I thought I’d address some common misconceptions about life as a songwriter that tend to either slow down our progress or discourage us unnecessarily. The more educated you become about the mostly unwritten rules of the music industry, the less often you’ll be misguided and the better prepared you’ll be to make the slow and steady progress that leads to success.
I get it. A song is made up of a melody and lyric and as long as those are clear in your recording, any reasonable person ought to be able to tell whether a song is good or not, right? Well, not really. The reality is that A&R reps and publishers spend their entire days listening to music and a lot of it is beautifully recorded. Whether it’s fair or not, your homemade recording is being held up to that level of quality. The analogy I tend to use is one where you go on a blind date and, while you may be a terrific person, you don’t bother to shower. My guess is that your personality is not going to be the first thing your date will notice about you. Finally, given that you’ve only got one chance to make a first impression, a professional recording of your song (even if it’s a simple guitar or piano and vocal) will go a long way towards marking you as someone who is serious about their craft.
Music conferences provide many valuable functions including opportunities for learning, connecting with your peers and, yes, networking with music industry professionals. Conferences are a great way to begin your relationships with the decision makers in attendance. I say “begin” your relationships because conferences are, at best, only a couple of days and, last time I checked, no deep and lasting friendships or working relationships are ever fully realized in two days. If we’re honest with ourselves, our secret dream at a music conference is that someone will hear one of our songs and either immediately put it in a movie or bring it to their artist to record. This mindset not only places too much pressure on your interactions at these conferences but also tends to make it uncomfortable for the industry folks who are there because they end up getting mobbed or interrupted at inappropriate moments. If you look at these conferences as an opportunity to learn and begin to develop relationships with people in the industry, you’ll have a much better time and get a lot more out of them.
Being a songwriter is lonely work which explains why we tend to crave industry recognition and approval of our material. While it’s always nice to have people in the industry appreciate what you do, it’s even better to know that you’re doing quality work and to not give away your publishing just because someone in the industry tells you they like your songs. A publishing deal is a business arrangement where you’ll be giving up part ownership in your songs (sometimes more than part and sometimes forever) so you should be VERY sure you know what you’ll be getting in return. There are a lot of functions that publishers perform that we, as songwriters, can take care of ourselves. Not the least of which is pitching our own material. While it’s nice to have a publisher with industry relationships shopping your material, sometimes it’s better to develop those relationships yourself over time and keep ownership of your songs. Publishers provide a very valuable function in the music industry but don’t assume that having a publisher is the only way to succeed.
Being a songwriter is a game of patience and perseverance. For that first cut or movie placement, you’ll have most likely spent hundreds if not thousands of hours working on your craft. We all want success to come quickly but often success as a songwriter is the result of reaching a critical mass of songs, pitches and networking. The key to success is sticking around, doing your work and not getting discouraged by the disappointments you’ll undoubtedly encounter along the way. Since financial success comes slowly, it’s even more important that you enjoy your day to day work as a songwriter since that’s what will sustain you on your road to eventual success.
While the road to success as a songwriter is an unpredictable one, it’s by no means a dead end. There are things that you can – and should – be doing every day to improve your odds and to give yourself more than a fighting chance of earning income from your songs. However, the fundamentals of this approach are similar across any business and not just music. By being methodical, focused and willing to do the unromantic work that any business requires as well as the fun, exciting musical work, you’ll be amazed at just how attainable success can be.
I’ve come to believe in my twenty plus years in music that by setting reasonable expectations and doing the work, it becomes much harder to be fooled or discouraged by some of the pervasive myths that exist around songwriting success. As long as you’re not planning on only being a songwriter this week, take a deep breath, keep your eyes open and know that by taking a more realistic and constructive view of your career as a songwriter, you’ll be headed in the right direction.