5 Golden Rules Of Songwriting – from Steve Mac

Credit: Simon Fowler

Earlier today (September 2), Steve Mac was named Songwriter Of The Year at the UK’s prestigious Ivor Novello Awards.

The award adds to a plethora of silverware picked up by Mac – one of Britain’s most successful songwriter/producers of all time – across the course of his three-decade career, including BMI, ASCAP and Brit Awards.

The past 18 months, as recognized by the Ivors, has seen the release of Mac co-written-and-produced global hits such as Ed Sheeran and Camila Cabello’s South Of The Border, as well as Mabel’s Mad Love and Don’t Call Me Up.

In the most recent portion of his career, Mac has co-written and/or produced hits and standouts for artists such as P!nk (What About Us), Clean Bandit (Rockabye, Symphony), Sam Smith (Fire On Fire), Bastille & Marshmello (Happier), One Direction (Gotta Be You), Tom Walker (Leave A Light On), Cobra Starship (You Make Me Feel) and Charli XCX (Break The Rules).

Mac’s close creative relationship with Ed Sheeran, meanwhile, led to the duo (along with Johnny McDaid) creating the most popular track of all time on Spotify, Shape Of You. Released in 2017, Shape Of You has accumulated over 2.5 billion plays (!) on the streaming platform.

Mac runs his own London-based studio complex and publishing company, Rokstone Music, which is administered by Universal Music Publishing Group.

In celebration of his Ivors victory, MBW caught up with Mac to ask him about the five golden rules of his personal songwriting process. We hope they’re of help to others now working in – and looking to break into – the modern hit-making business.

Here they are, in Steve’s own words:

1) If you’re serious about songwriting, treat it as a proper job

I start at the same time every day, 10 o’clock, five days a week. It’s the same for the two guys I work with [at Rokstone], Chris and Dan, and it’s been that way for 20 years-plus. We know what our start time is, we usually know what our end time is, and we have weekends off so we can get back to family and a life outside of music.

Even if we don’t have a specific project underway, we go in at 10am and start working, and something often comes up as a result. Having that schedule helps ensure we keep moving forward, every day.

“When we’re in the studio, We barely know what’s going on in the outside world.”

I really like structure in my life – I generally don’t like being thrown into things last minute. I completely get that some writers get inspiration from long walks, or sitting in a restaurant, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to go to a place of work.

When we’re in the studio, something clicks and creativity starts to flow; we barely know what’s going on in the outside world.

Thinking about it, we only have two windows, and neither of them have very good views – that’s probably deliberate!

2) Treat writing as a very different discipline to producing

If you’re a writer/producer like I am, this one is very important.

I learned a long time ago that if you make the song great, the production’s easy. I feel sorry for co-writers who are in with me sometimes, because I can get super-excited; in my head, I’m hearing how the track will sound at the end of the [production] process. And they’re just going, ‘How can this be “the one”, Steve? It’s just me and a piano.’

“Someone said to me once, ‘Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder, a little bit worse.’”

Many times, I see a producer/writer go in [with an artist] and they’ll spend three hours working on drums, when they should be spending that time working on the song. If I have a co-writer or an artist come into the studio here, I will spend the whole day with them working on a chord progression, a melody and a lyric. It’s not a good use of time for them to be bored while I search for the right bass drum.

Someone said to me once, ‘Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder, a little bit worse.’ It’s funny because there’s some truth to it! So things like that, the structure of the song and the production, can all be left for later; the best use of time when you’re in with an artist or co-writer is to get that basic verse and chorus [melody] down, across maybe two or three really good song ideas.

3) If the song’s not good enough, the song’s not good enough

This ties on to the last rule: if a song’s never going to be great, it’s never going to be a hit. You mustn’t be afraid to scrap something you’ve worked hard on.

For some songs, it doesn’t matter how many times you re-do them, how much you dress things up with production, they’re just not good enough. I’m lucky to have the experience of three decades doing this; that helps a lot with my judgement.

I find it very difficult to work on something I don’t believe in. That gets hard sometimes, especially if a co-writer [does believe in it].

“for me, if something’s not right, it’s always best to turn round to an artist and say, ‘I think we can do better.’”

Every time I go in to produce up a demo, I do so like I’m producing the full record, and that process costs a lot in terms of [studio time]. Because I run a business [at Rokstone], that really helps me to think in terms of: ‘Are we actually going to see a return from this? Or would it be better to call the co-writer/artist, be honest, and ask them to come back in so we can make something really great?’

On that topic, as a general rule, I stop working on something for around two weeks after we’ve created a [produced demo], so that I can listen back to it and go, ‘Is this genuinely any good?’

That’s a quality control thing: Does it still move me? Are the lyrics and melody still great?

I understand we’re in a world now where people often feel the need to write, record and get ‘content’ out at a high frequency to please their fans – and there’s a place for that. But for me, if something’s not right, it’s always best to turn round to an artist and say, ‘I think we can do better.’

4) Don’t be scared of songwriting

I know this sounds like a weird thing to say, but it happens a lot. When new artists come into the studio, they sometimes aren’t that confident, possibly because they’ve only had one hit in one style.

So when I suggest doing something different, something outside the box, I can sometimes sense artists imagining that all of their fans are listening. That can make you freeze, creatively, out of fear.

Instead, you have to realize that nobody except us is actually listening to this song. That realization – that if something doesn’t sound right, we’ll just scrap it, with no-one else ever hearing it – is freedom.

“I’d rather come out with nothing than make something average.”

It’s like, if you’re a great artist/writer, you don’t want to come into [Rokstone] and just tread water – you can do that on your own time. You have to be willing to make mistakes, to not be scared of singing a melody that we’ll both laugh at down the line.

Because in my experience, when an artist goes, ‘I’ve never tried that before,’ that’s when the interesting stuff happens; that’s often the stuff that excites the record label, and then excites the fans: ‘I didn’t think they could do that!’

Sometimes pressure from record companies is a factor: ‘You’ve got two days – make a hit!’ And the reaction is to play it safe.

But I [tell artists]: ‘This is my studio, it’s my cost; let me worry about that. You come in and enjoy it.’ And if we try stuff that doesn’t work, even if you come out with nothing, at the end of the day, I’d rather that than we make something average.

5) If you’re going to a studio session, be on time

I have to tell you, the biggest superstar artists that I’ve ever worked with, and there have been a handful down the years, have all been early.

I absolutely love working with Ed Sheeran, but he drives me crazy; if we agree an 11 o’clock start, he’ll turn up at 9.30am – sometimes before I’ve even finished my breakfast! That speaks volumes.

“the biggest superstar artists that I’ve ever worked with, and there have been a handful down the years, have all been early.”

I want to portray the other side of this, so [artists and co-writers] can understand. If we’re due to have a 1pm studio session together, I’ll probably be getting some ideas together before you arrive. You gee yourself up for it, you’re excited for it to start. Then 1pm becomes 1.15pm and you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m still up for it – it will still be great.’ Then it’s 1.30pm, and you’re thinking, ‘Are they still coming?’

By the time it hits 2pm, all this energy you had for the writing session has gone, or at least dipped.

For me, it’s a simple rule of life and a simple rule of respect: treat everyone you work with as if their time is just as precious as yours.Music Business Worldwide

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