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How To Be A Successful Songwriter

by Danny Arena

Yes, it’s tough to break into the music business these days. But the news is not all gloom and doom.

The truth is there are more opportunities for writers and artists today to make a living than ever before. You can be well on the road to becoming a successful songwriter or songwriter-artist if you follow some simple proven strategies:

MAKE SURE YOUR SONGS ARE THE BEST THEY CAN BE

The number one reason songs don't make an impact on an audience or get recorded by outside artists is because they simply aren't strong enough.

Sadly, many writers waste thousands of dollars recording or demoing songs that aren't ready to be recorded or pitched. And some waste more money hiring independent song pluggers and buying tip sheets to pitch those same songs. The music business is hard enough to break into with a killer song, much less a song that isn't competitive.

Instead of spending all that money on demos, recording studios and tip sheets, buy a book on songwriting. Take a class. Attend a songwriter workshop or seminar. Aside from the networking opportunities you'll encounter, you'll probably learn a trick or two.

Even if you already know the basic craft, you can still enhance your unique voice as a writer and strengthen your writing skills by incorporating new techniques into your lyrics and music. As Henry Ford said, "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty."

GET FEEDBACK!

Play your songs for an audience and see if that humorous line in the second verse really makes them laugh or if the bridge has the emotional impact you think it should. And by all means, have some professionals in the industry evaluate your song before you spend money on that demo or recording. A few professional insights on the song might save you a lot of money and heartache.

CO-WRITE WITH OTHERS

Some feel that co-writing might compromise their integrity as a writer. But like a good marriage, there are also a lot of advantages to a good collaboration. A collaborator can bring a new perspective into a song that you never would have thought of on your own, or bring strengths to an area where you might not be as strong (e.g., music, playing, singing, etc.).

As well as the obvious creative collaboration on the song, a co-writer also brings his or her entire network of friends and business contacts to the table. For that reason, we regularly hook-up cowriters at SongU.com in various songwriting challenges (the current challenge is the “blind date” challenge in which we've paired up over 100 writers who have never met to write long distance together).

Last year, one of our members from Canada who was paired up with a writer from Hawaii collaborated on a Blues song. The Canadian writer then pitched the song to the director of a Blues Festival that happened to be in town that week. The pair ended up with their first co-write together getting recorded on a blues compilation CD alongside several well known Blues artists like John Lee Hooker. Together they accomplished what neither could have alone.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT DEMO

When you do get around to demoing that great song, choose the right demo.

Not every song needs a full blow-out demo. Every song has its own life and the best vehicle to showcase the songs really depends on the song. One of our SongU.com instructors, Cole Wright, a top Nashville songplugger, does a monthly feature in our e-Auditorium called “What’s Cole Pitching?” in which he plays and discusses several of the demos he’s pitched during the month. You'd be surprised how many guitar/vocal or piano/vocals he pitches and gets cut.

So before you demo the song, give some thought to how to best let the song convey its message. Regardless of whether you do a full band demo or a simple piano or guitar/vocal demo, it needs to be a professional quality (i.e., the vocalist sounds like they should have a record deal and the guitar player is flawless).

JOIN THE DIGITAL AGE

If you're still recording your songs on that cassette or 8-track player and don't know how to put them into MP3 format, you're behind the times and are going to miss out on a lot of pitch opportunities. For example, when my wife, Sara Light, and I were writing for the Broadway show Urban Cowboy we got a call on a Friday afternoon from the director of the show that they needed us to write a new song for the close of the first act by Monday morning’s rehearsal – they needed lead sheet and worktape in hand at rehearsal.

However, they were in New York City and we were in Nashville. With two days to write the song and get them a lead sheet and recording, there simply wasn't a lot of time. If I didn't have the skills to do the lead sheet on the computer and create/record the MP3 to email them at rehearsal, we would've missed a golden opportunity.

LOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS WHEN YOU PITCH

As the wise monkey, Rafiki, from the movie The Lion King says, “You must look beyond what you see”.

Too many writers make the mistake of trying to only pitch their song to the top selling artists. You might as well buy a ticket to the lottery too because you've got just as much a chance of coming out ahead there. Your song is competing against the songs and networking power of every other hit writer and every other professional songwriter and publishing company around. Heck, that artist is probably writing songs for the album too and their producer probably runs a publishing company and has a vested interest in getting songs from his or her publishing company on the project.

Even if your song is as good as all those other songs, it would be tough to compete against the established relationships and networking power of those other individuals. Instead of playing the lottery, play the odds.

Today’s market is vastly different from what it was ten years ago. There are many more non-traditional opportunities available that weren't available to writers before if you just look for them. For example, we have a regular pitching opportunity at SongU.com for a company in California that licenses songs for wedding slideshows, graduation slideshows and more. Some of our members make several hundred dollars a year from their songs being licensed in this way.

The fact that online organizations like CDBaby.com give indie artists an opportunity to market and sell their projects means they can generate an income (and pay out royalties) without a big record label behind them. There are thousands of independent artists on MySpace - many of whom look to outside material when it comes time to record their album (and have devoted fan bases that buy those albums). With the help of the Internet, you may find surprising sources.

EXPOSE YOURSELF (well, at least your songs)

Something definitely happens when you don't put your songs out there in the world for others -- they don't get cut! So take advantage of every outlet, every possibility, ever opportunity. You never know which will be the one that pays off. One of our members received a contract offer from MTV for use of some of her songs in one of their TV shows because they stumbled onto her songs on her website. If people can't hear your song or find it, they can't fall in love with it and want to license it or record it.

CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE

Finally, remember that success is an ongoing journey, not a destination. As soon as you get your first single song contract, you want a staff deal. You land your first cut and then you hope for a single. You get a single and then you set your sights on having that #1 hit. You score a #1 hit and then they tell you that no one takes you seriously in the business until you have at least three #1 hits. In other words, this road has no end in sight. So enjoy and celebrate your achievements along the way.

Whether you are just learning to upload an MP3, a new open tuning on your guitar, or place in a songwriting contest – you are successful.

Most of us did not choose this as a career. It chose us. We write songs simply because we can't imagine life if we didn't. So as long as you're on this journey, you might as well buckle up and enjoy the scenery.

~ Danny Arena

© Danny Arena / Reprinted by permission

 

Danny Arena is a Tony Award nominated composer and songwriter. He holds degrees from Rutgers University and serves as an adjunct member of the faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. He has taught songwriting workshops throughout the U.S and, as a staff songwriter for Curb Magnatone Music Publishing, composed songs for the musical "Urban Cowboy," nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a Tony Award for Best Original Score. He is cofounder and CEO of SongU.com, a leading educational resourse for songwriters and composers.

 

   

 

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