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.
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.
“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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At least twice a week I get an email seeking advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For many songwriters the worst part of the whole writing experience is just getting started. Those times when we sit down to write, and nothing comes out. We feel like we have nothing to say. Well here are 5 techniques I’ve used to permanently eliminate writers block and free up creativity.
In the music business, I see two general categories of people – the excuse makers and the other people. The excuse makers always seem to have a lot going on. So much, in fact, that they can’t ever seem to get around to doing the things that would cause them to succeed as a songwriter. They are doing LOTS of things and appear to be busy, but somehow there’s always a reason why they don’t have time to do the things that would help them get ahead.
I couldn’t possibly count the number of beginning songwriters, when asked “Who would you pitch this to?”, give answers like Keith Urban, Katy Perry, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, Rhianna, etc. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 15 years, I have had multiple #1 songs and over 3000 songs recorded, yet I have never had a song recorded by any of those artists. What does that tell you about the realistic (or not) nature of those goals?
Pitching your songs. It means playing songs for publishers, artists or record label people in hopes of getting them to record or help you get a song recorded and it is one of the most important steps of being in the music industry as a writer – otherwise your songs without being pitched basically means nothing – yet, pitching is one of the areas where songwriters make the most mistakes. And, those mistakes can be costly. Sometimes the cost can be losing all your credibility as a writer while maybe your songs are actually pretty good, but you’ve already ruined your reputation by making these simple mistakes. You don’t get too many chances to make a good impression before you are put on the “burned bridge” list. Here are some of the important dos and don’ts to remember when you pitch songs.
Songwriters tend to have this “win or lose” mentality. When I play my songs for someone, I either “win” and they take a copy, or I “lose” and they reject my song (and by default, me). I would suggest that we look at those opportunities as “win or learn” opportunities. Again, if they love my song and take a copy, I have won! But, if they don’t, I have a chance to turn my “loss” into a “learn”. Here’s how I do it.
As the music economy continues to move toward a streaming based model, people are drifting rapidly toward the idea that music should be free. I think it’s vital to remind ourselves (And our friends) from time to time WHY it is important to pay for music:
For my song to get out to the public, I have to demo it. A conservative estimate of the cost of that demo is $800. I make approximately 9 cents per sale of the song. So, I need 8,888 people to buy the song before I even cover the cost of my demo.
Most songwriters I know have a lot of people who have helped them get to whatever level of success they are enjoying – even if it is simply being able to write regularly. Here’s my list. I’m guessing many of you have similar lists.
Over the last decade of working with some of music’s top producers, recording artists, and songwriters, I started noticing similar personality traits and habits of highly creative people. These professionals possessed a certain mindset that allowed them to perform at a high level and do it effortlessly. Their personal habits funneled their energy into a kind of creative vortex. I’ve listed 7 of these habits here. There are certainly more, but these are the 7 that almost all of these pros had mastered.
Music History is filled with great songwriting collaborations. John Lennon-Paul McCartney, Elton John-Bernie Taupin, Mick Jagger-Keith Richards, and the list goes on. Two heads can truly be better than one when writing a song, but only if it’s the right match! And finding that right match can seem impossible at times. Over the years I have written with many artist, producers, and writers; some went great and spawned multiple hits while others were a dud. Here are some of the qualities I look for in a co-writer.