Songwriters Anonymous: The Do’s & Don’ts vs. The How To’s

Posted on January 12, 2011

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1/11/11

I recently saw a couple of online posts that peaked my interest, most notably the tone with which they were expressed in an open forum setting. These postings were in response to the ramblings of an anonymous songwriter in Nashville.

One response read:

“THE PROBLEM WITH NASHVILLE TODAY IS THAT THERE ARE JUST TO MANY IDIOTS WHO THINK THEY ARE GOOD AND CAN’T STAND THE FACT THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO HAVE MORE TALENT THAN THEY DO. THE FIELD IS OVERCROWDED AND NINETY PERCENT OF YOU JUST NEED TO GO HOME.”

For those of you who are new to songwriting in Nashville, this is a pretty ordinary response, and you can expect it quite often if you choose to ask how songwriters succeed in Nashville. If you came to Music City expecting your fame and fortune to greet you with open arms, you will soon discover the truth of the matter. The late great Harlan Howard once said to another songwriter, “Just remember, we didn’t invite you here.”

While trying to help kindle the dream of success in this town for fellow songwriters who have not been here any period of time, I often find that rejection crushes their hopes before success can potentially become a reality. Alot of talented songwriters come and alot of talented songwriters go in Music City. And while it’s true there are alot of tares among the wheat, good songwriters who become great songwriters require time and diligence in their efforts.

And in response to one middle-aged songwriter who attempted to ramble about his knowledge of songwriting in Nashville, another songwriter chided:

[Note: I’m posting it just as the responder wrote it…punctuation/spelling errors and all.]

“SO IT’S REALLY THIS PATHETIC RIGHT NOW (NotVille)

“HAVEN’T BEEN HERE (NASHVILLE) IN A WHILE, WOW WHAT A SHOCK FROM JUST A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO. NOT EVEN A PAGE OF POSTINGS A DAY, AND THE SAME PATHETIC SPAMMERS ARE ABOUT ALL THAT’S LEFT. THE OPEN LETTER FROM THE AMATEUR WAS TOUCHING BUT SO SAD AT THE SAME TIME. IT’S REALLY STUNNING SOMEONE THAT AGE COULD STILL BE SO IGNORANT AND UNINFORMED, WITH ALL THE RESOURCES IN TOWN FOR BEGINNERS AND AMATEURS TO LEARN HOW THIS STUFF HAPPENS.

DUDE I REALLY HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU BUT REALLY IF THE SONGS WERE THAT GOOD THEY’D BE NOTICED BELIEVE IT. IT MAY TAKE YEARS TO GET A SONG CUT, IF EVER, BUT GENERALLY EVERYONE IT TOWN KNOWS YOU WROTE IT YEARS BEFORE AND CHAMPIONED IT. THE TRUTH IS IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW GOOD ANY ONE PERSONS SONG IS, AND EVEN IF IT’S SOME MONSTER ‘I HOPE YOU DANCE’ CALIBER CAREER WRITE, SOMEONE ELSE ALREADY IN THE GAME FOR YEARS WROTE ONE JUST LIKE IT. THE GAME RULES CHANGED VERY QUICKLY, THIS IS NO LONGER A RETIREMENT COMMUNITY FOR MIDDLE AGED ROCK STARS AND FAILED SINGER SONGWRITERS FROM LA AND NYC IN FACT THE ORIGINAL BOOMERS HAVE MOVE BACK TO WHEREVER IT’S SO BAD HERE RIGHT NOW. IT’S A YOUNG PERSONS TOWN NOW, THE TOWN IS FOR THE NEW GENERATIONS TO WRITE. THE PEOPLE YOUR AGE WHO WRITE THE HITS ARE THE TOP GUNS, THEY’VE HAVE BEEN DOING IT 20-30 OR MORE YEARS. IT’S UP TO YOU HOW MANY OF YOUR YEARS YOU ARE WILLING TO THROW AWAY AT ENDLESS WRITERS NIGHTS IN BARS BEFORE YOU COME TO REALIZE, HEY THE SONG ISN’T THAT GREAT, AND I’M X YEARS OLD IN THE SAME BAR NIGHT AFTER NIGHT YEAR AFTER YEAR WITH ZERO RESULTS. IF YOUR THAT UNEDUCATED AND THATS WHAT YOU THINK YOU WANT WITH YOUR LIFE GO FOR IT! IT WOULD BE TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE TO BE A TEEN SONGWRITER AND HAVE THIS MINDSET, BUT 47, COME ON, GET REAL. AND HOW ABOUT POSTING THE SUPPOSED MASTERWORKS? SOME OF YOU JUST NEED TO STOP WASTING YOUR TIME, YOU’RE BETTER OFF SPENDING 1500 ON A GOOD ATTORNEY TO SHOP YOU AROUND THE POWER LUNCH CROWD, THAT IS, IF THEY CAN EVEN ACCEPT YOU AS A CLIENT, SINCE THEY SCREEN SONGS AND MAKE THOSE CHOICES AS WELL.”

And the discussions continue. On and on, the ramblings of the process of songwriting success…more songwriting time wasted at the expense of idle chatter. And while you can learn alot about songwriting from other songwriters, why not take the classes available, and put in the time to try and become successful, instead of looking for a quick buck? Trust me, those have been sucked up by the transients downtown who are probably making more money with their time.

I’m often reminded that what brought most successful songwriters to town early on is exactly what continues to bring most to town today. So, rather than bickering about the “Do’s and Don’t” of songwriting and the biz, why don’t we spend more time on the “How To’s”? But more importantly, the basic “How To’s,” instead of the glamorized “How To’s,” and there is a difference.

#1 DO – Write a great song.
#1 DON’T – Settle for a good song.
#1 HOW TO – Let it sit. That’s the best advice I ever got about writing a song, and it came from a Dove Award-winning, Grammy nominated producer/publisher, so I figure it’s worth passing on. And since that time, it’s become a process I go through with every new song…especially given the fact that one of the biggest mistakes I see and hear at the local songwriter nights is songwriters who apparently wrote a song and immediately got in the habit of singing it and thought they had a hit on their hands. They sing the song over and over and over again at all these gigs, and the lyrics that didn’t make sense the first time we heard them still don’t make sense. The ideas they didn’t complete are still left incomplete. Remember, people can’t read your mind. If you don’t adequately paint the mental picture, then you’re just making a mess in the end. If you can come back to a song days and weeks later and still draw the same emotion, painting the same mental picture, then you’ve got a good starting point. Work on every line, so that none are wasted. Work on every word, so that none are abused. Art takes time. We all hear stories of the great songs that were penned in a matter of minutes and are known the world over…don’t expect that. It’s rare.

#2 DO – Find a song critic…find several.
#2 DON’T – Rely on family and friends review of your song.
#2 HOW TO – Accept rejection. Nothing great was ever achieved without risk. When you put your songs under the microscope and allow yourself to be open to criticism, you’ll eventually find that the advice that’s toughest to accept is often what challenges you to become better. Constructive criticism is not what you should expect in Music City, but something you should seek. The rejection you will often experience is from rusty dreamers tarnished by time who have more or less taken their beating and feel they somehow deserve it, so they have accepted it and want to share it with you. That’s not what I’m talking about. What you need to find are people who understand good songs and who are willing to be honest with you about yours, and be willing to shut up and listen. Understand that I’m asking you to trust someone, and in today’s society that’s not very popular, but that’s the risk of finding your success. There are also many great song critique services where you can pay a minimal fee to have your song dissected constructively; such as, http://www.nashvilleear.com

#3 DO – Represent your song well.
#3 DON’T – Expect dressing it up musically to make it sound good.
#3 HOW TO – Approach songwriting demos with caution. The age-old question…basic or radio-ready demos? Of all the heated discussions in this town, this is perhaps one of the hottest. It pretty much boils down to a North vs. South atmosphere when you bring up the topic of songwriter demos in Music City, but I figure if nothing else, it causes new songwriters a brain-bender, so here’s my take: what does the song need? First and foremost, if the lyrics don’t stand alone, setting it to music is a temporary band-aid at best. But, once you are ready to take those great lyrics to the next level, a good interpretation of the musical arrangement is important. That does not always require full instrumentation. Many great songs were discovered with single instrument and vocal approaches. Yet, other songs were given additional credibility because they were arranged around a great riff or full ensemble of studio A-listers. Whatever the case, this requires you, as the songwriter, to find what works for your songs. More often than not, you do get what you pay for. You can find producers in Music City for every budget, and the best are not always the most expensive, nor are the worst always the cheapest. Generally, as an independent songwriter who finances your own demos, you just need to understand that you can’t expect radio production quality for peanuts. What you put into your song will either help or hurt what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Ask around…word of mouth is still the best advertising. I too will be happy to recommend some quality production companies and individuals to you. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent some time streamlining the process of lining up musicians for my own songwriter demos, and would be happy to share that knowledge with you anytime. But most importantly, if you are a songwriter, but your strength is not in composition, then find someone who can relate your song musically well. You may not get everything you WANT when it comes to hearing your lyrics set to music, if there are economic restraints, but you should be able to capture and lend credibility to the idea of song in a way that causes the listener to want to hear it again and refer others to it.

The Do’s and Don’t and How To’s list could be endless. I’ve suggested a couple of points here that are very basic, very straight-forward, very honest. And while they may seem simple and unnecessary to you, if Your Brilliance has read this far, please take a moment to consider the new wave of songwriters coming into Music City who have yet to learn these basics. Who knows, if Mr. Middle Age Unsuccessful Songwriter had decided to become a part of the process of success rather than wallow in self-pity under the dream steamroller that is Music City, he might not find himself middle-aged and unknowledgeable about the the success of being a songwriter.

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