Role Call: The Stages of Song Development

Bill Pereby Bill Pere

In the beginning, Bartholomew Cubbins didn’t have 500 hats.  He had only one hat.  – Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

In the traditional music business model, you, the songwriter or artist would be under contract to a large record company and publisher, who would then call all the shots.  In today’s world of Independent artists,  YOU are the one who puts others under contract to you.  The key is to know…[private_member]

(a) what types of roles/tasks need to be done

(b) which ones you can do yourself

(c) which ones you need to engage others for

(d)  how to find the right person(s) to do the tasks you want to contract out.

There are three parts in the journey from creative inspiration to released recording.  These are:

Creation – (Songcraft):  the process of conceptualizing,  creating and crafting the song, including getting critique and making revisions. 


Realization – (Studiocraft):    the process of taking the finished song from paper (or in your head) to fully arranged master recording and/or performable piece


Proliferation –  (Salescraft and Stagecraft): the process of getting copies of the song as widely disseminated to as many people as possible through a recording or live performance

            Within these three phases, a number of different things must happen, each requiring different types of skill sets.  Each related group of tasks that must be done comprises a role.   In big label, big budget projects, each role may have a dedicated person (or more than one person)  doing those tasks.   For the typical Indie artist,  all the roles are filled initially by you.  These are the many hats you have to wear. The reason it often seems so daunting is that the knowledge and skills you have will fit some of the roles, but  not others,  and when you  come to a point where those roles need to be filled by skills you don’t posses, you feel adrift.

If you know what each role is, when it is needed, and the skills required, you will be able to make informed decisions and  you will be able  to continue to move ahead with much less stress.  First, let’s take a look at some of the key roles required to get a song from beginning to end.

Actual songwriting occurs in the Creation phase. Realization involves arranging, recording, and production, while Proliferation centers around distribution, performance and promotion.  Each of the roles above is a combination of creative elements and technical elements, but the skill sets and objectives for Realization and Proliferation are different than those for the initial creation of the song.

A song is traditionally and legally defined as a melody and lyric.  For purposes of this discussion and the Creation-Realization-Proliferation paradigm,  Creation means the initial writing of a melody and lyric, along with (optionally) the initial accompanying chords.  Anything beyond that (for example when the rest of the band or the producer starts adding parts) becomes elements of Realization, i.e. deciding stylistic elements of how the song will be arranged and produced.  As songwriters, we want to be able to create a lyric and melody which, if sung a capella or in any stylistic arrangement, will always stand on its own as a well-crafted song.  That is how a song gets covered by many artists across several different styles.

As a self-contained Indie artist,  you may indeed have to wear all 500 hats, but while you are acting as a songwriter, you have to deal with only four roles:  Lyricist, Composer, Idea Generator, and Sounding Board.  Remember that one person can fill more than one role (e.g., you write both the music and the lyrics)  or one role can be filled by more than one person (e.g., two people collaborate on a lyric).

The Lyricist role is the one which writes the lyrics.  The Composer creates the melody and optionally, the initial chord accompaniment.   These are well known and easily understood roles.

But where do the inspirations for songs come from?  What ignites the spark to want to write  about something ?  This is the role of the Idea Generator. The one who has the “songwriter’s antennae” always extended,  scanning life for moments to be captured in a sonic snapshot.  Many songwriters generate their own ideas, from life experience, from an event in the news,  from a line in a book or from seeing something on TV.  But just as easily, it could be someone else who provides the key idea for a song.  That person may not write a single lyric line or melody note, but they can provide the spark, the hook, the central premise that becomes a song.

In that case, they are acting as the Idea Generator.  It is important as a songwriter to always remain open to all sources of inspiration.  The person who insists on being totally self-contained may miss out on some great ideas that come from others.  If someone else provides the idea for a great song, an idea is not a copyrightable entity, thus you are not required to credit them as a co-writer, but it may be good business and interpersonal etiquette to do so.  That becomes one of your early choices.  If there is one less co-writer,  you get a larger piece of the pie.  But will it cause hard feelings and possibly burn a valuable bridge?  Like all choices in the arts, there is not an absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision. — just the one that seems right for you, and you can only make it if you stop to think about it.

The fourth role in the realm of Creation is that of Sounding Board.  This is one role which is usually impossible to fill yourself, and it is an extremely important part of Creation.  Sadly, many writers are afraid of this role and leave it out of the process, to their own detriment.

The Sounding Board is the person (or persons) whom you let hear your early versions of the song,  or see the initial drafts of the lyric, to get feedback and constructive critique.   The skills required in order for this role to be valuable to you are that the person(s) filling it have no reason to say they like or dislike your song for any reason other than its own merits.  This means that your  spouse, your mom, you dog, or your employee will not effectively fill this role (unless they are also a qualified music evaluator whom you know can be objective) A music professional, a knowledgeable teacher, a qualified songwriting coach, or a Songwriter Association provide good sources

of constructive feedback.

Think of Olympic athletes – how would they ever reach their full potential if they didn’t have a qualified, objective person observing them and telling them what was good and what could be improved.  If all they ever got was a supportive parent or partner saying “good job!” and “great effort” to everything, without someone pointing out areas for improvement,  there would be limited advancement of skills and no intensifying of inner drive.  However, there would be that warm fuzzy feeling of affirmation, which everyone likes.

On the other hand, if all one ever heard is relentless criticism, which unfortunately can also come from parents and loved ones,  there is no better way to kill motivation and creative spark.  And in both cases, your eyes would certainly not be wide open to what could really be achieved.   Only you can determine where the right balance lies for you. Many songwriters tend to avoid objective critique, but it is one of the surest, fastest ways to advance your skills.

In my years of song critiquing, I’ve seen so many writers bring fully produced studio recordings, representing significant time and money, to critique sessions.  This is clearly outside the Creation-Realization-Proliferation paradigm,  as a  fully produced song is ready for Proliferation, while the Sounding Board role as it relates to critiquing the song (as opposed to the production),  is part of the Creation phase.  When good suggestions are made that would really improve the song, the writers are faced with unpleasant choices:  go back to the studio and spend more time and money to  make the improvements, or  live with a song they know could be made better.  (NOTE:  The Sounding Board role in the Realization phase relates to input on arrangement and production.  In the Proliferation phase, the Sounding Board offers input on marketing strategies or live presentation).

The simple way to avoid this rock-and-hard-place situation is to get your constructive feedback early in the process, before anything is fully committed to a final form.  Then, adjustments are easy to make and don’t cost anything.  Rewriting and revising is an integral  part of  songcrafting, thus its value lies in the Creation phase.

You are always in control of your artistic choices,  even when the options come from a source external to you.   It is not easy to offer up your  creation  for strangers to pick at,  but to avoid critique is  to deny yourself the opportunity to make choices, and if your head is in the sand, you cannot choose with your eyes wide open.

Once you move beyond the Creation phase, there are many new hats to wear, each with a different set of skills.  Your choice is always

(a)  Do I do fill the role myself, and

(b) If not, how do I decide who to get to fill it ? .

These are important decisions for all songwriters and artists,  and they are discussed fully at


Bill Pere was named one of the “Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry”  by Music Connection Magazine.  With more than 30 years in the music business working with top industry pros as a songwriter, performer, recording artist and educator,  Bill is well known  for his superbly crafted  lyrics, with lasting impact.   Bill has released 16 CDs, and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association.  He is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble.   Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year,  Bill  is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological Type. He is  a member of CMEA and MENC,  and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy,  he helps develop young talent in songwriting,  performing, and learning about the music business.  Bill’s song analyses and critiques are among the best in the industry.  Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has received two awards for Outstanding contribution to Music Education.


 © Copyright 2010 Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reposted without permission of the author. Reproduction for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution.  For  workshops, consultation, critiques,  or other songwriter services,  contact Bill via his web sites, at,, and [/private_member]