songs are great

Stop saying your songs are “great”

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The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists create leverage in the music business. This post is excerpted from The CLIMB podcast, Episode #159, “Stop Calling Your Songs ‘Great’.”

Brent Baxter: Here’s the deal: you don’t get to decide if your songs are great. And, neither do I, to be fair. I don’t get to decide if my songs are great. So who does get to decide?

I remember when I was writing my early songs, back in Arkansas, and I’d be real excited about a song, and Tim, a good buddy of mine who was my co-writer, would hesitate — he wasn’t comfortable calling his own stuff “great.” Now, in the process of creation, I’m sure we had moments where we said, “Man! That’s great!” I was wrong, by the way, but I didn’t know that then. But when speaking about those songs outside the writing room or the hay bale of the writing campfire, it was a different story with Tim. He’d say, “I just have a hard time calling one of my own songs great. I’ll say ‘I love it,’ but I don’t think I can call it ‘great.'”

I took it as his having a healthy dose of humility and uncertainty, but he was right. After all, what qualified us to be able to call our own songs great? At that point, we had accomplished absolutely zero, other than work tapes recorded around a campfire. What gave us the right to proclaim greatness about our songs? So, looking back now, we don’t get to decide if our own songs are great. We can love them — we’re the only ones who can decide that, but really, only the market gets to decide if a song is great.

If the market, which is the listeners, decides your music is great, then it is. I mean, greatness… what does that mean? How do you define “greatness?” We all have our own definition of what greatness is. And I’ll change my mind, sometimes. I’ll hear a new jam and say, “that’s great!” and then a month later, I’m over it, and I’m like, “that’s not all that good.” But if the market decides your music is great, then it is. Who can decide otherwise?

If the market decides your songs are forgettable, then guess what? Your songs are forgettable. If the market, the listeners, decides that your new album is not worth their time… they’re right. But, if 10 years from now, that album is rediscovered and the market decides it’s a lost gem that’s brilliant, and it blows up, they’re right, then too.

There’s probably some people who want to put their boot through the screen right now, but hang with me. Greatness is kind of arbitrary. You can look at something technically and determine if something is quality or not. But greatness… I remember watching CMV or VH1 and seeing those shows, “The 50 Greatest Country Artists” and really, it’s kind of click-baity, right? Who decides if Hank Williams is greater than Johnny Cash or Garth Brooks? It’s all kind of arbitrary. It’s a qualitative opinion, it’s subjective, because writing music isn’t math. 2 + 2 = 4 no matter what the majority decides. Music is not like that. You might be able to point out, objectively, how your song has a more sophisticated structure or a more sophisticated rhyme scheme or melody compared to the “clichéd hit songs” on the radio, but all you’ve argued is that your song is technically more sophisticated. That’s a different argument. Don’t confuse that with greatness.

Now, I don’t really care if you call your songs great. But in certain settings, that will probably make you look like an egotistical, self-unaware amateur. You know, “This jam is awesome, it’s going to change the world. It’s great!” If that’s coming from the artist or the writer, the first thing I’m usually thinking is, “Nah…” It probably means that you’re not ready and you’re not self-aware and you haven’t had the humility kicked into you yet.

Johnny Dwinell: And the whole “gonna change the world” thing needs so many planets to align. It could be the greatest song in the world, but if you don’t realize that other planets have to align, that right there says you’re unaware.

I’ll give you a quick example. There’s an artist we used to work with… this is CRS week, that’s Country Radio Seminar, so every radio program director from every radio station is in the same hotel on Nashville for three days. What an opportunity — these are the gatekeepers, these are the people who can put you on the playlist or pull you off of the playlist. Everybody from Garth Brooks all the way down to our clientele, who are really talented independent artists who are trying to get something going and gain access and create relationships, because it’s about relationships.

So the story’s going around, multiple programmers are talking about this one artist. But the team around the artist is talking about recording songs and trying to put him out and get a #1 song off of secondary radio. And everyone’s shaking their head — this artist and his team are unaware. You’re not going to get a #1 on secondary radio as an independent artist. The highest you can probably get is #16. Secondary radio is not primary radio, it’s not Nashville, it’s Bowling Green. It’s a smaller market, and they play a lot of independent artists. Folks in Bowling Green can still get Nashville radio, so they have to do something different. If they play the same thing Nashville radio is doing, everybody’s going to listen to Nashville. So they’re differentiating themselves with their product and what they offer. But you’re not going to get above #16 with that. So, this artist doesn’t get it. It’s just all ego. “We’re going to get that #1!” It’s that awareness thing, the business side is real and you’ve got to understand how it works.

BB: Yes, it can make you look like an egotistical amateur when you’re overhyping your stuff. Now, if your fans are saying that, that’s awesome. Not so much if the artist is saying it. But that’s not even the biggest problem. Coming off as an amateur is not great, but it’s not the biggest problem. I think for some of you out there, the biggest problem is you’re too busy blaming the market for being stupid and wrong when you should be focused on writing better songs, recording better songs, and putting out a better product.

There’s lots more… listen to the entire podcast!

The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, and more) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. You’re gonna need some leverage, you’re gonna need an audience, and you’re gonna need a reason for people to stand up and salute you. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why we call it The CLIMB, it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.” Hear this entire podcast and more at on the Disc Makers website.

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5 thoughts on “Stop saying your songs are “great”

  1. There is a tangential point to make about this. Namely, as musicians and songwriters we have much less agreement about who in our community is writing great songs as opposed to those who are, say, great guitarists or great singers. And yes, of course, it is others who are best placed to put that adjective before our work. We sound egotistical when we say, “I am a great guitarist”, or “I am a great singer”.

    Consider that most all of us probably operate within a community of musicians who all know each other and go to each other’s gigs. Within that community we don’t have too much difficulty rank-ordering who are the top guitarists, the middling guitarists, and the learners. Many of us are even comfortable acknowledging that so-and-so is more skillful than we, ourselves, are. Unless we are a bit crude, we don’t say that so-and-so is less skillful, but that part becomes apparent in other ways. Likewise for singing.

    But when it comes to songwriting, my experience is that the same community that can, with relative ease, rank order skill as musicians and singers, has virtually no agreement on how to rank order the songwriters. Why that is, I am not sure, but it is my observation that it is so.

  2. I was very engaged in your “The Climb” article, and now that I am almost 70 years old I am ready to admit my “stuff” ain’t great.. but it is listenable, even back to the wannabe hits I wrote when I was sixteen and had rockstar dreams.
    Thanks for the dose of reality for these new crops of upcoming young gals and guys who just might choose a more realistic career experience based on your recommendations. Keep rockin’ and peace.

    Silvermane Wesleyjohn
    Worldwide Web artist

  3. However, I like quite a few of my songs whether they are great or not and don’t much care if anyone else does. 🙂

  4. I cant agree with your assessment. An artist can know he has a great song. I have a super popular radio show and growing immensely. I work with nothing but top tier indie acts and ive got hundreds of potential hit songs know one knows about. I work with top name music project exclusives from Stevie Nicks, Frankie Muniz and Kesha to say the least. I could pull you out a few dozen songs right now that would storm the radio. I have the knowledge and the background and the respect from the music industry to “call the shots” and tell you whats great and what isnt regardless if its a radio hit or just a good filler track! I also can tell you if its a good or “great” song even If I dont like it personally. I dont have to like it to know its marketable. I know what people will like and I understand this about more than anyone in the business. Its why ive grown from 10k subscribers to 50k subscribers in a very short amount of time. Its growing daily and I couldnt be more honored to have Stevie Nicks in my camp!! Just about every one of my 80 plus artists can say without a doubt that they have a “great song” and I would say yep you sure do bud. Absolutely, so now lets sell the hell out of it! Now just because I song hasnrt been picked up by the masses doesnt mean shit man. Honestly. That I will argue with you all day long and its because the masses havnt heard it yet also its because the kids today are in charge of social media. They have the time to pass around the 4 corded pop nonsense and not real bands that would impress the hell out of them and any other music listener (BIG LITTLE LIONS) won the John Lennon song writing contest, won the Independent Music Awards for best indie band!! So i put this band to the test with my own contest just recently and they have won it!! I also out them to the test against HUGE fans of well know icelandic band “Of Monsters and Men”. Those same fans said WOW i love this band and immediately noticed the difference in songwriting and professionalism and skills. They were like who was that band I thought I liked cause BLL is soooo much better. (better hit songs, better writing, better singing, better playing) 25k monthly listeners vs 4 million and BLL smokes them!!!

  5. Not necessarily. It has been posted here that arrangements can make or break a song. Any art needs time to determine if it is great or not. Arrangement and getting away from the scene it was first introduced into can make a difference. You have shown in this blog before that the arrangement of a song can change the publics perception and popularity of a song. Times change and what instruments and style was current changes with time. I define a song the way the copyright office requires it to be registered. If you define the term hold to it. What is a song anyway, the melody or the production/arrangement?

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