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Songwriting Tip: Your Best Bet for a #1 Song (Revised)

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 @01:48 PM

Your Best Bet for a #1 Song

by Ralph Murphy

Ralph Murphy, hit songwriter

For a small business owner such as a songwriter/publisher, knowing the market is vital. Budgeting for success means looking at income (when it decides to come in!) and making informed decisions about how to spend it most effectively. Up near the top of the list of expenditures (almost right next to eating) are demo costs. The financial outlay for demonstration recordings has risen to $750 - $1,000 per song. So, if you write 30 songs a year and only have $10,000 in your demo budget, you're going to have to make some hard choices.

The Truth About Dogs and Chickens

Let's say you've written this song about a Chicken. You love it! Your mom loves it! The special person in your life loves it! However . . Radio is only playing Dog songs. Fortunately, you've also written four Dog songs, which everybody loves. Your dilemma? You only have enough money to produce a three-song demo, but you have five songs (four Dog songs and one Chicken song). What do you do? Now, unfortunately, I have suitcases full of demoed Chicken songs, so I know what the songwriter side of me says; however, I noticed early on in life that food is a good thing and that eating makes me happy. So, while grumbling and complaining about how radio should be playing more Chicken songs, I demo three of my four Dog songs so I can continue to support my nasty food habit! In the frustrating war between art and commerce, commerce wins.

Let's be honest. Though it shouldn't, radio drives the "commercial" aspect of the songwriting process. (Did I already mention that I like to eat?) It affects just about every decision we make creatively. In the year of 2013, country radio did something seismic in nature, which impacted songwriters and publishers dramatically. As an experiment to maintain listenership, Country radio decided to slow the progress of records going up and down the charts in hopes of breeding the kind of familiarity that keeps listeners coming back for more - commercials, that is.

As a result, I became curious and decided to try an experiment of my own. I started by researching the Billboard Country chart for 2013 and found that a total of 11 songs reached #1. Taking a closer look, I began to wonder: what type of song is reaching the top in this brave new world of radio? A world in which, though yet another ripple effect of deregulation, big radio chains have been allowed to buy up and homogenize most of the "mom and pop" country stations resulting in:

#1 BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY SONGS/COUNTRY AIRPLAY SONGS

BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY SONGS
There were 11 that went to number 1 on this chart which uses a combination on sales and radio airplay to determine number 1

TEMPO
When you look at tempo you find that only 3 of them were above 100 BPMs (beats per minute) and the fastest was only 106 BPM. Of the 8 that were under 100 BPMs, They spent 39 weeks at #1. So, you can deduce that they were all aimed at radio.

Billboard Country Airplay Songs (Only airplay used)
By contrast, there were 30 #1s. Only 5 of them were above 100BPMs. Only 1 at 120 BPMs at dance speed. Of the 25 that were under 100 BPMs, they spent a total of 46 weeks at #1, the lion’s share.

GENDER
BILLBOARD HOT CONTRY SONGS
Women were only featured as artists on 3 records and there was only one female solo artist to go to #1.....and that was of course Taylor Swift.
Songwriters were 28 male and 4 female.

BILLBOARD COUNTRY AIRPLAY SONG
There was not one solo female artist to have a number one record the the Billboard Country Airplay Charts and the writers were disproportionate as well, with 8 females writing on a #1 and 55 males writing on a #1 (Rodney Clawson had 5, Ashley Gorley had 4 and Chris Tompkins had 4 as well)

ARTIST INVOLVEMENT
BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY SONGS
The artists contributed to 50% of these records about 5 of the 11 Billboard Country Airplay Songs. 11 of the number one had the artist writing on it, about 1/3.

INTROS
BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY SONGS
Intros......For 8 of the 11 There was an average 11 second intro. 3 records had zero start....not particularly radio friendly.

BILLBOARD COUNTRY AIRPLAY SONGS
There were no zero starts! The average was 15.9 seconds...The longest was "Boys Round Here" with 31 seconds. The shortest was "Drunk Last Night" with 6 seconds.

PRONOUNS
BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY
First use of the pronoun "You". All used the pronoun ""You" and the average was 19.5 seconds

BILLBOARD COUNTRY AIRPLAY
4 recorded songs that reached #1 didn’t use the pronoun ""You"
“Round Here” by Florida/Georgia Line,
Caroline- Parmalee
Zac Brown Goodbye In Her Eyes
Little Bit Of Eeverything
And Keith Urban
So, 26 did use the pronoun ""You" and used it within 34 seconds..including the intro!

FIRST USE OF TITLE
BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY
First use of title occurred by, on average, 53 seconds including the intro

BILLBOARD COUNTRY AIRPLAY
All got to first use of the title within an average of 60 seconds, including intro.

ENDINGS
BILLBOARD HOT COUNTRY
All were dead ended

BILLBOARD COUNTRY AIRPLAY
There were only two fades

BEST BETS!
So, best bets for writing a country #1 in either chart?
1. Keep it under 100 BPMs.
2. If possible hang out with the artist.
Have an intro
Use the pronoun “you” to invite the listener in
And...get me to the title in 60 seconds or less!!

 

WHAT WAS A POP #1 HIT ON BILLBOARD MAGAZINE IN 2013?

There were 11 # 1 records in 2013.

--BEATS PER MINUTE (BPM):
Last year, only 5, less than 50% were over 100 B.P.M.
The previous year, 2012, 2/3 were over 100 B.P.M. which showed a bias toward Dance/EDM, as the record reflects the heart rate of the consumer. And...the heart rate is increasing. Three records were 140BPM's or more showing a gradual increase in the last decade in consumers’ heart rate.

So, this year the listener, as opposed to the dancer is accommodated. 6 #1s were under 100 BPMs and Miley Cyrus with her infamous song "Wrecking Ball" was actually "at rest", or around 60 BPM! .......coming to a radio near you!

GENDER:
--Women artists showed prominently in Pop as 5 records had solo (3) or had women Artists featured (2) out of the 11 number ones.

WRITERS:
However of the writers of the 2013 #1s, were again disproportionately male.
Male writers were represented 32 times on #1 songs. 5 women writers contributed to # 1 pop songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts.

~Artist/writers were present on 10 of the 11 number ones.

~When we look at intros, we find, as has been the case in Pop, the intros seem to be disposable.
7 of the 11 #1s had zero start and of the remaining 4 that had intros, they averaged 9 seconds. That’s very minimal, which means that they really weren’t designed for radio.

FIRST USE OF THE PRONOUN "YOU"
4 of the number ones were about "issues" or "stuff"
"Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (also the #1 Hit of the entire year of 2013), was about....Guess What?
"Harlem Shake" was a instrumental dance track (140 BPM)
"Can't Hold Us" again, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, although they invite you in....literally, with "Good to see you, Come on in..." The Track really is not about the listener.
And of course there was a hit "The Monster" by Eminem, featuring Rihanna
The rest of the records (7) invited the listener in by using the pronoun "you" on average, around the 23 second mark.

Also, the first use of title occurred in 6 of the 11 before the 1 minute mark, which is within the listener’s expectation.

FADE
There was only one record that faded in 2013 and that was "Blurred Lines". The others "deadended". That means that they were designed specifically to be "singles".

THE 2 MINUTE WALL
5 of the #1s got to either a bridge or a call and response or something significantly different before the 2.30 second mark.

Song length really was fairly limited to 3-4 minute area. The shortest was “Royals” by Lorde at 3.08 minutes and longest was "Blurred Lines" at 4.20 minutes, the rest fell in between the 3-4 minute region.

6 number ones used the 4th form. That structure seems to be structure "du jour". That structure took up 37 weeks. Of number one time, and the songs are more songs than just dance tracks like “Harlem Shake".

If you look at songs like “Royals”, ‘When I was Your Man”, “Wrecking Ball” and “Roar”, they are more identifiable with story songs than dance tracks.

Third form showed that it was alive and well as it posted "Locked out of Heaven" and "Thrift Shop". Third form really resonates with audiences and really works well with radio.

The only second form was "The Monster" by Eminem, featuring Rihanna.

WHAT TO LOOK AT
So if you are dealing in the hit pop "sticky song" market, you are looking at writing that song with the artist or adding their name to it afterward.
If it is a dance project, it’s going to be 140 BPMs or more (Happy 160)
If it is a regular number one, it’s under 100 BPMs to accommodate the listener.
The songs all reached the first use of the title within 60 seconds.

The bulk of them, all of the songs used the pronoun “you” on average 23 seconds from the start of the song. ….And, it’s probably going to be written in 4th form. Again, fulfilling listener’s expectations.

Your best shot

So, you have Dog songs and you have Chicken songs. Where do you spend your demo dollar?

Your best shot for getting a #1 record is to write:

mid- to up-tempo
romantic/humorous or sad/heartfelt theme
4/4 time
contemporary pop/country style
story or conversation
1st person or 2nd person
3rd form
linear melody with a story to a soaring chorus
13 second intro
So much for Chicken songs!

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Phil Goldberg and Chad Green indulging my "need to know" in helping research the above information. Most importantly, thank you, Mark Ford, for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form.

 (Revised and written by Ralph Murphy)

Ralph Murphy, hit songwriter and expert, has been successful for five decades. He wrote huge hit songs such as Crystal Gayle's "Talking in Your Sleep" and "Half the Way". Consistently charting songs in an ever-changing musical environment makes him a member of that very small group of professionals who make a living ding what they love to do. Add to that the platinum records as a producer, his success as the publisher and co-owner of the extremely successful Picalic Group of Companies and you see a pattern of achievement based on more than luck. Achieving "hit writer" status has always been a formidable goal for any songwriter. Never more so however than in the 21st century. Catching the ear of the monumentally distracted, fragmented listener has never been more difficult. Getting their attention, inviting them in to your song and keeping them there for long enough for your song to become "their song" requires more than being just a "good" songwriter.

*His new book Murphy's Laws of Songwriting "The Book" arms the songwriter for success by demystifying the process and opening the door to serious professional songwriting. Hall of fame songwriter Paul Williams said in his review of the book "If there was a hit songwriters secret handshake "Da Murphy" would probably have included it." To get the book, enter 3 or more songs at the 20th Annual USA Songwriting Competition and receive this exclusive book » 

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