An Aspiring Songwriter’s First Job

Rand_color_shotBy Rand Bishop

I find that I really don’t know exactly what I know until I express it, sometimes verbally, but more often via the written word. My compulsion to keep reminding myself of the many things I’ve learned over the course of more than four decades in the music biz (went quickly, believe me), has led me to author two published books for songwriters, along with numerous essays, articles, and blogs on the subject. And, during those 40+ years, I’ve observed some patterns as to how songwriters become successful—and stay that way.

The vast majority of consistently successful songwriters approach their careers with much the same attitude and vigor as would any entrepreneur. They see songwriting as a business, one that requires a certain set of tools and the ability to use them with alacrity. It would be extremely rare for amateur scribbles on a coffee-shop napkin and a melody memo-ed into a cell phone to catch fire and rise to the top of the charts. It may have happened, but I’m not aware that it has. And, even if that lucky set of circumstances should miraculously occur, without self-discipline and daily application of one’s talents, making lightning strike again would remain the longest of long shots. Songwriting is not a business for dilettantes. Certainly, you can write simply for your own enjoyment and self-expression, without any expectations of any return on your investment of talent, time, and resources. However, creating commerce with your songs is a whole ’nother ball o’ wax. What I’ve heard from every pop tunesmith who has ever made a dime in this crazy biz is that, “Ya gotta show up for work every day.” After all, even those who achieve the loftiest reps as hitmakers know that the odds against any one song achieving hit status are long.[private_freebie]

So, through years of observation, discussion, and personal experience, I have distilled the work of songwriting into three succinct, equally important job descriptions. Every specific task required to establish and grow a potentially successful songwriting career falls under these three categories (drum roll please). Survey Sez:

1) Learn Craft

2) Make Friends

3) Produce Great Demos

In this article, I will discuss some of the aspects of job #1. And, btw, a much more thorough and comprehensive discussion can be found in my most recent tome, The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success (Alfred Publishing, 2010).

Learning song craft is an ongoing process that begins by being observant. For millennia, crafts persons have commenced their educations by sitting at the feet of masters, learning the fundamentals, which components work best, and how to wield the tools of the trade. By going back and re-listening to the songs that have touched your heart, stirred your blood, moved your feet, and/or made you chuckle, with new ears, you can begin to figure out how the composers and lyricists grabbed your attention and sustained your interest. Also, there are numerous books, seminars, workshops, and classes on song craft that, if you make the investment, can help you accelerate your progress. Study great songwriting. Don’t copy, but observe what works, what has the greatest appeal, what connects to the listener.

As a fan of great songs, note how they’ve been constructed. I actually believe that we are born with certain, innate expectations from a pop song. These expectations are engrained in our DNA because the basic verse/chorus structure goes back to the road songs of the 16th Century. Observe and learn the various structural options, and how hit writers tend to frame their ideas and inspirations. Start with tried-and-true structures before you veer off into unexplored territory. Even a circus clown learns to juggle and tumble before he begins clowning. Study and master the basics before you try to re-invent a wheel that has been turning for 500 years.

Becoming a better writer requires that you write every day, so that you begin to manipulate your tools almost unconsciously. Only then will your inspirations manifest themselves in their best form. Your creative talents are like a set of muscles that will become stronger and more flexible the more you use them. If you’re not writing, you should be preparing to write, by continuing to collect ideas and concepts. Constantly replenishing your list of ideas will help you avoid writer’s block. I sum it up this way: “Preparation is inspiration.” Being a writer is a 24/7/365 gig, one that is greatly enhanced by paying attention to the world around you, noting how you feel about what you hear, observe, and experience, and storing every melodic and lyrical idea on the spot. If you depend on your memory to retain your inspirations, many of them will evaporate, never to be recaptured. By storing them all, you’ll always have materials on hand to shape into that next song. Not that every bit and piece will be valid a year from now, or even the next day. You’ll probably wonder why you jotted a phrase down, or recorded a fragment of melody; but some of those ideas will be truly inspired, and you’ll be very glad that you didn’t let them dissipate into the ether.

Honing your craft can also be aided by seeking out and applying honest, trustworthy, knowledgeable feedback on your works in progress. Even though we may feel certain that the message and/or story line of our latest masterpiece is as clear as a Colorado creek in May, we can only be sure that we nailed it by playing it for others. And, I’m not talking about your mom or your better half, unless they are willing to be truly objective sounding boards. I’m suggesting that you go to a qualified professional, ideally a coach or a publisher, someone who is willing to give your work a dose of tough love when it’s necessary. You don’t have to accept every bit of feedback you receive, only the comments that resonate in your gut. If you feel strongly that your choices are the right ones, by all means stick to your guns. However, if you have any lingering doubts, let go of your ego and listen to constructive criticism. Go back to the drawing board more informed and rework the piece until you’ve eliminated all of your insecurities. As you play your songs for others, paying attention to body language is also critical. What anyone says about your song can never be as totally honest as how they listen to it physically.

Great writing is all about re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. While, on the rarest occasion, a song might be sent down from the Muse whole, complete, and perfect, that’s unlikely to happen more than once in a decade. Most of your songs will demand to be tweaked over and over again before they pack the wallop you’ll need if you plan on going from obscurity to notoriety. It’s better to write one great, impactful song that takes a unique slant on a solid, substantial idea than to write a dozen half-baked mediocrities.

Apply your talent with humility. Being prideful or defensive will not serve you well. Songs are about communication. If a song fails to make its point, it’s not the listener’s fault, it’s the writers’. So, to sum up: listen to great songs with new ears; collect ideas; write every day; seek and apply constructive feedback; and re-write, re-write, re-write. Then, if you still think your songs are better than anything you hear on the radio, you need to concentrate on job #2. I’ll be delving more into the subject of making friends next month in this same publication.

Meanwhile, keep sharpening your tools. And, I wish each and every one of you success and fulfillment in all your creative endeavors.

About Rand Bishop:

Rand Bishop began his show-biz career as a recording artist for a series of major labels. More than 40 years hence, as a Grammy-nominated, BMI Award-winning, Million-play songwriter, Bishop now counts close to 250 diverse credits: from the Beach Boys to Toby Keith, Heart to Indigo Girls. Along the way, he rocked stages across North America, sang on countless sessions as a studio vocalist, produced dozens of records and film soundtracks, and spent years as a talent development executive and music publisher. If those accomplishments weren’t more than enough, Bishop is an author, award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright, esteemed songwriting coach, and an in-demand speaker. At the end of the day, Bishop refers to himself simply as “a writer.”[/private_freebie]

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.