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I’ve been teaching songwriting for a long time. But for a long time before that I’d been hearing all kinds of excuses from songwriters going through writer’s block and friends who say, “Oh, I could never write a song,” which is like saying “I can’t succeed” or “I won’t even bother trying.” Wake up, people! Don’t get caught in your own productivity traps.
Here I’ve tried to counteract some of the dumber things people have said to me about my favorite part of music: songwriting.
1. “I can’t write unless I’m inspired!”
There’s no doubt that great songs are microcosms of creativity and inspiration, but they are also the merest tips of the iceberg with a huge mass of work, talent, musicianship, experience, rough drafts, flops, hits, blood, sweat, and tears of the songwriter well hidden beneath the surface.
While sometimes songs just arrive, perfectly intact, others may take constant thought and untangling over the course of years. Sure, it’s much easier to write when you’re inspired, but it’s much easier to get inspired if you’re always on the clock, showing up for work, immersing yourself in songcraft, and rolling up your sleeves to dig in when it gets tough.
2. “I can’t work at songwriting — it makes it feel like a job!”
Constraints and limitations on your unbridled creativity can actually act as spurs to writing great songs. Whether they take the form of contractual commitments or tour deadlines, rehearsal schedules and studio bookings, being accountable to a record company, a manager, your band, let alone your audience — the more it feels like a job, the greater the provocation will be to work harder to succeed.
The twist of artistry and commerce in contemporary songwriting on every level gets writers out of bed in the morning, even when they have their grumpy faces on. So yes, it’s a job, but it’s also kind of the best (IMHO).
3. “You can’t learn songwriting — you’ve either got it or you don’t!”
Well you don’t learn to play guitar by pressing your nose up against the window of the music shop, do you? You have to get one and figure out where to put your fingers on the fretboard and how to make the darn thing sound good. It’s the same with songs. And, yes, you can learn a whole lot in a lot of different ways!
Educational opportunities that did not exist when I was growing up include a Bachelor of Songwriting at Berklee College of Music, online courses and personalized coaching like we do here on Soundfly, open-discussion advice forums, songwriting retreats, newsletters, magazines, books, videos, bootcamps, you name it.
There is absolutely no reason why learning more about songwriters, the business of songwriting, independent production, lyric writing, modern harmony, and chord progressions would stunt your creativity and skillset. And if you’re in actual real-time proximity to other songwriters, you can talk the talk with people who speak your language.
It may be harder for you than someone else, but the more you share your process, your struggles, and your journey, the more insight and advice you’ll attract from those who are successful. And you may end up better off than your friend who’s naturally “got it.”
4. “I just need to be discovered, preferably overnight.”
While the fantasy of being plucked from obscurity to the dizzying heights of international fame and fortune is enormously appealing, there does not seem to be any actual basis to overnight sensation. Take Lorde for example. Her stellar trajectory took years. It began in grade school when she was 12 years old. Her performance in a school talent show led to a video being forwarded to Universal Music NZ. From there she landed a development deal that included management and subsequent tuition. She was paired with producers/songwriters until she was 16 when her co-written hit single “Royals” was finally released for free. And she’s been working hard the whole time.
How to get discovered: network your butt off; build your career strategically; play out often and practice every day; make great relationships and keep them intact with goodwill; build a solid team and support network; make decisions that are true to yourself, and have fun doing it. Working hard and working at a consistently high quality will set you up for handling both opportunity and inevitable rejection along the way.
5. “Songwriters are only successful if they write a hit song.”
A #1 can change everything for you. But there are many other indicators of success in songwriting, from getting great sync placements and private commissions for work to building a great touring show and repertoire. Try to match your goals and expectations with the work that makes you happiest and don’t get discouraged if you don’t find yourself on the Billboard Hot 100.
Secondly, be mindful of just how unpredictable this industry can be. Wild stuff can happen that leads to success. Who would have thought that Tupac’s rewrite of Bruce Hornsby’s 1985 song “The Way It Is” would be relevant to hip-hop audiences in 1998?
There are plenty of songwriters making a darn fine living in the foothills of such mountainous achievements, writing great songs for all sorts of outlets. And most of them will never make it to #1. But more inspiring are the thousands of semi-professional and hobbyist songwriters out there just writing for the pleasure of performing their music and spreading it in the world. It’s a balance between goals and expectations.
6. “Songwriting is a solitary pursuit.”
While the image of the lonesome heartbroken songwriter, writing late into the night with nothing but an ashtray for company is pervasive, reality is more mixed than that. Collaborative songwriting is on the rise. That two heads are better than one may be true. If nothing else, different combinations of writers can produce vastly different results and open up new territories and opportunities for each other.
Even if you are adamant about writing alone, your work will probably be aided somewhere down the line by a producer, engineer, guest musicians, guest vocalists, label reps, A&R, management, publicists, etc. So why not share the responsibilities of songwriting as well when you get stuck? Songwriting is more of a team sport than is often portrayed.
7. “I write what I write — the audience can figure it out.”
Songwriting can be an extremely powerful method of artistic self-expression, but remember, songs are artworks in miniature, yet they travel in real time. If you’re at all interested in stretching your ability to connect with an audience, then clarity, conciseness, and authenticity tend to win out. That doesn’t mean dumbing things down — it means focusing on your intention and prioritizing it in every part of your song.
8. “My song has to rhyme to reach a wide audience.”
Well, yes, songwriting is the vanguard of rhyme and most hit songwriters do use the device liberally, until they don’t. And like many aspects of songwriting, anything that makes a song sound unique, innovative, or different will help it cut through. There are no rules to songwriting — just what works for you alone. Some examples of very successful songs that eschewed rhyme as a dominant lyrical technique are:
- REM – “Losing My Religion”
- Suzanne Vega – “Tom’s Diner”
- Kate Bush – “Under the Ivy”
- Bon Iver – “For Emma”
- Radiohead – “Karma Police”
- Even Rhymin’ (Paul) Simon left it out of his song, “America.”
9. “I have to play an instrument or sing really well to write songs.”
It sure helps to play something chordal like the guitar or keyboard, so you can accompany yourself when you write. But plenty of folks write melodies by singing them into their phones and there are a whole lot more ways than that to get an idea down.
The act of songwriting has more to do with developing your ability to make impactful connections between words and music that have a strong emotional appeal to an audience. If you can’t play an instrument, that only means you find alternative ways to communicate your vision and message. I believe that you can.
10. “But the same chords get used all the time!”
Hmm… and so do the same six strings on the guitar, the same letters in the alphabet, and the same colors in the crayon box. It’s what you do with that raw material that counts — how you work with the components of a song, who you work with, what you have to say, and how you choose to say it. Songwriting is such an amalgam of skills, experiences, and creativity that no one person can ever write exactly the same song as someone else.
Now go dig out your diaries and notebooks, fire up your DAW, plug everything in, tune up, and rip into writing the next new big thing. I can’t wait to hear it!
“The kid holed up in his dorm room writing shitty songs is still a songwriter. The kid worried about writing shitty songs so much he doesn’t write anything… just isn’t.” ~ John Mayer.
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