Choosing The Right Songs

2010 Vinny Ribas

 One of the most critical mistakes that many artists make is in choosing the wrong songs to perform in their shows and to record. Song choice is everything, and I can prove it. Think of all of the artists who are not the greatest singers but are superstars because they always sing amazing songs. Some that come to mind immediately are Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and even Taylor Swift. Now turn the table and tell me about an amazing singer who has made it big while consistently singing weak, mediocre songs. Can you think of any?[private_freebie]

 So, if song choice is king, why do so many artists fall short when choosing the right songs to perform live or in the studio? Here are some of the main reasons: 

  • They insist on singing and recording their own songs, but have never honed their songwriting craft enough to write amazing songs. It is more important that you present the very best songs at all times, regardless of who wrote them.
  • They sing what they like without any regard to what their audience is looking for. You need to learn to read your audiences and deliver what they came to hear. If it’s a dance room, you need to be able to keep them on the floor. If it’s a listening room, you may need to put on a show. Anything less leaves them feeling cheated and disappointed.
  • They try to sing songs that are out of their range, and therefore sound forced. Choose songs that you can sing comfortably, and that you can perform night after night.
  • They put songs in the wrong key. It is crucial that you have the optimum key that lets you comfortably deliver the power and emotion of each song. Even a difference of just ½ step can make all of the difference in the world. It doesn’t matter what the original key was. It has to suit your voice.
  • They pick songs that don’t fit their voice. Your voice might be perfect for country but sound weak on a hard-core rock song. When it comes to picking the styles of music that you want to perform, you need to know where your ‘sweet spots’ are. Anything else can sound phony.
  • They pick songs that they don’t relate to. It comes across as contrived. For example, if you’ve never had a broken heart, it’s hard to sell that kind of pain in a song. If you’re image is that of a good, wholesome gentleman, you may not be able to convincingly sing songs about being in prison. Your music should represent who you really are, what you’ve experienced, how you feel and what your hopes and dreams are.
  • They pick songs they don’t really believe in. Your audience wants to get to know you, including your beliefs and what you really stand for. When you believe in something, you sing it with conviction. If you don’t believe in what you’re singing about, you are considered a hypocrite.
  • They force songs. While you need to be mindful of what the audience wants, you still can only stretch so far. I once worked on cruise ship on which they asked the jazz band to wear jeans and play county music one night a week. Needless to say, even the 3-chord Hank Williams songs (that they played out of fake books) didn’t sound anywhere close to country. Be authentic.
  • They choose songs that they don’t have the instrumental ability to pull off. If you’re good at arranging, you may be able to change the arrangement to fit your abilities. But if you can’t play it confidently, it might be best to skip it altogether.
  • They mis-book themselves. Playing to an audience that is expecting something completely different than what you normally play can be devastating. And no matter how well you perform your songs, the audience may think you are less than stellar.
  • They record songs that they can’t duplicate live. Maybe you used overdubs, brought in other musicians, and used technology to get certain effects. Maybe you just kept recording over and over until you got it down perfectly. For whatever the reason, your music buying public wants to hear you play the music they have of yours on their iPod. Don’t let them down with watered down versions of your songs.
  • They play songs that bore them. If you are bored, the audience will certainly be as well! Keep your set list fresh and somewhat challenging!

 The best way to tell if you are not picking the right songs is by listening to feedback. If your audiences are not responding to you enthusiastically, if your music is not getting great reviews, if your singer hits the high notes on some nights but not on others, or if you sweat bullets before certain songs because you’re not confident in your ability, you may have a song problem. If you are having any of these challenges, or any of the above-mentioned problems, take a serious look at your song list and weed out the ones that are just falling flat. Find more that fit all of these criteria, and your popularity and impact will increase dramatically![/private_freebie]

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.