Hallelujah! You’ve finally found the holy grail and written your Breakthrough Song. We all like to think our latest song is the best thing we’ve ever written, but – with luck – one day it eventually is.
Ambitious songwriters deceive themselves most of the time. You have to. If you don’t have enough blind ambition to write crap songs again and again you’ll never get to the good ones, let alone the great ones. But trust your Uncle Tom on this: you are never, ever going to write a Breakthrough Song and not know it. Breakthrough Songs are one thing I know about, even though I only ever wrote two of them in my life.
It’s easy to kid yourself a good song is great, and you can even convince friends, family and dedicated fans. But you can’t fool the public. Only when it starts winning over complete strangers on a single listening, time and time again, can you be sure you have a Breakthrough Song in the making.
It’ll take time to bed in. It helps to live with it a bit, gig with it a lot, and hear it over and over again in different situations. You start to hear it through other people’s ears and make tiny mental notes of what needs tweaking. And gradually, when playing your demos to people, they sit up when that one comes on. It becomes your party piece; you slip it into mixtapes and people you don’t know are genuinely impressed. Fans ask about it after gigs. Others start shouting for it DURING gigs. You end up closing your set with it every night.
My career as a recording artist began in the early 70s and fizzled out around the end of the 90s. Looking back, my single biggest mistake was spending far too much time trying to micromanage my career, and nothing like enough time listening to new music and writing new songs. Gigging and band politics were a major distraction from the two things that actually mattered.
The only reason I even had a career was because of writing a song called 2468 Motorway. The only reason that career lasted as long as it did was because I wrote another one seven years later called War Baby. Not everybody liked them, and not everybody will like yours. But enough people adored them to completely transform my career on both occasions. Get the song right and the breakthrough will eventually take care of itself.
By definition a Breakthrough Song opens the doors to promoters, press, publishers, producers, radio and record companies (though dealing with that lot in today’s climate needs a whole other discussion). DJs look forward to playing it. Their listeners look forward to hearing it. It racks up thousands of plays on MySpace, YouTube and Last.fm.
Hold on. Am I saying you ought to put up your precious Breakthrough Song in full on MySpace where people might (gasp) copy it without paying you? Are you crazy? What’s the worst that can happen – two million people love it enough to illegally download it and share it with all their friends for free? How the f*** is having two million fans going to damage your future prospects?
“Smile” didn’t launch Lily Allen’s career because a few thousand people bought the single. It happened because millions of others – literally millions – heard it for free on the radio.