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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.

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.

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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.

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

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