So I went to the studio, recorded fifteen songs, hired a jamboree of session musicians, mixed and mastered the whole record, and received a pile of finalized songs, each of them sounding awesome, and ready to conquer the world.
Time to celebrate? Not quite yet, because my least favorite aspect of album creation is still pending. There is one task left to do, and this one is a rage of tedium: determining the final sequence of songs.
We have all bought albums that contain only one or two good songs. We digitized the whole thing, shuffled the two good ones into our MP3 player, and forgot that the rest of that record ever existed.
The boom years of the 80s and 90s, in particular, saw many music albums that were built around one well-sold single, and that contained nearly a dozen songs that we desperately try to forget about.
Big record labels continue to work with that practice: throw a bag of bones at the audience, and see which ones stick. Thus, it has become common practice to single out a few beautiful compositions on any given album, and not bother with the rest.
On top of that, the biggest music distributors (radio and other music streaming services) rarely play more than one song of a particular artist within a given set. Therefore you might be forgiven for thinking that the song sequence is not actually worth contemplating, except for the first title on the record.
You would still be horribly wrong, though, because your track sequence determines the impact of your record on the global market. The order in which your songs appear on the album determines which ones get listened to by producers, radio hosts, music directors, and festival managers, so this is actually one of the biggest marketing decisions that you are facing.
In the following I will outline how the track sequence for my debut album came to be.
How to Sequence for Radio, Festivals & Music Directors
Firstly, you should understand that music directors often get a dozen new records a day, so they won’t listen to your whole album, even if you duck-tape it to a chocolate cake.
Everybody listens to track #1 on an album, because that’s the default setting of nearly every music player in existence. But where do we go from there? Apparently the key positions on a songwriter album are 1, 4, 7, and 10. These are the tracks that are most likely to get listened to by anyone who scouts music.
I don’t know how that sequence originated, but it has become a common practice. Many music directors will deliberately listen to those four songs, and decide within 10 minutes whether they hand your record over to the radio host, or add it to the pile of festive giveaway gimmicks.
Yes, when radio stations give away “a box of CDs” at their annual fundraiser raffle, this is often the source of the content of said box: rejected albums. But since that magical track sequence is no longer a secret, record labels have adjusted to it, and everyone else in the music business followed in their wake. Therefore, positions 1, 4, 7, and 10 should be filled with your strongest songs.
Obviously, the four key songs need to be amazing. As a general rule, you want a fast one, another fast one, a slower one, and a quirky one. These four songs should be potential radio hits: catchy, personal, yet universally true, with great cadence and groove, and, of course, hitching on a sing-back chorus.
If you have four songs that fulfill these criteria: bugger off, Taylor Swift, there is nothing I can teach you. It’s unlikely that your record is filled with radio hit songs, so you will need to identify the three or four songs that are most likely to be loved by a significant portion of the population.
At this point, a remarkable number of my readership will call out in dismay: “I am a songwriter. I do not write for a mass market. My spectacular poetry will find acceptance eventually.”
You are obviously free to think of the market whatever you like, but you should consider that even the most unconventional personalities of music history, such as Bach, Beethoven, and Kurt Cobain needed to appeal to their audience in order to be successful musicians.
If your music doesn’t get radio play, barely anyone will hear it, and the chances for getting “discovered” will soar somewhere between basement and foundation of your little musical glass house. In other words: pick your strongest songs.
People who buy your CD will listen to the whole thing, and eventually discover all of its beauty. But music directors only have 10 minutes to spare for you, so they will need to be convinced of your genius within one-and-a-half songs.
That obviously means that you can’t pick long songs. Ideally they should be around three minutes or shorter, because radio hosts can always fit an upbeat two-minute song into their program.
Also keep in mind that the average listener decides within seven seconds whether he wants to keep listening, or change the track/channel, so the hook of your song needs to get introduced very early.
There is much more to be said about radio hit songs, but other people have written more competently about this subject, so I leave it to you and David to reel in that information yourself. I will just quickly explain which four songs I picked and why.
Number one, “Good Morning Sunshine”, is the catchiest song on my record. It is a real good, feel-good song, and nothing else would be more suitable for that position.
The banjo song “Brown and Blue” (4) is less catchy, but is a real foot stomper. There is no repeat chorus, which is very risky for that position, but the funky instrumentation combined with my quirky vocal movements make it a great two-and-a-half minute listening experience.
“Make da Music” (7) has a beachy ukulele groove to it, and its sing-along chorus makes it pleasantly comforting at any time of the day or year. Again: catchy, memorable, and good sing-back-ability.
“Shannon” (10) defies all rules, and really shouldn’t be at that position: it is the longest song on the record, relatively slow, depressing, lacking a beat or chorus, simple in its composition, and you have to wait more than one minute for the hook to appear. However, “Shannon” is my personal favorite, because of its lyrical strength, vocal harmonies, moodiness, and the great musical effects that it achieves with a very simple composition (guitar, cello, and piano).
This song will potentially never be played on the radio, because it is longer than six minutes. But since I already had three upbeat songs for the other key positions, I made the executive decision to have music directors listen to my personal favorite. With a bit of luck, their radio hosts will give the song a listen and fall in love with it.
There were a couple of other songs that I had under consideration as “key songs”, but ended up rejecting, because they were either not catchy, too repetitive, too depressing, or not universally interesting enough.
For example, I have a catchy song about a grain elevator, which is really interesting from a songwriter perspective, but will be of no interest to a host of New York college radio, because he has never in his life even heard of grain elevators.
I also have another upbeat ukulele song, which would have made a good fit, but it is more repetitive than the key songs that I selected, and it would sound too similar to song #1. Remember to provide a decent spectrum of styles with your three key songs!
“Free Bird” I contemplated for position #10, because its slide guitar groove is quirky, yet catchy, and the whole song is pretty cleverly constructed. I decided to leave #10 to “Shannon”, and count on the popularity of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” to get browsers interested in my lyrical 80s rehash.
The Rest of the Album
That takes care of the marketing positions 1, 4, 7, and 10. What about the rest of the album? Here I loosely follow David’s recommendations for a great set list (link yourself Dave!): tell a story, make it an interesting journey, couple up songs with similar topics, but don’t group songs together that sound very similar or very different.
With this record you are basically playing the show of your life, and whatever track sequence you decide on will be available to your audience; forever, and right off the shelf.
Therefore, you want to make this playlist an interesting and well-consolidated musical journey. If you are making a true concept album, your track sequence is nearly set already, because you basically started at one end of the story and will be finishing at the other end.
If you chose to record your favorite songs that are loosely based around one common topic, like I did, you have a bit of work to do.
My first step was to enter the song titles into a spreadsheet, and assign certain attributes to every song, so that I could easily spot songs with similar topics or compositions.
I bold-faced upbeat songs, italicized romantic songs, and colored everything that was longer than four minutes. Then I began shuffling the songs around, starting with the key positions as outlined above.
Note that at this time I had picked my four “key songs”, but did not have positions for them. So I assigned the four key songs to the four marketing positions, and then tried to squeeze in all the other songs between them.
This is where the hassle began, because I didn’t want slow songs following each other, but also tried to tell a comprehensive story, so as to keep listeners interested all the way. I talk more about that topic below.
Whenever I came up with a sequence that looked good, I stashed it away, so as to pass judgement later, and then I started the process anew.
I got better as time went by, because I started to see groups of songs that naturally fitted together. The four “key songs” were of great assistance in this process, because they nailed down four of the track positions, thus markedly reducing the number of possible combinations.
Another help was song #15: I have one a cappella song on this album, which just naturally goes onto the last position.
And so I went on, shuffling, grouping, and positioning songs; creating one plausible track sequence after the other, all flawed in different ways, but less and less confounded by big problems.
After two days (not consecutively; I only spent half-hour blocks on this), I had a few track lists that I considered decent, so I charged the music player with them, and listened. I mostly played the first and last thirty seconds of each song, so as to check how well they fitted together.
Finally, as my attention span grew shorter, I wrote all song titles on a sheet of paper, cut them out, and pushed the physically manifested track sequence around on my desk, again testing the better sequences on my MP3 player.
I also asked my friend Joanna about her opinion, because she has an arts degree, and I incorporated her ideas into my labor. Yes, feedback from your audience helps!
All this probably sound like a trial-and-error process. Because it is. You create a track sequence, look it over, discover that the last two songs that you fitted are actually destroying the story line, so you pull them out, and try to refit a few songs to other positions.
This job is boring, tedious, and not very rewarding, but it has to be done. I understand if you want to hand it off to someone else, but be informed that there is no one who knows these songs as well as you do.
You won’t find a more suitable person to do this, so you might as well give it a try (or a hundred) before you hand the task off to someone else. It took me nearly a week to come up with the finalized track sequence, and the only enjoyment from said process was the realization that it was done.
How I Determined My Track Sequence
Here are the criteria that I employed to evaluate my potential track sequences:
1. Tell a story, and tell it well.
Remember that the preferred method for listening to CDs is still en bloc, shoved into a CD player, and played end-to-end during a four-hour car drive, or during the morning shift at the office.
Thus, your sequence should reflect something that the listener can enjoy, and relate to. Try to group songs with similar mood and topic together, to create an interesting story line.
About one third of the songs on my album are love songs, and another third are break-up songs, and you don’t want to hear those in close succession. “I love you”, “I hate you”, “you make be so happy”, “you broke my heart” – that might be a story as life tells it, but condensed into twelve minutes of music, it will sound like the diary of a psychopath.
Better group a few love songs together, and follow them up with a gentle break-up song before you blast out the tougher, edgier break-ups. Remember to keep the music and emotions flowing without clashing them against each other.
2. Watch out for songs that sound similar, and separate them out.
I have seen performances at Folk Festivals where the artists had half their audience asleep by the third song, because every song had the same sound.
It does not matter how great a songwriter and flat picker you are – no one wants to hear about your broken heart in E minor for twenty minutes!
Compartmentalize that story by inserting a song about a farm fair, so that the audience gets a rest from your depression. And those four piano songs sure sound nice individually, but if you listen to them en bloc, and find that they blend into each other, you should move them apart.
Look for songs with a similar key, mood, instrumentation, lyric, tempo, or hook. Separate those songs by inserting one that differs in several of these attributes. That allows the listener to continuously bathe in the flow of music without being lulled to sleep.
Of course, there is plenty of room for exceptions. Nick Kane’s “Songs in the key of E” is a great album, despite its notated redundancy. Old Man Luedecke’s “Domestic Eccentric” is filled with banjo tunes, half of which focus on young love; and still it is a great listening experience.
The key or “note family” of your song is but one aspect of music, and you can easily stick three cello songs together, if at least one of them has a very distinct lead part, or anything else that sets it apart from the rest. Just make the journey an interesting one!
Some songs create a relatively clean break in the story line, despite their lyrical content, and you can use those to separate songs that tell very different tales.
For example, “Free Bird” is technically a break-up song, but it is relatively upbeat, very funky, and its premise is built around popular music from the 80s.
Despite its general topic, it does not actually work as a break-up song, but rather constitutes a weird foot-tapper that is so different from the rest of the album that it creates a natural barrier between songs. Thus, I used it to separate two slow/depressing break-up songs from another.
Creating this track sequence, this “ultimate set list”, was quite tedious, but it was well worth it – the songs on my record follow two separate little story lines, with the mood and tempo oscillating organically throughout the album.
You can even listen to the album on repeat, because the last song closes a lyrical circle that naturally leads into track #1. I am very proud of my playlist, and I am sure that my listeners will find it comforting.
Without it, my debut album would merely be an agglomeration of songs, and there are already plenty of those around.
In the past eight weeks, I have told you pretty much everything you need to know about recording a studio album, from its initial conception, to recording and mixing, to the final touches, visually and technically.
I taught you how to identify the “key songs” on your record, onto which track positions to put them, and why. I also revealed the tedious magic of determining a great track sequence.
Whether you do it in a digital spread sheet, on paper, or “by ear” in a music player, the criteria for a good track sequence stay the same: 1) look for an interesting, yet well-balanced story line; and 2) avoid boredom by separating songs that sound similar, due to their similarity in key, tempo, instrumentation, mood, or lyrics.
I may follow this blog with one about my CD release concert, and the associated social media campaign, but since that is not technically part of the recording cycle, I can leave that topic for a few weeks.
I hope you were able to glean a minimum of infotainment from these lengthy blog posts, and I hope to see you soon, either at my CD release or in the comments section below.