Isn’t it amazing how a song can trigger a memory? We sometimes get too caught up in the magic of the lyrics and the melody that it changes our mood entirely. Learn more about the secrets to writing a hit as Molly Leikin, a hit songwriter and CEO of Songwriting Consultants, Ltd. at songmd.com, shares insights on how feelings play into creating a masterpiece and how a great song can take an artist’s career to greater heights and not the other way around. She also talks about her book Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age and how it helps you thrive through the changes in the industry and still be able to tap into your genius. If you’re looking to break through into the songwriting industry, Tune in and learn the ropes from the Song Doctor!
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Secrets To Writing Hit Songs For The Digital Age With Molly Leikin Of SongMD
I am here with Molly Leikin. We are going to talk about songwriting and the career of songwriting. She is from Songwriting Consultants Limited. She’s got a book that she’s going to tell you about that she wrote. Before we get there, I want to get into her backstory because it looks super interesting from what I read in her bio. Molly, I would love to have you tell everybody how you came into starting your songwriting career. You moved from Canada to the US, which sounds like a harrowing story. How did you get yourself into this business of songwriting?
My day job was being a social worker for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. That sounds like a perfect job.
It does not sound like an easy job.
My job was to go after the deadbeat dads, the alleged fathers of my client’s children. All of the fathers were allegedly Ringo Star, John Lennon, Elvis, and you name it. Little me from Canada with a white cotton bra, I had to go into the business offices of those rock stars. I knew they were in the music business. I used to carry my baritone ukulele with me in case they needed samples of my work. I had a magnificent twelve-song cycle about Fig Newton.
I couldn’t understand why Joni Mitchell and Carole King weren’t slurping them up to this day. I don’t get it, but that’s another story. Of course, these CPAs threw me out of their offices, and they happened to be on Hollywood Boulevard, right at the corner where there was a writer’s meeting every Friday at 3:00 at Warner Bros Publishing.
The meeting was open to anybody. I went. Every week, there was a great, big blackboard listing the artist and what they needed song-wise. Every week I wrote a song, it wasn’t a very good song, but I was trying. The publisher running the meeting was a guy named Artie Wayne, who moved over to A&M. I told him, looking him straight in the face, “Artie, I turned down two other staff writing gigs to work with you.” He said, “Come sign with me. Nobody had offered me a deal.” God forgave me.
I was on the staff of Almo music, which is the A&M ASCAP branch. I worked with every songwriter they had on staff. They were fabulous people. They taught me what a hook was. They taught me how to tell a story. I became a songwriter, started getting all kinds of cuts, and they paid me every week. This was royalty as against future earnings. I had the dream job.
First of all, how did you have the guts? Clearly, you needed to work on your songwriting at that point. You were writing, but as you said, you didn’t know what a hook was and all that stuff. How did you have the guts to ask for that job?
Honestly, Bree, I had no fallback position. The whole staff at the Los Angeles County Social Services Office was desperate to get rid of me. I was sitting there at my desk with the phone off the hook. What did I know how to help anybody? The computer system was ridiculous. I put in a request for a check in March, and it showed up in December. I couldn’t help these people. I wrote checks from my own account to help everybody with emergency groceries. I wanted to be a songwriter. There was no place. I could go back if I failed. I had to do this. I was a maniac. It was full-time, all-time, 24/8, and that’s not a typo.
Did you want to be an artist or you only wanted to write?
I thought I sang great, but apparently, when I was a staff writer, they paid me extra not to sing. I would urge you to ask Chuck, but he’s dead.
You learned from working with all of these people on their payroll. Every cut that you were writing, were you collaborating or did you start writing stuff on your own too?
I was co-writing. At the time, they thought my lyrics were fabulous, and my melody was not so much. For years, I was a lyricist collaborating not only with the Almo writers but with all amazing composers who were writing movie and TV scores. I had extraordinary, gorgeous melodies to lyricize. That got me going in.The best songs ever written in the whole world are country songs. Click To Tweet
I had a mentor named Mack David. He told me that when he didn’t have someone to write with, he wrote his own melodies. I switched from the baritone ukulele to the keyboard, and there were all the notes. You can hear C and E. You have to keep it within that octave in three. I started writing my own melodies, “If I do say so myself, I defy you not to sing them.”
Did you have any training before this? Have you gone to any music school, or have you taken any classes in songwriting?
When I was a kid, all the little girls on Island Park Drive in Canada, I took piano lessons. When I started playing pop music on my mother’s piano, she locked it. There’s a music lover. Anyway, I went to the University of Toronto to study Literature. Everybody, during those days, was playing guitars. My fingers are too short to fit around six strings. Someone taught me to play the baritone ukulele, which only has four. I was addicted to this process of writing and singing.
My roommate quit school and became a dental hygienist, and all the other girls on the floor at Cody House in Whitney Hall, a lot of them changed universities. I don’t want you to think the music I was making was joyously accepted in Canada. I did have some training, but most of what I write honestly is from my gut. I hear the melody and the rhythm in my head, and then I go to the keyboard to find it.
My husband’s a Literature professor, so I’m asking, do you think that helps you with your lyrics?
I had things to say but at first, they told me I sounded like an English teacher like, “To whom should I send my heart?” that stuff. I had to loosen up. When I was at Almo, Artie Wayne used to say, “Take your bra off, Molly.” In other words, loosen up, get down. Can you imagine a guy telling you that?
No, absolutely not.
It’s true. If I’m lying, I’m dying, and I’m not dead.
I believe it. You would never say that now, but I totally believe that was the culture, and I wouldn’t be offended by that. I get what he’s saying.
It’s important to write the way you talk. Sing it like you say it. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t sing it. Don’t whatever you do make it rhyme just to rhyme. Say what you mean first. I like to write the first draft of my lyrics as a garbage draft. I then circle the lines I want to use in the song. I don’t care if they rhyme or not. Once the story is all set out, then I choose the lines I want to include in the lyrics. Some of them rhyme here and there but rhyming is not it. Lyric isn’t a series of rhymes. It’s feelings.
On a scale of 1 to 10, most of us live somewhere around 5 or 6. Everything is fine but when we listen to music, read books, go to the movies or play video games, we want a peak experience, the worst thing that ever happened or the best thing that ever happened. On a scale of 1 to 10, that’s plus or minus 15. Write a song about the best thing that ever happened or the worst thing that ever happened but don’t write in the middle. We live in the middle. As songwriters, we are travel agents and take people on emotional adventures.
I love that perspective. You are not going to write a song about your morning routine, where you brush your teeth, and then you ate breakfast. Nobody cares about that.
However, we could certainly write a song, “Brush my teeth, get it again, swishy, swishy, swishy, got to have the mouthwash.” I could do it for a joke. I bet that one is the one that wins the Grammy.
What are some of the songs that we would know? You said you’ve written a lot for movies, especially when you were at A&M. What are some songs that we would know that you were collaborating on?
The first song I co-wrote was with Steve Dorff, and we wrote a gorgeous song together called You Set My Dreams to Music. It has been recorded almost a hundred times and hasn’t been a single yet. I don’t know why, but it’s out there, and to this day, it’s beautiful.
What artists have recorded? I haven’t heard of that song.
Anne Murray, Dusty Springfield, and John Travolta. It’s everywhere.
I will have to look for that.
Listen to it.
I’m a big Anne Murray fan, so I will have to look up her version.
I forget what album it’s on but she did it. I didn’t think I would lay up. I was so excited. She was a major artist, and I know she didn’t cut it because I was Canadian. She’s like God in Canada even now.
You’ve written a bunch of songs for films.
I was writing with a composer who did a lot of movies and TV songs. One was the theme from a TV movie mini-series called East of Eden. The theme was gorgeous. Milton Okun, who was a major producer and discovered Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, you name it, heard the melody and asked me to write a lyric to it, so I did. It was a beautiful lyric. Plácido Domingo was a big deal in those days. He was on an album with John Denver called Perhaps Love.
Milton initially wanted to include it on the album. Here’s a true story of how I made it to the album. In those days, there were Betamaxes and VHS. I was 1 of 3 people in the world who had Betamax. The others included Plácido Domingo and Milton Okun. Milt asked me to please record an episode of Dallas that Friday night because Plácido wasn’t going to be home, and his VCR timer was broken. I recorded it and had my Betamax tape, and Milton said, “Drop it off at my house.” I said, “I will, as soon as you include my song on the CD.” He did. I was like blackmailing the guy.
All for an episode of Dallas.You can't make a demo with just a piano and a voice anymore. You have to present a master copy. So if you want to compete in a very competitive marketplace, give them what they want. Click To Tweet
Can you imagine the number one tenor in the world lives and breathe by Dallas but don’t we all? There or didn’t we all? You use what you got.
You are definitely very resourceful.
I am resourceful. It’s nice to have ammunition. Being nice if they took your song because you had nice red hair and you were talented but there’s a lot that goes into getting a record and getting a placement in a movie or TV show these days. Don’t just send somebody an MP3. You got to do the dance.
You said one of your songs won an Oscar, is that right?
No, a little bit right. There was a movie called Violet, and I wrote the song score with Charlie Black and Rory Bourke, who were two of Nashville’s top of the top of top songwriters. The movie won an Oscar.
What year was that? I’m not sure I know that movie.
I don’t remember, but it was a while back. Nonetheless, I have it on my wall.
How long did you stay with Almo Music?
Altogether as a staff writer for many years. From Almo, I went to Interworld, and then I went to Chappell, and those were great days because when I heard a song that one of the Chappell writers wrote, I would ask my publisher, “Could you please set up a co-writing time with Jimmy, Johnny or Susie.” By the way, there weren’t any other girl writers at Chappell at the time. It was always a guy. In Nashville, when you write with somebody, you show up at 10:00, you have coffee until 10:30, and then you start to write.
At exactly noon, you leave with a song, have lunch with all the other great writers in town and tell them what you are working on. You then go back to the office at Chappell and finish the song. There’s no fusing around. It’s business. The songs are phenomenal. The best songs ever written in the whole world are country songs. I don’t mean, “Mama, I’m dying. My dog died. I have beer for breakfast, and the drain just went through the doghouse.” None of that. You know what country music is like now. It’s all rhythm. It’s all singable courses. The lyrics are absolutely brilliant.
A lot of it has an infusion of pop too.
It’s all pop. It’s all rhythm. In fact, a rhythm that started with hip hop. As of now, it’s on every Billboard chart, Christian, Rastafarian, pop, and rock and roll. It’s all rhythmic. There’s no more, “Oh my God. I’m staying here. I am sad. Oh, oh, oh, dear.” When I write a song, I always write the rhythm first now.
You’ve changed your process a little bit.
You have to change the process, and the result and music have changed so much.
I love the ’70s on 7 on SiriusXM. I have been listening to the top thousand ’70s songs. I’m like, “This music would never be popular now. It’s a little bit sappy.”
Throw the ’70s. That’s why I wrote my book, Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age, because everything is completely different now. There are so many new income streams. The traditional ones aren’t paying like they used to but the best way to make a big chunk of cash these days is to know the music supervisors who are choosing the music for the movies, TV shows, commercials, and Indies and have a song on TV. One performance is $7,000 beats working and a number one song makes $2.4 million. Big time. If you have a song that’s a theme for a sitcom that runs five years, $460,000. I’m not guaranteeing that your songs are going to earn that much, but I have seen the checks.
What percentage of writers that have the talent to do that can actually get those deals?
It’s not a percentage. That’s something we don’t do in the music business, as you know. It’s the guy who makes one more phone call and gets the gig. By the way, everything starts with the song. I love Pro Tools. My producers use Pro Tools, but you don’t write your song on Pro Tools. You write your song with your left hand behind your back, and you sit at your keyboard. You choose the individual notes with rhythm first, and you record them. You listen back, tweak it, rerecord it, and go on and on until it clicks and says, “It’s ready.” When the song’s written, absolutely all out the Pro Tools and go after it, make a record, but there’s a huge difference between writing a song and making a record.
I agree. I always hear about these artists, especially back in the day when people had a lot more studio time, and artists had more development time. They would spend months in the studio writing. I always thought, “Why are they doing that in the studio?”
Bands do that, and record companies used to underwrite that. They don’t anymore. These days, the songwriter has to create a master. You can’t make a demo with a piano and a voice anymore. You’ve got to present a master. I don’t know how to do that. I hire good people who know how to do that. I hire great singers and all the best musicians, and we get it done. If you are going to compete in a very competitive marketplace, give them what they want. Nobody rerecords anything anymore. You create it, make the MP3, and they sync it into their project.
How do you know when your song is at that point where it’s time to record, and how do you help others? I know you consult to help other artists. How do you help them know, “This song is ready?”
For my own writing, I’m lucky it clicks in my tummy and says, “Molly, it’s ready.” When I’m reviewing somebody else’s material first, I’m very gentle with them because it’s hard to send your work to a stranger. I review everything in terms of the marketplace. Which chart would this fit on? Let’s say it’s a country song. Do we sing it like we say it? If not, let’s make it, so it does sound conversational. Would I say this if I were talking to a friend on the phone? If not, how would I say it? Have I heard this before? If so, could I make it a little different? If not, could I write something else?
That goes to the melody and the words. If you are a lyricist, I love working with lyricists because they are usually very articulate. Mostly, I help them with the rhythm of their words and then find a “composer” or preferably somebody who is a singer-songwriter who’s going to record the finished song. I know everybody, and everybody knows me. She said modestly but it’s true. I’m tough. When someone gets a call from me and says, “I have a great artist for you.” They pay attention.
One time, back in the day, I had a deal with Warner Bros Music for one song I wrote called Silver Wings and Golden Rings. It was for one year. If after the first year they didn’t want it anymore, I got it back. If they did, they had to pay me $150. That amount of money was a windfall for me in those days. I spoke to the president of Warner Bros Music, whose name I’m not going to mention but he says, “Molly, I’m not going to throw good money after bad.” I got the song back and went somewhere else and rewrote it. It was a big hit on the country charts.
At the ASCAP dinner where the awards were given out, that guy was sitting right next to me. He did say very graciously, “Molly, I should never have given you back your song.” Nobody knows anything, but the thing is, you must believe in yourself. These people have power but don’t know everything, and things change. If you believe in your songs, treasure them like your children. Nothing is too good for your kids. Nothing is too good for your songs.
It’s a hard line to walk though because some people get so precious about their song that they can’t take any criticism or think about how they could change it. They are like, “This is what came out of me. It can’t be changed.”The one who gets the most percentage of what you do is the guy who's going to sign you. Click To Tweet
“This is what came to me from God.” It’s another favorite. I said, “God also sent you to me.” Honestly, if you can’t take criticism, play your songs for your mother and go to medical school. All we get, Bree, I know you know this, in a day, you might get 50 noes and 1 little yes. All you need is the one yes.
Tell them about your book because I’m curious about it. Is it more about how they can make income streams for songs or is it beyond that? What kind of people did you interview for it?
My book includes interviews with ten of the best A-listers in the business. They include Tim Wipperman, the publisher’s publisher in Nashville. He gave me a wonderful interview and how he treats his writers and what he expects from them. The truth is that he lets them write and do what they feel they need to do, rather than dictate, “You must do this. You must do that.” He has been very successful. I also interviewed Jim Andron, who has written 15,000 jingles. Can you imagine?
He figured it out. He hooked up with so and so, who sold the time. Jim wrote the jingles. It was a happy time for a long time. I also interviewed Debbie Hupp, who was a Kentucky housewife who was very unhappy. She wrote some songs at home. She thought they would be good for Johnny Cash. She actually picked up the phone and called his office, and they said, “Ma’am, come on down. We would love to hear your song.” They listened to her five songs, and it was a reel-to-reel tape. The guy said, “These 2 we want, and these 3 are very pop. Go down the road and see the folks at Columbine.”
On her first day in Nashville, she had five placements. This never happens. She comes to Nashville. She writes to everybody. Meanwhile, she had a full-time job as a night watchman at the Seagram’s plant. If I’m lying, I’m dying. She carried a cassette recorder and sang everything into the cassette recorder as she walked up and down, guarding Seagram’s. She co-wrote a song with a guy named Bob Morrison, who’s the king of songwriters in Nashville. A song sat in a pile, and one of the most famous female singers sat there for a year. The producer for the girl singer was the same as the producer for this guy. The producer was playing the song when this guy walked in and said, “Don’t give it to her. I want that song.” The guy was Kenny Rogers. Number one won a Grammy, the first record.
Is this Through The Years? Is that the song?
The song was You Decorated My Life.
I’m out saying that because I am a sucker for listening to the old top 40 shows. I actually heard part of this story when they were introducing that song. I was like, “This sounds so familiar.” You decorated my life. That’s right. That’s so cool.
She wrote it about her kids. She had lots of children, and she said it. I found Debbie on Facebook. I know they say nasty things about Facebook, but everybody I interviewed in my book is on Facebook, either that or somebody I met at a music party like Robin Urdang, who is a three-time Emmy-winning Music Supervisor. I met her at a party and asked her for an interview, and she was more than gracious. She wins for Music Simpler Vision on Mrs. Maisel. Most people, though, I contacted through Facebook, and I have to laugh when people say, “It’s a waste of time.” It’s not. It is great to find people and connect with them. It’s usually flattering when you are asked to give an interview but some people say, “It’s a waste of time.” Who are you anyway?
What motivated you to write the book?
There was a gap in the marketplace. Nobody was writing about the digital age. It’s completely different from all the other times in the music business since the caveman gonged, his first gong. You are a businesswoman. You know you need to adapt. If you want to be in the business, learn how it’s done now. I love this book. In fact, if I hadn’t written it, I would be in line in the rain to buy it.
If I’m an indie artist, I’m trying to get my music out there and get maybe sync placements and that thing. What type of things will I learn by reading the book?
You will learn, first of all, that you have to have great songs. No matter how fabulous your voice is and how well produced the tracks are, if you don’t have the songs, you got nothing. That’s what I tell my clients too. People say, “I don’t understand. I’ve spent this and this on these tracks. I take singing lessons. I have my teeth done. I have my nose done. I have a whole new wardrobe.” I said, “You started at the wrong end of this. You need to have wonderful songs.” I help them take the songs that are good and make them great.
Without great songs, you don’t have anything but I can make sure that you do. I’m very gentle with people because I know how fragile we are. I wouldn’t say, “Honest to God, when I read this lyric, it was the worst thing I ever heard.” I would never say that. I would say, “Down here in line three, this is a great line. Why don’t we move that up? Say that twice. Take this part out. Make this section the chorus, change the rhythm from the verse to the chorus, and let’s see what we got. If you can come with a clear head and want to do what’s best for your songs, then I can help you.” I’ve mentored two generations of Grammy winners, and I have over 7,000 clients who place their work in movies, TV shows, commercials, and all the new-age stuff.
That’s a pretty amazing track record. How do artists work with you?
They contact me at SongMD.com, which is the friendliest place on the web. We set up a consultation. They send me their work, something that’s unfinished or finished, and they don’t know why it isn’t working. I give them an honest, gentle review, and then we decide whether we are going to revise these songs or write some new ones based on the comments that I’ve made on their current songs. I know how hard it is for someone to say, “Take that out.” I wrote a novel a long time ago, and people were giving me this feedback, and I came home and cried for days.
If you can be tough and work with the brilliance that you have and make sure your whole song is unusual, “Have I heard this before? If so, can I make it a little different? If not, could I write something else? Would I say this if I were talking to a friend on the phone? If not, how would I say it?” The same with the melody. “Do we have a strong rhythm going here?” I don’t know any ballots that are out there breaking the land speed record to the charts. Write this minute, put your ballots aside until the times change, and give them rhythm.
How does it work with intellectual property? You are helping them revise. There’s a fine line between being a collaborator and consulting with them.
I am a consultant. I charge a consulting fee and don’t take a percentage of the song. You need it so that all the other people out there can rob you blind. I don’t want to take any part of it because you know how deals are made. The guy who’s going to get the most percentage of what you do is the guy who’s going to sign you. I say guy, I mean person.
They go to SongMD.com. How do they find your book?
It’s at SimonAndSchuster.com. It’s on Amazon.com. It’s at SongMD.com and Goodreads. It’s all over the web, Insider Secret to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age or, “Insider secrets to hit, hit, hit songwriting in the digital, digital, digital age.” I should have written a jingle for it.
This has been so great, Molly. I loved getting to know you. You are definitely one of a kind, and you know your stuff when it comes to songwriting. I would recommend that anybody reading if you need some help with your songwriting reach out to Song MD, get the book, all the things I can tell that Molly cares about your success.
Thank you. I care about good writing. When my clients are nominated for Grammys, they are my kids. I’m so proud of them, and I’m so proud of everybody who wakes up in the morning and finds a pencil and writes something down. Anybody who tries, keep at it because you never know. All kinds of miracles and things happen by synchronicity. You never know but you are not going to meet anybody sitting in front of your laptop. You must go out there and be with the folks and network because people love to do business with people they know.
That’s how it is in Corporate America. You can’t be a stranger to a person after playing eighteen holes of golf. It’s the same thing in the music business. People like to do business with people they know. Think of the music business as a business and also one where the best of the best songs thrive, and you can write them.
Good advice. I love that for closing out the show. Thank you so much, Molly, for offering all of your knowledge, experience, and expertise to our audience.
Thank you, Bree. I’ve enjoyed being your guest.
- Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age
- Pro Tools
- SimonandSchuster.com – Insider Secret to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age
- Goodreads – Insider Secret to Hit Songwriting in the Digital Age
- Songwriting Consultants Limited
About Molly Leikin
Molly Leikin was born in Canada. She defected to the USA with her baritone ukulele during a 58 below zero blizzard. Plowing her way to L.A. in her dented, red VW with a leaky sunroof, she attended writers meetings in Hollywood open to the public and schmoozed her way to becoming a staffwriter at Almo, part of A & M records. An Emmy nominee, she’s written themes and songs for over six dozen TV shows & movies, including Violet, which won an Oscar. And Molly created the industry of song consulting. She is CEO of Songwriting Consultants, Ltd. at songmd.com and makes a world-class sour cream cinnamon-raisin coffee cake, nuts optional.