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.
I do a lot of mentoring with writers that are working toward getting their first song recorded. The vast majority of them are holding themselves back because they are asking the wrong questions. So much of the growth we experience in life can be attributed to learning which questions to ask and which ones we shouldn’t be asking or are not ready to ask yet. Simply because these questions portrait who we are how we think and function, in the industry that connections are as important as the actual talent and nothing my be done, said or asked without thinking. Here are the questions I hear most often:
How can I get my songs to a publisher?
Where should I play to get discovered?
How do I get my songs to (insert major star’s name here)?
There have been many days in my writing career when I thought about quitting. The voices in my head have frequently tossed out “I’m not sure you’re good enough” or “The odds are stacked against you”. Most of those days have followed some sort of big disappointment. A hold lost. A cut that was a “sure thing” that fell through. A single that didn’t happen. I’ve endured many of those days.
A friend offers to take me to lunch. The big test of my resolve came one day when a friend staged an intervention of sorts. He offered to take me to lunch. That’s like inviting a fox into the hen house. A struggling songwriter is always going to be up for a meal with a good friend and having a discussion, hoping something good comes out of it. So, I went. And lunch began with lots of probing questions regarding my songwriting career.
It’s true. If we eat healthier food, we will have healthier bodies! But what about your musical diet? Many of the emails to me each week are asking what they can do to become better writers and have artists to record their songs. When examining the music they love, it becomes apparent that the goal (getting their songs cut) does not match up to their musical diet. Simply put, if you spend ALL your time listening to music that is 5, 10, 15, or 20 years old, then that is what you will write. What goes in must come out.
Your music might be perfect for those albums, but not today’s albums. Now, I’m not suggesting that you listen only to brand new music. But if your goal is to get a cut today, then your writing will thank you for digesting new music! Most of us have a great library of music stored in our heads spinning the songs we grew up on.
Map out an outline of the song as soon as you decide on a hook. Knowing where you are going helps you avoid saying too much before you get to the 2nd verse. Second verses are not that difficult if you have planned out your whole song’s structure and you already know what you are going to say in advance, and you avoid saying those things earlier in the song. A map will help you do that.
Say ONE thing in each verse that supports your hook. Don’t try to say 5 different things in one verse. Say one thing at the time and elaborate on it to develop it well. If you communicate one clear message, you’ve done your job.
I write a lot about encouragement and perspective because I believe they are two of the most important issues that songwriters face at any level. For me, I stay in my “happy place” when I see progress every day. It can be the smallest bit of progress, but I need to feel a little momentum or movement in the right direction each day. The days that I get down are the days when I feel like I’m slipping backwards. A big co-write cancels. I lose a hold I counted on. Or a cut doesn’t make the record.
I feel myself slipping back into the abyss and I get scared. The “voices” start telling me that I’ve had my last cut. They start making me wonder if I’m cut out for songwriting. They tell me I should have found a stable job to work at. I fight the voices with my daily progress. I prove that I’m moving toward success and away from failure by taking at least one step forward each day.
We usually get a lot of questions in Flipside's website in regard to co-writing etiquette. There is a lot of factors in creating a reputation in the industry and make people want to write with you or simply making them to avoid you. It’s important to know whether you are on the “naughty” or “nice” co-writer list. Here are some real-life experiences I (or friends of mine) have experienced.
Naughty Co-Writer #1. This guy takes a phone call during the co-write and stays on the phone for more than 5 minutes without explaining what is going on. Usually, he leaves the room, so you don’t know where he is and if/when he is coming back. Nice Co-Writer #1. Apologizes for his phone ringing, explains that it is urgent and comes back to let you know if he is going to be a while. Communication keeps him in the “nice” category.
I believe that to be successful as a songwriter, you have to be very versatile. I have had songs recorded by a very wide variety of artists. But, the area in which I have had the most success is writing my life. When I have written the experiences that have shaped and melded me, I have had success. In my former life, I was a youth “wise guy”. So, I saw the good, bad and ugly of street life. Those experiences creep into my writing often. There is a spiritual thread that runs through much of my writing. In many ways, I process and “work through” that time in my life through my writing. I am a very passionate person, so that part of me runs through my music as well. I believe that your unique life experiences give you the BEST shot at crafting a song that stands out. Nobody has lived YOUR life. So, write it. Don’t try to shine it up or make it sound better than it has been. Just write it. Be raw and real.
The other day, a friend and I were talking about a songwriter that is on fire. He’s getting an amazing number of cuts. We were talking (with a little envy) about his success and wishing for something even close to what he is experiencing. Someone else came in the room and heard us mention his name. They said, “Do you know his story?” Both of us admitted that we did not. So, he told us the story. This writer came to town and was living in his car. After several months of living that way, he met a song plugger who really liked his music. The plugger discovered that he was living in his car and invited him to live in the spare room in his house until he could afford a place to stay. The writer said that he didn’t want to impose. Instead, he asked if he could just live in a tent in the song plugger’s yard. He would not change his mind, even though the plugger begged him to stay in the house. He cooked his food outside and only went inside to wash clothes or to use the restroom.
In a mentoring session the other day, I was helping a young songwriter who felt like she was really floundering around in pursuit of her dream. She talked about how frustrating it was to tell whether or not she was making progress and how difficult it is to tell what she should be doing differently to get ahead. I told her that 99% of the people I mentor have the same questions. Since it’s such a common ailment, I have spent a good amount of time applying my psychology degree to figure out why so many people feel this way and how I got out of that mentality earlier in my career.
A dream is not a goal. The big issue I discovered is that a dream is really a goal. It’s a destination that you would like to arrive at someday. That’s not measurable. Neither does it provide any instruction on how you get to this beautiful destination. It’s simply a wish. Saying “I want to be a professional songwriter” is like saying “I want to go to Madagascar”. Except that, if I say I want to go to Antarctica, it’s easier to see what I need to do to get there.
Songwriting is all about connection. Whether you write for yourself, or you are writing for commercial purposes, the goal is still the same. It’s all about connection. Even people who aren’t trying to get their songs recorded are generally interested in playing their songs for people and moving those people with their music. I don’t know anyone who truly writes ONLY for themselves. So, if you write songs and only play them for yourself in your home, this article may not be for you. But, if you EVER play your music for other people, I’m talking to you.
One of the worst feelings as a writer is playing your song for someone and seeing that glassy stare that says, “this isn’t doing anything for me”. When I’m playing my songs for people, I love to see a smile break out on their face, a tear roll down their cheek, or their foot tapping.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked “How in the world do you come up with a new song every day?” Here’s the short answer on how I pull that off.
Ideas. I have a database that includes over 600 titles. I can always find something interesting there to write. It saves time, so I rarely sit around for an extended time trying to figure out what to write. I come in prepared and that makes getting started easier.
Map. As soon as we choose an idea to pursue, we map out where we want to go with the idea. We try to come up with every angle we can think of and then choose the best, more interesting one to chase. Then, we map out what we are going to say in each separate part of the song. Coming up with a one sentence summary of each verse, the chorus and the bridge (if needed) makes writing the song easy. This is sometimes the most time-consuming part of the process. The map serves as our outline as we write and keeps us focused.
For centuries tales of Monster Dragons have been told in folklore, art, and in the last century, motion pictures. As kids, we believe Dragons are REAL! They seem like giant fire spitting creatures with bulging eyes — unbeatable. But as we grow older, we realize they aren’t real. Monster Dragons are made up, and they lose their magical power of us.
When I turned 15, dreaming of pursuing a career of songwriting and rapping, I moved to out of my family house and rented a little apartment upstairs of Tehran’s one of most famous studios, The Pop Studio. After a few years, I found myself fortunate to be programming tracks in that recording studio and making a good living doing demos and recordings of OTHER PEOPLE’S music. I told myself I’d get to my own music one day.
What kind of song are you looking for? Hopefully, they will answer with something more than just “a hit”, but unfortunately that’s the most common answer I get from the artists. Their response to this question can tell you a lot about the song you should write if they are willing to share. Best case scenario is when they say something like “I need an up-tempo song like blah blah that talks about blah blah”. If they give you a precise answer, then you have a much better chance of writing specifically what they need.
Are there any slots on your album that you haven’t filled yet? Sometimes, I ask this question and discover that they have 8 ballads that they love and 10 up tempos, but really nothing in the mid-tempo range. That kind of info is GOLD. I don’t want to be in the pile with 8 other ballads or 10 other up tempos. I want to be in the pile with little or no competition.
Last year a publisher friend asked me to write with a new singer/songwriter who had recently moved to town. The first thing out of the publisher’s mouth was “this guy has over 80,000 Instagram followers.” Not that that the artist was a great writer or singer or guitar player. The publisher was blown away with all the Instagram and Twitter followers. So, we set a date for the writing appointment, I remember it because it happened to fall on Valentine’s day. Not that it particularly matters to this account. The artist arrived before me and when I walked into the writing room he was on his computer and couldn’t wait to show me how many comments he just got on a recent Facebook post.