The Cost Of Being A Successful Songwriter

playing_guitar_2© 2010 Vinny Ribas

I recently received an email from a young woman who asked me how she could become a professional songwriter. When I suggested that she join a local songwriter’s group, she said that she wasn’t willing to pay to meet other songwriters. That got me thinking about what it really costs, in dollars and cents, to be a professional songwriter. Here is a partial breakdown of some of the real costs, as well as the suggested costs if you really want to compete. I’ve also included some suggestions on ways to possibly mitigate those costs.[private_member]


  • Computer ($250 – $1,000+) – You don’t need anything very powerful unless you are going to use it for recording your music as well. A Netbook could work just fine. Of course, you may use just pencil and paper for the actual writing, but eventually you’ll want to get it into digital format so it can be put on your website and emailed to others. If necessary, hire someone to type your lyrics, chord charts etc. for you.
  • Cassette (and cassettes) ($20 and up) or digital voice recorder ($30 and up). These are helpful tools for capturing your ideas any time and anywhere you are. They are also great for creating work tapes (rough, 1st draft versions of your songs). They aren’t mandatory, but highly recommended. If you get a digital voice recorder, find one that lets you export your recordings to your computer.
  • Books, Pencils/Pens and Paper ($1 and up) – The most basic of tools. However, you may want to have a tablet or other writing book that you use as much as possible to record your ideas, titles etc in. You may also want to have one that you do your actual writing in so nothing ever gets lost. You may also use your computer for these purposes.
  • Rhyming Dictionary ($10 and up) – Many ‘purist’ writers consider this cheating, but many top writers wouldn’t be caught dead without one. Find one that rhymes multi-syllable phrases as well as individual words. There are free rhyming dictionaries online, but you may not always be near a computer when you’re co-writing or just suddenly inspired.
  • Thesaurus ($10 and up) – This comes in quite handy when you know what you want to say but can’t find the exact word(s) to convey it with. You can find free thesauruses online, but again, you may not always be near a computer when need it
  • Dictionary ($10 and up) – This is important for those times when you want to make sure you are using a word the right way. These are also online, but you may be away from your computer when you need it.
  • Your Instruments – If you are playing your own instruments on your demo recordings, you’ll want to have good quality instruments. You don’t ever want the sound of your instrument to ruin the chances of your perfectly good song being recorded.


Songwriting is a craft that must be learned and honed. There are numerous ways to do this:

  • Songwriting Books: ($15-$30) There are amazing books on songwriting that can help you develop the necessary skill sets to turn your ideas into songs with commercial potential.
  • Workshops, Seminars and Conferences – These can range from $25 for a few hours to $500 for 3-4 days of intense study and training. Be selective to make sure that the person or organization that is hosting the event is reputable. Compare prices with other comparable events. Ask former participants what they got out of them. Be sure the teaching matches your the level of songwriting (if you’re a beginner, you don’t want an advanced course just yet).
  • Websites and online courses (free – $30/month or more) – There are all kinds of websites, blogs and courses for songwriters online. Some offer just free, general advice. Some are more in-depth and require a basic understanding of the craft. Some offer a subscription to a regularly published newsletter. As always, do your research regarding the writers behind the website. Check their credentials, ask for referrals and make sure that they know your genre of music.
  • College Courses – Many community colleges have songwriting classes. Check your local colleges for classes and pricing.
  • One-On-One Coaching ($30/hr and up) – Quite a few established songwriters offer one-on-one coaching. Quite often this can be the most effective form of training. However, as in every other situation, do your homework. Be sure that the consultant you are considering hiring is experienced, reputable, contemporary, knows your genre, has a comfortable teaching style and has a personality that you can work with.

Song Critiques

I believe that it is imperative that you get your songs critiqued by one (or preferably more than one) accomplished songwriters before you spend your hard-earned dollars on recording a demo. There are many ways to get a professional critique, and they come at different price points:

  • Co-writing – The best way to get accurate critiques of your songs is to write with writers who have a proven track record. They will recognize when a song is ready and when it still needs tweaking. This should be free, unless you are paying someone to teach you how to write great songs by co-writing with you.
  • Organizations – Just about every city or region has one or more songwriter organizations (see the list below). Some will have open, group critique sessions, while others will offer individual critiques by the most experienced writers in the group. Some organizations are free, some have a minimal annual or per-meeting dues structure. Some will charge for individual critiques, so do your homework. Be certain that the focus of the group meets your needs, and that the people offering their critiques are experienced and have a track record of success as a songwriter.
  • Online Critiques ($20-$30) – There are hundreds of songwriters who offer critiques for a fee. Some of these are very valuable because they are offered by established professionals who know what they are doing and are great at conveying their opinions and ideas. However, there are thousands of these services that are worthless and only there to steal your money. Do your homework. Be sure that the person or company offering the critiques is reputable, knowledgeable and current, and familiar with your particular genre of music. Remember that what works in country won’t necessarily work in pop music, and what worked 20 years ago may not work today!


($10 – $30 per song) There are countless songwriting competitions, some reputable and others not so reputable. Do your homework! The truth of the matter is that, to my knowledge, there has never been a hit song that came out of winning a contest. In most cases, the value to winning a songwriting contest is the actual prize you receive and the fact that you can add the accomplishment to your resume. Keep in mind that 1) the odds are stacked against you, and; 2) it is all or nothing. If you don’t win, you have nothing to show for your entrance fee. However, if you absolutely convinced that you have written a song that is better than all of the thousands of other songs that are being submitted, then go for it!


Every song that is going to be pitched to an artist, a publisher, an A&R director, an artist manager for someone else to record needs to be in demo form. That means that it needs to be a clean recording and have good vocals on it. The level of production necessary will vary depending on who you are pitching to and how well you know them. If you’re pitching to someone you don’t know, you always want to put your best foot forward, and you want to give him or her what he or she prefer from a production standpoint. Do your homework on the person you’re pitching to. When in doubt, present at least a basic production with exceptional musicianship and vocals.

Here are some of your options:

  • Work tape (no cost if you have a recorder) – A work tape is a rough recording of your song, usually done with guitar or piano and vocals. If you can play and sing, you can record this on your own with your cassette or digital recorder. This kind of recording is only acceptable when you are pitching to someone you know!
  • Home recording – This can run the entire gambit from using free recording software to having a full-blown home studio. If you’re playing all of the instruments and laying all of the vocals yourself, your only costs are your studio and your time. If not, you’ll need to pay for everything listed below under ‘studio.’
  • Studio – ($100 – $1500 per song) If you are going into someone else’s studio to record, keep in mind that you may need to pay for the any or all of the following, depending on your needs:
    • The studio itself
    • Musicians
    • Singer(s)
    • Engineer
    • Producer
    • Piano tuning
    • Instrument rental
    • Mixing
    • Mastering
  • Demo Services ($150 – $1,500) – You can hire a demo studio to record your songs.

These are producers or studios that will record either a guitar or piano/vocal demo or full-band demo for you without you being there. They have their own favorite musicians and singers that they use (you usually get to choose the singer from a list). The most important thing to remember is that you find a service that does very high quality work and is familiar with and proficient in producing your style of music. Remember that you get what you pay for. The best quality starts in the $500-$750 per song range.

  • Online Recording (mostly free) – There are a number of websites that allow you to collaborate on songwriting and/or recording with other writers and musicians all over the world.

If finances are a challenge, find people you can barter with. For example, if you can sing, exchange singing on other people’s demos for them playing their instrument on yours.

Note: In Nashville, you almost have to pitch a fully produced demo that sounds like it’s ready for the radio.


There are several legal costs involved in your songwriting career, including:

  • Contracts ($300/hr. and up) – If you are offered a publishing contract, a staff writing deal or any other contract related to your songs and/or writing, it is best to run it by an entertainment attorney.
  • Sync license – When someone wants to use your song(s) in a film, TV show, commercial etc., you need to issue a sync license. This is a document that stipulates that you own the recording free and clear as well as the amount of money you will be paid. You may want to have an attorney issue the first one for you and teach you how to issue a basic one so you can do it yourself in future cut-and-dry situations.
  • Mechanical license: Use when an artist wants to record one of your songs. You need to issue them a mechanical license detailing how many copies they are allowed to make and how much you will be paid per copy. Again, you may want to consult with an attorney for the first license you issue. If you have assigned the song to a publisher, they are the ones who will issue this license and collect the royalties.
  • Copyrights ($35 for one song; $65 for a collection of songs with same writer(s) on all songs) – This is the best way to completely, legally protect your songs. Because of the way the current copyright laws read, many writers do not copyright their songs until they know they are going to be recorded. Check with your attorney for what is best for you.
  • Publishing administration – This is the process of issuing licenses for your music and collecting any royalties that are due. If you own your own publishing, you may hire a service to do this for you. This is known as administrating your catalog. The cost depends on the size of your catalog and the amount of royalties they are processing (usually a percentage of your income).


(Free -$200/yr.) – As I mentioned earlier, there are many songwriting organizations. Besides offering critiques, many have sessions where you pitch your songs to publishers, conduct workshops and seminars, host songwriter nights and more. They can be an invaluable source of training and contacts. Look for:

  • National organizations, such as NSAI and Songsalive! and Indie Connect (songwriters and artists).
  • Local and regional organizations, such as West Coast Songwriters, Tennessee Songwriters Association etc.
  • Online organizations such as Just Plain Folks (free).
  • Check for a songwriter organization in your city. These are most often free.


Once you have your songs ready to pitch (completed demo recording, lyric sheet), pitching your songs to publishers, artists etc, can be as simple as doing some research and sending MP3s or sending a CD. However, you never want to send your songs without getting permission first. You can get that permission yourself by making phone calls. Or, you can hire someone who already has key relationships in the area of the business you want to pitch to. Here are some ways to pitch your songs:

  • Website ($0 – $50/month) – You can have your own website with your songs on it that you drive people to.
  • Social networks (free +) There are countless social network sites that let you post your music for free, such as, MySpace, Facebook, Reverb Nation etc. Again, you will need to drive people to your sites to hear your music.
  • Song Plugger – ($200 – $500 or more per month) – A song plugger is someone who will pitch your songs to the industry for a monthly fee. They also sometimes take a percentage of your writer’s royalty. Take extra precaution to insure that you are hiring someone with an excellent reputation and with the high-level connections you need. There are many so-called song pluggers and song plugging services that take your money every month but then don’t do a single thing for you. Find one who will give you a detailed list of who they actually met with and played your songs for. If they won’t give you this list, or want to charge extra for it. RUN!
  • Trips to major cities ($ for hotel, airfare, meals and car rental) – You can make trips to the major music cities and pitch your songs in person. In order to do this, call ahead of time and set physical appointments with publishers, managers etc. Never wait until you get there to make the calls or just show up without an appointment.
  • Publishers (free) – NEVER pay anyone to publish your song! If you submit a song to a publisher and he/she wants you to pay them even 1 penny, run! Publishers pay for all of the costs of shopping your songs, including getting the demo made. Those costs are then recouped from any royalties the song generates.
  • Online Services (prices vary – some are free and just take money on the back end, some have a set price per pitch and some have annual fees)There are online services for pitching your songs to film TV, commercials, products etc. Some of the more reputable ones are Broadjam, Crucial Music, Taxi, MusicSupervisor and MusikPitch. Do your homework to be sure the service you’re considering is reputable and appropriate for your style of music.

General Tips

  • If you’re serious about your songwriting, never skimp on your training, critiques, demos etc. Your competition is spending money to be great; you need to as well.
  • If you co-write, share demo and pitching expenses with your co-writers.
  • Get critiques and polish your songs before getting your demos made and do any pitching.
  • If you’re using a studio or a demo service, you should ask to get a price break for recording multiple songs at one time. After all, the musicians, engineer and producer are already there.
  • If you are also the artist and you’re writing for yourself, everything here still applies. You need to be the best writer you can be. You need to know how to write for the commercial market if you’re seeking airplay or a record deal. Your recording should always be top notch. And, even though you recorded the songs for yourself, you can always pitch them to other artists or for TV, film etc.

The bottom line is that serious songwriting is a business and must be treated like one. Invest in the tools and training. Take advantage of all of the opportunities that are available to you. Build relationships that will make your business more productive. But most importantly, don’t let the business side of songwriting take the fun and creativity out of it! If all of these tasks seem daunting, or if the cost of the business is prohibitive, find a partner(s) to work with and share the duties and expenses! [/private_member]

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.