It takes a long time to become world-class at anything. Just because friends and family like your writing doesn’t mean that it’s anywhere close to being commercially competitive. Buckle up, plan to be in this for the long haul and don’t expect quick success. Never think too highly of yourself, and on the other hand, never underestimate your abilities. You must find where you currently are placed in the industry and where you want to be. Once you know the reality and you know your exact goal, you can work for it harder. Sure, it will take a very long time but once you get there, you will be there for life, and there is no pleasure in life higher than being where you always wanted to be.
You aren’t going to be world-class at everything. Pick one thing and become great at that. Find other people who are already great in the other areas. That will elevate your writing quicker than anything else you can do. One might be great at writing lyrics and one might be good at melodies. One might know engineering and can help the team to save lots of money on recording the demos. Find your strength and provide it to the team of people who are good at other things. Don’t try to do all by yourself but just in an “okay” level. Pick one and master it!
Co-writing is like dating. You have to go through lots of “not the ones” to find the one. Even though co-writing can be frustrating, it’s most likely your ticket to yourself. The more of good people involved in the process, the better your song will be and the higher chance you will have. All these are explained in more details in the chapters about co-writing. Without co-writers, you have to do everything to succeed all by yourself. That’s a lonely existence. Keep co-writing and finding out what sorts of skills in a co-writer compliment your own best.
A bad co-write probably means you need to take a look at yourself and the way you work with people. A great writer can write a great song with almost anyone. So, if my co-writes are falling flat, I need to look in the mirror and see how I can become a better collaborator. My mentor told me “A hit writer can write a hit with anyone.” Good advice. It’s easy to blame co-writers for your failures.
Starting out in any new business is hard. Nobody starts at the top. You wouldn’t expect to get out of law school and be named a partner in a major law firm. You have to work your way up and it takes years. It’s the same with songwriting. Dig in and keep learning. That’s the only chance you’ve got. Hard work and preparation are the keys to success. None of the greatest writers ever had been born that way. In my believe, there is no such thing as talent. It’s always about passion and more importantly, hard work. Anyone working hard, passionately and patiently on anything, can master that skill. Songwriting is also one skill you can master if you really want it and really work for it.
Don’t put a time limit on success. When I started, I gave myself three years. At the end of three years, I had nothing to show for my work. It took me more than 5 years to have a hit. It takes most people 5-7 years but putting a time limit on success is likely to leave you frustrated. Sure you might be working hard on it but as I mentioned earlier, it can take a really long time and if you sit there and count the days for reaching to success that you don’t truly ever know when it will come, you will just get yourself really tired. Do yourself a favor and do the work instead of counting how long had past!
Negative feedback on a song is a good thing. I wish I had known that negative feedback wasn’t an attack on me as a writer, but someone caring enough to help me get better. Remember the famous quote from the movie The Godfather, saying, “It’s business. It’s not personal”. If someone criticize your work or give you negative feedback, don’t take it personal. It doesn’t mean they are saying you are bad. But they are talking about your creation. Just take your time and think about the feedback as is and nothing attached to it. You might find it helpful for improving your work. I have grown more as a writer from negative feedback than I have from the positive kind. Often, when someone likes a song, I don’t really get feedback on why they like it, so it’s still hard to do it the next time. Specific, negative feedback lets me know exactly where I went wrong.
Don’t worry about the monkey on your back. There will always be a monkey on your back but let that be a good thing. When you first start trying to write commercially, you get questions like “Have you sold any songs yet?” or “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” That’s what I call “The First Cut Monkey”. It’s embarrassing to answer “no” to those questions but let that motivate you to figure it out and make it happen. After 250 cuts and 16 #1 songs, I still get questions like “Have you won a Grammy?” I answer, “No, but I will”. Don’t worry about the monkeys. Instead of thinking of them as a shame, think of them as motivation for getting your career to a place that next time when someone ask those questions, you can give them positive answers.
There will always be doubters. I had tons of people in my live try an “intervention” to talk me out of being songwriters, or according to them “stop being a dreamer”. In their own logic they were doing a good thing, trying to invite me to the “real world” but the fact was that doing music and writing songs are my world, literally. This is my real world, maybe out of their understanding, but at the end of the day it had worked for me so fat. Maybe not as easy as many might imagine, but it worked. One sure thing is that the amount of time, effort and energy I had put in music, if I had invested it in any other industry, by now I could be a multi-millionaire. But I don’t think I would be as happy as I am today. Those interventions were hard to deal with at the time. And it was hard to deal with people who were not supportive in general. But there will always be doubters. Move on. Prove them wrong.
There is an amazing amount of joy in even the small successes when you are doing something you love. My younger self nearly gave up a bunch of times. The times that I had no money to even buy my coffee or cigarettes, but I was still writing more and more and hoping for the day to come. I wish there had been a voice telling him to celebrate each little victory and to be thankful each day that he got to write another song. Money and acclaim are awesome, but the real joy is in waking up each day to do something you love.
It’s not about the money. I would tell my younger self that the greatest joy he will find will be in going into a room with another creative person every day and ending the day with a brand-new song. I would try to help him see that the joy is in the creating, not in the responses to the creations or the money that might follow. Not only in music but in any other industry too. I believe if you do what you do with passion and you honestly invest all you have in it, your work will be noticed by whoever it must be noticed and the money will automatically come in.
There are no real shortcuts. I’d tell the younger me that he needs to read every songwriting book, learn to play piano better and learn everything he can about the craft of songwriting if he wants to succeed. The only way to do it will be through hard work, persistence and learning. I would ask him to play less video games and play more piano. Spend less time in the park, acting “gangster” and spend more time in a library and read more books. He probably wouldn’t have listened, but I’d tell him anyway.
Don’t be afraid. That 11 years old dreamed of being a songwriter, but he was scared to death to try it. That fear cost him years and years of practicing and writing but he didn’t have the balls to put his work out there for the people to hear until one day he finally found the courage to go for it. I would tell him to chase the dream from the start and skip the years of preparing in silence.
Don’t be in a hurry. I’d try to help him learn how to slow down and take it all in. From the crushing rejection in the beginning to the #1 parties, it all has value and it is all a vital part of the journey to who he would become. I’d encourage him to celebrate all of it.
If my younger self had known those things, he would have started getting cuts sooner and would have eliminated a lot of headaches.
Hangi Tavakoli is our in-house established and professional music producer with 20 years of experience in songwriting, music production, mix and mastering. He has written and produced more than 5,000 published songs to-date, including some major hits in international scale.