Songwriting and Arranging For Demo Submission

copyright 1996 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue#27 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Mar '96

The act of song writing is a very personal experience. It can be shared by a co-writer(s) or be an individual vision. If it is purely for one's self gratification there are no particular "rules" to be followed, but if a song is meant to be "pitched" to an A&R rep (artists & repertoire representative for publishing or record companies) there are some guidelines that should be considered.

In truly creative "Art" there are no real boundaries but remember that if it's for public consumption, people are creatures of habit. They relate to popular culture with preconceived expectations, hence that annoying habit of categorization. "What kind of music is it?" This brings us to the first point regarding writing a marketable song.

Who is going to be interested in this tune? Is it Country, Blues, Pop, Folk, Jazz, Soul, Dance, Rap, Hard Rock, Alternative, etc. or the dreaded "I don't know, Man!"? The point being that if you want to pitch the song to a Publisher or sell the idea of you as a "Singer / Songwriter" or your band as an act, the person who listens to it becomes your focus. You don't pitch a C&W tune to a Rap producer or send a Jazz instrumental to a folk label. Or maybe you do. I know I have & it is a waste of postage. Unless you enjoy collecting rejection slips. "Thankyou for your tape. We don't feel that it meets our stringent criteria for commercial release, so go blow."

Half the submissions you make may not even be acknowledged and there is the possibility that it won't be given proper, if any attention. There are many stories of mischievous writers sending blank tapes with a full promo kit to an A&R rep & receiving a "form" rejection. "We appreciate your submission & enjoyed your material but its not what we are looking for at the moment." I'd call that a blank expression of jaded pessimism.

Even so, if you don't play, you don't win.

Getting a "hit" is akin to winning the lottery and you can better your odds if you have proper packaging and a succinct representation of your material. Realize that A&R people are professionals and will recognize hit potential if it grabs them quickly. Don't bother sending half-thought material or record your tune with a weak singer. Nothing points out the faults of a song more than inadequate vocals.


The Intro:

Drop the ponderous 16 bar intro, 2 or 4 bars should set it up mo' better. It's not a bad idea to have an instrumental "hook" lead in. A hook is a melodic, rhythmic or lyrical device that is repeated elsewhere in the song to add to it's overall structure. The intro defines the rhythm & tempo or "Groove" and will suggest the style of the ensuing song, be it Country, Blues, Reggae, Pop or whatever. Make it snappy! -The next few elements can appear in a variety of orders.

The Verse:

The verses tell the story of the song with a rhyming sequence and phrasing. This is usually where the poetic meter is incorporated. The moon-June-spoon-croon or maybe moon-song-June-wrong. Avoid bud-spud-dud-mud. Unless you're Stompin' Tom... Sometimes a clever internal rhyme can add a hook to the lyric. Use your imagination. Hint: A demo is more effective if it is edited. Use the best two verses & if you have more verses include them on the accompanying typed "Lyric Sheet" as "Additional Lyrics".

Always provide a neatly typed lyric so your myopic A&R rep can readily see your genius. Also make sure that every page of your promo and especially the cassette cartridge itself has your address stamped on it incase things get separated.

A&R people wade through stacks of material in a day and may only listen to the first two minutes or will often fast-forward, skipping through three songs, sampling only random sections. It sounds crass but you yourself do this when searching for a radio station. You stop when something grabs you. It's the same principle, so you can't waste time noodling.

The Chorus:

Usually the most important part of the song apart from the overall meaning of the lyric as a whole. (Nonsense can be a meaning) Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye. This is where repetition can be used to effect. The chorus hook is the part of the song that will stick with you. It is a good idea to derive the title of the song from the chorus' lyric hook since people will identify it as such anyway.

The Bridge:

This is a section where an alternative chord sequence or lyrical perspective can be included. (In military marches referred to as the "Dogfight") This could be a "solo" section. Not all songs have a bridge but it can introduce another element to the piece & often is a pivot point to the last verse, last chorus or what is called a Pre-chorus.

The Pre-Chorus:

Melodically or lyrically adds a lift or direction toward the resultant chorus. It can be an alternate rhyme to the verse or chordal movement that sets up the chorus structure.

The Instrumental:

This solo section can be done over any of the previous components or can simply repeat the intro. This will function as a melodic hook. On a lyric based demo it is not necessary to include an instrumental. It can often be the point where the client turns off the tape.

The Outro:

The "Out" section can be a repetition of the intro, an instrumental hook from the solo or a vocal phrase from the chorus. It can be ended with a fade-out or a climactic full stop. Avoid the bombastic "Trainwreck" ending. They only work onstage & only sometimes.

Some typical structure arrangements:

Intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - instr/verse - repeat chorus out. Intro - verse - prechorus - chorus - solo/bridge - verse - chorus - out. Intro - pre chorus - chorus - verse - chorus - verse - bridge - chorus - out: - Or whatever.

Do your initial edits on paper, rehearse, record a few versions on cassette or 4-track, etc. Get some objective feedback from a knowledgable sort and be willing to re-record if necessary. Make sure you use good quality tape with adequate levels, (Vocals audible, balanced instrumentation - IN TUNE). If you don't have a porta studio & mics you can rent them, or go to a studio in your area to record your demo. If you haven't got the expertise to produce a quality demo, a good engineer will help you. If you don't feel that you can perform the song to its best representation find a producer willing to give you an evaluation. Keep a positive attitude and accept criticism gracefully. It may sting but you can improve your song if you are open-minded. There are professional musicians who will record your demos for a fee.

An effective demo can simply be piano & vocal or guitar & vocal. A rhythm section (drums & bass) will fill out the song and add power to the arrangement. Adding strings, synth, doubled lead guitar, harmony vocals and things can get complicated and studio time is expensive if you don't know what you're doing (even if you do)! Less is more. Basically, when you submit a demo, keep it short and interesting.

Another important thing is that A&R needs up-tempo material.

There is a real glut of ballads and a shortage of fast songs. Include NO MORE THAN 3 SONGS! Put your fast tune first, a strong ballad second and perhaps a midtempo last. If you think you have a Killer song that happens to be a ballad, put it first in any case. Put your "best foot forward", since your tape may not get any further than one song if A&R goes to lunch.

Strive to rewrite and don't include too many ideas. Make your point as clearly as possible. Many times when the creative juice is flowing you get a multitude of ideas. Catch them all as they come and sort it out later. Sometimes when you edit a piece you can end up with enough material for two or three songs. Also, keep your instrumental hooks down to a modest number or the piece will sound busy or disjointed. It's also a good exercise to try the song in a variety of styles & tempos (tempi?). It may turn out to be better as a rhumba, waltz, skank or whatever. Have a pen and a notebook of your lyric ideas on you at all times, because you may be inspired anywhere. Record your melodic & instrumental jewels as they appear, so they don't fade on you.

Good luck and happy re-writing! Remember rules are meant to be broken. There are always exceptions and innovation so don't feel restricted by formula.

Note: Monte Nordstrom has authored or co-authored over 175 songs since he started writing in 1969. He joined BMI with his 1974 Columbia Of Canada release "Ptarmigan", which was produced by Paul Horn and published by Horn's "Samadhi Music". He is associated with the performance rights organization, SOCAN and formed his publishing company, "Northstream Music" in 1980. He has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99).
Monte performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.

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