How To Write A Hit

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How To Write A Hit
28 April 2011

by Lars Brandle

For most songwriters, pursuing hits is like chasing the dragon. Writing that elusive smash is a challenge which elicits both a sense of danger and a worrisome habit. There’s no obvious formula, though some seem to possess the craft in spades.

It requires a fine mix of talent, perseverance and a knack for being in the right headspace at the right time. But there’s a lot more that goes into the hitmaking pot. TMN tapped some songwriting greats for the source of their powers.

Listen hard and study the hits

The masters are apparently born with it. But the rest of us can work at it. As a young songwriter and musician, Brandon Mashburn taught himself to play songs he heard on the radio. The US producer studied the structures and would feel the formula. Now he’s helped guide the works of Matchbox 20, Hootie and the Blowfish and Jason Mraz into the sales charts. “I’ve done my homework,” Mashburn tells TMN from his Studio 2100 facility in Springfield, Missouri. “Most songwriters I come across, there’s a sense of both nature and nurture,” explains Mashburn. “You’re born with a natural intuition for a hit, but you learn the dynamics of how to make it a really polished hit.”

Australian-born master producer and songwriter Mike Chapman reckons the hit-writing gene isn’t something everyone possesses. “If you’re born to a write a monster hit or two, you’ll know it. Some people aren’t born with that gift,” he told the audience at the APRA Songwriting Summit in 2010. “It’s not about writing a hit song,” he added, “it’s about having a career.” Duran Duran’s John Taylor pays homage to those who taught him. “The gods of my life are the songwriters – the Bowies, the Lennons and McCartneys,” he explains. “Without them I don’t know how I would survive.”

Write a song, or chase the hit?

Mark Seymour has 30 years of experience at the pointy end of the music business. Chasing the hit is a dangerous game, notes Seymour, whose rock band Hunters & Collectors were responsible for some of Australia’s most enduring hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Say Goodbye, Holy Grail and Throw Your Arms Around Me. “I’ve never set out to write hits. I just try to write songs. The only conclusion I can draw from that approach to songwriting is that it can lead you to some very dark places,” says Seymour. The singer recalls the making of the Cut album, released through Mushroom Records in 1992. “It was the only time in my career when that kind of conversation occurred in the creative process. That was pretty much driven by the production team that we got in. And it went horribly wrong. We were in a state of disarray.” Duran Duran’s Taylor admits the hunt for a hit can be a source of pain. “How long has it been since our last top ten hit? Well, who’s counting. But it’s been a few years. Still, when we enter the studio with a view to writing a song, we’d like that song to be a hit. We had hits at such an early age, and hits become about that [songwriting process].”

How the hitmakers get it going

The art, explains Seymour, is to make complex ideas sound simple. “Songs that sound complicated generally don’t survive. If you can pull all those things together and get up and sing it, and people get caught up in the story and the emotional thread you’re conveying to them, it’s just miraculous. That’s really why I do it. I don’t really have any other reason to do it. Songwriting is an incredibly complex and really simple thing.”

Write from the heart, draw on experiences. But don’t overcook it. “Don’t think about a groove, think about it like it’s a bumpersticker,” Dave Grohl tells comedian and Tenacious D collaborator Kyle Gass on an online clip. Grohl takes it up with the slogan, “Life’s a bitch,” and throws down some chords and a spontaneous verse. Grohl is no minnow when it comes to hitmaking, but the Foo Fighters frontman admits he keeps a close ear to the work of others. “You know who writes the hits, Aerosmith write the hits. And you know how they do it? Their songs begin with the chorus,” he explains, citing as examples Love in an Elevator and Janie’s Got a Gun. “Don’t bore us,” adds Grohl, “get to the chorus.”

When is a song a hit?

Most hitmakers know early on when they’ve hit paydirt. “I can spot a hit with a voice and an acoustic guitar,” explains Mashburn. “When you hear a song and you instantly get it, when you know what the lyrics are and you can walk away singing the melody in your head for the next four days, that’s when you know you’ve got a hit.”

Hitmaking has always been about traction, traditionally generated by spins at radio. Digital media, games and advertising are now providing fresh platforms to exploit hits. The lines are further blurred when a novelty track generates enormous buzz. Take for example Rebecca Black’s Friday, which erupted into an online frenzy not for its mastery of songwriting skill, but for its absence. Novelty tracks, however, aren’t the enemy of hitmakers. “There’s always been those kinds of songs,” says Duran Duran’s Taylor. “Stuff like that is always going to escape.”

The power of collaboration

Nick Cave could always paint a dark number. But his leap from the fringes into a chart-crossover star had much to do with his collaboration with German industrial pioneer Blixa Bargeld. Neither were commercially- focused artists. Indeed, Bargeld’s act Einstürzende Neubauten is the antithesis of the mainstream. Bargeld and Cave went their separate ways in early 2003, but not until after they’d forged such classics as Red Right Hand and Do You Love Me?. Bargeld had played the talisman role to perfection.

“I’m a big believer in the quality of relationships,” says Seymour. “There has to be trust. And you have to believe that the person you’re working with understands or has an interesting angle on what you’re doing.” Writing in a partnership or team can apply the pressure in the right areas. On the downside, there’s nothing quite like two songwriters arguing over money. “That’s a notorious problem in rock ‘n’ roll, where someone walks away with a split because they happened to be in the room at the time,” notes Seymour. “It’s the biggest joke in the industry.”

Find your muse

Inspiration can be found from the most unlikely sources. Songwriters, however, tend to write from their observations, and the great songwriters read at lot. “You can write until you’re 25 about a girl dumping you, or the girl next door. Then it starts to peter out,” Go-Betweens great Robert Forster said during his keynote speech at the APRA Song Summit. “You need fuel, new ideas. Even if it’s through books, films and art.” Forster’s late collaborator Grant McLennan was the yang to his yin. “I was a lot more suburban. He was like, ‘I have a book to read.’ He taught me, ‘you’re an artist. You’re a thinker. That’s your job’.”

Executives from Nettwerk Music Group and Island Records Australia set out in search of the muse by gathering the likes of Paul Mac and Delta Goodrem for a songwriting retreat last year in Bali. Conceived by Michael Taylor, GM, A&R and Head Of Island Records Australia, and Nettwerk Publishing Director Peter Coquillard, the invite- only songwriters’ pow-wow will convene May 28 – June 5.

Brainstorm. And write it down

A battered notepad is still the weapon of choice for hitmakers. Seymour, like many songwriters, jots down concepts and fabrics to a piece of work. A pen and paper are always at hand. “It’s pretty chaotic,” he says of his notes. “And there’s always the trap of overwriting. I’m obsessed with the songwriting process. You’re dealing with an incredibly simple set of tools. But it’s staggering just the amount of subtlety and nuance that you can get out of a three-and-a-half minute song.”

Quality control

“You have to write ten songs to get one good one,” Guy Chambers told Britain’s Guardian newspaper last year. “There’s a high wastage to being a songwriter.” Chambers is best known for his long-time collaboration with Robbie Williams, which yielded the hits Rock DJ, Feel, Millennium, Let Me Entertain You and Angels.

But the throwaway culture of songwriting isn’t always the case. Iva Davies admits he’s a “slow and selective” songwriter, but wastefulness isn’t one of his traits. “I’ve got this process of strangling at birth anything that’s not going to be at a certain standard,” the Icehouse frontman says. “I guess other songwriters when they approach writing albums might have written 25 songs and then thrown out a whole lot. I never worked like that. I always got to a point in writing a song where I knew if it was going to be any good, and if it passed all the criteria and it still had me excited, then I’d finish it and it’d end up on an album. I don’t think there are any songs that I’ve written which haven’t been released.”

Chasing hits, it’s a treacherous slope, reckons Seymour. “There’s so much luck involved that the idea of ‘chasing the dragon’, it’s just going to lead you totally astray,” he says. “You have to follow your intuition. Creative ideas, good sounds, believing in your own emotions, and trusting in your imagination. Good work comes from that.”

Hang on, Help is on its way:

The Australian music industry supports various masterclasses and songwriting competitions. Here are some key events and competitions.

On October 12, Push Songs in Melbourne will enable six successful applicants to take part in three comprehensive one-on-one sessions and attend a formal masterclass. Mark Seymour (Hunters & Collectors), Davey Lane (You Am I, The Pictures), Ella Hooper (The Verses, Killing Heidi) and Jen Cloher will guide proceedings. Applications can be submitted at pushsongs

The 2011 Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition shines a spotlight on songwriting talent from all corners of the globe. With the support of APRA|AMCOS, the winner vies for a prize package valued at over $50,000, which includes co-writing sessions with the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Martin Terefe (Train, Jason Mraz) and Sacha Skarbek (Adele, James Blunt). Applications close May 31 and may be entered at

The third biennial APRA Song Summit will take place May 26-28, 2012 in Sydney. Details will be announced at

Courtesy The Music Network