Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter and Johnny Dwinell dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists gain leverage in the music business. Part of the American Songwriter Podcast Network, The CLIMB provides insights, advice, and conversation to help you better understand the new music industry. This post is excerpted from The CLIMB podcast, Episode #159, “Stop Calling Your Songs ‘Great’.”
Table of Contents:
• Listeners get to decide
• Is “greatness” arbitrary?
• You need to understand the market
• You can’t blame the market
• Listen to the podcast
Listeners get to decide
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. But if the market decides your music is great, then it is. Who can decide otherwise?
Is “greatness” arbitrary?
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 are 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.
You need to understand the market
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 in 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.
You can’t blame the market
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.
Brent Baxter: 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.
Listen to the podcast
There’s lots more to the conversation… listen to the entire podcast!
This post originally appeared on the Disc Makers Blog in September 2019. Posted with permission.
The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that is dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you gain leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why it’s called “The CLIMB,” it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.”
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One thought on “Who gets to decide if your songs are “great”?”
There’s a story about this issue that I just love. In fact, it’s a video you can find anywhere.
A young man questions this prominent jazz musician: “Is jazz for the listeners or the musicians?” And the music star answered: “Music is always for the listeners. And the first listener is always the musician.”
I think it is a subject of balance. In my experience, when I create a song, I listen to it, but not too much, just to catch myself a sense, then I release it away, without pity, without regret. I omit my own thoughts at that moment. Afterward, some answers arrive, but I expect absolutely nothing at all.