How to Write a Hit Song & Get a Record Deal: Advice from A&R Jason Davis
In today’s music business, there’s a lot of buzz about the importance of social media numbers, YouTube views, and the existence of an already rabid fanbase when you’re trying to get a record deal. Sure, having a handle on the business side is important, but what about the music part? To learn what A&R people look for in up-and-coming artists, we sat down with industry pioneer Jason Davis, who has worked with groundbreaking acts like Boyz ll Men, Sugar Ray, P. Diddy, Alabama, Lonestar, and Dolly Parton.
Davis’ interesting perspective on how to make it in the biz comes from his early career as a successful Songwriter. He also draws expertise from his work as the force behind companies like Radar Label Group (Jimmy Eat World, Plain White T’s, Neon Trees, The Unlikely Candidates), Awaken Records (Austin French), and One One 7. He also works as an Artist Manager through First Company Management and is the Co-President/Partner of Higher Level Booking Agency.
Davis believes that if artists write incredible songs, the rest will follow. But how do you get to “incredible”? Read on for his take on how to write killer tracks that catch industry attention.
In this article, we’ll discuss the following components of how to write a hit song:
- Get opinions from experienced music industry professionals
- Perform regularly
- Work on your star presence
- Be smart about artistic collaborators
- Don’t give up
“These days, it’s more important that you’re making very high-quality records with high-quality songs,” says Davis. “I think when I got into the business, there was such a bubble that if a record had one or two great songs, records would generally sell. Today you have to have those one or two great songs. But, if you’re going to move the needle as a new artist on a label, it’s equally important to have a really great record where at least the first half of the record is as rock solid as you can get it.”
Get Opinions from Experienced Music Industry Professionals
Yes, it’s important to get opinions on your tracks from friends in other bands, your friends, and people in your circle. If you’re hoping to get traction in the industry, however, it makes sense to get insights from people working in the industry.
Davis agrees that having an existing fan base does pique the interest of A&R folks, but that it’s the ability to craft amazing songs that comes first. This ability is something that artists can build over time. He explains, “I hear a lot of talk today about social media numbers, about growing a following. All those things are good. All those things are important but the biggest disconnect I see between an up-and-coming artist and what the industry is looking for is truly great songs.
Because getting truly amazing songs is so hard and because when you’re starting out you can’t really see where the bar is, it takes many years of rejection and thinking you have it and realizing you don’t for that bar to naturally grow and for you to become aware of what is truly great and what is not. It’s so easy for artists to get attached to what they’re creating because they’re writing and creating songs that are coming from true stories or really deep emotions.”
“What is a star? A star is an object in the sky that shines very brightly. So it’s working on how do you walk into a room, what’s the first impression when you walk into a room, how do you meet somebody, how well are you dressed and put together? Do you walk into a room shining, with your personality on ten?” — Jason Davis
“Obviously aspiring artists are so hopeful because this is a dream they have and the dream is so intense. They go into studio situations wanting so badly for it to be great and they can easily convince themselves it’s great. I think one of the biggest keys if you’re an aspiring artist, is to not be too precious about what you’re creating.
Seek counsel and ask for counsel from the people around you, the people you’re meeting, the fans you’re meeting. Don’t be afraid to ask people what they truly think of a song. A lot of times you create a song and you so badly want people to love it like you do that you kind of skip the part of really seeking other people’s thoughts on ‘what do I have and what don’t I have?’ I see a lot of up-and-coming artists getting a little too precious about what they’re creating and holding on to it a little too tightly…then maybe a year or two of their life goes by and they realize they actually didn’t nail it and they have to go back to the drawing board.
The artist’s cycle of writing and recording can sometimes be a year, it can be six months or two years. That’s a long time to waste when you’re working behind a product that’s not going to get you anywhere.”
To circumvent the issue of getting overly attached to your songs, he suggests that “having an A&R Person who’s a great editor of songs and who can identify really good songs versus great songs is more important than it has ever been. I would say that somebody who can identify a truly great song, a potential hit song, is more important than maybe it was even twenty years ago.”
Apart from seeking the opinions of industry pros and fans, what else can an artist do to hone his or her ability to create (and recognize) their best work?
“The song thing is the foundation of the house,” Davis affirms. “If you don’t have competitive songs, you don’t really have a chance and that is the hardest thing to get right. Artists should be performing on a regular basis. I would encourage any aspiring artist to be performing at least two to four times a month in the area, finding a stage anywhere, whether it’s a coffee shop, singing the national anthem, or a karaoke night at a restaurant. Getting out there, getting in front of people and performing at least two to four times a month is pretty important to develop confidence and learn to engage with an audience.”
Performing regularly is also key to developing another component an artist must have to be successful: star presence.
Work on Your Star Presence
“Be aware that as you meet people in the inner circle of the industry, everyone is looking for a star,” Davis says. “What is a star? A star is an object in the sky that shines very brightly. So it’s working on how do you walk into a room, what’s the first impression when you walk into a room, how do you meet somebody, how well are you dressed and put together? Do you walk into a room shining, with your personality on ten? Do you walk into a room confident and excited? Are you able to conduct and carry a conversation?
I think those are all really important things because when you’re meeting Songwriters and Producers, people at labels, or eventually, when you get a record deal, people at radio stations, you really have to walk in and turn your light on. Really turn it on personality-wise because that’s what people are looking for — can this person walk into a radio station and win over people at radio stations? Can this person meet Concert Promoters, shake their hands, and win them over? Can they win over Managers? Can they win over Songwriters and Producers in the studio? I think really turning on your personality when you meet people, being intentional about that and working on that is something a lot of aspiring artists don’t really think about or know — but it’s a very important thing to be aware of.”
“As an aspiring artist, you’re going to want to spend money on working with people who are really doing it right now, landing on records and being in that inner circle mix, and are solid people who care about you and have the heart to deliver for you but also are not rookies or at a point in their career where they’re not landing as many things as they used to. That can be a waste of time and a waste of resources.” — Jason Davis
Be Smart About Artistic Collaborators
Being intentional about who you work with means being smart about money. Don’t just throw money at anyone who promises they can help you; carefully weigh potential collaborators’ track records and look at where they’re going.
Davis notes, “Finances, especially for an aspiring artist, are a sensitive topic. There are some artists out there who don’t have a lot and some who do. I see a lot of artists paying Producers in studios that haven’t had a lot of success themselves or had success but it was a long time ago. It’s really hard to figure this out when you’re an aspiring artist.
I feel like if you’re paying money for something — for example, photo shoots — artists today (generally) can get cooler photos doing selfies or having a college friend shoot photos and not spending $1,000 to $2,000 on a photo shoot. I see people spending money on music videos, and music videos are not going to move the needle today, especially if you’re a new artist. You might spend $3,000. You might spend $10,000 or more and it’s probably something you could’ve gotten the same traction for by doing a lyric video. That lyric video could’ve been free — or maybe at the most, you’re spending $500 to have someone do that lyric video.
As an aspiring artist, you’re going to want to spend money on working with people who are really doing it right now, landing on records and being in that inner circle mix, and are solid people who care about you and have the heart to deliver for you but also are not rookies or at a point in their career where they’re not landing as many things as they used to. That can be a waste of time and a waste of resources.
There are not a lot of great options out there for artists so you see a lot of artists linking up with the wrong people who probably aren’t able to get the artist to the level where they want to be. In that case, I think it’s a better use of time to be lifting the weight yourself as an artist — writing a song a week, sitting around digging into your soul and writing and trying to be as self-sufficient as possible. We all need help at some point in our journey but I think a lot of up-and-coming artists would be better served by digging deep, alone in their rooms, and not spending money paying more B-level people to do things for them.”
Don’t Give Up
Giving up can mean a couple of things: it can mean quitting your dream or it can mean settling for less. Either one is a mistake.
“When it’s done at the highest levels, music really has the power to save someone’s life, change someone’s life or stop somebody from doing something harmful to themselves. Music can heal relationships or mend hearts. As an artist, you are a mouthpiece who can really reach a lot of lives if it’s done well.”
He cautions, “It’s so hard to do well that a lot of people just give up on what they’re creating or settle on what they’re creating a little too quickly. Then they don’t end up having the reach that maybe they could have had.”
Some final advice: your odds of making it are better if you live in a major music city where other industry pros live.
“I dislike this first part of my answer and wish it was different,” Davis says. “I hate telling people to go move and not be protected and with their family. There is a protection that comes when you live with your family and have them close by, but if I’m forgetting that and just giving advice, I think moving to a music city would be very beneficial.
In my opinion, Los Angeles and Nashville are the best places. I’ve lived in both. Being near a music city is extremely important for networking. It’s very hard to build relationships when you’re not able to meet for a coffee or go knock on an office door. There is something that happens when you are face-to-face with someone that cannot be replaced with email or over the phone. There’s something that happens when you break bread with someone that can’t happen unless it’s in person.”
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