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Hit Songwriter Jason Blume and Author of Six Steps to Songwriting Success

Jason Blume is one of the few songwriters to ever achieve the distinction of having his songs on Billboard’s Pop, R&B, and Country charts – all at the same...

Jason Blume is one of the few songwriters to ever achieve the distinction of having his songs on Billboard’s Pop, R&B, and Country charts – all at the same time. With his songs recorded by Pop superstars Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Jesse McCartney as well as Country stars including Collin Raye, the Oak Ridge Boys and John Berry, and international artists like the Gipsy Kings, Blume’s songs are included on albums that have sold more than 50 million copies!

One of the nation’s most respected song writing teachers, when he is not writing hits, Blume teaches others how to do so. He developed and teaches the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops and has taught his song writing techniques as a guest lecturer at U.C.L.A. and Vanderbilt University, as well as a member of the faculty of Los Angeles’ Pierce College, Nashville’s Watkins Institute, and internationally in Norway, Ireland, Jamaica, Canada, and Mexico.

Jason spent some time with us and answered our questions about making it as a songwriter as well as about his teaching.

Where did you grow up?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I grew up in Philadelphia which is on the East Coast and went to school there, got a degree in Psychology and then right after school I decided I wanted to pursue being a superstar songwriter and recording artist and I moved to LA.

How does that mix? How does a Psychology degree mix with becoming a hit songwriter?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I think it’s a perfect combination to help me deal with the insanity of the music business. I mean, truthfully, I went to school thinking I would be a psychologist and I played at clubs on the weekends while I was in school. I would play coffee houses and I was even a strolling mandolinist at an Italian restaurant.

After I completed my degree, I got a job in a psychiatric hospital where I worked for about a year or so. But I just really wasn’t happy. I went on a vacation and when I got away from everything and I could just walk alone on the beach. I knew in my heart and in my soul that I would never be happy, if I didn’t give myself a chance to become a songwriter. And I just came back from my vacation and said goodbye, I’m leaving. I had $400 and I packed up whatever I owned into my car and I drove to LA.

That is quite courageous. From the moment you decided to pursue a career as a songwriter, how long did it take you to make it in the music business?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: First I should tell you I was so positive, such an optimist, I absolutely knew that I would have a Mercedes in my driveway in a year. And the funny thing is that I actually did get to drive a Mercedes within a year. But the problem was that I drove them as part of a job. I got hired to take rich peoples’ cars through the carwash, get their dry cleaning done, and to go to the grocery stores. I really was driving a Mercedes — but it wasn’t mine.

I lived in one room in LA, no kitchen, no bathroom. I shared the bathroom down the hall with junkies and prostitutes.

My part time job was only 15 hours a week, so I had enough time to devote 1000% of my energy to learning how to become a songwriter and break through. And I just thought, “I didn’t move here and give up my job and my family and my friends to work a full time job and not write songs“. I was young and I didn’t have any money, but I wasn’t unhappy because I was pursuing my dreams and knew that I was going to make it in a year. In fact, it took 11 ? years before I got my first break, and even that didn’t earn me a lot of money.

So you signed your first music publishing deal after 11 ? years in LA?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Yes. I signed with Zomba. I wanted a staff writing deal desperately, more than anything in the world, so I could quit my day jobs. I worked a lot of horrible day jobs. But I should also mention that at one point I had a great day job working in A&R at RCA Records where I learned a whole lot.

Most of the day jobs were temp jobs that I hated, so all I wanted was to get a staff writing position and nobody wanted me. Nobody thought I was good enough.

But my fortunes changed when in 1991 the Oak Ridge Boys recorded one of my songs at a point when they were hot. They were winning Grammy awards and achieved number 1 records with everything they released. When I suddenly had this huge cut with them, I was able to easily approach any publisher in Nashville about signing me to a publishing deal.

However, LA-based publishers didn’t want to sign me – even though I lived there – because the Oak Ridge Boys were a Country act. Ironically, the song I wrote was not really a Country song. It was a Pop song that had originally been on hold for Natalie Cole. But the song could also work as a Country song. Once I got that song cut everybody wanted me in Nashville and I was able to say, where do I want to be and the obvious answer was with Zomba because it was the only company in Nashville that also owned a Pop and R&B record label in New York. And that’s what I really wanted to do. I never thought I could write Country songs.

So here I signed with a company in Nashville that owned a record label in New York. I didn’t have a crystal ball but it couldn’t have worked out better if I did. Who would have thought that years later, Zomba would sign Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and some other great artists that I would get to work with.

You also secured a new job at RCA records as an A&R assistant, is that right?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Well, here’s what happened – I went there as a temp, before I signed with Zomba. I was supposed to be there for 3 days to do some typing and filing in the Country Promotions department. I thought it was a punishment, listening to Country music was just horrible for me. But on my first day on the job I helped send out copies of the first single of a brand new act called “The Judds”, and they blew me away. I thought I was listening to the best songs and the best production I’d ever heard, I was in love and I suddenly thought “Gosh, maybe this Country music is not garbage, maybe I want to write some of that”.

After about a year in Country Promotions I got a job as the Assistant to the Director of A&R in LA at RCA. I was in the right place when a position opened up; they already knew me so I got that job and it started out really as a secretarial position. I proved that I had the ability to hear good songs and know good artists and I got more and more responsibility and I became the person who was first screening the songs in many of the instances, and I was out listening for bands at night also.

What did you learn, given that you had pitched your own music, what kind of things did you learn?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I think the most important thing was how important the songs were, it all came down to the songs. A&R reps are always desperately trying to find incredible songs. The most common comment I heard at RCA was, “Great voice — but no hits.” Sometimes songwriters come in thinking that they have to beg and say “please listen to my songs,” but if you’ve got the next unbelievable smash hit, an A&R rep needs you more than you need them. But you need to have a hit song.

Several years later I was a production co-ordinator working with very big artists in Nashville, including Randy Travis and Aaron Tippin, and in that capacity, I also listened to hundreds and hundreds of songs. Again, what I kept learning is that really good songs were worthless. It seemed like anybody could write really “good” songs.

Almost every song I heard was coming from staff writers who’d had hits, so of course every one of these songs was perfectly crafted, using all the tools and the techniques that I teach. The verses, the choruses, the melodies, everything was right — but the hard part was finding that song that jumped out of the pile and made you go “wow, that one is incredible!” So now, as a teacher, I really urge people to push the envelope. I think that the most dangerous thing that we do is to play it safe, that nobody is going to break through and have their first big hit by playing it safe and writing something that everybody else could write.

But everybody thinks that their songs are great songs.

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Well, the truth of the matter is that it is very, very hard to be objective about your own work. When I was starting out, there was nothing you could have done to convince me that my songs weren’t smash hits. I learned my lessons by seeking out professional feedback. I got professional feedback by attending workshops, by pitching my songs to panelists and professional writers and having them critique my songs over and over again. There are a lot of organizations now that offer professional critiques and I happen to run a service that does that. I don’t do the critiques myself, but I have an unbelievable Grammy-winning writer and producer that for $30 will really listen to every song and put it under the microscope and will tell people his honest opinion; what works; what needs to be fixed – and how to fix it. If you start getting the same opinion 2, 3 or 4 times, you better accept that maybe there’s something wrong with the song if everybody’s saying it.

And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a song, but there’s nothing unique and special to edge out Diane Warren, Kara Dioguardi, or Jeffrey Steele, or another hit songwriter competing with you. That’s the competition, not amateurs! If you want to get a big cut, you have to give A&R a compelling reason to pick your song over anybody else’s. Look over your lyrics objectively and circle the lines that are predictable that anybody can write.

If you’re doing a love song are you saying “The moment I looked into your eyes” or are you saying “The moment she walked into the room” or something else that’s just completely predictable that someone else has written before.

I tell my students to take a highlighter and circle or highlight the lines that are really unique, that will make people go, “Wow, I’ve never heard it said that way before” You know we had never heard “Unbreak my heart, unbreak these tears” until Diane Warren wrote that. So I say to people “where is your unbreak my heart, uncry these tears”. Where are your special concepts and lyrics? And the same principle applies to other aspects of your songs. If melodically and rhythmically what you’re doing is good — but not unique, then it’s not going to rise out of the pack. At the same time I realize that it’s very hard to be objective about our own songs, because we love our babies.

Yeah, a lot of people love their babies so it’s hard to be objective.

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: But there are a lot of ugly babies out there!

How important are co-writes with artists?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Well just from a business point of view there are many, many situations where you cannot get a cut with a particular artist unless you co-write with them. If you look at someone like Beyonce or Mariah Carey, so many artists are recording songs that they co-write. In those situations co-writing with the artist is critical. Not just from a creative point of view, but also from a business point of view. Nashville is also very much a co-writing town. Most of the songs are co-written, and I mostly co-write — but not 100% of the time.

How many songs do you write in a year?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I was with Zomba for 12 years and for 12 years I went to an office Monday through Friday and wrote songs. And I wrote more than 500 songs during those 12 years, so if you do some math that comes out to writing 60 songs a year. There were a lot of songs that I started but didn’t finish because I knew they weren’t great.

These days, I write fewer songs because I’ve branched out into some other things through choice. Now, I write books in addition to songs, and I travel the world teaching songwriting workshops. And that cuts into my time, so now I primarily write with a few different artists that I feel strongly about and I’m probably not writing more than 30 songs a year. But that said, I’m working on a project at the moment with a seventeen year-old named Terje who was on Norwegian Idol. I love his voice and we wrote eleven songs in the past two weeks.

How many songs do you have to write to write one hit song?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I don’t really know what answer to give you as to how many you have to write before you get the great one. Some people say that the first 100 songs you write are for practice. But I don’t know if that’s really true, I think there are some people who can just do it faster than others.

But one thing I know for sure: while it’s hard to say how many songs I have to write to come up with a hit, I can promise you that not everything I write is a hit or a great song. And the same holds true for every successful writer who is out there. I’ve heard mediocre songs written by all the top writers, so nobody hits a homerun every single time. I think it’s important for everybody to realize that not every single song we write can be great.

When you write new songs, do you also study other people’s songs? Do you listen to the Timbalands or the Scott Storches or to some other big record producers that are currently enjoying a lot of success? Do you try to learn something new, or try to invent or reinvent or copy and then try to make it fresh or different. What is your approach?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I absolutely think it’s very, very important to listen to those people who are having success. They have figured something out. They have their finger on the pulse of what the listening audience wants. So I want to study that. As a teacher I analyze many, many hit songs in different genres, and I want to know what they are doing melodically, what are they doing lyrically, rhythmically, etc. We analyze some of them in my classes and it helps me tremendously. Then the key is to take those tools and apply them to something that is unique and is about you, because we already have a Timbaland; we already have a Max Martin. So the whole key is to figure out why they are successful and to use those tools by applying them to what you care about; to what’s real for you; and what’s in your heart. Otherwise it’s just going to be fake and it’s never going to be as good as the original people who you were trying to emulate.

Here’s my analogy and it might sound a little bit crazy. People sometimes say to me “You know it sounds like you’re telling me that everything should be cookie cutter and it should all sound alike” and my answer is “Well you know if you want to get on the radio and we’re talking about cookie cutter, your cookie better fit on the baking sheet; it better go into the oven; it better look like a cookie smell, like a cookie, and taste like a delicious cookie — but there better be something different about your cookie from that one, say from Timberland’s. You’ve got to give them a reason to pick your cookie rather than the other ones on the sheet. Sometimes that means combining flavors or coming up with something a little bit different. If one has got chocolate chips, and another one of them has oatmeal, and another one has peanut butter, maybe what you need to do is a combination. You know oatmeal-chocolate-peanut butter — with sprinkles round the sides, so that it jumps off that pan and is a delicious cookie, but is different from the other ones—while still being a cookie.

How many songs do you pitch?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Less is always more. From an A&R point of view, I would be much more eager to listen to one song that somebody sent me thinking, “This is their one big hit that they really believe in for this artist.” Nobody’s got 6 songs or 10 songs that are all going to be hits for a particular artist. So for me, less is more. I like to start out by sending one or two songs. Then hopefully the person I pitch to will ask me for more. Even if the first song isn’t right, they hopefully would hear the quality of it and say, “Can you send me some more?” I think that it’s so hard for us to limit how many we send because we’re trying to read somebody else’s mind. But I’d rather send a really good song that’s wrong than send 8 songs and not have them even listen to a single one because it’s too overwhelming.

How do you go about pitching songs?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: My preference is to try to get to the producer or to the artist themselves, but that’s not always easy to do. Sometimes I can get to an artist through their management company, but I realize that aspiring songwriters or people who have not yet had success cannot break down those walls as easily as I can.

In many ways getting to A&R reps is the easiest thing to do, but it’s the least effective in my experience. Nonetheless, I have gotten some huge cuts that have come through A&R.

You have to try out different approaches; they all have to be in our tool box. We have to use all of our tools because we don’t know which one is going to work.

I see a lot of developing writers make some very important connections in ways that are a little outside the box. For example, there are a lot of events where songwriters can pitch directly to A&R reps, producers or publishers. These events are better than trying to contact a publisher who has never heard of you.

There’s a cruise that I teach on every year called the Texas Songwriters Cruise and on that cruise last year we were joined by a vice president of Disney Publishing and several A&R people who agreed to join us because they got a free Caribbean cruise in exchange for listening to songs for 4 hours. But for those 4 hours every attendee gets a chance to really sit down and meet with these people. And if you’ve got the goods you can break the walls down. Especially, if you’re hanging out by the pool drinking margaritas, it’s easier to get their attention than when you’re trying to get an appointment as a total stranger cold calling them.

I personally made incredible songwriting connections on the Texas Songwriters Cruise with somebody who places music in film and television. He represents some of my songs for TV and film now, and in the past couple of months I’ve had songs on top TV shows: Scrubs, Friday Night Lights, and in a brand new movie that just came out that Jamie Kennedy called “Kickin’ it Old Skool”. People could say, “Well you were the teacher,” but the answer is “No, I had the songs, and if you don’t have songs that can compete with mine it’s not going to matter what you do in terms of business.”

Another event I attend is in Hawaii called the Kauai Music Festival. I’ve met some of the biggest A&R people, writers, producers, and publishers there. Last year we had the guys from Evanescence, some big R&B producers, and a top guy from BMG publishing.

When I was so poor in LA, I sure as hell wasn’t taking Caribbean cruises, or going to Hawaii, or anyplace else. But if you do have the money and want to combine a vacation with writing and taking care of business, this is a great way to make contacts. You have to learn how to make contacts in addition to learning how to write great songs.

What do you hate about the music business?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I can tell you really easily what I hate about this business: I hate that there are so many exceptionally talented people who don’t necessarily get the lucky breaks that I got. There are plenty of people whose music isn’t great; it’s only good. But I also know people whose music is really great but they haven’t gotten any lucky breaks yet. I hate that I don’t know how to teach being lucky. But I do know how to teach people to make their songs the best they can possibly be, and then to get them out there. I’m working with two great artists right now who I think should be superstars and they’re not yet. But it doesn’t mean that they won’t be a year from now, or two years from now.

What do you love about the music industry?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I’m standing outside right now and I’m looking at my absolutely beautiful garden and the land around my home and the waterfall coming down the hill — and the music business paid for all this and yes, I love that some of us can earn a living doing what we are passionate about, which is making music that hopefully moves and touches people. And what an incredible thing to have a business where the lucky ones can get to share what’s in their souls and what’s in their hearts and get millions and millions to hear it. And without the music business we’d never have that. Only our friends would hear the songs. So I love that there is a way where we can share our passion and our work with millions and millions of people.

Have you had any crazy experiences in the music business?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: The whole thing is a crazy experience to me! I’ll tell you something really crazy that happened. My life changed and I got a phone call from my publisher at Zomba asking me to go and write a song with hit songwriter Gary Baker and one of the Backstreet Boys. The song ended up as a cut on Backstreet Boys’ Millennium album that sold over 23 million albums worldwide. Now that’s pretty crazy! But I found out afterwards that I was the fourth person they called — but the other 3 people either weren’t home or weren’t available. When I think of how that changed my life, but yet was so random, it’s enough to make you crazy. But … there was a point in the writing process of that song when I decided to drastically rewrite the chorus melody and lyric. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t believe the song would have been cut. So even though I got lucky in being the fourth person they called, my ability to craft a good song got me the cut.

You have also co-written with Britney Spears, haven’t you? Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: It’s been a long time since I’ve written with Britney Spears. When I wrote with Britney, she was normal and I say that jokingly, but it’s also really heartbreaking because she was a normal kid growing up in very abnormal circumstances that have taken their toll.

It was a wonderful writing experience because of what she brought to the collaboration. She really understood her audience, meaning her audience of little girls who were 8, 10 or 12 years old. She understood what would work for them in terms of the story. I had a very different ending in mind for “Dear Diary” which was the song I wrote for the “Oops I Did it Again” album. That was a very positive experience and it was also exciting because I produced the demo with Britney singing it. I found that she was a much better singer than what I would have imagined. And I actually said that to her and she laughed and said “Yeah, everybody thinks I can’t sing.”

Who would you like to write with?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: I would like to write with Max Martin and some of the other people in his camp. I just feel like he’s got melodic gifts that just blow me away. I worked with a Scandinavian manager who said to me as a joke, “The Swedes can do two things: they can ski and they can write hit choruses.” I thought it was hilarious, but I thought it was so true. Some of the music coming out of Scandinavia is great. What comes to mind is the Pink song, “U and UR Hand,” It’s so shocking and so unique lyrically that I couldn’t believe what I was hearing the first time on the radio. After I heard that song one time I couldn’t stop singing that chorus. And that’s the Max Martin gift, that’s what I’d like to soak in. I’d like to write with Jeffrey Steele, too. He pretty much rules the charts in Nashville and I love his work.

What artists do you currently write for?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: As I mentioned, I’m working hard with a Norwegian kid named Terje. I’m also working with a few artists that I’m very excited about. One is a rock band based in Chicago called Escape from Earth. I think they are going to be very, very big. They won the MTV Coca Cola Challenge as the best unsigned band in the USA. And I might tell you that the way I got to work with them is that the lead singer sent me an email saying that he read my book and would like to share some of what he does. At first I was surprised that a Hard Rocker reads my book. I expected a Hard Rocker would sort of sneer at it, but then when I heard what he was doing I was just blown away. I said “Oh my god, these guys are going to be stars!” So I was lucky to get in and work with them. Their lead singer, Chris Sernel, is an awesome writer, artist, and producer.

A lot of people are so shocked when they hear the songs that I’ve co-written with Chris because this is hard rock, and when they think of me, they think of Britney Spears. A lot of people don’t realise I’ve written songs in a lot of different styles, e.g. I’ve written spiritual songs and many Country hits. They think me and they think Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, but you know what, those songs paid for my house, so they can think whatever they want.

Another artist I’ve been working with is named Paul Scott who is just an amazing Country artist that I met at a workshop that I was teaching. I became so impressed with him that I’ve produced some demos and I’ve written with him extensively. I’ve also enjoyed doing some writing and producing with Misha Williams.

Apart from still writing for and with recording artists, you mentioned that you teach.

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: Teaching has become my passion and I’ve just celebrated my 10th year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters Workshop. I teach that once a month and it’s free and open to anyone. You don’t have to be a BMI member. The workshop dates and topics are at my web site and mySpace. Also, about once a month, I either go to a different city or a different country to teach a workshop. All the scheduled workshops are listed on my website. I love it, it keeps me on my toes and the more I teach the tools and techniques to other people, the more I use them in my own songs. I get to do some some unbelievable travel, I’ve taught in Norway, in Ireland, in the UK and all over the place. I’m looking forward to heading a 4-day conference in Australia this spring (www.australiansongwritersconference.com.au) and also teaching in New Zealand.

To wrap-up, what is the one quality that helped you succeed in the business?

Hit Songwriter Jason Blume: There’s no doubt, it’s persistence. Nobody in their right mind would have thought that I had any special talent years ago but the special gift that I think I got was just believing in myself and refusing to quit. And like I said it took 11 ? years for me to sign a staff writing deal — and 5 years after that before I had big hits. And so for me, it took 16 ? years, so the key was persistence. Anybody in their right mind would have walked away and given it up, but I’m sure glad I didn’t. I think I needed to go through that period of hunger, of needing it, of wanting it so desperately and sacrificing so much for it. As opposed to being comfortable in a day job and maybe not giving it a hundred percent.

About Jason Blume

Jason Blume is one of the few songwriters to ever achieve the distinction of having his songs on Billboard’s Pop, R&B, and Country charts – all at the same time. With his songs recorded by Pop superstars Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Jesse McCartney as well as Country stars including Collin Raye, the Oak Ridge Boys and John Berry, and international artists like the Gipsy Kings, Blume’s songs are included on albums that have sold more than 50 million copies!

One of the nation’s most respected song writing teachers, when he is not writing hits, Blume teaches others how to do so. He developed and teaches the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops and has taught his song writing techniques as a guest lecturer at U.C.L.A. and Vanderbilt University, as well as a member of the faculty of Los Angeles’ Pierce College, Nashville’s Watkins Institute, and internationally in Norway, Ireland, Jamaica, Canada, and Mexico.

The best-selling ‘6 Steps To Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs’ and ‘Inside Songwriting: Getting to the Heart of Creativity’ (Billboard Books) by Jason Blume take you step by step through everything you need to know to write successful songs – and get them published and recorded.

Jason’s newest book, This Business of Songwriting (Billboard Books), includes a plain English analysis of the contracts a songwriter would likely encounter—as well as instructions on how to pursue publishing and licensing deals; how to self-publish and successfully pitch your own material; placing songs in TV and films; understanding and collecting royalties, and much more. It was recently released and has received phenomenal reviews.

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