I write daily, often coming up with hooks before breakfast and when I walk my dog each morning, and finishing at least a rough draft over breakfast. These days my songwriting is divided pretty evenly between solo writes and co-writing. When writing alone, I write both for myself (including non-commercial pieces which I often call “art songs”), and for commercial cuts. With co-writing, I’ve learned over time that things always work best when I enter the room intending to try to support my fellow writers by helping them to be the best they can be that day. When I do that it seems to raise the bar for everyone, and I rise to the occasion as well. Whether it’s a solo or co-written song, I am a big proponent of sharing my songs with peers and pros and asking for help to make sure the song is everything it can be before demoing it. It’s a wonderful way for me to continue to learn and grow.
DR: Great answer. You guys have all had successes. What would you say have been your luckiest breaks so far?
AT: Aside from discovering that one can study song craft, my luckiest break in this journey is actually two-fold. But let me begin by saying that I truly believe each of us is solely responsible for making our own luck. Having the courage and passion to follow my dreams by showing up in rooms where I was completely clueless about how it works and where I didn’t know a soul was a big deal for me. Taking that risk traveling alone to different cities to attend workshops and retreats was challenging, but my shyness and insecurities were quickly diminished by the overwhelming sense of community that embraced me once I began. I felt like after a lifetime of doing it alone that I had finally found my tribe. I had spent a few years attending songwriting functions all over the country, including functions like week long retreats in Canada led by Jason Blume and other mentors, and participating did indeed move the needle for me. But, without a doubt, meeting Sheree Spoltore marked a major turning point in my songwriting life. I had been told by more than one songwriter or mentor that I should join NSAI and meet Sheree, but I never did. Then, a few years later, after becoming terribly frustrated by rejection, I looked her up and found she had recently started her own organization, Global Songwriters Connection. Long story short, I arranged for a 5 hour meeting with her (2 consecutive days, 2.5 hours per day) for her to listen to 25-30 of my songs to identify my strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter, and to recommend a path for me to become better songwriter. I wanted someone to really know me and my music, and for me, it was the best thing I ever did. Even after this, it still took me another few years to actually become an active member of the GSC family, and today there is nothing else on God’s green earth that I’d rather be doing.
DD: I believe “lucky breaks” come when you’re disciplined in working on the craft of writing, setting goals, and always aiming to write great songs while consistently building and nurturing relationships with people in all aspects of the music business.
About 15 years ago, I met Vic Kaply, the President of West Wood Music Group, through a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey. Established in 1985, West Wood Music Group represents various music publishing catalogs and secures synchronization licensing with major motion picture studios, film production companies, TV and Cable Networks, and advertising agencies.
Vic expressed an interest in my music. A year later, I signed a non-exclusive agreement with West Wood Music Group and was added to the roster of songwriters featured on the company website.
Vic had a profound influence on me. He encouraged me to listen closely to the music playing throughout the scenes in films and TV series. This opened up my mind to a whole new world—the world of synch. Although Vic already had a robust catalog of my country songs, I told Vic to expect something completely different because I was focusing more on writing songs for Film & TV. So I got busy writing songs more specifically for synch, routinely submitting them to Vic and Steve Willoughby, Creative Director, for consideration in the music library.
On Wednesday, November 21, 2019, at 7:45PM, Vic sent me an email: “CBS contacted us about using “Merry Christmas With You” in their FOX Series “A Moody Christmas. This series is on a Major Network in Prime Time.” Vic needed to get back to CBS by Friday—within 48 hours, which underscores how quickly music supervisors need to get clearance and closure on possible TV placements.
My co-writers, Scott Barrier and Keegan Ferrell, and producer, Nate Cornell, were elated by the news! We scheduled a “Watch Party” at Nate’s place. As soon as I heard Keegan’s piano lead in, I cheered, “Here it is! Our song, “Merry Christmas With You”, played through the entire scene that lasted for about 1 minute 30 seconds. What an amazing feeling!
Vic also sent an email less than an hour before the showed aired: “Great News! CBS confirmed “Merry Christmas With You” featured in “THE MOODYS” (Fox) – Monday, Dec. 9 (9PM). I’m still over the moon and can’t wait for the next placement!
SB: My co-writers Donna De Sopo and Keegan Ferrell just had our song “Merry Christmas With You” featured on episode 3 of the “Moody’s Christmas” on FOX. We are very thankful that Westwood Music got the placement for us! This is a fairly recent placement, but we are all hoping that this opportunity will help us get more songs placed for film and TV and to open more doors for us in the music industry.
DR: Great! And lastly, what advice would you give to another songwriter looking to improve their craft?
SB: What really helped me to move forward as a writer was to set a consistent schedule for myself to be constantly working on my craft to always grow as a better writer. Also, consistently working on building a growing network of stronger relationships with co-writers, artists, and industry professionals (publishers, managers, producers, label reps) has given me breakthroughs in my career. Whether you’re writing part time or full time, depending upon your work schedule and life schedule, being consistent will help bring results over time.It takes patience and perseverance to be successful!!!
AT: There are plenty of great books and videos that address all kinds of facets and areas about song writing that anyone can access on line. But once you have a basic understanding, in my opinion, working with a mentor who has achieved some modicum of success and who is actually in the industry is priceless. I’ve come to the conclusion that in most cases professional songwriters who are working their craft on a daily basis are the best mentors. Also, having a team of mentors by becoming part of a community is like manna from heaven. In my experience, relationships are everything in the songwriting universe.
There are several terrific songwriting organizations in Nashville (as well as hundreds of local groups around the world) that can provide stewardship and guidance for songwriters at practically every level. Once again, in my opinion, it all comes down to how badly someone wants it. Neither money, time, careers, or other obligations are ever valid excuses when it comes to learning and improving one’s craft, as we all have our own challenges in life. It all comes down to passion. I believe some of us are born or somehow become programmed this way, and when it kicks in it’s not something we can choose to turn off or or not do. It’s set in our DNA, and while it can certainly be challenging at times, it’s a wonderful condition to have.
DD: Keep learning. Keep writing. Take advantage of songwriting workshops, retreats, and critiques offered by Global Songwriters Connection. You’ll keep adding more tools in your songwriting toolbox and can integrate new insights in your next song.
Enroll in songwriting classes. I’m grateful for incredible songwriters and mentors such as Hugh Prestwood, Patti Ryan, and Pat Pattison who taught the craft of songwriting and shared incredible “light bulb” moments that helped me become a better writer.
Read great books such as “The Artist Way”, Julia Cameron, and “On Writing”, Stephen King. Experiment with various song structures, rhymes, and rhyme schemes. Try using your voice to create melodies and write to a groove or track. Have fun and don’t be afraid to shake things up!
DR: Thanks for taking the time, and for the excellent insight!