It Takes as Long as It Takes

You know, many times over the past 5 years of songwriting, I asked myself why I was even bothering to keep trying... after yet another rejection, needs work, no thanks, no way. But I wasn't willing to give up on myself. Maybe I needed to learn more about composing and producing, maybe I needed to get better tools & learn how to use them effectively... but I firmly believed I had the seed of something good that just needed to be supported by learning, listening, and perserverance.

I often tell my students... think of your voice (or songwriting, or composing/producing), like a seed you've planted. You water it, you weed it, you make sure it has sun, and protect it from the frost... and it begins to grow. But you can't dictate to it when it will flower.

Tend your musical garden with patience.


From Rejection to Signed Deal

May 2007. A listing comes out on (a company that lists opportunities for artists, song pitches & film/tv, only members may submit) for Armenian songs/instrumentals for a cop show. They want it to sound very contemporary, but distinctly Armenian. Like usual, I say “what the heck”, go listen to some Armenian music… and start cooking up a track. I google Armenian history, and find out that Anahit is the goddess of fertility and birth (analog to Aphrodite), beauty and water in Armenian mythology.

First draft – Anahit’s Throne

May 2007 (con’t). Keep working on the track to try to get it into a better shape. I’ve only had my new audio computer for 2 or 3 months. I bought it to drive EWQLSO Silver (an orchestra program). The rest of my plug-ins are mostly free downloads. I don’t realize how much those less-than-stellar sounds are holding me back. I post the track for feedback from my peers on my favourite songwriting forum. A few suggestions are made, including that it should be shortened.

June 8/2007. Having made the suggested edits, I submit the track to the Armenian songs/instrumentals listing. It is rejected. This particular opp was a 'no critique' listing, so I get no feedback.

July 11/2007. Try submitting Anahit’s Dance to a world/ethnic listing. It is rejected. This particular opp was a 'no critique' listing, so I get no feedback.

Sep 11/2007. Try submitting Anahit’s Dance to an Electronica instrumentals listing. “All styles, variations, and sub-genres of Electronica are OK,” it says. I figure I’m in with a chance, and if nothing else, I'll get a critique. The track is returned. The screener says I’m on target for the listing (yeah!), but marks me low in production & engineering :(

Third draft - Anahit's Dance:

“The eastern flavored parts and instrumentation are layered well to form a colorful mix of cultures in this piece. The rhythmic elements and various small but interesting sounds peppered across this piece meld into an engaging soundscape. The clarinet patch does sound a tad synthetic and doesn't quite fit with the style and quality of the other parts, to my ears. The eastern influences and sounds are cool, but the clarinet sticks out a little as being a touch unrealistic or maybe just not sitting in the mix. The drum tracks could be brought up in level and made more solid in general, with some better sounds and more well balanced mixing in general.”

Feb 8/2008. Okay, I’m looking through my files, do I have any World style tracks for a new listing? I listen to Anahit’s Dance, read the critique from last time, work on the percussion. I now have the EWQLSO Gold Bundle with more articulations - more good quality Virtual Instrumentation. I revise, rework, and submit. [“Style-wise, they are open to any style that falls under "World Music." They don't want tracks that sound like they were obviously MIDI generated - authenticity and great performances are the keys. Both instrumentals with lead melody lines and basic backing tracks that serve as "soundbeds" are OK - they want both.”]

This time, the screener says I’m on target for the listing (yeah!), that it’s a “good World music style.” But I'm “lacking the 'authenticity and great performances' requested. You might try playing some of the parts on real instruments, as opposed to synth/ sample/ sequences. The percussion samples are OK, though they would be more effective if they were countered by live musicians.” Rejected. :(

Spring 2008. I finally manage to get another piece of software that’s been on my wish list for awhile – Stylus RMX. As I play with it and try to learn how it works and what sounds are available, etc… I fool around with Anahit’s Dance, reworking it as the screeners suggested. I’ve got good sounds now, I have to learn how to use them effectively so that they not only sound authentic, but ‘play’ authentic. I'm finding out more about controllers and velocities and things like that.

July 9/2008. I’m on a push to submit as many good tracks as possible to opportunities before I go away for a month. I see a listing for “Quirky and Fun Instrumentals in a variety of styles.” As I go through my catalogue to see what I might have, I play my updated version of Anahit’s Dance. It occurs to me that, while it might have World elements and Electronica elements… it could be considered to be quirky, too. I submit it.

When I get home from summer holidays, I find that Anahit’s Dance has been forwarded, along with 7 other tracks for this & other listings! The screener says “cool line with character... loop is fun... the arrangement moves along and easy to follow...; thanks for sending in the music. The track opens with a solid line that creates an intense motif. the vibe is quirky with the sorted shapes and colors throughout - nice job. The breakdown is wild-very cool. The call and response is very affective, creating the right musical dialogue easy for the ears to follow- a solid way to start your presentation. You've created the right impact going into the other tracks-that's the way to do it! keep writing and good luck!” My tracks have been forwarded to a prominent East Coast Music Library/Publisher for further consideration.

Fifth & Final – Anahit’s Dance

Oct 2008. After this process of rewriting, reworking and remixing, and finally being forwarded, I’m feeling secure that this track has finally made the grade. When I see an opp to submit directly to a music library, I submit 3 quirky/comedy tracks – including Anahit’s Dance - for consideration. The next afternoon… I receive an email and a contract from that library, they are interested in the tracks I submitted and are also interested in hearing more. I sign the contract and return it to them and deliver the tracks to them in the format requested.

Then I go back to work. More tracks to write, more opportunities to target, more to learn :)

Don't Do's for Songwriting

My "Don't Do" List for Success in Songwriting, learned by experience...

- If you want to be successful, don't presume you have nothing to learn & do not ignore the feedback of the screeners / gatekeepers.

- If you want to learn what makes the grade, don't be emotionally attached to your work, be willing to listen & re-write, or listen & carry forward into your next piece.

- Don't send in a song submission without reading the details of what they want closely, listening to the a la's, reading the lyrics of the a la's, listening to the production elements of the a la's.

- Don't write lyrics that don't answer the basic questions of songwriting. Do read books like Jason Blume's "6 Steps to Songwriting Success" & Pat Pattison's "Writing Better Lyrics".

- Don't write lyrics without good form - contrast between sections, strong hook, interesting rhyme scheme, that tells a unique story in a universally relatable way, singable lyrics that are meant to be understood when sung.

- Don't write melodies without good form - contrast between sections, strong hook, catchy chorus. Don't write too many ballads - there are fewer calls for them.

- Don't ignore words like "contemporary" or "classic" or "modern", research them and find out what they mean

- Don't send in badly recorded worktapes of songs, even for song pitches. Do submit clean recordings.

- Don't sing your own demos unless you can sing, and can sing in the style of the a la's. On any song pitch, the vocals sell the song. Use the best 'a la' singer you can find.

- Don't send in a male vocal for a female song pitch & vice versea.

- Don't sent in any demo that has any out of tune instrument.

- Don't use excessive reverb on vocals.

- Don't assume you have to have full production on a demo, but do presume that you need to have the best vocal and the best playing of piano or guitar.

- Don't pay for full production on a song without professional evaluation (Taxi custom critique, NSAI, John Braheny, Jason Blume, Pete & Pat Luboff, etc), it's a waste of money.

- Don't use out of date or cheap plug-ins.

- Don't copy & paste one sequence of midi notes to another section. Play it again, so it's human.

- Don't ignore controllers when sequencing a piece. Edit velocities.

- Don't make an instrument play something with midi that it wouldn't play if played by a real person.

- Don't use drum loops unless you edit them so they sound like they are live / played by a real person.

- Don't not go to music conferences.

- Don't assume the screener, or the industry, is the one holding you back from success. They set the standard, because their jobs are on the line. They need your music and they want you to be successful. Give them every opportunity to give you a deal.

- Don't presume that attitude doesn't count. Be professional in all your dealings with the industry, even when your music is being rejected. It happens to the best of us.

- Don't give up. Keep an open mind, be willing to learn, take your lumps. Other people are successful, they had to go through the same learning process as you in order to be successful.

- Don't presume this list is exhaustive :)

Commercial vs Creative

Let’s face it, it takes a lot of courage to dig deep and find out who you are, underneath all the programming and external forces that we integrate over our lifetimes. It’s easier to play the roles the world has prescribed for us, and be the meek girl who works overtime or the easy-going guy who helps everyone move cause he owns a truck or the cool chick who’s always the life of the party, or the fab guy who’ll make his first million soon.

Our society seems to worship the external and the instant. All around us there exists a profound lack of appreciation for the process of becoming. All around us emphasis on how we look, what we do, what we are seen to be, what we where, what we say in our glib way… but little is said about the internal life of dealing with our own consciousness, the spirit within each of us, our creative voice, our individual and unique inspiration.

It took me years and years of work and healing to be able to hear my own voice. I still struggle sometimes to find it in the cacophony of sound around me, in the harsh morphings of the negative thinkers who permeate the world with their bad vibes. But even though I’ve found my voice and released it and hopefully support it in its blossoming, I am still aware that I have much to learn about refining it.

Therefore I see no contradiction if I, on the one hand, aspire to be fully authentic and organic and real while, on the other hand, also wish to be more skilled, more refined, do things better than I have before. In fact I consider it a challenge to be myself to also rise above myself at the same time, lol. Otherwise I will think I have arrived. Otherwise I will stagnate. Otherwise, life would be boring.

If one says, ‘I cannot be creative if given specific guidelines to follow, and following those guidelines is a selling out of personal creativity,’ then one is really saying that we must ignore craft and embrace organic inspiration at all cost. In that case, let us cease teaching our children to read & write, all music lessons should stop, all universities should close, and all apprentices should leave their masters.

If one has that point of view, then one should believe that teaching Leonardo di Vinci how to mix colours was a crime against his individual creativity and the fact that he learned how to mix colours, to sketch perspective, to choose media & effective tools was a ‘selling out’ on his part, and therefore his work became as homogenized as all the other work done with the same skills and tools. Bland.

Michelangelo was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel. Well, really – what a limit to his ability to create a work that expresses his artistry, right?

Really? If someone asks me to write a song ‘a la’ someone… how does that limit me as an artist? It’s simply providing the canvas. I still choose the colours, the shapes, the shadows, the light, the brushes, the expression; the instruments, the melody, the words, the arrangement.

I prefer to get excited by the idea that I can paint my own masterpiece within the frame provided. I know my creativity is up to the task. In fact, I think the fact that I can express myself within the ‘confines’ of an ‘a la’ makes the ‘me’ in me stronger and more resilient ~