Woot woot! You’ve finally written that Breakthrough Song you’ve been working towards all these years. All songwriters deceive themselves most of the time. You have to. If you don’t have enough blind selfbelief 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 will never, ever write a Breakthrough Song and not know it. Breakthrough songs are something I know about first hand, even though I only ever wrote two of them in my life.
It’s all too easy to kid yourself a good song is great. You can even convince friends, family and hardcore fans – but you can’t fool the listening public. It’s only when that tune starts winning over complete strangers – time and time again, on a single listening – that you have a Breakthrough Song in the making.
It’ll take time to bed in as you live with it a bit, gig with it a lot, and try it out in different situations. You’ll start to hear it through other people’s ears and make tiny mental notes of what needs tweaking. Over the months it’ll develop, grow and settle into shape. You’ll stop fiddling with the lyrics and changing the arrangement.
Gradually, it’ll become the one song that gets everyone’s attention. It becomes your party piece; you slip it into mixtapes and strangers 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.
Looking back at my own 30 years as a recording artist, my single biggest mistake was spending too much time trying to micromanage my career. Wheeling and dealing, getting gigs and mithering the media were major distractions from the only thing that actually mattered: writing new material. Once you’ve got the Song, the Breakthrough takes care of itself.
The only reason I even had a career (see pic) was because of a song called 2-4-6-8 Motorway. And 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.
By definition a Breakthrough Song opens the doors to promoters, press, publishers, producers, radio and (if you choose) record companies. DJs look forward to playing it. Listeners look forward to hearing it. Give it the chance and it’ll rack up thousands of plays on YouTube, Soundcloud and Bandcamp.
Hold on. Am I saying you ought to put that precious song streaming online where people can (gasp) hear it for free? Are you crazy ? When people hear a killer song repeatedly they’re far more likely to buy it. Even if they don’t, what’s the worst that can happen? Two million people fall in love with the song, illegally rip the audio – and none of them pays you a cent ?
BASCA and the BPI will hate me for asking, but exactly how 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.
99.9% of us will never get our songs playlisted on Radio 1 but radio is by no means the only game in town. If you really have written a bona-fide Breakthrough Song that people fall in love with on first hearing, the chances are they’ll beat a path to your Soundcloud page.
And if you haven’t, it’s your chance to find out and move on.