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

In my years as a songwriter, I’ve found it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” you’re going to hit a rough patch. The key, in my experience, is not trying to avoid these tough times but, rather, to learn to navigate them in such a way that you emerge on the other side stronger and wiser for the experience. Easier said than done, I know, but stay with me on this one…

Tough times as a songwriter

Make a Plan

I think on some level we all enter the world of music with a mixture of blind optimism and unrealistic expectations. Both of these are, in their own way, essential. After all, who in their right mind would enter a career where the financial payoffs could be years – or even decades – down the road? The plans we all begin with are based on some combination of myth and dreams and yet they’re somehow enough to convince us we should give it a go.

Get Punched in the Mouth – Take 1

A few years into our careers, we begin to see the true shape of the road ahead. We now know the landscape, understand our place in it and, at the same time, we begin to see how far away we are from achieving our initial goals. This is, in equal parts, educational and completely demoralizing. This gut check moment tends to thin the herd of songwriting hopefuls by a significant amount.

Get Back Up and Make Another Plan

For those of us who still choose to continue, our process from this point on is all about refining our goals and looking for the things we can do to keep the joy in being songwriters. This can include finding collaborators, writing in different styles, reluctantly learning about the music business, etc. In other words, we’ve begun the process of growing up and into our careers. The good news is that this approach will lay the foundation for what can become a truly fulfilling lifetime in music if we’re prepared to stick with it.

Tough times as a songwriter

Get Punched in the Mouth – Take 2

Despite our new found knowledge and work ethic, the music business will still conspire to deliver significant valleys between the peaks we’ve begun to experience. The peaks can be everything from our first publishing deal, a cut with a major label artist, an opportunity to play/sing on a master recording, performing on television, there are many. These peaks are what will sustain us when the valleys seem to go on forever. At least at this point, we have the benefit of some perspective on how we wound up in these valleys and that will help us make a new plan informed by our past mistakes/disappointments.

Get Back Up Again (lather, rinse, repeat)

If there is a common character trait among successful songwriters of all genres, it would be their unwillingness to give up or stop doing what they feel compelled to do no matter how often they encounter adversity. So much of the success in our business goes to the people who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer whether it came from an industry decision-maker or from life itself. One of the ways I’ve found to weather these storms is to make sure that I have other interests outside of music. I know exactly how all-consuming music can be but, sometimes, it’s the perspective you gain from stepping outside of music than can be your salvation.


I should close this article by stating that I’m by no means a cynic, there’s no way I could have survived in the music world for twenty-five years without a pretty good-sized dose of Pollyanna in my DNA. That being said, sometimes it can help to hear from someone who’s been through it that although you will almost certainly get “punched in the mouth,” from time to time, you can – and I hope you will – get back up and keep going.

Good Luck!

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11 responses to “A Guide For Navigating Tough Times as a Songwriter”

  1. Good points, Cliff.

    Another is find a mentor… Someone to talk you off the ledge, help you find your teeth after the mouth punch and to help ground your plans in reality

  2. Love this. Thank you.

  3. Jacqueline Naomi says:

    Great realistic and sound advice. Nothing wrong with Pollyanna mixed with a healthy dose of pragmatism. It’s the stuff that survival is made of. Thanks again for your sage advice Cliff!

  4. I’ve found using a calendar to schedule action steps in the future, like a mentor appointment, enter some contests, schedule some co-writes, or pick some days to peruse some listings to submit to works for me. By doing this, when I go flat, I go to my calendar and always have something to look forward to and keep myself moving.;

  5. Bob says:

    Great advice Cliff.
    I’m in a valley right now.
    Mentors are invaluable but hard to find.

    I try to take one step forward everyday, even a tiny step. I also try to enjoy the journey, even when it seems like I’m crawling uphill.

    There are very few overnight successes in this crazy business.

  6. Roger Gamon says:

    Great advice Cliff, thank you.

  7. Danny Springston says:

    Thanks Cliff,
    To quote James Brown .
    ‘I refuse to lose’ and I will never give up.
    Thanks much for the article.
    All the best,

  8. Nicolas Falconi says:

    This article made me cry! Thank you! It gave me strength knowing that I am not alone on my journey.

  9. Sharon Collins says:

    I wrote my first song in 2005. I have yet to do much with over 200 more! Life keeps happening, but I keep-on writing, sigh… I wonder when will be my turn??? Thanx4This

  10. Michael Gitter says:

    Thanks for this. Still smiling at the Pollyanna portrait.
    I’ve watched a few episodes of Songland. How about a column comparing that co-writing to your experience? Cannibalizing songs is most unappealing. But one has to eat.

  11. pat lakatta says:

    Thank you Cliff! Needed to hear this!
    Appreciate you!
    Pat Lakatta

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