Often songwriters are caught up in the trees that they can’t see the forest. They spend lots of their time looking at the minutiae – I’ve always wanted to say that word – that they lose sight of the big picture. For instance, in a one of our songwriting courses at Flipside, I spend six weeks teaching students a framework that will improve all of their lyrics going forward. At the end of the course, someone said, “I wish you could have critiqued these three lyrics of mine instead.” There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, but it misses the big picture. If you learn the proper framework and foundation for writing lyrics, you can not only improve all of your lyrics by yourself and going forward, you can also go back and fix anything you wrote before you learned the framework. It’s sort of like the old proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
How high is the bar for songwriters? When you mention the word “bar” to songwriters, most of them start craving a beer. But that’s not the bar I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the “How good does my song have to be to get it recorded by an artist?” kind of bar. Not every songwriter wants massive commercial success. But if that’s your goal, learning where that bar is may be the most important thing an aspiring commercial songwriter has to do.
The biggest hurdle. The problem with many songwriters, when confronted with the height of the real bar, is that instead of taking steps to learn how to get over the bar, they start trying to find a lower bar that helps them feel better about their music. It’s the equivalent of an aspiring NBA basketball player trying out for the Celtics and not making the team on his first try. So, instead of getting more coaching and improving his game, he goes to the Y and signs up for a pick-up basketball league. He feels better. He finally “made the team”.
The 10,000-hour theory I was reading a magazine on an airplane the other day and ran across an article about Dan McLaughlin, an Oregon man who quit his job and decided to try to become a professional golfer by testing out the 10,000 hour theory made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. Dan saved up $100,000. He rented out his home and got himself a cheap apartment so that this housing cost was nearly zero. And he began living very simply. He didn’t spend much on anything other than golf.
n the beginning, he thought it would take him about 5 years to reach the 10,000-hour mark. Mentally, he set aside six years. At the time of the article, he was 7 years in and still has 3600 hours to go. Reading this story reminded me of the beginning of my songwriting career!
As a songwriter, I am a “lifer.” I’ve spent many hours everyday writing with, teaching to, and in online forums conversing with songwriters. It’s not uncommon to hear songwriters say things like, “You can’t learn songwriting. You either have it, or you don’t.” Or, “This song came from my inner soul, so it’s perfect just like it is.” And here is my personal favorite arrogant quote, “I only write when I’m inspired. Anyone who doesn’t just writes crap.” No, my questions are, why do many songwriters believe their art is different than every other art in the world? That hard work, training, and practicing “even when you don’t feel like it” doesn’t apply to them? Can you imagine a great guitarist saying, “I only play my guitar on days when I feel inspired?” Hell, no! The great guitarists practice hours and hours playing the same lick thousands of times. Does that mean that great guitarists don’t play from the soul like a songwriter writes from the soul? Of course, they do! But the hours of practice — inspired or not — get them to a point of executing their art at a higher level.
I had a few minutes alone in the quiet the other morning and I started thinking about all of the different ways that songwriting has changed my life. Some of those changes are the result of being successful as a songwriter, but the biggest, most profound changes are ones that were simply the result of writing songs. Songwriting itself, and the process of becoming a professional in this industry – which can literally take ages – will teach you a lot of very valuable lessons. I was just reviewing the lessons I learned and in no particular order, here are the ways songwriting changed my life.
It opened my eyes to a larger world and my place in it. In the beginning, my songs were very self-serving and self-reflective. I wrote about the people, places and emotions that I knew, and it only belonged to me. Unfortunately, my world at that time was very plain, very lower middle class, very political and very homogeneous in almost every way. I can say I used to be pretty narrow minded and I was very comfortable in my own comfort zone and had no intention to get out of it.
Co-Writing songs is a lot like dating. It takes work to find and develop good co-writing relationships. And, not every date is going to work out. So, you keep kissing frogs until you find a prince, metaphorically speaking. If you treat songwriting relationships like real relationships, you can avoid some of these mistakes that I’ve seen lots of people make. Here are some real life relationship rules that you can apply to make your co-writing relationships better.
If I introduce you to my girlfriend, don’t ask her out behind my back. Unfortunately this is a common mistake in the co-writing arena. If a co-writer of mine brings an artist in to work with us, I don’t go behind his or her back and try to get the artist to write with me alone next time. This happens to me at times as well. A writer friend of mine asks if I will write with him and a friend of his. As soon as the guy I know goes to the bathroom, the one that I don’t know starts saying “We should get together sometime, just you and me.” Bad form – in life or in co-writing. If someone introduces you to an artist or to a hit co-writer, show your appreciation by continuing to write with the two of them. That’s what I would call basic manners.
Over the years, I have made a lot of mistakes that hurt my career chances in the music business. Without those mistakes for sure by now I could be in a much better place in the industry, but I don’t look at them as failures. Mistake, yes for sure, but failures, no, they were just the price I paid to learn something from each event, and this is all this book is about! To tell you about those mistakes before you learn the hard way.
Also, I’ve observed a lot of people crashing and burning because of miscalculations in their own music efforts. So, I thought I’d write about 5 of the big ones as a cautionary tale for those of you that would rather learn from other people’s mistakes instead of trying them all out on your own. Here we go. Here are some things NOT to do if you want to succeed in the business:
Any time people complain to me that they aren’t having the success that they want with their songs; I tell them to “write better song”. I’m not trying to be cute or clever when I say that, either. Writing better songs is the only answer I know to lack of success as a songwriter. Whenever I’m frustrated with my own lack of activity with my songs, I remind myself that I need to buckle up and write better songs. I recently found out that I had a song recorded by a rock band. I didn’t try to write a song for them. I had honestly never heard of them. And, no one I knew had a connection to them at the time. The day I wrote “Take Me To The Mountain” I was just trying to write a great song. I didn’t worry whether or not it was country or pop or rock. I didn’t agonize over who might record it. I just wrote the best song I could write that day. Fast forward about two years, they just liked the songs and cut them. Numerous times in my career, I got a cut “out of the blue” just by focusing on writing better songs and showing up to write day after day after day. That’s the ticket.
Someone asked me the other day, “What is your secret to co-writing with a band?” Over the years I’ve been blessed to co-write songs with some great Iranian and international bands. As a songwriter, it can be tricky to sit down with three or four other people in one room and make magic happen. Is there a secret to it? I don’t know about that, but over the years I have developed a few techniques that helped me. I’ll tell you the secrets but, shush, don’t tell anyone...
Do Your Homework. Whenever possible, I like to listen to the band’s material a few days ahead of time – very casually so as not to mimic what they already do or limit myself to their past material. I listen just enough to get a feel or vibe for who they are. This isn’t always an option with a new band that hasn’t recorded any albums yet, but you can ask management if demos are available. Just listening to their existing stuff will give you an overall understanding on what musical environment they are in and what is the general feel of their music.
In many ways, I am the least likely person to become a hit songwriter. I grew up with serious self-esteem issues. I’ve always been told by my father to be humble and never talk myself up and never express my thoughts and feelings directly - exactly opposite of the two main requirements for being a songwriter; be confident and be expressive! I was always extremely self-conscious for most of my life because growing up in a Persian family means no matter what you achieve, the family always say it’s not enough and you must do better. On the other hand, because of my rough attitude and just being into sports and being pretty much of a “boy-boy” I was never popular in school. Even until today that I am running my own label and dealing with a number of artists, producers and songwriters, I still am painfully shy and introverted. I grew up believing that you should always make the safe choice.
I believe that “perspective” may be one of the most powerful concepts in our lives. Your perspective can totally change your experience of an event. Siblings can have dramatically different takes on a traumatic home situation because they take different perspectives on what occurred.
When I was in high school, my English teacher and theater director was always challenging us to look at things in different ways and from different angles. He lived a small apartment and would grade our papers at a makeshift desk he laid across his bathtub. When we practiced our plays, we would sometimes look out to see him standing on his head in the seats of the auditorium, just to “get a different perspective” on the play. His unique view of life was a catalyst that made me start looking at my own life and challenging many things I had accepted as ‘fact’ before I met him.
I read an article about Adele, after she had broken the record for the biggest debut for an album ever. She was asked why it took her 4 years to come out with a new album. Her respond to that question was quite interesting. She had recorded more than another album’s worth of songs in the meantime and scrapped all of it to start over. Her response was, “You’re only as good as your next album”. She explained that she wanted the album to be great and that the previous material was good, but not great. This is one thing that I actually believe in, but also on the other hand I disagree when the uprising artists work one year on one track and a few years on an album. The reason this theory is that when an artist is just upcoming and trying to build a brand out of their name and their music, they should work harder and release as many quality songs as they can. When that name / brand is built, then it's time to take it slower and release only the songs that they're confident enough about them that they can bet their life on.
I hear people all the time talking about “trusting their gut”. While I am a big proponent of that in many ways, I have discovered that the “trust your gut” strategy has cost me thousands of wasted dollars when it comes to my songs.
When I got my first writing deal, my gut had urged me to demo around 20 songs at a cost of $6,000 or more out of my own pocket. That same gut told me that these songs were awesome. Awesome enough to get cut. Awesome enough to be on the radio. I had pitched these songs around the town and met only with rejection. I was perplexed because my gut is usually right in other areas of my life. It has literally saved my life on several occasions. So, I blamed the people hearing my songs. “They don’t know a good song when they hear it.” “They just want the same old thing.” “They are biased in favour of ‘their’ writers.” You know the drill. But...
I am primarily a composer and producer. I contribute to lyrics on my songs, but that’s not my strength when it comes to English language songs. Because my vocabulary is not that wide (yes, I am still working on it) and more importantly because most of the time I “think in Persian” language. So, I try to stay with my strength and put most of my energy on composing melodies, arrangement and whole production.
By definition, a lyricist is someone who writes the lyrics (words) for a song. If you write without any regard for how those lyrics will work musically, you are a poet, not a lyricist. I can’t build a car part without any regard for how and where it will fit into the car. I have to work hard to make sure MY part fits into the car and works with the other parts. So, if you only write lyrics, here are some things I would suggest.
A lot of folks’ emails are asking if I can tell them whether an idea is good and worth pursuing. Though I’d love to give an answer, I generally believe it’s better to teach a man to fish, than hand him a fish. This is what my mentors did for me and I’m lucky he didn’t give me the answers. Instead, they gave me questions! So, I’d like to share with you some questions I ask myself before spending too much time on an idea:
Does your song idea feel real or clever? Real always trumps intellectual or clever in my book! I like to find a lot of ideas that happen naturally in conversation. Like when I, or the person I’m talking to, says something with conviction. I’ve gotten some of my biggest songs this way. Especially with artist co-writes. Artists are great at expressing themselves. That’s their job! So, I like to take things they say and feel — and then write it!
This is one of the top questions filling my mailbox! The writer often states that they have songs and just can’t get the right person to listen. They feel their songs are as strong as what’s playing on radio, so how can they get a publishing company to take a chance on them? Well, I’ve been in those same shoes, believe me! I know the frustration of feeling like my progress was stalled and doors weren’t opening. And guess what, when they did open, nothing happened as I thought it would. Here’s the way it did happen and often happens. The Anchor-man Analogy: Imagine an ambitious aspiring news anchor-man. He knows he’s got the goods. He has spent countless hours practicing at home. He can speak as well and is as smart as those other guys at the big networks. So, he books a trip to the Big Apple. He walks into NBC and asks to speak to the head of the network. By chance, the chief happens to be walking by, so the aspiring anchor stops him and says confidently, “I’m your next network anchor I’ve been working my tail off practicing and I’ve got the goods!”
I can’t count the number of times that songwriters have complained to me about how the music business was trying to keep them out or the industry doesn’t welcome them as it should. These writers believe that the people already in the music business spend their time devising ways to prevent newcomers from breaking into the business. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the complete opposite is closer to reality. The newcomers are one of the most valuable “things” in the industry and most of big boys in the business are more than happy to introduce the next big player to the game and become the hero!
People in the music business survive by finding new talent. Their livelihood and longevity depend on it. And the competitive nature of the business creates a system in which people love to be the ones who discover the best new thing. Powerful people in the music business are actively looking for great songs, writers and artists.
“If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.
Every time I read it, this quote hits me right between the eyes. In some areas of my life, I’m still very much a procrastinator and excuse maker. I keep telling myself that I want to lose 10 kilos and have a six-pack stomach. I know HOW to do that. I’ve even done it before. The trouble is that I don’t want that as bad as I want that plate of steak or just one more glass of that whiskey while I'm writing. So, I put it off and I make excuses. “It’s the holidays – I’ll do all that in January”. “I don’t have time to go to the gym today – I’ll go tomorrow”. You know the drill...
I can spot the affliction of Write-Up-Itis among songwriters immediately, the moment I see them, because I have battled this dreadful and potentially fatal disease in the past. The symptoms generally start after you write the first song that you think is really commercially viable. A slight fever starts to develop. You get what I call “the bug”. The bug leads to hallucinations. You see yourself driving along in your car when you hear a familiar intro come on the radio. The RADIO. Not the CD player. The real live FM radio! The intro fades into an opening line that you would know anywhere.
You wrote it. A SUPERSTAR is singing it. Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kenny Chesney. You pull over and just soak in the moment. Then, the guy behind you starts to honk and you are jolted back to reality. That’s not your song on the radio. It’s another one written by Mrs. X, the hottest writer in town.
What Does Creative Flow Feel Like? 1. You feel completely focused. So much so that you forget your personal needs. You may even forget to eat for hours while you are working! 2. You have a clear vision of what your art should sound or look like while working on it. 3. You are certain the task at hand is attainable. You find that perfect balance of your current skill level and the challenge that is in from of you 4. You feel an energizing power that seems to come from outside of you. Even if you were tired and brain dead before beginning, the work revitalizes you and gives you energy you didn’t know you had. 5. You lose yourself in completely in your work and feel totally at peace.
If you are trying to get a song recorded on a major artist, you are competing with professional writers who write a song almost every day. Those professionals are pumping out more than 200 songs a year in many cases. The sheer volume of material they produce increases their chances of getting a cut exponentially. Why, you might ask? Here is a story to illustrate. Recently, I pitched a song to an A&R person for a big shot artist. She responded that she loved the song, but she thought that it had already been cut. I told her that I had no knowledge of it being recorded.
I had my former publisher (who published the song in question) look into the situation. They discovered that the song was scheduled to be the first single for a rising star artist that had just been signed to a major record deal. Neither I nor my publisher had any idea that the artist in question was planning to cut the song.
I have discovered that there are many reasons people write songs. Sometimes we assume that everyone writing a song must want a major artist to record it. While that is true for many writers, it’s not the real motivation for many others. Based on my “survey” through my fellow writers, here are some of the more popular reasons people write songs:
They feel like they have something to say. Many people write because they have a message they want to share with the world. Sometimes the message is religious or moral. Sometimes it’s an attempt to share something positive with the world. Other times, the writer is promoting an idea or cause they believe in.
They were “inspired” to write. I have had many people tell me that they just “woke up with this song in their head” or that they were “given” a song and didn’t really know where it came from. Sometimes inspiration just strikes, and it seems as if we are simply writing it down as it comes to us.
One ordinary Tuesday, I went to a co-write with really low expectations. My co-writer and I were going to try to finish a song that I wasn’t really in love with. But we had decided we would finish it, so I drove to his house. We started working on the song and when lunch time came, we had not even added one word to the song. So, we decided to take a break and come back to the song after we ate. On the way back from lunch, he asked “Do you like the song we are working on?” I replied, “Not really, but I thought you liked it.” He laughed and said, “I don’t like it – I thought you did!” Beside the fact that we both were happy about our mutual respect (without saying it out loud), for working on a song we didn’t like but we thought the other one likes it and we were rolling in, we were both relieved that we didn’t have to work on a song that we didn’t like any longer. When we got back to his house, we talked about music we loved, and we discovered that we both really like R&B feels. Then the conversation turned to the lack of that kind of feel on modern country radio. At that point, he said “Let’s just write something with an R&B feel that people can make out to.”
Here are 5 things I try to do every day. Doing these 5 things helps me feel like I’m making progress in every area of my songwriting.
Learn something. I’m trying to learn to play harmonica now. Yes, sometimes I work on learning an alternative tuning on the guitar. I want to try to learn something that makes me better each day. This way I’m constantly forcing my brain to be active and don’t go lazy. Brain is just like the muscles on your body. The more you use it, the stronger it will get. Plus, learning all these can be fun and you never know when they come handy.
Here are some ways you can work smarter. If you work harder AND smarter than most people, you can be a force to be reckoned with. Working smart is pretty easy. Check these tips out:
Write great ideas. The better your foundation, the better your song. A great idea puts you way ahead from the very beginning. When I started writing, I worked on ideas 2 days a week and wrote an expansion of those ideas for 3 days a week. That paid off. I got the reputation for always having great ideas. It got me into co-writes I didn’t deserve to be in. And I wrote better songs because I had solid ideas. Someone recently said to me “You spend a lot of time talking about writing great ideas but most of the songs on the chart aren’t great ideas.” I pulled out the chart and showed them that half of the top ten songs had really creative ideas.