Posted on 23rd Jan 2019
Authored by Hugh McIntyre
Being a Songwriter is easy but being a really good one is difficult. You can be great in your own eyes — that’s a form of success — but when many writers, Producers, and artists are talking about being “successful” in their craft, they mean they want to be able to make a living making their art, which is incredibly tough.
So, how does one become a professional Songwriter? I could write a dozen articles about what classes to take, how to know if you’re a Songwriter or Lyricist, what schools are best, and the many, many ways different people have made it to the top, but let’s start at the beginning. If you have any hope of one day being a professional Songwriter, you’ll first need to make yourself into a great Songwriter, so here are some songwriting tips to help you get where you’re trying to go.
1. Write Every Day
If you want to be truly great at anything, whether it be singing, playing an instrument, or even writing songs, you need to do it constantly. If you’re happy with it being just a hobby, that’s perfectly fine and you can work on penning new tunes whenever you like. But if you want to one day become very successful as someone who writes songs, you need to practice every single day.
This may sound like it won’t be a big hassle. If you have started thinking about being a professional Songwriter, chances are you already love the work, but when I say every day, I mean every day. It can’t be “often” and it can’t be “whenever you find the time to do so,” it needs to be a priority, and that’s where things can get tough.
Everyone is busy and everyone has a million things to do and it’s easy to see the day slip away before everything is completed. This is something, however, that can’t fall by the wayside…and if it does, you’ll likely see your chances of becoming a professional Songwriter fall as well. There will be times when you need to limit your songwriting time but you should be thinking about lyrics and melodies and actually putting pen to paper every single day.
2. Write With A Partner
Many Songwriters pick up the hobby on their own and that’s understandable, as the songs people typically start their careers (or what will turn into careers) with are about their own lives and what they are experiencing. Penning tracks solo is perfectly fine and you’ll probably spend a lot of time doing exactly that but there are a lot of benefits that come with pairing up and writing with another person.
You’ll find you can learn a lot by sitting down with another musician and working on a song together, especially if you’ve never done so. Working with one other Songwriter is usually how most acts enter the world of co-writing, and it’s a solid first step, as larger groups (which we will discuss next) can be intimidating to those who have only ever expressed their feelings musically alone. Start getting used to working through words, melodies, and even emotions in front of others, as that’s a big part of being a creative professional in the music world.
The act of creating songs is messy, unpredictable, and doesn’t always go in a linear order, even if the person holding the pen would like it to.
3. Find A Songwriting Group
Writing a song with one person is great but what about several people? Writing groups can be a completely different experience from spending some time with a single other artist and in some ways, it’s wonderful, while in other ways, it can be terrifying.
Being completely open about topics like love and loss in front of a crowd, especially when your thoughts aren’t fully-formed, are in their roughest states, and when you don’t know everyone well (or even at all) is bizarre, and not everyone can do it. If you can muster the courage and at least try it once, (which I highly suggest) you may find it to be an eye-opening endeavor and one that changes you as a Songwriter and makes you grow.
Others in the group may have completely different ways of going about starting a song, finishing one, working through an issue, and they may have insights you’ve never heard of or considered. These writing groups, which can be meetups, classes, or even writing camps arranged by established performers, record labels, performance rights organizations and the like, are known to churn out some of the biggest hits of the day, and they’re wonderful for young talents who someday want to be chart-toppers.
4. Quantity Matters
When you’re pouring your heart and soul into a piece of music, it can be difficult to step away from it and decide it’s done. It can be just as hard to move on to another track when one isn’t complete, especially if it’s only a half-formed thought or perhaps even less. There is the desire to finish what one started before attempting something else, and while this impulse is good to indulge in a number of circumstances, songwriting isn’t usually one of them.
The act of creating songs is messy, unpredictable, and doesn’t always go in a linear order, even if the person holding the pen would like it to. It is okay to walk away from one item to begin another or perhaps even to return to something that was left behind before. Some artists go back to tunes they started years ago, while others can bang out a smash in just a few minutes.
No matter what happens, just keep going. If it feels right to leave something alone for a little while and return at another time when your mind is refreshed, do it! Many artists will write dozens or hundreds of songs for every album and though many of those aren’t anywhere near completed, it can sometimes take that much work just to get a few gems.
5. Schedule Time To Write
Saying you will write every single day is one thing, but do you have the diligence to actually do so? The best way to ensure you will work on your craft day after day after day is to schedule time to do so and try and make it something you can’t get out of.
It’s easy to see the day disappear before you had time to write a single lyric if you don’t have a block of time set aside to write, so please don’t think you can just squeeze it in whenever you find the time. If there’s a certain part of the day when you usually focus on other hobbies, when you watch TV, or when you’re wasting time on the internet, block it off in your calendar as songwriting time. You can start with 15 or 30 minutes and go from there, depending on how you work and how things are going (as well as how serious you about making this craft your profession).
6. Keep Notes
Great ideas will come to you at all times of the day and night and you need to save them as quickly as you can or they will disappear as fast as they appeared out of seemingly nowhere. You may be absolutely sure you’ll remember that one awesome word, rhyme, melody, or sentence, but chances are you won’t and you’ll be kicking yourself when it’s gone.
Inspiration comes from everywhere and you should do your best to save every bit of it, as you never know what will end up being a part of the next amazing hook you put together, which could wind up being the smash that makes you a star. I’d suggest keeping an actual paper notebook and pen on you, though it’s not always possible. Try and have one whenever you can and when you can’t, your phone will do. In fact, your mobile device is much better for recording melodies and rhythms, though lyrics always feel better when they pour out of the tip of a pen, don’t they?
Many artists will write dozens or hundreds of songs for every album and though many of those aren’t anywhere near completed, it can sometimes take that much work just to get a few gems.
7. Get Feedback
Songwriting, like any art form, can be incredibly difficult for the artist, as just when they feel they’ve done the best work they can and they’ve created something everyone will love, they put it out into the world and…it turns out they’re wrong. How is a Songwriter supposed to know if what they’ve crafted actually works? That question can be very important to those who are about to shell out big bucks to record something in a studio and it’s worth discussing even if the person penning the track isn’t the one who will be performing it.
Before something is one hundred percent complete, share it with others to see what they think. You should have some kind of recording that will convey the emotion and power of the song and when you spread it around, try and have different people listen. Ask other Songwriters (ones who do so for a living and have landed some hit singles, if possible) to give it a play and see what they think but also feel free to send it to people who aren’t writers, but fans. Great songwriting should resonate with many different types of people and if you can connect with one person but not another, that might give some insight into what’s playing well and what isn’t.
8. Learn The Technical Basics
You don’t need to do this first (otherwise I would have placed this item at the top of the page), but at some point, before you even consider becoming a full-time professional Songwriter, you will need to learn everything there is to know about the industry from an academic standpoint. If you don’t, you may find your career is limited by your lack of knowledge and you don’t want to end up in an embarrassing situation because you don’t understand a term people studying the art of songwriting grasp on day one.
If you’re going to school for songwriting, you’ll go over the basics (and then some) in an introductory class but if you’re going about this on your own, you’ll need to dedicate some time to teaching yourself. Look up the lingo used in the business, every songwriting term you can find, what every job connected to creating a track does (Producers, Mixers, Engineers, etc.), as well as the business of songwriting. You can’t know too much, but if you go into a songwriting session not knowing phrases like “split,” “performance rights organization,” “A&R,” or “hook,” people are sure to look at you funny and perhaps not take you seriously.
9. Try Different Things!
You may think you know what you’re best at when it comes to songwriting and you may be right but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment. Try new things! Try every new thing you can and then mix them all up and try even more new things!
Blend styles, write in different voices, pen tunes from different perspectives, work with new people who are on the other end of the industry, play around with forms, melodies, rhythms, and structures, and then go back to what you’re most comfortable with…only to switch things up again later. Write a song and rewrite it for different genres and beats, mix up notes and move verses.
There is no right or wrong here, especially if you’re doing so on your own time. You may find you actually love crafting country songs when you thought you’d be a Pop Songwriter or perhaps your poppy lyrics actually work great with guitar riffs, meaning you may be behind the next crossover alternative smash. Some of the oddest collaborations in music history have worked beautifully and these days, those who rise in the ranks and make it to the top of the charts in one genre often find themselves partnering with Songwriters and musicians working in other styles.
Trying something new and foreign is always good for you, as even if you go right back to what you were already doing, you’ve likely learned something new and you have a new experience.
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Hugh McIntyre is a freelance music journalist based in New York City. He covers all things related to music, focusing primarily on the industry itself. He spends the majority of his time covering the business of music for Forbes. In the past, he has written for over two dozen publications, including Billboard, MTV, Noisey, Mashable, Huffington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Mic, Hypebot, and many more.
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