3 Things Songwriters Need to Know About Writing for the Screen vs. Radio

Posted by Casey van Wensem on Jan 22, 2016 10:00 AM

shutterstock_312854495Image via shutterstock.com

Anyone who grew up in the '90s or earlier will remember hearing a great song on the radio and rushing to the record store to buy the whole album. The way we listen to music has changed a lot since those days, but that experience hasn't disappeared. The difference today is that instead of discovering music on the radio, many music fans discover music through mediums like commercials, movies, and TV shows.

And just like fans, many labels and publishers have made the transition from the airwaves to the screen as well. "I look at syncs today as the new single," says Jonnie Davis, Senior Vice President of A&R/Head of Label Services for Round Hill Music. On top of that, many reviewers and critics discover new artists not by hearing them on the radio, but by hearing their songs synced in TV and film.

With this new business model, the concept of what constitutes a hit single has changed; what worked well for radio won't necessarily work for the screen. With that in mind, here are three key differences to keep in mind when writing for sync placement rather than radio play.

1. The song serves the picture first

Writing a successful radio single is all about writing a song that people will want to listen to again and again. While this concept applies to sync placements as well, there are also other factors that come into play. Of course, the song has to be something that people will want to listen to on repeat, but it also has to fit the picture perfectly. This puts a lot of the process beyond your control. While it can be easy to pick out one or two songs from an album to pitch as radio singles, it's near impossible to know which song will be the most likely to be licensed for a sync placement.

So instead of placing all of your hopes on one or two songs from an album, try to write a bunch of great songs that will fit a variety of spots. What you think of as a "licensable" song might be entirely different than what a music supervisor thinks, so don't limit yourself by writing only one type of song.

2. Your lyrics need a universally applicable theme

In the days of radio singles, you could write lyrics that unfolded like a story with a beginning, middle, and end. While this technique works well for radio when listeners hear the whole song, it doesn't work particularly well for film and TV placement.

When a song is placed in a scene, the viewer typically hears only part of the song, and it's usually competing with other audio like dialogue and sound effects. A song that tells a story isn't very useful in this situation. Instead of dealing with stories, your lyrics should be based around themes. Good lyrics for licensing will convey emotion through images based around a common theme that could be applicable to a variety of situations. That way, the song can be used to enhance a variety of scenes without confusing viewers with irrelevant details.

You can even use your song title to let music supervisors know what theme you're dealing with. Sometimes music supervisors will be looking for songs with words like "happy" or "love" in the chorus, so using key words like these in your song's title can make your song easier for them to find.

Book more! Save 20%

3. The success of your song is tied to the success of the whole production

Sometimes great songs end up in great film and TV productions and become huge hits. Sometimes they end up in mediocre productions and don't build much traction for the artist. And still other great songs might not get placed at all.

The success of your song in the sync-licensing market doesn't depend solely on the quality of the song itself. Of course, any song that's synced will have to be a good enough song to attract the attention of a music supervisor, but because there are more factors involved with sync licensing than just the music, the success of any sync placement can be hard to gauge. If you write a great song but you can't seem to secure a placement for it, that doesn't mean it's a bad song; it just means the song doesn't fit properly with any projects that music supervisors are currently working on. Similarly, if your song is placed but you don't gain much attention from the placement, that doesn't mean your song is bad; it might just mean that the production it was placed in wasn't very successful.

So don't give up if you feel like your efforts to get your songs placed aren't getting you anywhere. Eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, you might just find the perfect home for one of your songs in a hit film or TV production.

Writing songs that are "licensable" doesn't mean you have to fit a particular formula or do exactly what a music supervisor tells you. In fact, since you never really know what music supervisors will be looking for next, you have more freedom to write what you want rather than what you think someone else wants.

Also keep in mind that the factors that go into making a great song haven't changed since the days of radio singles; all that's changed is the way listeners discover great songs. By adapting your songwriting to fit this new business model, you can make sure you don't get stuck in the past waiting for your radio single to take off while other bands are marching into the future by scoring sync licenses.


Next up:


Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.

Topics: Songwriting, Licensing & Publishing, Music Business 101, Honing Your Craft


Get weekly updates on articles, gigs, and much more!

Posts by Topic

see all