Breakthrough Songs

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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.

Tom Robinson Band with Paul & Linda McCartney at Capital Radio Awards 1978

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 YouTubeSoundcloud and Bandcamp.

YouTube, SoundCloud and BandCamp logos

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.



  1. Massimo Zeppetelli

    Yes, it’s more about having your music heard by as many people as possible first, then the rest will follow!

  2. Hi Tom
    Interesting points you make. Two of my songs, the first Home Fire, were played by you and Freshnet crew and Love Thing was included on your Podcast. Both are popular in the sense of plays and favourites (I would have not had thousands of plays in years on MySpace). The hard part is moving tot he next stage and getting mainstream radio play and that is impossible unless you catch the ear/notice of producers. Cheers for all your promotion of new music. David aka Dogman

  3. Good shout Tom. I’m going to follow your advice and do this with my 2nd single release. It’ll be really interesting to see how the free release compares to the for sale one… Now to film the music video! (The power of video these days is huge too – again, watchable for free!)

  4. Cheers Dan, but let me clarify this piece is only saying you should let people HEAR your audio streaming online. I’m not advocating giving away your audio files as free downloads. Some people do give their music away free, but that’s a different issue. Personally I’d advise letting people hear your music streaming on Bandcamp, but also let them pay you if they want to download and own it on their iPod.

  5. totally agree with you Tom on the aspect of giving away your music for free, you have got to value the music you produce if folk like it they will pay for it if they don’t they wont that is a fact. Never under sell yourself as a band you’ve got to think you are the best if you don’t your in the wrong band ! cheers 🙂

  6. Please give my song a listen and see what you think!

  7. Hello Sam – check out the bit at the top of this page where it says “To send as a track click here“… If we like it, we’ll put it on the blog and it’ll get considered for radio airplay. Couldn’t be simpler, really !

  8. Randomly perusing this website and have come across this. Very worthwhile bit of info here, thanks! Also – brilliant photo Tom! 😀

  9. I agree with you Tom. You really do know when you’ve written that breakthrough song. You seem to believe in it that much more, – naturally put more effort into promoting it.. telling people about it.. We.. ‘BE’.. always think of our songs as our children – ‘BE songchilds’ – and we know when one of them is special and ready to fly. and as such, we also agree with you.. Yes! Send them out into the world.. You created them, have faith in them and believe in them and they will return with wonderful stories for their parents! 🙂 Bless you + your team for the efforts you make in promoting new music by the way.. Songwriters need a champion or three eh? 🙂 BE xx

  10. Very much agree with this. I seemed to have spent the last couple of weeks though to expanding the amount of people that listen to my tracks by growing the fanbase on twitter. It’s worked to a degree and I’m getting some nice blogs written about my band’s first track ‘sirens’. I think that it’s a mixture of a good track and also effective promotion.

  11. Just wanted to thank you all for really sensible advice. Because of fresh on the net we had 240 plays on one of our tracks over a couple of days. This is massive for us, and is what we want so much. We are continuing our search for the really great track, maybe one day…

  12. I have written several potential ones. It tends to be counterproductive in as much as one may feel the other songs are being under rated, but it’s no good, because people let you know which are their favourites, the people decide, as they say, and that is that.

  13. Some interesting points raised. I’ve always been concerned that I’m not a very prolific songwriter and it can take me quite a bit of time to finish a song. I mentioned this to Martyn Joseph at a songwriting Q&A he held at last year’s PipeFest. His view is that no one is desperately waiting to hear an artist’s next song, but if you take the time to get it right the greater the chance that it’ll have a strong impact when an audience does get to hear it for the first time.

    Something I’ve also learnt is that the song you think is your breakthrough isn’t always. I’ve written songs that I thought were really great and would get an audience’s attention; however, it turned out that a different song that I didn’t think they’d like as much got the response.

  14. Tom

    @MarkLemon and @KimRalls… As outlined above my experience is that I only ever managed to write two Breakthrough Songs myself in the course of a thirty year career as a recording artist. But even those two were enough of a peg to hang the rest of my catalogue of Ordinary or even Pretty Good songs on.

    Any of us may write an Ordinary Song and mistake it for a Breakthrough Song – that’s par for the course. (If you don’t believe the most recent thing you’ve made is far and away the best thing you’ve done, you’re in the wrong business – what would be the point.)

    But you will never, ever write a Breakthrough Song and mistake it for an Ordinary Song. When you’ve got it, you’ll definitely know.

  15. HardlyEver Wrong

    300 sweaty kids at a youth club disco in suburban Dublin punching the air in perfect unison and then 40 years later doing the same, albeit with less vigour, at a 50th birthday party.

    That’s a breakthrough song.

  16. Devyn Anthony

    I would wager a case of Canadian Beer that there is an unmeasurable multitude of Breakaway Songs that never get heard. I may have heard a few here yet.

    In case you are like me and don’t like Canadian Beer, we can discuss the substitution in the wager to our most fantabulous Canadian Back Bacon then eh?!

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