The One Thing that will make you a Successful Songwriter

I was thinking about songwriting today. I belong to two or three forums for musicians & songwriters (for example, Just Plain Folks – http://www.justplainfolks.org/ & the TAXI forum - http://forums.taxi.com/ ), both good places to get info about songwriting, the music business, post work for review & review other’s work in kind. I patiently answer the same questions about songwriting over and over again, as I know what it is like to be at the beginning of the path, filled with enthusiasm and hope… but know very little about the industry.

When I began to step into the songwriting pool four or five years ago, I was totally excited about my work. I was sure my songs were very special, hit songs and that people would be bending over backwards to perform and record my wonderful works. I was sure if I could get decent demos and put them into the hands of the right people, I would start to hear my songs on the radio and on CDs. I knew if someone just gave me a chance, I could show them what beautiful music I can write. I knew very little about the industry, and, to be honest, I really didn’t care about all the details. I wanted to go from 0 to 60 in less than a minute.

When I look at my attitude then – that my work was more than good enough, and all it needed was a chance to be heard, and that I already knew all I needed to know to be successful – it reminds me of when I was a teenager, writing poetry. I wrote poems all the time. I seldom read them, nor was I much interested in what my English teachers had to say about poetry & structure & form. I just wrote obscure, intense, vivid poetry. Reams of it. Once I wrote it, it was very precious to me. I would not change a word. I figured if it came out of me that way, that’s the way it was meant to be. It was a unique expression of who I was and what my perspective was, and therefore, it was priceless and unalterable.

I used to keep all my pages of painfully typed poems (yes, them was the old days, before personal home computers) in a big huge folder in the desk in my dad’s little office/workroom in the basement. I came in one day and found a little note on the folder from my Dad. He’d found my poetry and left me a lovely, encouraging little note that said I should keep on writing.

Enthused by his response to my work, I looked up local publishers in the phone book, and found one that actually published poetry by writers who lived in the area. Okay! So now, I took all the carbon copies of every single poem I had ever written – about 2 inches thick of manuscript, maybe 150 to 200 poems, hole-punched them, and placed them in a big Duo-Tang folder. I wrote a little cover letter, and got a big envelope, addressed it, and paid for the postage from my allowance.

I didn’t tell anyone what I had done. I knew they would be so surprised when I announced the news that my poems were to be published in a book. I pictured the faces of my mom and dad, big sister and brother, and everyone at school, when I told them. That would show them!

Weeks went by while I hugged my little secret to myself. And one day, a big package came for me in the mail, from the publisher. Excited, I took it into Dad’s office to open. Inside was my poetry manuscript, with a little note from the publisher.

My first rejection letter.

After feeling pretty demoralized for a couple of days, I started to get angry. Well, what did they know anyway? Fine! One day I’d be a famous poet and they’d be the closed-minded publishers who had turned me down before my best-selling tome was published by someone else. Hrgph!

So now I read posts from songwriters who are interested in getting other people to pick up their work and run with it. “I just want to get my music out there.” “I just need to find a publisher for my lyrics.” “I need someone to write music for my lyrics.” “I just want to sell my songs.”

I absolutely know those statements. I made them too, as a budding songwriter, five years ago. But when I say them now, what I hear is “I just want… someone else to help me… make my music live.” “I just want… someone else… to make me successful.”

I’m not saying I’m the most rejected songwriter around, but I will say I submitted, in those first of couple of years, probably upwards of 100 songs to various "someone else's" and I got not even one nibble. I knew there had to be something wrong on their end – why couldn’t they see past the odd flaw and see the beauty and excellence of my work? I also spent, along with my stalwart co-writer (who has walked this journey with me), well over four thousand dollars demoing 6 or 7 songs.

I didn’t take even one hour or one day to try to find out how record companies choose music for artists. I didn’t research artists to find out if they wrote their own music or not. I didn’t even listen to the “a la” artists referenced in different opportunities to find out if what I was sending resembled their style. I just submitted the same music over and over again to every possible opportunity.

Very slowly, as I read lyrics on songwriting boards and read the reviews of them… as I wrote my own reviews… as I received reviews on my own work… my blinders started to come off. I began to see that I had no structure or form in my lyrics. I started to see the vagueness in my writing. How I meandered. How my lyrics lacked imagery, how my storytelling was too loose & I left too much unsaid. How I didn’t make each word count, or each phrase stand alone… how my verses didn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion (hook), and how I took too long to get to the point.

Last year, I finally read Jason Blume’s “6 Steps to Songwriting Success” and all the things I had learned, painfully slowly over a period of three years… were right there, in the book. I also read Sheila Davis’s “The Craft of Lyric Writing” – at last. At last, because it had been recommended to me by a Taxi screener in one of my very first critiques… three or four years before.

Yet I don’t regret that time. I think that kind of inching forward in knowledge was important for me. I had to gently and slowly broaden my thinking and realize that, if I wished to be a professional songwriter… that there was a marketplace… and the marketplace dictates what is commercially viable. I mean, if you go to a clothing store, you don’t expect to find them selling pets. In fact, you might be quite indignant if they try to sell you a goldfish when you want a new blouse. In addition, the marketplace has a language, a structure, a way of doing business, and if you want to be respected… you need at the very least to understand the language.

If you don’t know what a PRO is, or how publishers get paid, or what a synchronization licence is, or how to copyright your work… then asking how you get your music out there is putting the cart before the horse. Make it your business to find out how songwriters get paid, what publishers do, how to licence your song to someone, etc. Resource: John Braheny’s “The Craft & the Business of Songwriting”.

But even before that… if you’re a lyricist who doesn’t play an instrument, sing, or write music, then you need to develop those skills. It isn’t that hard. If you are serious about being a songwriter, then you go and take some basic guitar lessons… or some basic jazz-based piano lessons (a guitar is easier as you can practice at home without investing hundreds). It isn’t that hard to learn how to write lead sheet (melody line, guitar chords, lyrics).

On top of that, go out and join a community choir. Not only will it be fun & social… but you’ll learn about harmony & the human voice. If you don’t sing, and you don’t understand the needs of singers… and you are writing music for singers to sing… then this is experience I think is really valuable. While in the choir, you can find out, by asking… what the natural range is for male and female voices of different types.

A couple of years ago a local songwriter, who writes lovely lyrics and can plunk out a basic melody on the piano… but needs a pianist to figure out an accompliament… she came to me with two or three songs and asked for some input. She had a country song she expected to be sung by a typical male country singer, a la Alan Jackson… but she’d written some of the melody as high as an A5 (a tone and a half down from high C). She had no knowledge of the human voice and was writing country music melodies only an opera singer could sing.

I’m targeting lyricists because musicians have an advantage. Even if they can’t read musical notation, they generally know about structure because they play music all the time. They know what a chorus, verse and bridge is, and they’ve experienced, in their playing, the contrasts between those sections. They also tend to have some sense of timing… and sometimes they have even done some singing.

The disadvantage to being a musician-songwriter is falling in love with the sound of your own instrument. I listen to lots of demos with long solos… or I listen to songs where the vocals basically just mirrors what the guitar is playing in both rhythm and melody. Some musicians find it difficult to write lyrics, but again, I think this is a skill that should be worked on.

I don’t expect that lyricists-only will become great musicians (although they might), or that musicians-only will become great lyricists (although they might), but by walking both sides of the fence, and growing your skills in that area, you broaden your experience so that… if someone writes a melody for your lyrics… you know about form & structure, repetition & musical hooks…. If someone writes a lyric for your melody… you know about storytelling, interesting rhyme schemes, form & structure, and leading to the hook.

At present I am taking guitar lessons, singing lessons, songwriting classes. I have a friend who is a sound engineer who is going to come over and help me understand more about the production end of things. I have read books on recording and ask questions about recording and post samples of recording and ask for advice. I read articles in Recording Magazine where every second word is Greek to me while I struggle to understand the language. I’m learning how to use orchestra samples & growing my skills in recording & mixing vocals. I know it will take time, but at the same time, I know my “ear” for music is more skilled than it was even one year ago. I know it for a fact because, after years of rejection, I’ve had instrumentals forwarded and recently signed a publishing deal for one of them.

On top of this, I try to write something every day. Sometimes it may just be the counterpoint oboe to the flute melody, sometimes it’s all or part of a lyric, sometimes it’s a complete song. IMO, a songwriter is a songwriter because they write songs, so writing daily exercises that muscle. I also find it helpful to read the lyrics of hit songs… and write them down longhand. If you do that everyday for a week, it’s amazing what you get from it.

I admit, I’m a full-time creative person, I spent many years aspiring to get to the place where I could do nothing but creative things from morning til night. I work 25 to 30 hours a week mentoring my students and organizing my studio. I probably spend about 15 to 25 hours a week writing, playing, recording & producing music. On a good day, I can probably write and produce a complete instrumental in about 6 to 8 hours. But most days I don’t have that amount of time, so I have to work on it in segments spread over 2 or 3 days. But this is my life, and it’s what I want to do, so it is as much a part of my life as making coffee or going for a walk.

I recently watched an interview with full-time, professional songwriter Matt Hirt. If you watch the complete series (which you should, if you are at all interested in getting music in film/tv), count how many times Matt says “learn”. Resource: http://youtube.com/user/taximusic

Because the story I just told you is how I learned to be a songwriter… and how I continue to learn to be a songwriter… and that the process of becoming the songwriter you were meant to be starts by honestly & objectively assessing where you are now in skills, networking & catalogue-building… and getting clear about where exactly you want to go… and then mapping out the plan of how you will learn what you need to learn to get there… knowing that the time you spend learning now and in the future is part of your long-term investment in your songwriting career.

It seems to me that I've finally learned the lesson I needed to learn from that very first rejection. That writing is rewriting. That one writes for an audience, not for oneself, and that means reaching out, writing accessibly, inviting the listener to feel like you are telling their story. And that any artform has skills that can be acquired if you are willing to do the work... if you do that work, you will grow, and that growth is your success as a human being in terms of rising beyond your programming to find new vistas for yourself. The recognition of the world is secondary to that. Being willing to change is being willing to take the risk of admitting you don't know everything... and being willing to challenge yourself to learn. Beyond that, the only person responsible for my success in life is the one I see in the mirror.

a poem should be no less, no more
than the writer’s first intention
to make you feel a certain way-
painting a fifth dimension.

a poem is not a machine
to be analyzed and re-designed;
a poem is made to freely roam
across the rhythms of my mind,

to poke and prod at uncomfortable thoughts
to make my feelings clear
and in the last, my greatest need-
to make someone really hear.


xxox ~ Vikki

PS - what happened to the non-commericial songs we demo'd? We rewrote them as best we could... and I recorded them. ~ http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/flawith

7 comments:

Renz said...

Vicki,

I just wanted to comment on how much I enjoyed your post. I have my own on-line journal going as well (http://publishmysongs.blogspot.com) and consider myself a "non-performing" songwriter...

Keep the faith and may the Muse be with you...

Lance said...

I have to say it again - you're an inspiration. This was a great post.

Randy said...

Hi Vikki,

I don't know just how to feel right now! That is a great post, you are a gifted writer.

I guess I am just one of those lost soles, I have written a couple of songs (lyrics only) that have been sitting in my desk for years.

I am 52 years old, probably (in my mind) too old to learn too much new, especially how to sing and play an instrument.

I have never really aspired to become a song writer, however, I do like to jot down what comes to me now and then.

Having said that, I havn't found any information on exactly what to do with song lyrics. Should one try to find someone to put them to music and record them or keep trying to find somewhere to submit them (I don't believe Taxi accepts lyrics)?

Anyway, you are an inspiration and I wish you continued success.

Randy Justason
St Stephen, New Brunswick

Vikki said...

RENZ: Thanks very much for reading, and leaving such a lovely note!

LANCE: I'm so glad my words are helpful - most of the time I'm just wandering in the dark, trying not to bump into the furniture.

RANDY: nice to meet you - hope you pop back to see my comment. It is difficult to market lyrics alone. I recommend finding a co-writer or co-writers who will write music. Be nice if they can also sing/play/record. Where to look? Open mics in St Stephen? Local events with live music in your genre? And on-line. Places like Just Plain Folks - www.justplanfolks.org - are a great place to go and get/give feedback, 'meet' other songwriters, get info on the industry, and find collaborators.

Rob said...

Hi vikki,

I loved this post, and just thought i'd jump in from the opposite side of the fence :D.

I'm a 17 year old student in my final year of high school, and i don't write lyrics, but i've been writing music digitally for about 4 years. I can play three instruments, but not well enough to be a professional musician (ignoring the saxophone, but i don't relish becoming a jazz muso). Thus i can write music digitally which is off quite a high quality, which i can't play (trying to remain humble, but some of the Pseudo-Heavy Metal Guitar work is pretty well written).

Anyway, i'm looking, once high school is over to get into the music industry in some way (if a career in law falls through :D), and this blog has opened my eyes to what is out there that i didn't know.

If you feel like hearing any of the music feel free to give us an email, i'd love to hear lyrics put to my works.

Sincerely
Rob

Melissa Garza said...

Thanks for sharing your post Vikki, It is great to see your passions and enthusiasm for your work and among all others your drive. Keep up the good wrote.

Nina Chatelain said...

Great post, Vikki. Wonderful to read about your journey into expanding your knowledge and skills to make your talent shine. Keep on doing what you are doing!