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How to Be a Woke Songwriter

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By Bob Barrick

Scour the internet for advice on making it in the music business, and it will become abundantly clear that we songwriters and composers are on our own out here. The industry has changed. The days of signing to ABC-Dunhill in the green room of a Raleigh-Durham club are long gone. For that matter, signings, period, are long gone. The most influential artists of our time operate independently.

It is both a gift and a burden — a gift because it’s no longer a given that label reps sit in on studio sessions; a burden because management, production, and artist development fall upon us who do what we do expressly to avoid real responsibility. Pile that atop radical changes to the means of music discovery, and emerging musicians’ futures grow increasingly bleak. We’re no longer in competition only with local Battle of the Bands contestants, but also with the biggest stars in the biz.

Take that in for a moment.

Many would-be-A&R-guys-turned-bloggers say that the key to competing is to treat music as any other business. They’re right to suggest we consider supply and demand in our market, create unique digital marketing strategies, and weigh the costs and benefits of our choices. But when they say that the creative process should follow suit, it’s time to close the laptop and put on your favorite artist’s first record for some good, ol’-fashioned inspiration. 

Before contracts and time constraints forced them down the paths of either commercial success or lackluster follow ups, they were young once, just like us. And just like us, they were trying to use music to figure out where they lie in the grand scheme of things. These early records, untainted by industry hullabaloo, represent what music can be. Save for a few sellouts, the artists that are forever cemented into our collective cultural memory are those who forewent commercial expectations throughout their career and opted, instead, to follow the same creative urge to do something crazy and original, no holds barred. 

David Bowie plainly explained this artistry when he said:

“Never work for other people at what you do.”

To expand on that sentiment, I believe that creation for the sake of anything other than creation is worthless.

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The woke songwriter isn’t a copywriter. Nor are their songs commercial copy. Regardless of the burden placed upon independent musicians to promote themselves, there is no need to write empty music in order to reach wide acclaim. History has proven that audiences crave sophisticated and challenging work, even if they don’t realize it. Anything less will fail to stand the test of time.

Why? Because simple art answers simple questions. Great art answers the world.

Compare the statements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Donald J. Trump. The latter reduces complex problems to a series of slogans, whereas the former utilizes rhetorical devices to generate genuine reflection. When the empire collapses, which will be inscribed on the walls of time: “I have a dream” or, “make America great again”? Perhaps there’s also something to be said about the former only having to be uttered once, with the latter needing to be repeated thousands of times and embroidered on hats.

Why do we continually gravitate toward those who claim to have the answers? There are 10,000 16-year-olds out there right now with nothing more than a set of ears and a laptop composing 10,000 symphonies. We won’t hear them shout from the mountaintops, we’ll hear their music seep up through cracks in the pavement, and knock us off our feet.

Great art comes from a vacuum. To give the space any other name is to rob it of its metaphysical proportions. We’re not here to name it. We’re not here to pull from it. We’re here to nurture it. In order to forge the components of composition and creation, we must feed the space from where their seeds are born. Only then will they be able to flourish.

In light of this, here are three practices that I think can help shape the perspective of the young and hungry songwriter. They aren’t answers, they’re trailheads of thought that you’re free to take to whatever end suits your mission as an artist.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “20 Creative Songwriting and Composing Prompts Courtesy of Every Song Ever

1. Gain Perspective

Consider the question, “Why make music?” and try not to give a hard-headed answer like, “It makes me feel good!” That may be a valuable sentiment, but does it really answer the question for you?

Many millennia of thought has gone into this inquiry. Some say music is for oral storytelling. Some say it is to worship the gods. Some say it is for traversing the closed bridges of language. The answer is likely a combination of many such answers plus one more: the one that resonates with you.

Spending time pondering this question will lead your brain to find patterns in chaos, to explore new avenues for creative expression, and inevitably to think deeper about your vision as an artist. If you land on a response that makes sense to you, remember it, recite it, and refer to it at a roadblock.

2. Learn to Listen

Authors continually urge their students “to read, and read it all.” Don’t give your attention only to the canon, but also to the paperbacks at the bottom of the pharmacy magazine rack. A great reader is one who can parse through the worst book and find a nugget of wisdom.

Likewise, a great listener is one who can bear to listen against their comforts and still hear beauty.

On the flipside, the canon does exist for a reason. If a musician can’t stand a few minutes of Gregorian chanting, then maybe it’s better that their music won’t be around in 500 years.

3. Welcome Self-Critique

While it’s true that we shouldn’t work for others, that doesn’t free us from criticism. Some would run away from the side of themselves that is critical of their own work. This would be their greatest mistake.

That voice inside you constantly telling you, “No. This isn’t right. You’re awful. You’ll never amount to anything” doesn’t exist out of spite. It’s necessary for our continued growth. And whether you like it or not, it will always be there. There’s never an excuse to settle, embrace the devil on your shoulder, and push yourself to make the voice happy.

What do you think? Is this just a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo? Is art valuable? Or is there merit to making music specifically for Spotify listens? Reply in the comments.

Scaling up your artistic career is always a difficult hustle — but Soundfly can help you get ahead of the game. Check out our HUSTLE series of courses to start improving your band leadership skillstouring opportunitiescrowdfunding strategy, and royalty and licensing payments

Bob Barrick is a singer-songwriter and freelance content creator. Find him on tour or at www.bobbarrick.com.

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  • Hoby Cook

    I got kicked right in the testicular region of my ethics not to mention my better judgement and could go no further after the Bowie quote, “Never work for other people at what you do.” Bowie and Dylan and only a vanishingly few others have ever become artists in the full flower of their creativity and public acceptance without ever having worked and worked and worked and worked for others before realizing their potential. And those less immediately crowned by industry and the public went out and worked for others again and again, although at that point it could be argued that many were working WITH as opposed to FOR others, as their promotional billings would attest. By far the most heavily trekked route to success, and to your point, while still preserving their unique “voice” intact, has been accomplished through apprenticeship. Of course one’s mentors need to be of the highest quality. Don’t just go down the street and start hanging out with the first “bandleader” you encounter making noise in a neighbor’s garage! The way to make sure you have the highest quality mentors is to go to your fav artists venues at load-in times, meet the crew and start lifting gear – do a GREAT job of being helpful and hand out your number (even if you are a pianist and you worry about your lily white hands, get them good and dirty). Get to the studios that attract artists you admire, offer to do absolutely anything – go-fer coffee, go-fer pizza, sweep the floors, help do setups, show everyone that you understand the gear can be seen taking such good care of it that the gig falls to you going forward, and all a the while making it known (without being an nuisance or a distraction) that you are an artist just making your way, and that you are committed to providing the absolutely highest level of service, loyalty and availability you are capable of, often stretching way beyond the notion of having “normal hours” or “union perks, any semblance of a sane life, and even for NO MONEY until your chosen mentor sees that you are busting a gut to be on the team . You do this precisely when you are young – when you have the health and basic physical resources to keep going when others would drop. God Bless the few that can be the Dylans of the world. However they may have seemingly instantaneously burst into full-artist-potential and in the same breath had powerful people at a label to make it all happen, I think you can find somewhere in a biography or interview that there was a whole lot of front-loaded trial and tribulation that took place before the blessed instant of immediate ascendancy to bright lights and the big city. OK! Thanks for the space to make my rant, hopefully it sets a little balance against the notion that the greatest artists come to us fully-formed and ready to rock. Basically, if you approach your career with the understanding that before, after, or along the way there are enormous prices to be paid for grabbing the ring, you will see the gremlins before they become monsters standing in your way. Or you could go watch “Straight Outta Compton”or “20 Feet from Stardom (lighter fare). If you happen to be white, don’t worry! There is a white version of this special, joyous hell just tailor-made for you too. You may be rich and famous one day, with your artistic principles unscathed, with the Muse and your quiet place standing so close, you don’t even need to call Uber. But no-one gets out of here alive.
    Hoby Cook
    PS- I did read the rest of the article – all good advice, definitely stuff to remember when you are not juggling the million ancillary details