I’m pleased to introduce you to Jeff Cohen. Jeff is a songwriter, producer, music publisher and industry executive with an incredibly deep knowledge of not only the craft of songwriting but also the music business. Do yourself a favor and take the time to read Jeff’s thoughts about what it means to be a songwriter for a living. Enjoy!
Where to begin? Well, that was the question I asked myself when I quit my job at thirty-three to pursue a full-time career in songwriting. I figured if there were only one way to do it, everyone would have followed that path and we’d all be living large. The truth is it didn’t take long for me to find out it is called the “music business” for a reason. That’s “music” and “business.” It does all begin with the song as they say and if you want to be a successful songwriter, it’s funny how you have a much better chance by showing up with amazing songs. Although that is the most important part, it is not the only part of the equation. I learned that quickly. So it was time to roll up my sleeves and come up with a game plan in addition to writing songs. In other words, it was time to work. I had to put in the hours when no one was watching, to practice my craft and think of how to best utilize my time.
Since I did not want to be an artist at the time, my goal was to be a professional songwriter. I wanted to find one artist to record all my songs and/or I needed to shop my songs for different artists to cover. Without a track record of success as a writer, I chose the following course. First, I made a CD of what I thought were my ten best songs (all self-penned) and used it as a calling card giving it to anyone who would listen. Also, I told them to pass it on. I chose to not pursue a publishing deal because I felt I wanted to try and hustle up some momentum to put myself in a better position for a better deal if I chose to one day go that route. Publishing deals can be great for some and the right champion can be invaluable. But even with a publishing deal, a writer will still end up getting a good amount of work through their own connections and work ethic. Don’t wait around for someone else to do all the heavy lifting. Ever.
Another avenue I chose was what is commonly known in our business as co-writing. Since I hadn’t earned the right to work with major established artists or songwriters yet, I decided to scout young upcoming talent and work with them. That way we would have more than one force getting the songs out into the world. My attitude has always been “just give me a chance to get in the room and good things will happen.” I think you have to believe that or why else would you be doing this? I also believe a lot of co-writing has to do with chemistry. Just because someone has a whole bunch of credits doesn’t mean you are going to click and write a masterpiece. You might write a better song with some guy or girl you met at a local open mic. Having said that, when you get the opportunity to write with a writer who has had a great career, pay attention. When I enter a co-write, everyone is an equal partner in my eyes and ears but I’ll admit I am constantly learning and inspired by those more experienced than me. There’s usually a reason people are consistently successful.
Another aspect of my career has been international. I can sum this up simply. There is a whole wide world of opportunity and talent out there. Plus, I have a major travel bug. I love different cultures and meeting new people. But how does one go about integrating into music scenes in other countries? Well, first off it’s an investment. And not just of your money (which is not to be dismissed lightly) but of your time. I slept on a lot of couches and started from the back of the line. You can’t just walk in flying your flag and expect to take over (the same can be said about arriving in any new city even here in The States, by the way). There is a way to be respectful yet confident. You would be surprised at how many great writers are up for giving a writer from another country a chance even though they are unknown. Once again, you have to back it up once you get your chance. I’ve seen too many people talk themselves into situations too early in their careers then not come through. Word gets around quickly about who can really write and who is all talk.
Another thing I’ve learned is that not every song we write is amazing. All great writers learn to deal with that. The really great writers learn which songs not to let out of the house! Sometimes it takes writing through some average ideas to get to the gems. Keep writing for what moves you and makes you happy. It is easy to get caught up in what we think everyone wants to hear and what “sells.” As full-time writers, we have all trespassed across that line at some point – even if only momentarily – though some will try to make you believe otherwise. Of course if you can be happy and moved and still write accessible songs, that’s great. I find I’m in a better place and have more success when I’m not trying to write like somebody else.
Anyway, there is room out there for all of us. There is also a fine line between being organized and active and being annoying. Here’s a hint. If you think you are being annoying in a situation, you probably are! Trust your instincts, establish sincere relationships and, when given the opportunity, deliver the goods. If I can be lucky enough to make a career of this why not you? Though I will say, the harder I work, the luckier I get.