Having spent more than two decades as a songwriter and musician, I’ve collected some wonderfully distilled pieces of wisdom from friends and music industry luminaries. Here are a bunch of my favorites that I find myself using/referring to often.

Songwriting Quotes

1. “They don’t call it the music ‘friend’ or the music ‘nice.'” – Kate Wallace

I love this quote as it’s a not so gentle reminder that the music business is exactly that. As creatives, we have a tendency to forget this essential point. This is not to say that there aren’t some genuinely great people in the business BUT it never hurts to remember that it IS a business first.

2. “Music is spiritual, the music business is not.” – Van Morrison

Same song different verse. Part of the reason we forget that the music business is, in fact, a business is because of how passionate we are about our music. We should be passionate about our music and it IS a spiritual thing. The key is to remember that music and the music business are separate.

3. “I’ve always treated the music business as a business.” – Simon Cowell

Sometimes the simplest quotes are the most illuminating. The reality is that most people don’t treat the music business this way and are consequently disappointed or frustrated in their industry interactions. It’s just good to keep this in mind.

4. “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” – Hunter Thompson

This is a final, slightly heavier-handed take on the music biz. I, personally, don’t agree that the business is always this way but, I have to say, Mr. Thompson has a way with words.

5. “Good, fast, cheap – pick any two.” – Anonymous

I’m pretty sure this is not specifically a music quote but it definitely applies. Early on in our careers we’re blessed with more time than money. So, in order to get a great-sounding demo – for example – we’ll have to get into studios after hours on weekends or teach ourselves to record along the way. While this may take longer, we’ll end up with something we can be proud of. This quote is also a great warning that if something is cheap and is promised quickly then there’s a great chance it won’t be of quality. Beware.

Songwriting Quotes

6. “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.” – Creighton Abrams

This is a quote I refer to often when I’m overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of a project. When I start to feel this way, I remind myself that even the largest projects can be broken down into bite-sized pieces. So much of any successful career in music is about this kind of slow and steady progress.

7. “Every once in a while you’re going to screw up and write a good song.” – John Tirro

John, one of my first Nashville friends and hit songwriter in his own right, said this to me once in passing and it stuck. What it means to me is that sometimes without knowing how or why, we can write something truly great. While this is wonderful, I’m a much bigger proponent of learning your own process and voice as a songwriter so that your songs will be consistently great. That way you won’t have to “screw up” to write your next great song.

8. “There are two kinds of music. Generous music and selfish music.” – Don Was

In the article where Was is quoted, he states that “generous means music that’s open, that has something to offer to the listener, something to give.” And “selfish” music as “music made by self-centered [expletives] who get up on stage and say, ‘Check this out, look what I can do.'” What I love about this quote is that long ago I gave up the labels “good” and “bad” for music. I just don’t feel like those adjectives apply to art. There are songs that I love that other people hate and vice versa. But until I heard this quote, I wasn’t sure there were other descriptors that applied. “Generous” and “selfish” work great for me.

Songwriting Quotes

9. “Excellence isn’t an act, it’s a habit” – Quincy Jones

While this quote isn’t strictly a music quote, I love it for a variety of reasons. My take on it is that everything you do as a creative is connected. It’s not enough to be a brilliant songwriter if you don’t return phone calls and emails hence missing out on opportunities to get your music out there. If you take every situation in your musical life as an opportunity to be great – whether it’s showing up on time for an appointment or playing in front of 1,000 people – great things will happen.

10. “The way you do anything is the way you do everything” – Anonymous

This quote is related to the one above and it’s a good way to look at how you handle your affairs. In other words, be aware of how you handle even the most mundane tasks in your day. If you treat each task as one worthy of your attention and care, this will be a mindset that extends to everything you do.

11. “The best ones have nothing to prove” – Anonymous

I’ve seen this borne out too many times to count. The truly great artists and songwriters that I’ve met and worked with approach their careers and interactions with people with the utmost care and modesty. There’s no room in their lives for attitude or insecurity. They’re quietly confident about their abilities and don’t feel the need to belabor the point.

12. “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

Again, while not “strictly” a music quote, I love this one. Here’s the thing. Most of us get into music with a plan in place. Our plan, however, is usually based on dreams and myths. This is not a judgment, that’s just how it is. What I’ve noticed is that the people who manage to continue in music are the ones who are able to get “punched in the mouth” pick themselves up and keep going. Plans are made to be modified. If you get knocked down, get back up and make a new plan.

Conclusion

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of music quotes. However, I’m hoping it will give you a few things to think about when you consider the world of music and your place in it.

Good Luck!

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13 responses to “A Dozen Great Music & Songwriting Quotes”

  1. gary nobile says:

    Good stuff Cliff! Looking forward to meeting you at West Coast Songwriter’s Conference. Cheers.

  2. Still laughing out loud in a very serious tone.

  3. Nice quotes, Cliff.

    One of my favorites is from Igor Stravinsky… to paraphrase (because I can’t remember it verbatim or find a reference at the moment):

    My most powerful composing tool is not a pencil, but an eraser….

    (There are always more ideas than you need, know what to leave out!)

  4. Wes Woodcock says:

    Here’s my 2 cents worth born out of punches in the mouth!
    “What is..is..and what ain’t..ain’t! Lousy grammar but sticks like paint.
    Silvermane Wesleyjohn

  5. Wonderful — and very useful — collection of quotes, Cliff! Thanks!

  6. All great…I would add: “I don’t write ’em, I just write ’em down”…-yers truly. As they just appear intact, I scribble them down…and go back to sleep…(not much for “rewriting”, “cowriting”….or even. “writing”.)…go figure.

  7. Dan Bradley Saylors says:

    As I write and re-write I know I’ve missed something. However, by accepting that flaw I’ve used my “eraser” much less, and have grown more grateful in the “What Is”….The late (in my humble opinion, great) Tim Wilson once said to me, “as you write the song never use the same word twice unless its the hook. You’ll be surprised by the “crap” you don’t need to finish what you started.”
    Though not verbatim I never forgot that…time will determine its validity.

  8. val rogolino says:

    “I fell in love with this world of song-laughing-crying as the years go on.”
    Val Rogolino

  9. Sarah B says:

    Love the quotes, Cliff. thank you.

  10. Jhett Wilder says:

    Mr. Goldmacher,
    Would you be willing to do an edition on when someone should consider beginning to visit publishers, how to go about getting meetings with publishers, and if it is “necessary” to be living in Nashville while trying to get a publishing deal?
    Thank you.

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