The following is excerpted from the Berklee Online course Music Publishing 101.

If you’re a songwriter, congratulations! You’re also a publisher. You become one the moment you write your first song. Music publishing is one of the
most promising areas for growth in today’s music business because it reaches across so many different products, services, and media. Anywhere
music is being used in the world, there is a music publisher involved and profiting from that use.

Likewise, whatever sector of the music business you happen to be in, whether you’re a songwriter, a performer, a booking agent, a record label owner, a DJ, a radio programmer, or a recording engineer, it’s possible to add a music publishing component to your business. In order to do that, you must become familiar with the process of hearing music critically and objectively to predict its commercial success.

Be a Great Critic (To Yourself and Others)

No artist likes a critic. This means that trying to provide songwriters with an honest appraisal of their work is rarely a simple task. It’s even less simple if you inhabit both roles at the same time—creator of the song, as well as the critical voice of reality. Not an easy gig.

The problem with most critics is that it is too easy to be a “judge”—criticism can too quickly become a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, make-it-or-break-it proposition. But if your goal is to develop your songwriter or the song in question, that sort of black/white, yes/no judgment will not be helpful.

The question for a critical publisher should not be, “Do I like the song?” The question should be, “What are the song’s strengths and weaknesses, and how can it be improved?” That means taking an approach that’s constructive; your critique should be specific and done from a commercial point of view. The first step in the critique process is to break the song into individual components. This is tricky because many songs succeed largely on the strength of one element: a great track that covers up a lack of melody or a great melody that lifts a mediocre lyric. But it’s important to assess the song’s strengths and weaknesses in a very specific way: melody, lyric, structure, or groove. Figure out what’s good in the song, what’s just okay, and what needs to be fixed.

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Songwriting is an Art, Publishing is a Business

As a publisher, your role is to maximize the commercial potential of the song. When you consider the tempo of the song, keep in mind that there’s much greater demand for midtempo or uptempo songs than there is for slow ballads. When you look at the lyric, consider whether it’s specific to one gender and could be made more saleable with an alternate male or female version. The songwriter creates, but the publisher sells. It’s up to you, the publisher, to fit the song into some commercial format, in a specific genre, for a particular audience.

While it might not seem like a terribly creative approach, the truth is that there are specific qualities common to most hit songs, and those characteristics can be the measure by which you critique a stack of new demos. A&R execs that you pitch the song to will be looking for elements like a provocative or surprising title, a strong structure with a natural build and release, or a demo production that suits a target audience. Here are some questions to consider when hearing a song for the first time:

  • Does the title sound like a “hit”? Why?
  • Is there a concept for the song? Why?
  • Is the lyric effective? Appropriate? Convincing? Singable? Appealing? Cliché-free?
  • Is the song structured correctly? Is there a natural build and release within the song structure?
  • Does the arrangement serve the song? Does it enhance the song? Why?
  • Is the tempo right? Does the song drag? Why?
  • Is the production of the demo “dynamic” and “in your face”? Why?
  • Does the demo fit clearly into one specific genre? Is that the appropriate genre for the song? Why?
  • Does the song have the potential for mass appeal? Is it the right length? Why?

Naturally, these questions are neither exhaustive nor infallible. There are exceptions to every rule, as this is an art, not a science. The real value of these questions is to direct your attention to specific aspects of the song, and to bring out the song’s strengths and weaknesses. It will help you avoid make-it-or-break-it judgments. Instead, it will focus your songwriter on specific elements that are working effectively or areas in need of improvement.

This is important, especially if the song you’re considering is not something you wrote. When you’re critiquing other writers’ work, formulating your opinion and developing your ideas of how to improve the song is only half the battle. You still have the formidable challenge of sharing your thoughts with the songwriter in a way that is honest and persuasive, but also encouraging rather than confidence-shattering. Never forget that you and your writer are on the same team. Just as coaches can’t afford to demoralize their players, you must develop your songwriter without discouraging them.

Here are some examples of vague versus specific feedback:

Vague: “I’m just not feeling it.”

Specific: “The song’s concept is not provocative or strong enough—it’s not something that will make an audience react.”

Vague: “I don’t know what to do with it.”

Specific: “It doesn’t fit clearly into a specific radio format or market. Maybe we need to focus the demo production in a more obvious direction.”

Vague: “It’s cool, but it’s not a hit.”

Specific: “The tempo is too slow and the lyric is too vague and undefining to be a first single. This feels like an album track, which isn’t what the project needs.”

Vague: “That drum sound sucks.”

Specific: “The snare feels a little dated and it’s not cutting through the mix. We need something closer to the sound on the artist’s current single.”

Your relationship as a publisher to a songwriter is not much different than a book editor to an author or a director to an actor. Because you have the vantage point of being on the outside of the song and seeing how it fits commercially into the marketplace, you have to bring that perspective to your writers and help them hone and polish their craft.

If you are playing the role of both publisher and writer, your role as critic becomes important to your very survival. Nothing will damage a songwriter-owned publishing company more than a lack of quality control.

If A&R people sense that you are not making the hard judgments about your music, they will quickly classify your company as a vanity project and relegate you to the do-not-call list. On the other hand, if you can learn to be objective about your own material, you’ll not only become a better publisher—you’ll become a better songwriter as well.

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Try it Out

Find an audio file of one song from your publishing catalog. If that’s not possible, use a song that you don’t publish. This could be something from a friend or even something off an album. But try to use something relatively unknown. Analyze the song you’ve selected, using the questions above. What could you do to improve the song?