One of the things I’ve noticed in my twenty-five years of writing songs is that it’s way too easy to ignore significant milestones in your songwriting career because you’re so focused on the brass ring of having a hit. I think it’s time we take a closer look at what success really means over the course of a career as a songwriter.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything quite like the feeling of writing your first song. In a way, you’ve just shown yourself that something most people consider impossible is actually possible. Not only is it possible but you’ve done it! If this isn’t success, I don’t know what is. For some songwriters, this happens early in life and for others it mysteriously shows up much later. Running a recording studio, I’ve had the opportunity to work with first-time songwriters under ten years old and first-time songwriters in their seventies. The sense of joy and excitement is remarkably similar. It’s definitely a milestone to be remembered and celebrated.
The first time one of your songs genuinely touches another person is another milestone well worth marking. Whether it makes them laugh or cry, it’s all the same. You’ve put something in the world that is not only meaningful to you but has actually moved someone else. This is the good stuff and please don’t forget that feeling. In most instances, it’s why we started writing songs in the first place.
Moving on in the succession of milestones, we come to a significant one. When someone else records one of your songs, whether they’re an established artist or not, they’re saying to you that your song is so meaningful to them that they’re willing to risk their reputation by representing themselves with something you’ve written. If you’ve never thought of it that way, you should. Cutting a song from an artist’s perspective is a serious matter and not just any song will do. And, as a brief aside, you never know when an unknown artist who’s cut one of your songs will become an established artist. I know plenty of stories where songwriters were bummed that an unknown artist had cut one of their songs…like that secretary working the desk at Warner Brothers. You know…Faith Hill? True story. Anyway, stop for a moment to appreciate the significance of the cut no matter who the artist is. It’s a huge vote for your song and your songwriting ability.
I was made aware of a great quote recently that goes something like “writing songs for the money is like getting married for the sex.” In that same spirit, it’s still awfully nice when it happens. I was extravagant enough to frame my first BMI check (that’s $12.68 I’ll never get back) and while I’d recommend cashing/depositing your royalty checks, it’s still a great moment in a career and one worth noting.
So if you stick around and keep at it long enough, there’s this thing that can happen where you walk into a restaurant or sit down in your car and the song that comes on sounds vaguely familiar. Then you start to pay closer attention and you realize that it’s your song. This is a truly exciting moment and one worth all of the times you’ll hear the word “no” in your career. The first time it happened to me, I was in a restaurant and was so surprised that I pulled out my phone to make sure I hadn’t accidentally pressed play on the music player. All that to say, it’s another moment to be remembered.
The first time you open up a Billboard magazine or look at the charts online and see your song, it’s almost hard to believe. A friend of mine put it best when he said, “I’ve been learning songs off the radio for as long as I can remember and it feels good to finally teach the radio one of mine.” That’s exactly it.
I’m not kidding. If you don’t take a minute to recognize what a tremendous accomplishment it is every time you write a song, you’re missing out. When you write songs for a living, there’s a tendency to forget that it’s still a magic trick to most people. The more you remember that, the more you’ll appreciate what it is you’ve chosen to do.
So how long does it take to be a successful songwriter? In one sense, the moment you’ve written your first song, you’re a success. But if your goal is to turn songwriting into a paying career, it can be many, many years. A career as a songwriter is a worthwhile pursuit but I’d highly recommend paying close attention to the deeply meaningful milestones along the way. At the end of the day, the definition of songwriting success is up to you.