Hard work and dedication: the two most important ingredients for success when striving to attain pretty much any job...right? Not always. When our career path is in entertainment or the arts, it functions in much less of a linear fashion. It is not as simple as study, get your degree, interview, try again, or “wo-hoo” job attained. In particular, the path to being a fully employed song writer might actually give you whip lash if you compare it to others. Wanting to know which turns to take and which turns not to, I hit the books, and referred some of my questions to the pro’s. Just because the road is windy, doesn’t mean the view isn’t great. First rule in songwriting: never, EVER, use clichés… like this one.
I recently went to an NSAI meeting, which is short for Nashville Songwriters Association International, held by Grammy nominated songwriting production team: Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony. They have written songs for icons like Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus, and so much more. Before starting their own company after writing many successful songs, they were feeling limited in their work being contracted to pump out commercial “hits.” They both almost quit music after becoming burnt out from making the same kind of songs over and over again. Now, they own an independent record label where they create freely and have never been happier.
The important take away in the business of being a songwriter is that in the music business, there is business to attend to. If you have a strength, and your songs are getting cut, and making money, it is possible that you will be contracted to write the same kind of songs that have had previous success. Though this is not the case for every writer, it is a possibility.
At the end of the day, what was most important to Claude and Chuck was feeling good about what they were creating and releasing to the world. What I learned from them is: commercial success won’t always feel like individual success. This is a frequent thread in the music industry where songwriters and artists alike decide which is more important to them.
Not only has it always been difficult to make a living as a songwriter, but these days, it is even harder. According to Bart Herbison, the executive director of the National Songwriters Association, the industry has gone from three or four thousand publishing deals to three or four hundred. He claims in today’s climate that it is incredibly difficult to be a professional songwriter. It makes a lot of sense why some “hit” writers that might not necessarily love what they are writing stay in the game. After all, it does keep the lights on.
Tom Cochrane is an award winning songwriter who is famous for his hit song “Life is a Highway.” Unlike a staff songwriter at a publishing house, he is considered more of an artist songwriter. This means he writes his own material about his life and also performs and records the music he writes. Rather than being prompted and scheduled to write something, he writes when he feels like it and about whatever he wants.
It is very common to have scheduled writing meetings with other writers called co-writes where you purposely intend to write together at a specific date and time when you are a staff songwriter for a publishing house. Tom’s writing schedule is a lot more free flowing. “Some writers put out a record once every year or two, but that was never me, I could put out more records, but are they going to be good?” Tom states (Freese 79).
His writing style is more suited to when he feels inspired by life. He writes when he feels a rush of emotions that come with being ready to put the song to paper, and to bring life to the words through melody. In Tom’s words” “When it comes time, the songs just flow. It’s always work, but it’s also always a balance between work and inspiration” (Freese 79).
On the other hand, Del Barber, songwriter, fishes for songs. He is less “spiritual” about his songwriting process and views it as more of a craft. To him, “writing is a muscle you are exercising rather than waiting for this bolt of lightning to strike down” (Freese 83). He tends to write less about personal and relational experiences and derives more content from what he explains as “soft political statements.”
There is not one way to be a songwriter or to have success, these are just a few ways others have done so. It is important to understand that each person has their own way of doing things and their own stories to tell. Do you have whip lash yet? Everyone’s path to creativity AND success is entirely different.
I had the honor of sitting down and talking with Emily Falvey who is a staff songwriter in Nashville. She is one of the few incredibly hard working Belmont University graduates who got a job writing songs for a publishing company right out of college. This is a tremendous accomplishment. She works for a publishing company called SMACKsongs which was founded by Shane McAnally. If you are not familiar with Smack, you might be familiar with CEO Shane McAnally’s songwriting from the song “Rainbow” which he co wrote with Natalie Hemby, and Kacey Musgraves. Three more accomplished songwriters I highly recommend checking out.
Recently, Emily had the opportunity to write a song alongside McAnally and Amy Wadge. Amy wrote one of Ed Sheeran’s most popular songs, “Thinking Out Loud.” Having so much writing experience from college and her job now, I asked her what she thought most successful writers have in common.
She explained that the great writers she has worked alongside write very quickly and that she does as well. She also said that everyone has their own particular writing style and that some writers do take longer than others. Interestingly enough, Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony talked about the importance of writing quickly and said that is what got them a lot of jobs in the beginning of their careers.
I asked Emily if she believes it is hard to get a job as a songwriter. She explained that it is extremely difficult. As alumni of Belmont University with a double major in songwriting and music business, she told me that in the twelve years the songwriting program has existed, there have only been about twenty songwriting majors to get publishing deals by the time they graduated. However, it is certainly no coincidence that it happened to her. The week we sat down to talk, she had nine writes scheduled. Even before attaining her professional songwriting job, she told me she wrote at least three or four times a week with other writers and also wrote on her own in her free time. I am amazed at the time she put into her craft all while double majoring and still finding time to write on her own.
Since working in the music industry is such a competitive field to get into, I asked what she thought were some common traits amongst people she has worked with. Most of the great people in this music industry according to her experience, pay attention to the small things like remembering people’s names. She said they often seek to lift others up around them and tend to be inclusive. I am not surprised that she is doing so well when she herself is genuinely so kind and encouraging to other songwriters to pursue their careers too.
I had to ask whether or not her writing came from a string of inspiration or whether it was something she worked really really hard at. The answer was both. She said “We all hold on for the days that feel easy, sometimes songs choose us” (Falvey). No matter what, she stays laser focused on the task at hand. I also learned learned from our interview was that her publishing company allows her to have complete creative freedom as a writer. Her publishers trust that whatever she writes will be great and they entirely support her.
This is encouraging to aspiring songwriters because when you are on the outside of the industry, you wonder if you might have to “sell your soul” to make a living creating music. You wonder if people will fully believe in what you do. If you are interested in pursuing a career in anything, it is incredibly valuable to speak to people who are in positions you hope to be in someday.
I also had the pleasure of speaking with Cindy Morgan who is a professional songwriter for Reach Music Publishing which has a co-venture with BMG Publishing in Nashville. Not only is she a full time songwriter, but she is an adjunct songwriting professor at Belmont University for the Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. Cindy absolutely loves to teach and she loves her job as a staff writer.
When asked about whether or not she has creative freedoms as a writer, her answer was immediately yes. “They bend over backwards to make things work; they know how the game is played” (Morgan). It is important to her and her publisher that she is writing songs that are fulfilling and meaningful. “I’m getting cuts that I love and that I am really excited about and they might not be the biggest cuts” (Morgan). Though her publishing company is technically under BMG, a very large publishing house, Reach Music runs more like a boutique company. It is because of this that she claims she gets great treatment and attention as a writer.
One of the first questions I asked Cindy was, “So, how hard do you think it is to get a job as a songwriter?” She replied explaining that he has to do with a multitude of things. You can be a great songwriter, but have a terrible attitude and no one will want to work with you. Or, you can be an okay songwriter, and great at networking, and get in the room with some amazing writers and get your start that way. If you have incredible work ethic, want to learn as much as you can, and can continue to grow relationships, then you have a shot at being a successful writer.
As a young writer, Cindy would write many times a week with all different types of writers. This is what helped her realize what she was good at and and liked writing. Eventually, she said, you get to a point where you don’t have to write stuff you don’t want to write. “Some country writers hate writing bro country because they write better songs than that but those songs don’t get cut” (Morgan). For her, this is not something she is willing to do.
After taking many appointments for years, she discovered that writing pop music, Contemporary Christian Music, and that American singer-songwriter story telling music, comes the easiest to her. “Writing a well crafted country song can be very difficult.” (Morgan) She finds country to be the most challenging genre to write in. “If you want to be Bob Dylan, that’s another level.” She says political songs are very difficult because it’s poetry.
Jennifer Pierce, an experienced Nashville based songwriter starts a book she wrote called The Bottom Line is Money with a beautiful and uplifting quote: “To all those who dream and believe all their dreams will come true” (Pierce 1). This book is a comprehensive guide to songwriting and the Nashville music industry. She is responsible for writing the song “That Old Wheel,” recorded by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr; a song charted at number one for a ground breaking twenty-one weeks.
In her book, there is an interview with Buddy Killen, producer, manager, writer, artist, and publisher. One of the first questions he is asked is what advice he would give to an up and coming artist. He replied saying that one of the most important things an artist and songwriter can do is: “Be the best you can at what you do before you go out and try to sell yourself” (Pierce 2). He recommends not going into a meeting with a record label unless you have made a great record and really feel like you are going to be able to sell it.
“Once you’ve been through a door and fail, more than likely, you won’t get a second shot” (Pierce 2). He prefers to have his act together and nail it the first time. The perspective he has is: “If they are not good enough for me, why would they be good enough for anyone else?” (Pierce 2). Always giving the best product you can at every professional meeting is his best advice. Similar to Buddy Killeen’s advice to aspiring writers, Jennifer Pierce’s first line of advice is to believe in yourself. She says to never think that you are better than anyone else while at the same time to never assume you are less than anyone else. Due to the tough nature of the industry, she includes some back-bone advice for aspiring writers too.
Very wisely put, she explains: “Never defend or explain your material. If it needs explaining, it is either not there or you are presenting it to a person in the industry who does not have ears for your particular type of music. Don’t give up” (Pierce 23). She also recommends doing your homework by reading all of the lyric books you can get your hands on. “Always think like a songwriter, observing everything around you. Use your mind, your heart, your eyes, your ears, and your sense of touch and smell” (Pierce 20). There can be inspiration found in old and new letters written and received. In her words, “This is a difficult business to break into. But, if you really want to be a songwriter, you will be one” (Pierce 20).
When pitching to publishers, a pro-tip from Roy C. Bennett who has had a successful career writing songs for some of the greats such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington and many more, is to show up to a publisher’s office with not only a great song, but lyrics on hand, too. It is important to let the song and your preparation for the meeting speak for itself. Also, he says, be sure to thank the publisher for their time, seeing as they are very busy.
When presenting your song, make sure that the demo is done well. One voice and one instrument can be sufficient. The demo should be kept close to three minutes in length or “the same duration as most singles in the air” (Bennett 78). If a song goes over well, and a publisher is interested and wants a new demo made after buying the song, the publisher should pay for it.
Through all the noise, the maybes and the no’s, there has to be a way to stay positive, to keep on the road. “It’s possible that “no” just means that you have to be creative and find alternate ways to get your song through the doors” (Blume 243). If you believe strongly in a song, keep pitching it until it has been heard by the artist or producer you are hoping to work with. However, if you are consistently being told that your song does not measure up to professional standards, then it is wise to keep honing your skills.
“Can the Amateur Songwriter Reach Stardom? The answer is yes” (Boyce 19). In the book How to Write a Hit Song…and Sell it, the author talks about the importance of positive thinking. He says to think about yourself as a winner “with resolute faith” and determination. Obviously, there is no amount of positive thinking alone that will create success but rather the attitude that it is attributed with. “It’s out there waiting for you if prepared to give it the love and devotion that is needed to transform the courtship into marriage” (Boyce 20). Whatever type of success you are aiming for as a songwriter, remember there are no straight paths. The most important thing you can do is: keep driving, and turn the music up until you get there.
Bennett, Roy C. The Songwriters Guide to Writing and Selling Hit Songs. Englewood Cliffs: A Spectrum Book, 1983.
Blume, Jason. 6 Steps To Songwriting Success. New York: Billboard Books, 2004.
Boyce, Tommy. How to Write a Hit Song...and Sell it. Hollywood: Wilshire Book Company , 1975.
Falvey, Emily. Interview about being a profesional songwriter Ashley McKinley. 22 October 2019.
Freese, Cris. Songwriter's Market. Cincinnati, n.d.
Morgan, Cindy. Interview about being a profesional songwriter Ashley McKinley. 23 October 2019.
Pierce, Jennifer Ember. The Bottom Line Is Money. West Port , 1994.