You are the smallest business in America. Your product is a vital part of many of the largest businesses in the world (radio, TV, film, restaurants, clubs, hotels, supermarkets, etc.). The only reason they use your product is to make money. They grudgingly pay you a small portion of what you earn them, and you must raise a family, pay bills and create more product on that money. Demos are not cheap; opportunities to pitch your work are few.
This article is researched knowing that as a creator you write what you want, about what you want, how you choose to write it. However, when you have completed your song, you MUST change hats and become a small business person who understands what big business wants.
I am constantly asked why, when doing my research, I only check out the songs that get to #1 on the charts. I am reminded that there are many wonderful songs that only go Top 5 or even Top 10. Well, back in the early '70s, my first Country hit ("Good Enough To Be Your Wife" by Jeannie C. Riley) went to #2 and sat under "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson for a while before slipping back down the charts. Consoled by friends (who put another drink on my tab) that #2 was just as good as #1, I was haunted by the wise words of an old dog sled driver I used to know: "If you ain't the lead dog, the view never changes." So with those thoughts in mind, let's look at what worked for radio at #1 in Country music in the year 2002.
Anything in common?
About the only thing that all 21 #1s had in common was the time signature(all were 4/4). I guess that means not a lot of people are waltzing out there -- at least not during "drive time." Something else these songs had in common was their race to the first use of the title. 19 of 21 used the title within the first 60 seconds (including intro!). While we're on the topic of title use, let's check out the number of repetitions of the title. The variance (including fades) went from 1.5 repetitions ("These Days" - Robson/Steele/Wells) to 14 repetitions ("Blessed" - James/Lindsey/Verges) with 8 of 21 having five or fewer repetitions, 9 of 21 having six to 10 repetitions and 4 of 21 having 10 or more repetitions of the title. 10 of 21 had five or six repetitions of the title.
Tempo and Intro
Uptempo songs held 12 of the 21 top spots with mid-tempos at 3 of 21 and ballads at 6 of 21. We have been told since the dawn of radio that 13 seconds is the perfect amount of intro. But, among the total of 21 songs that reached #1 in 2002, the length of intro averaged 14.2 seconds. However, if you remove the exceedingly long intros of "Who's Your Daddy" -- Keith and "The Long Goodbye" -- Brady/Keating -- whose combined intros totaled 57 seconds -- the average intro time was -- drum roll, ta-da, 13 seconds!
Theme & Person
The themes at #1 Country were a blue-collar mix of Love Found ("Somebody Like You" -- Urban/Shanks * "Good Morning Beautiful" -- Cerney/Lyle * " Beautiful Mess" -- LeMaire/Mills/Minor), Love Celebrated ("Blessed" - James/Lindsey/Verges * "The Good Stuff" -- Collins/Wiseman), Love Lost ("I Miss My Friend" -- Martin/Nesler/Shapiro * "Bring On The Rain" -- Darling/Montana), Patriotism ("Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" -- Jackson * "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" -- Keith), Drinking ("Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo" -- Beathard/Cannon-Goodman/Heeney) and Fishing ("I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" -- Paisley/Rogers). Hey, wait a minute. Love found, love celebrated, love lost, patriotism, drinking, fishing, maybe we're getting back to real Country mus . . -- oops, sorry, lost my head there for a minute. Anyway, the largest percentage of 2002 #1s were about love/relationships. In addition, 16 of all 21 #1s used the first-person pronouns (I, me, you, us) in line with Country songs being conversational and personal.
Radio's core audience (women 25-40) did allow themselves to be distracted from the love theme for a little patriotism ("Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" -- Jackson * "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" -- Keith), but only briefly. Both songs were on and off the chart in fewer than 20 weeks. Women also tolerated one of their own finishing second to a bass boat ("I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" -- Paisley/Rogers) and letting a man behave badly ("Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo" -- Beathard/Cannon-Goodman/Heeney) for 31 weeks, probably secure in the knowledge that after 10 rounds of tequila, the ? would really feel bad. The other songs that kept the listeners' attention for 30 or more weeks were all love songs, whether lost, found or celebrated individually or as a family. These 30-plus-week songs totaled 9 of 21.
One noteworthy observation is that there was only one #1 single under three minutes ("She'll Leave You With A Smile" -- Blackmon/Knowles) -- in fact, four were four minutes or longer! A full 12 out of 21 #1s on the chart were longer than 3 minutes 30 seconds. Although the dean of Nashville songwriters, Harlan Howard, always said, "Only a dumbass takes more than three minutes to tell anything," in defense of the songwriters, a large number of these songs could have been three minutes or much shorter. Some of the fades were a minute or more in length!
Other than the larger number of topics writers were allowed to talk about in 2002, there was other good news. The 6th Form or "Rondeau" (or "Rondo" as W.O. Smith called it or "Honky Tonk Form" as Harlan Howard affectionately labeled it) reappeared at #1. (The basic Rondeau is Chorus-Verse-Chorus- Instrumental-Bridge-Chorus.) "Good Morning Beautiful" -- Cerney/Lyle, written in Rondeau, held the listener for 26 weeks to get to #1, kept them singing along for six weeks at #1 and entertained them for a further eight weeks after that in its most perfect structure for a whopping 40 weeks on the chart!
Next came good old 2nd Form
(Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Chorus). This form has been used for decades by Country writers, Rockers and Folkies to tell stories because of its flexibility -- you can add verses to tell the whole story if you feel you need them. It therefore comes as no surprise that the patriotic themes of "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" -- Jackson and " Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" - Keith were best told without the frills of bridges, middle 8ths, lifts, channels, pre-choruses, etc.
Another solid, well-used form that seldom gets to #1 made three appearances. The 5th Form had its time in the sun, well represented by " Somebody Like You" -- Urban/Shanks, "The Cowboy In Me" --Anderson/Steele/Wiseman and "She'll Leave You With A Smile" -- Blackmon/Knowles. (The 5th Form's major distinction is that there is no chorus; its verses have an AABA structure with the first or last line of the verse being the title/hook.) What "Somebody" and "Cowboy" shared was the addition of an extra verse. The fun thing in any craft is learning the rules and then breaking them -- ask Picasso! Some of my personal favorite songs are written in 5th Form --"The Song Remembers When," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Somewhere In My Broken Heart" and so many more. I guess they don't fit the needs of the drive time listener all the time but, hey . . .
The lion's share of #1s were written in drive time's best friends 3rd Form and 4th Form. 3rd Form at its most basic is Verse-(Verse Optional) -Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrumental-Chorus. 4th Form is Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-(Bridge Optional)-Instrumental-(Lift Optional)-Chorus. Just to illustrate, the most pristine examples of these forms are "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out" -- Cagle/Robbin (3rd Form) and " Living And Living Well" -- Martin/Nesler/Shapiro (4th Form). I confess that it's great to see writers stretch and bend these forms. For instance, a couple of the 4th Form songs left out second verses entirely ("I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" -- Paisley/Rogers and "Who's Your Daddy?" -- Keith) yet still satisfied the listener and allowed the writer some freedom to have fun.
Other items to note
Speaking of fun, HUMOR and IRONY are huge factors in a big radio song. Compound humor and irony with image-inducing detail ("under an old brass paperweight" / "feet on a hardwood floor" / "electric choke"), and you have all these wonderful ear-catching mini-hooks that expertly lead the listener to the real "hook" or logical conclusion. By creating an expectation and then so satisfactorily fulfilling it, the writer delivers.
Your best shot
I could ramble on for pages about how much fun it is to watch writers exercise their craft, but it's time to cut to the chase. Based on last year's numbers, what's your best shot for getting a #1 record this year? As always, it helps to be the artist or to write with the artist, but considering the fact that two-thirds of the #1s in 2002 were not written or co-written by the artist, roll up your sleeves, look at your work and start by selecting love songs with an average length of three minutes to three minutes and thirty seconds, leaning toward mid- to up-tempo, in 4/4 time and in 3rd or 4th Form, using conversational first-person, heavy on humor and irony, packed with ear-catching details. Throw in a 13-second introduction, get your listener to the title in 60 seconds (or less) with the title repeating no more than seven times, and you're in the running! Remember, when it comes to radio, your job is to hold the listener from the car commercial to the soda jingle through multiple daily repetitions for a minimum of five months (or in the case of "Good Morning Beautiful" -- Cerney/Lyle, 10 months!). You must create something so simple that the listener gets it immediately yet so complex that it holds his or her attention for a lifetime. That's the easy part! Now try getting an artist to record it . . . [Thanks to Mark Ford for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form!]
(Billboard magazine Jan. 1 - Dec. 31, 2002)
Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer: Alan Jackson
Good Morning Beautiful
Performer: Steve Holy / Writers: Zack Lyle, Todd Cerney
Bring On The Rain
Performer: Jo Dee Messina / Writers: Billy Montana, Helen Darling
The Cowboy In Me
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writers: Craig Wiseman, Jeffrey Steele, Al Anderson
The Long Goodbye
Performer: Brooks & Dunn / Writers: Paul Brady, Ronan Keating
Performer: Martina McBride / Writers: Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges, Brett James
I Breathe In, I Breathe Out
Performer: Chris Cagle / Writers: Chris Cagle, Jon Robbin
Performer: Toby Keith / Writers: Rand Bishop, Tim James
Drive (For Daddy Gene)
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer: Alan Jackson
Living And Living Well
Performer: George Strait / Writers: Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, Tom Shapiro
I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)
Performer: Brad Paisley / Writers: Brad Paisley, Frank Rogers
Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer: Toby Keith
The Good Stuff
Performer: Kenny Chesney / Writers: Jim Collins, Craig Wiseman
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writers: Holly Lamar, Annie Roboff
I Miss My Friend
Performer: Darryl Worley / Writers: Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, Tom Shapiro
Performer: Diamond Rio / Writers: Sonny LeMaire, Clay Mills, Shane Minor
Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo
Performer: Tracy Byrd / Writers: Casey Beathard, Michael Heeney, Marla Cannon-Goodman
Somebody Like You
Performer: Keith Urban / Writers: Keith Urban, John Shanks
Performer: Rascal Flatts / Writers: Stephen Paul Robson, Jeffrey Steele, Danny Mark Wells
Who's Your Daddy?
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer: Toby Keith
She'll Leave You With A Smile
Performer: George Strait / Writers: Odie Blackmon, Jay Knowles
© Copyright 2003 Ralph Murphy