Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt once famously wrote that he sang “for the sake of the song.” Music industry veteran, SOCAN member, and hit co-writer/producer John Dexter subscribes to this philosophy.
“It’s all about the song,” says the executive, who chats with SOCAN after a trip to London, Paris and Cannes meeting with music labels, managers and publishers. “The song is the most important thing. The feeling it creates. A songwriter has to know where the bar is. To develop the skill of objectivity so they can hit the target.”
Sage advice from one who knows. Songwriter/Producer Dexter is President of A&R Lab — a hit-oriented open-source music production and independent A&R company. He’s also the president of indie record label Reliant Music, distributed by Warner. His clients compliment Dexter’s dexterity, and his ear for identifying melodies that possess the right ingredients to make their way up the charts.
“The song is the most important thing. The feeling it creates.”
“I initially learned about making hits by listening to Top 40 radio, trying to really hear what makes a song a hit, comparing my songs to them, and then doing everything I could to make my songs as good,” says Dexter. “Sometimes, it worked!”
It did. The music man claims 13 Top 10 singles and 10 Top 40 hits, and more than 43 million albums sold worldwide, in his career. He’s also contributed songs to three Academy Award-winning films, including Top Gun and Nebraska. During this time, he’s also helped artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen, who he co-managed during the time of her mega-hit “Call Me Maybe,” which sold more than 21 million copies worldwide and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (see sidebar). In 2016, A&R Lab helped singer-songwriter Andrew Allen achieve multiple successes: “What You Wanted” hit No. 17 at National Hot AC and No. 8 at National AC Radio, and his Christmas release “Favourite Christmas Song” hit No. 6 at Mainstream AC.
Dexter says the reason that some songs hit and others miss because artists often focus on the wrong things. “Songwriters need to place their attention on the details, and be rigorous and objective in their approach to crafting hits,” he says. “You have to be ruthless with your melodies. Is my chorus honestly as good as Ed Sheehan’s in ‘Shape of You’? If not, throw it out and re-write until you think it is.
“It is all about the feeling and urgency. Whether it’s ‘See You Again’ by Wiz Khalifa, Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ or Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella,’ if you want hits, you always have to go for that one-listen smash. But you have to have a sense of how to get there; you can only do that by being brutally honest with yourself and your co-writers. If they’re not up for it… next!”
To discover that next hit-maker, A&R Lab’s team of industry veterans listen to songs just like a radio programmer would in their weekly advertising meetings. “We have two dozen new songs to listen to, and room to add only two singles,” Dexter says.
If Dexter remains unmoved within the first 30 seconds of listening to a single, it’s on to the next song. “What many creative people don’t realize is that a stage of contemplation is extremely important,” he says. “There are many stages of creativity and that’s the one that’s often overlooked while people are just producing, producing, producing. What happens without that stage of contemplation is that the producing becomes formulaic, repetitive, and lacks inspiration. That then leads to dissatisfaction, and to things not lining up quite as you would like.”
According to Dexter, that period of contemplation is super-important, so artists can think, ‘what do I want to happen here?’
“It dissolves attachments and in that, a quieting happens with which you can listen to your intuition,” he explains. “This process can lead you to less situations that are challenging, and lead you to places you need to be as opposed to situations that are distracting. When you pause and step into the spirit of exploration, incredible things can happen.”
It’s why Dexter says North America’s hit-making mecca of Los Angeles often feels like a conveyor belt, where everyone is just trying to chase a hit. “Having a hit is the best feeling in the world,” he says, “but I remember when I lived in Los Angeles, if I had a song on the charts and it lost its bullet, I would call the artist manager, call the label, etc. It was like my whole self-esteem depended on the song going from No. 11 to No. 5. Then you jump on the treadmill and do it all over again.
“I learned that ultimately, you have to write songs and release singles for the right reasons – to give people love, authenticity and your spirit,” says Dexter. “The listener recognizes that, and it feels familiar to them because you’re talking to the part in them that’s the same as you. Once you have a song like that, then you create the production to support it. That’s how you have hits.”
In the course of his career, Dexter has worn many hats. How, one wonders, has he weathered the storm in the ever-changing, unpredictable music industry? “By re-inventing myself quite a few times,” he says. “Staying inquisitive, leaning into challenges, learning new skills, and listening to my intuition as closely as I can.”
Looking ahead, what’s next for the A&R Lab team? “Our priority is to develop new songwriter/producer relationships and to expand our creative team,” Dexter says. “We listen to every song that’s sent in, and are always on the lookout for that next songwriter who is collaborative, competitive and super-talented. So hit us up!”