How To Write A Hit Song In Four Days Or Less


With hits in their head, and songs in their soul, a collective of music executives, professional songwriters, and producers descended on the Big Island’s Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and nearby recording studios with a mission in mind: have emerging Hawaiian artists and industry professionals develop songs that could be used in numerous outlets of the entertainment industry.

The program is known as the Creative Lab Hawai‘i (CLH) Music Immersive. Producer Charles Brotman directs the program and is instrumental in the selection participants and securing the music coaches. Their main goal is to set up Hawai’i musicians for success by teaching them the finer points of songwriting, licensing, publishing, marketing, and intellectual property protection.

Several musicians who attended the Hawai’i Songwriting Festival conference the week before applied and were accepted into the four-day immersive. If the songwriting festival experience was college, the immersive was graduate school for the participants.

The program was created by the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Creative Industries Division (CID)—an agency that advocates for and accelerates the growth of Hawai‘i’s creative clusters, including music, film, design, and technology. To be considered for the CLH Music Immersive Program, an applicant must be a member of a Performing Rights Organization (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc.), have some co-writing experience, and have attended an industry conference.

The Immersive Music Program began in 2016 and helped boost the career of participant and female vocalist Kimie Miner, who won the Na Hoku 2018 for Female Vocalist of the Year, and whose original song “Bamboo,” won Best Song of the Year. Since 2016, more than 12 music placements and licensing agreements for digital, national television series, international commercials, and films were the direct result of artists’ participation in the CLH Music program.

(L-R) Adam Zelkind, Evan Khay, Olivia Thai, and Cameron

Over the course of the four-day event, I got to witness music geniuses at work. Whether it was in a make-shift recording studio set up in various hotel rooms, a conference suite, or an actual nearby recording studio, the thought process went from simple notes on a laptop to a finished multi-layered track suitable for licensing.

After a breakfast orientation meeting on the first day, participants were assigned to music supervisors to discuss how the music would be used. At various locations throughout the hotel, you could find clusters of musicians huddled together like pro-football players discussing a strategy for the “big game” only three days away. Some had the opportunity to work at Charles Brotman’s Lava Tracks Studio in Waimea, or at pianist Karl Kasberg’s studio, just down the street.

Evan Khay and Hookman at Lava Tracks Studio

Over the course of three days, two Hawaii songwriter/participants were assigned to a group that included a performing artist, producer, music executive, and a music supervisor. For example, one group’s music supervisor was David Fischer who has over 20 years’ experience in the music industry, and has secured thousands of placements in advertising, film, and TV. The music executive was Michael Eames, President and founder of PEN Music, the producer was Grammy award-winning songwriter Ran Jackson, and the artist/cowriter for the song was Katie Herzig, who released her 6th album this year. Their goal was to create 11 short memorable songs that would be placed in ads for Dignity Health, the fifth largest health system in the nation and the largest hospital provider in California.

Music Supervisor Jonathan McHugh

On the fourth and final day of the immersive, in a roundtable discussion participants listened to a panel of industry professionals talk about the do’s and don’ts of pitching their songs for placement, email ethics, and how the business side of the industry works. “If you love music, then you should love the music business,” advised music supervisor Jonathan McHugh to the participants. “It’s important to have both the left brain of the artist, and the right brain of the business person working together. You all have the talent, but you should learn the business side too. Maybe you can get a job working in a studio one day and be close to the magic. Create a day job in your life so you can still be close to the music, and not have to eat junk food for the rest of your life.”

The Fresh Preps, Butterfly Boucher, and Janine Scalise Boyd

Following the roundtable event, all of the writing groups demo’d their music tracks in the hotel’s pavilion for all attendees to hear. When David Fischer took the stage, he explained that the music used in Dignity Health’s ads is usually behind footage of tender family moments. “It’s a little bit different for film and television,” said Fischer. “Obviously you’ve got to tell a story much quicker… it’s usually 30 seconds, a minute is long form. Dignity Health uses footage of human heartfelt moments like a grandmother waiting around a corner to surprise her grandson.” Fischer then played the tracks that his groups recorded, which brought many smiles and cheers from the crowd.

What was the take-away for the participants of the immersive? Oahu based Imua Garza, a musician, recording engineer and composer, had this to say: “It’s been an eye-opening experience. Working with these professionals, and getting specific directions from them, like, ‘this song is about a summer break-up,’ or ‘we need a long outro for this one,’ was a treat especially for us local people from the islands. We don’t have the opportunity to fly up to L.A. and collaborate with a music executive.”

“The immersive experience was incredibly valuable”

“The immersive experience was incredibly valuable,” said Honolulu songwriter Olivia Thai, who has appeared on American Idol, and has over 21 million views on YouTube with over two million fans worldwide. “I’ve spent 15 years in the music industry, and I feel that it’s finally coming together. I’m so grateful that I got to learn so much and be around really awesome people.”

Not only is the immersive a great mentorship program for Hawai’I’s ambitious musicians, it also has an impressive track record. In 2016, three original songs created during the program were sold to a major entertainment company, two were licensed to a major cable network, and two were licensed for yearlong advertising campaigns.

To find out more information on Creative Lab Hawaii, visit

All photos – Steve Roby




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