Songwriters Anonymous

Posted on January 9, 2011

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10/5/09
"The life of the singer is the song."
By Jeremy Dean

The business of music is a maze of networking contacts all working for their spot in the lineup. Whether you’re an artist trying to get exposure, a manager looking for notable upcoming talent, a songwriter trying to find a niche, or anyone else trying to become a spoke in any other number of music business wheels, it’s all about the networking.

For so long we’ve heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and while there’s truth in that statement, there’s really no one person or entity that will help you become the best at what you do these days. The reason being, the music business has become more business than music. There are forty to sixty thousand people at any given time waiting to break into the music business in Nashville alone. That’s a lot of great singers and musicians who all want exposure!

Artists seeking contracts used find themselves backed with hefty marketing and a genuine advertising thrust by those taking a chance on them. Today, marketing money does not go as far as it used to, nor do those investing in talent seek to take the chances they may have once considered; therefore, artists signing contracts are basically taking out loans when they sign a contract. The investor will make money first, know that. The truth of the matter is that the artists are still basically left trying to “make it” through their own networking channels and many investors won’t even take a chance on an artist that does not have a sizable following – a dedicated fan base. It’s not so much about who you know anymore, as how many “whose” you know.

So, what does all this mean to a songwriter? Well, the life of the singer is still “the song.” Some will disagree with that statement, but at the end of the day, there are a lot of great unknown artists who still need to have a song that will get them noticed. Word of mouth is still the best advertising for artists and songs, and great songs are still the best catalyst for upcoming artists. Yet, there are just as many great songs going unnoticed. Publishing companies now staff a team of writers who write the majority of what you hear on the radio, making it that much more difficult for independents to get a foot in the door. Therefore, the need exists for ways to connect songwriters with artists, promoters, management, etc. And that connection requires more than just songwriting from a writer. It requires that independent songwriters make every effort, and take every opportunity, to perfect, promote, and pitch their material. I dare say that many of the songwriters reading this are in the same boat: “How do I get my songs in the right hands?”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Each and every one of us who consider ourselves somewhat gifted in the area of songwriting need to remind ourselves every time we write that our work of art is only as good as the writer. It requires songwriters to write and hone and chip away at lyrics until they have adequately painted a mental picture that every person will be able to see through the song and in the process they grown and polish their gift of writing. So many times a demo comes across my desk that starts out promising and falls flat about the second verse. Let’s face it, somewhere along the track, the train of thought had a wreck…leaving the idea open-ended at best. That song will not go anywhere, until the writer (who should have thought of this before) learns the process of being goal-oriented and following through with their ideas. Nothing good climaxes in the first verse (smile).

Even after a songwriter has drawn his lyrics to a conclusion, there are many things he or she should do before producing a demo and trying to pitch the song:

First, I believe it is important that songwriters have a network of “Constructive Criticizers” (not necessarily made up entirely of other writers) who can give an honest critique of the material. This network should be made up of trust-worthy people who will listen to the song, be constructively critical (to a fault even), and offer input that will help the songwriter make necessary adjustments prior to spending the time and money to have a studio demo (or recording of any kind) produced. This group should NOT include family members or personal friends – these folks will have a natural half-glass-full bias toward the writer’s expression, no matter how middle-of-the-road they’d like to try to be.

NashvilleEar.com is one of those sources a songwriter can turn to for honest feedback and should be included in every songwriter’s networking process. A songwriter is severely deceived if thinking that they can write a song and make a demo and pitch it all on their own, without critical input of some kind along the way. If you can’t handle constructive criticism, or have an ego to feed, you’re already a failure. Those are the types of songwriters that think way more of themselves then they are worth and wonder why nothing is happening with their music. Get connected with NashvilleEar.com, and other such networks, and find out how good your songs are BEFORE you even consider producing and pitching the demo. Within this idea, the best advice I ever got after writing a song was, “Let it sit.” Many of us have written a song, generally late at night after too much caffeine or sugar, that we think is an instant hit…only to wake up the next morning to read it and wonder what the heck we overdosed on, right? It’s a good general practice after you write a song to let it sit a week or two. If you can come back to it at some later date and it reads with as much emotion as it did when you wrote it, then you’ve got the makings of good starting point. And remember, the song should read well. It irritates me more than anything that people think half-cocked ideas will sound better once the demo is produced. A dump truck is still a dump truck, no matter how many times it’s washed. A song should read just as well standing alone as it does set to music. Your network of “Constructive Criticizers” should let you know if your song does or does not evoke an emotion, polished idea or desire to listen again. Anyone can pat you on the back and say, “Good job,” to boost your ego and try not to squelch your desire to write…what you need are butt-kickers who will drive you to be your best!

Second, secure the copyright. This is a very basic reminder, but often times there are songwriters, especially starting out, that have not even considered protecting the integrity of their song. This can be done online, and cheaper electronically than via postal service. For more information: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/

Third, what about the production of the demo? As with many areas of the music business, and based upon discussions with producers and management contacts, there really is no standard process in the production of a demo. Do the powers that be want a piano or guitar with vocal only, or do they want a beefed-up production? Let me first say, in this regard, that it is important to remember that your song should be timeless, if at all possible. I have often pulled out some old full production demos only to be left thinking, “Gosh, that track sucks,” simply because it’s filled with dated synthesizer or other 80’s effects that would no longer support the quality of the lyrics. The best advice I can give on this topic is that the production of the demo should support the song. I know many great songwriters who also adequately play an instrument and sing, where they can lay a basic demo that sounds as pleasing as if it were a full production. For songwriters who are not gifted in other areas, where writing is their only forte, I would suggest speaking with their “Constructive Criticizers” on the production, or the producer they are considering useful in the production. Don’t get locked into an idea that every demo has to be a full production either. You can kill a ballad with a misplaced instrument or shady string arrangement, so err on the side of good taste. Also, you can overkill rockin’ lyrics just the same, so be cautious. In my opinion, when your demo is complete, you should be able to answer two things: 1) Do the lyrics still remain the focus? 2) Does the track compliment the lyrics? I’ve had demos produced in the past that I prefer to play and sing with just me and my guitar. Perhaps a full production was not needed in the first place, and to a songwriter, that’s time and money that could have been saved for another day.
You’ve written a song, secured a copyright, your “Constructive Criticizers” have offered helpful input, you’ve produced a demo of your song…now what? Believe it or not, I consider all of those things “the first step.” If that sounds like a lot of unpromising work to you, then perhaps songwriting is something you might want to reconsider, because without those things all you’ve got is words on paper, just one step from the trash bin.

As hard as becoming a music artist can be, establishing yourself as a songwriter is increasingly harder, due to the fact that successful songwriting is where the money is at. With the Dixie Chicks at their peak, selling some twenty-five million albums, one has to ask how Taylor Swift, selling six to seven million albums at hers, competes. With the introduction of digital sales and downloading, product sales have drastically decreased. Though Taylor’s artistry is larger than life, even surpassing the Chicks, her product sales do not. With product sales lower, the business seeks other ways to recoup the money. This means a lot of artists are now writing their own songs (consequently, contributing to a loss of good radio material, I might add). Why? Because, regardless of the venue of the sale of product, the songwriter still gets paid. He gets paid for the product sell, the download, and the performance royalties. This means that every Tom, Dick & Harry with an ink pen or laptop has thrown themselves into the songwriting ring, trying to cash in on some action they lost as an artist, producer, etc. That also means that viable songwriters now have the additional pressure of trying to stand out, while having to compete for a place in line to be heard. And, the powers that be have to wade through an increasing amount of bad material in order to locate the good.

All of that said, I think a songwriters’ network is key. Having people in place that can direct each next step is imperative to success. The processes I have laid out here are basic; however, networking with the right people can make them extraordinary in your life as a songwriter. Find other writers who can contribute to the opportunities for your song. Country songwriting giant, Paul Overstreet, once told me, “Two writers can have the same idea, but one may say it better in one line, and the other may say it better in another.” Don’t be afraid to co-write. You’ll be doubling the chances for your song in many ways…better lyrics and bigger network. Utilize services like NashvilleEar.com, as they can adequately critique your song and offer keen insight in helping you communicate the ideas you are trying to portray. Be tasteful with your demo production, and let the lyrics speak for themselves – don’t overkill. And always secure a copyright for your finished product. Beyond that…let’s look at one more aspect: pitching.

The avenues of pitching a song have changed. Let’s face it. Getting in the door to meet the powers that be isn’t as easy as calling for an appointment anymore. The controversy over protected songs, and the potential of copyright infringement, among other deeps subject wells, has squelched such open-door opportunities. So, how does an independent writer get a foot in the door? You may not. You may have to rely on your network. Does that mean merely utilizing the services of say, taxi.com? No. There are a lot of companies who claim to be able to promote your music, but what is their success rate? Sure, they may have been around a long time, but why don’t they post all the songs they’ve successfully reached the radio charts with? Because, it’s a business. Get used to it. Am I saying not to use such promoting services? No. It is one of those opportunities you can use, but you must weigh your options and the costs. You may find yourself just as successful building a free network via sites such as MySpace.com. It’s a lot of work, but the more you put into your desire to be in the business, the better your chances of success.

The true avenues of pitching songs these days are doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. I know, it sounded corny to me too, until I met Kyle Lehning (produces Randy Travis, etc.) through my banker – people in these positions work with artists and management every day. They have contacts you may never get to know otherwise, so getting to know your banker, lawyer, dentist, doctor is all part of networking that can become successful in your endeavors. Now, before you get crazy and carried away and start sending demo CD’s to every listing in the phone book, you should know that no matter what venue you use to pitch music, you HAVE TO make the quality time it takes to develop a relationship with these people first. Pitching your doctor a CD with your Christmas card this year is a good start! Pitching to every doctor in the phone book is useless. When you talk to your doctor, you don’t have to make some big spill about who you think needs to record your songs, etc…he’s not going to have a clue what you’re talking about. Take the time to talk to him during your routine visit, about what you’re trying to do and finding out if he knows of anyone you can pitch a CD to, etc. Those kinds of things lead to healthy working relationships with the people you also talk to regularly, and in the grander scheme of things, relationships are what life is all about. Maybe there’s something to be said for trying to build a working relationship with people instead of just a business transaction, which has produced the current state of the music business (and possibly even our present situation politically, in the bigger picture). Who knows, maybe your doctor needs someone like you who can teach his child to play the piano or guitar. Not only would things like that contribute to your benefit, you could then contribute to the benefit of others, which could get you a favor in return later on. Imagine what would happen if you built your songwriting network like that! I believe you would ultimately also be following an even more basic principle, seemingly forgotten these days: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And, what would be wrong with that?

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you in your business as a songwriter. We’re all looking for new and improved ideas to get our music out there, and I wish you the very best!

I’ve got to run…doctor’s visit…funny how I look forward to those now. Well, except for the first one every year. I consider that one my reminder of just how brutal the music business really is.

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