Two weeks ago, Brian Fallon, known for his work as a solo artist and a member of the Gaslight Anthem, scheduled his first Zoom songwriting session with Jason Wade and Steve Stout of the band Lifehouse. “We didn’t have anything specific planned,” Wade says. “But we were texting back and forth, and Brian was like, ‘Are you down to write something positive?’ Yes, please.”
Similar scenes are playing out in home studios and Zoom writing sessions around the country as songwriters continue to work while isolated amid a global pandemic. With the bleak headlines mounting and days spent indoors getting harder to handle, writers say that industry-wide interest in songs of uplift has increased. “Labels and artists are asking for more positive songs, less heartbreak,” says Nate Cyphert (Florida Georgia Line, Carly Rae Jepsen). “Requests are coming in for more optimistic, upbeat songs for artists, and we have lots of writers that are already on it,” adds Tuff Morgan, vice president of A&R at the music publisher peermusic.
For Fallon, “the thing we all said when we were sitting down is, ‘Won’t it be great when we can just go outside?'” “I hate golf,” the singer-songwriter adds, “but I would do it right now.”
That yearning for the great outdoors propels the trio’s reassuring acoustic ballad, which came together quickly despite the potential pitfalls of Zoom writing. “Open Up the Doors Again (Big Bright Day)” begins with a jaunty whistle, like a preview of a less anxious future, and moves quickly to offer more literal encouragement: “We know, and we hope, that the rain will end when the light comes in/Yeah, we know it’s gonna be alright.”
The singer-songwriter Sam Tinnesz, who is based in Nashville and signed through Warner Music Group’s ADA, also gravitated towards an uplifting theme when he sat down to write a song with the producer Unsecret on April 8. “We need music that brings us together, makes us feel like everything’s OK,” Tinnesz says. “People I know, no matter what kind of music they usually create, are all trying to find ways to put threads of hope [in songs] for people dealing with all this COVID separation.”
Like Fallon and co., Tinnesz and Unsecret wrote the skeleton of “Better Together,” which is due out May 8, on Zoom; they later sent the demo to session players to flesh out at home. The acoustic track moves from a glum verse — “Feeling lost when you’re away/And now it feels like a thousand days” — to a thumping, sun-bursts-through-the-clouds hook: “It’s better when we’re together/These are the moments that take me home.” “In my genre, alternative, there’s a lot of darker music,” Tinnesz says. “But I knew that during this time, we weren’t gonna need that.”
Around the same time that Tinnesz was working on “Better Together,” Jay Brunswick (Reba McEntire, Parmalee) was concocting his own cure for the pandemic blues elsewhere in Nashville: “Keep Keepin’ On,” the not-yet-released product of a Zoom writing session with Patrick Murphy and Jacob Davis. Brunswick sketches a desolate, lonely scene at the start of the song — “There’s a set of bleachers, in the heart of some small town” — but brings it to life moments later: “That’ll hear the cheers again when the fall comes back around.” “All the good ain’t gone,” Murphy sings during the dogged chorus, as Tania Hancheroff adds home-recorded, gospel-influenced backing vocals. “Keep keepin’ on.”
“We were seeing a lot of things posted about the quarantine, how everyone’s tired of it and they want to start life again,” Brunswick explains. “I felt like we needed a positive message to address this, to try to bring a brighter outlook.”
“People want messaging that will make them look on the brighter side,” says Tricky Stewart
Striking this tone was easy for Brunswick: “I love to write songs about inspirational things,” he says. “It not only helps the world, it helps me as an individual when I’m writing through things.”
For writers who don’t lean optimistic on their own, there are commercial incentives encouraging them to focus on messages like the one at the core of “Keep Keepin’ On” — songs that respond to the current moment are already becoming radio hits. Twenty One Pilots’ “Level of Concern,” which tackles quarantine-related anxiety head on, reached nearly 33 million listeners on the airwaves last week; on Twitter, Twenty One Pilots singer Tyler Joseph called the song “simple but hopeful.” Tyga’s “Bored in the House,” a goofy track about making the best of lockdown, is rising rapidly at radio as well, reaching an audience of close to five million.
Program directors aren’t the only ones hunting for songs like this; advertisers are also very interested in tracks about unity and perseverance. As shelter-in-place orders were implemented around the country in March, “things shifted extremely fast to what I refer to as ‘the COVID-19 ask,'” explains Craig Currier, director of advertising markets at peermusic. “The brands are searching for songs of togetherness, we’re there for you, supporting all the front line people. We were getting four to five of those asks a day.”
“People want messaging that will make them look on the brighter side,” adds the writer-producer Tricky Stewart (Rihanna, Beyoncé). “Sync requests for that type of song are absolutely through the roof. Everyone knows that people want to feel up right now.”
Often brands want old classics — uplift delivered in a comfortingly familiar vehicle. “We’re seeing a lot of requests for the same songs in our catalog: ‘Stand By Me,’ ‘Come Together,’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘O-o-h Child,’ these iconic songs that have that tone to them,” says Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer of Sony/ATV publishing.
For Kara Foley, vice president of film and television for Pulse Music Group, a winner has been Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” another acoustic ballad about remaining resolute in the face of uncertainty. “It’s a familiar song, not super old, about coming together in a dark time,” Foley explains. “Right now, everybody is asking for it.”
While Currier estimates that 60 percent of ad campaigns want golden oldies, new songs can also gain valuable exposure through syncs. “Our goal is to have our writers responding to the things we’re seeing asked for daily,” says Gary Miller, senior vice president of creative services at Spirit Music Group. “When opportunities come up where someone is looking for a new song, we’re sharing those briefs with our A&R team.”
And right now those requests are largely for songs that encourage and reassure. Sensing rising demand, Atlas Music Publishing sent out an email blast on Tuesday containing a link to a playlist full of unreleased tracks “about strength, coming together, overcoming challenges, and supporting each other.” Miller from Spirit Music Group thinks “it’ll be a while before songs about partying in the club will be resonating.”
Nate Cyphert feels similarly. “I did write a pretty brutally sad song the other day,” he says. “But I think I’ll just keep that on a hard drive until we get out of this mess.”