I think we’ve all heard that we should enjoy the journey. This may be applied to many things including life itself. However, this adage is particularly true in the process of songwriting.
Songwriting has been an enjoyable avocation for me. Of course, there are ultimate goals that I would like to achieve, but there is also the everyday enjoyment that comes from learning and creating something new. Besides, we all have a choice. We can rush through the songwriting process to make millions of dollars, or we can enjoy every step along the way with better probabilities for retaining what we learn. Taking the process one step at a time allows us to truly appreciate songwriting as an art and it teaches us the more important reasons for writing songs in the first place. That is, we can find fulfillment from songwriting even when the songs do not produce income. It is a wonderful form of expression, but there are many examples of great songs that never received the attention they deserved so there are no guarantees. It makes a lot of sense to me that we, as songwriters, should sit back and enjoy the process and build on the elements of songwriting. In the process of learning, you can build musical collateral for the future.
In my foray into songwriting, I developed a better understanding of the music business environment. I think it is very important to understand the roles of publishers, A&R professionals, labels, producers, agents, managers, song-pluggers, and recording engineers. In addition, I continue to learn about the various types of songwriting contracts as well as better understand the various organizations that support songwriters such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and The Harry Fox Agency.
I believe success is part inspiration, preparation, perspiration, and opportunity, but it is also somewhat dependent on the order. We sometimes take our preparation for granted when it is in the context of growing up, but, as kids, we are in preparation for our respective careers from the day that we are born. In essence, a true opportunity cannot exist unless we are ready, willing, and able to take full advantage of it. For example, an executive interview with a Fortune 500 company would provide no particular value to a toddler. Additionally, some events can be characterized by our state of readiness at the time that it occurs. If I had met Paul Simon when I was 10 years old, for instance, it would most likely fall into the inspiration category. If I met Paul Simon today, I would like to think it might fall into the opportunity category.
This leads very nicely into the element of developing relationships. We should learn the importance of developing relationships along the way. You never know when you might be talking to someone that can help you get your big break, so it makes a lot of sense to treat everyone you meet with respect. It is difficult to see clearly through the haze of uncertainty during these times, but it pays to give consideration to every aspect of the music business and not develop harsh opinions too quickly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative opinions about recording labels today. While there is greed and excess found in all industries, the recording labels are taking a beating as some artists have found success outside the influence and control of the labels. It still makes sense to maintain all options and to consider any opportunities that might be presented without harboring ill feelings or preconceived notions. While the labels are certainly struggling, they still have strong relationships in the areas of mass media, marketing, and distribution.
Some folks believe that the new music paradigm is a road to success for ALL independents, and it is simply not true. This problem has not changed over the past 50 years. The problem is getting mass media exposure. The Internet is great, but it is vast and still somewhat random in nature. Stated differently, if everyone knew your name or the name of one of your songs, they would be able to find you. However, if everyone knew your name or the name of one of your songs, you would have already achieved your goal. It remains necessary for independent artists to be discovered and then promoted in a mass media setting. Word of mouth is certainly a viable alternative, but you must have a product that grabs the attention of a large audience which is not so different than the more traditional forms of media exposure when you think about it.
So far, I have concentrated on the surrounding elements, but it is also possible to experience more direct personal gains. For example, as a self taught musician, I find myself frequently searching for new techniques and opportunities for development. I was surprised to find songwriting as an opportunity for improving as a guitarist.
In short, I have learned a lot from the necessity for producing the very same sounds with my guitar that I can sometimes hear in my mind. It has proven beneficial beyond any other traditional forms of learning such as guitar lessons, articles, methods, video tapes, or techniques. For me it was a wonderful discovery to find this particular benefit as an extra bonus while continuing to learn about songwriting. Learning more about the guitar is only one example of my particular songwriting journey. Obviously, each learning opportunity will be different for each individual.
Songwriting has opened doors for me in other areas as well. Before I began my journey into songwriting, I found it very difficult to express myself lyrically and musically. It was like a barrier existed between me and the ability to write songs. The songs were very fuzzy to me and not particularly well defined during that time. I knew the songs were there, but I did not know how to tap into this creative yet seemingly elusive resource. After reading books and taking some courses, I managed to find some valuable resources and I am now in the process of “finding my voice”. In the meantime, I am finding new doors to open and new areas to explore.
One of the benefits I discovered in this process of learning was building confidence in my ability to write songs. After writing a few songs, I found it easier to write even more songs. The more I write, the more I write. I am now taking a little more time to address specific elements, so I haven’t been quite as prolific, but I know what I am able to accomplish.
Perhaps the greatest single benefit that I’ve discovered is the ability to express myself without fear. Yes, it does get me in trouble from time to time, but it is also important to know when NOT to express our innermost thoughts. For an aspiring songwriter, this ability to express oneself is a desirable trait. That is, a songwriter must be comfortable enough to express many thoughts and emotions that we as humans have learned to suppress. However, an additional word of caution may be necessary. Similar to our relationships with people, our songwriting success is dependent on our ability to provide a point of view with which many others may be able to relate. Alternatively, as a form of art, we may be at liberty to create points of view that are difficult to understand but we are also at risk of not finding an audience when we fail to appeal to the general public. Such songs exist, but many of these songs may be categorized as “lost art”, as it is unlikely that a lot of people will hear songs that do not speak universally to their unique sets of circumstances. For the pure songwriter, it is almost impossible to get an “artsy” song published or recorded.
Of course, singer songwriters have the distinct advantage of playing their own songs, which allows them to jump over the barriers that exist for pure songwriters. That is, performing artists and producers, set apart from singer-songwriters, are very selective in the songs (written by others) they include as part of their CD or compilation. This brings up yet another possible benefit of the songwriting process. That is, folks who feel very strongly about their art might be less likely to adjust to the rather narrow market for songs. This creates the necessity to develop as a singer songwriter. It makes sense for the singer-songwriter to also find opportunities to perform in front of an audience. Of course, becoming a singer songwriter may satisfy one condition for this particular group, but it also makes it twice as unlikely to breakout. In particular, the artist must now write songs that connect with a significant portion of the listening public and have a sound, as an artist, that is appealing as well. Playing in front of an audience provides feedback that can be very useful for “developing a voice” for this group of songwriters.
I have learned the importance of communicating thoughts very efficiently. Songwriting generally gives us about 3.5 minutes to convey a thought or an idea. This is the reason why you don’t hear songs that explain how to build the space shuttle. It is not possible to convey thoughts that are too complex in a limited amount of time, so decisions must be made. This process involves organizing my thoughts and making the best use of the time available, which requires me to select my words carefully.
I have learned how to work together with others in a creative environment. Collaborating can be very rewarding for songwriters as it provides an opportunity to learn from others. It also provides the opportunity to lend a particular strength to a collaborative effort that may have a greater chance for success. For example, a great lyricist can sometimes find a great composer. Perhaps the lyricist and composer may also find someone with a great voice to help capture the attention of an A&R professional. With the availability of inexpensive recording equipment and the ease with which files are transferred, this can now be done long distance via the Internet.
Finally, like the adage “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, it is important to begin the process. I’m not an expert on psychology and building momentum, but it seems likely to me that the moment we commit ourselves to accomplish a goal, then the burden of the initial decision making process is usually set behind us. It also seems reasonable that our own acceptance of a desired goal is key to success. Taking the first step requires that we accept the task or project in which we have selected. This act alone can provide sufficient motivation to begin the process because we have convinced ourselves of the potential value for starting such a journey.