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Are You a Singer-Songwriter or a Songer-Singwriter?
By Bill Pere - 02/10/2014 - 01:15 PM EST

One of the first questions I ask a new coaching client coming to me as a singer-songwriter is:  "In your heart of hearts and at the core of your being,  are you primarily a songwriter who performs or a performer who writes songs?"     As you can probably tell, these are two very different species, with very different paths to achieve their hearts' desire.    Surprisingly, there is a large percentage of folks who do not have a quick answer for this, because they have not thought about it or have not settled on a true self-identity.

This does not mean you have be only a performer OR a songwriter – it simply means that you recognize that you have a PRIMARY identity and preference, and the other is there to serve the needs of the primary self. 

There is a big difference in the mindset of the performing songwriter versus the songwriting performer, although sometimes this remains in the subconscious.      A performer gets on stage with the goal of getting the audience to love them.  The songwriter gets on stage with the goal of getting the audience to love their songs.     For the performer, the songs are there to serve a need to perform. For the songwriter, the songs are there to be served, to be nurtured like children and to be given independent lives in the world.

Neither of these paths are right or wrong, nor is one any "better" than the other.  They are just different, and success in either requires a clear sense of this difference in the eyes of the one who is pursuing the path.    

If you write and perform, what fulfills you the most after a show?  Is it when people say "You were great, you have a great voice"; or  "I really liked your songs, especially the one about _____" ?

From the time I was a young teen first starting on my musical journey, I knew I was primarily a songwriter.  I loved the process of writing songs, and I wanted to be great at it.  I never felt a strong need to perform.  When I do perform, I am there just as a vehicle for the songs, and the most meaningful measure of success for me is when people react to the song, not to me.   I often get comments on my clarity of enunciation, which may seem like an odd complement, but it is very meaningful to me because it means people are listening to the lyrics.

One of the most important parts of feeling successful in your career is having a clear sense of what you bring to the table, without illusion, embellishment, or self-deception.   Once you are clear about who and what you are, you'll want to focus on developing the set of skills that goes with that identity.  If you have the soul of songwriter, work to become a great songwriter – not just average or adequate – great!  If you have the soul of a singer, work to become a great singer – or guitarist, or producer, or entertainer.  Each of those things takes singular focus and dedication to master the skillset.  If you try to do too many different things, you'll dilute your limited time and energy, and end up being just average at best in each area, and your true self will feel unfulfilled.  Again, it does not mean you can’t ever wear all the different hats – it just means that you recognize one as being your core, and everything else is secondary in service to that core.

In a live performance, when people react positively to you, what are they reacting to?
Are they touched by your lyrics; Are they moved by your voice; Are they impressed with your guitar playing;  Was it your engaging patter between songs (i.e.  what they enjoyed most was not the music but your interaction); Are they reacting to your short skirt or tight pants?    These are all different ways of reaching an audience, and all are perfectly valid, but it is crucial for your own self fulfillment to have clear eyes as to what your listeners are reacting to.  It is a recipe for disappointment when you think that people like your material when in fact they only like the sheer material of your stage outfit.

Far too many performers mistake positive reaction their great stage presence and high energy performance for a reaction to the quality of the actual songs.    This leads to the belief that they should go into a studio and spend a bunch of money to record the songs, only to find that without the energy and visuals of the live performance, the songs do not stand on their own.   Maybe that great performing talent should be performing songs from better writers.

Conversely, there are folks who write amazing songs that really touch their audience, but they themselves are not great performers.   One of the nice things about great songs is that they can transcend a less-than-perfect performance and stand on their own, but there does have to be a basic solid level of musicianship and vocal ability.  Maybe someone else should be performing the songs.    

Mention the name Jinmy Webb and there is almost universal agreement that he is a great songwriter.  No one says he is a great singer.  He does put on an entertaining live show, but it is the songs and his stories that engage, not his singing.  It works because he knows this – now.  In the 60's after his many successes and the releases of the Richard Harris performances of his songs, Webb wanted to sing his own material.  Despite advice to the contrary, he did so, and the result was three albums of great songs with terrible vocals, which did not have the success of his songs in the hands of other artists, leaving Webb very disappointed.   Jimmy Webb is a great songwriter, but not a vocalist.  It took time and experience to become comfortable with that.

The great success of Harry Chapin was in knowing exactly who he was.  He was by no means a great singer, or even a very good singer.  He was an average guitar player.  He was however an incredible songwriter and entertainer.  He surrounded himself with top-notch musical talent  both in-studio and on stage, and was able to perform his own songs because he never really tried to "sing" them, so much as "unfold"  them as one spins a tale.

Pete Seeger is beloved around the world as the father of modern folk music.  He knew exactly who he was and was not.  He was not a great singer, and was only a  basic folk-guitar/banjo player.  He was not a songwriting craftsman so much as an assembler of utilitarian songs meant to be sung by ordinary people, rather than by great voices with great production.   So what was his primary identity?  In an NPR interview, Pete characterized himself as a talented song leader.  And that is indeed what he was, first and foremost.

Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and other great vocalists who knew they were vocalists  first and foremost,  did not try to fill their albums and concerts with their own material.  They sought out good songs from real songwriters, and applied their specific talents to it.   They never tried to make songs serve their voices – they used their voices in service of the songs.  And they, as well as so many other great singers, are legends.

The question of primary identity is not limited to just singer or songwriter.    In today's music scene, many producers/arrangers, who have great skill and artistry at what they do, are trying to brand themselves as 'songwriters'  by producing tracks and then inventing some basic words and getting a good vocalist to sing over the tracks.   This actually results in many hits but it is not songwriting, nor are the hits good songs.  They are great recordings, or releases that become popular because of the artist, not the song.  As an example, Beyonce's  "Run the World (Girls)" contains basically two lines and a total of about eight words.  Much of the song is sampled from other sources.  Looking at the words on paper,  one would think it could easily be the product of a 3rd grade school  assignment.

Looking at the song credits, there are six writers credited.  Now it's obvious that it did not take six talented minds to come up with this lyric.  Clearly, the intent is not good songwriting.  It is a production vehicle (and money-maker)  for producers, and a marketing product for a big-name artist ( "Best Choreography", 2011 MTV Awards, and much more).     It is a great example of why being a "hit" is not necessarily related to the quality of songwriting.   A song's popularity is a separate parameter from the level of  songcraft that the song embodies  ( See full discussion of this key concept in Chapters 2-4, "Songcrafters' Coloring Book )  As long as you remain clear-eyed that this type of hit is a manufactured product using the talents of producers and is not an example of  good songwriting,  you won't be led down the wrong path on your own songwriting journey.  

A recent article "Analyzing the Hits" by  producer Bobby Owsinski in Music Connection Magazine (Feb 2014)  says that there are four components that make a hit song:  production, arrangement,  structure, the mix.    Owsinski is a talented producer and much of what he says in the article is true, except that it does not make the necessary distinction between manufacturing a "hit" via production, and writing a well-crafted song i.e. that a hit recording is not the same as a hit song.

The article essentially says that the melody does not really matter, and it does not even mention the word "lyrics".  Given that a "song" is clearly defined as melody and lyrics, it is obvious from this production perspective that creating a "hit" is separate from writing a great song.   It gives the impression that making great productions is good songwriting, and thus blurs the distinction of identities that it is so important to keep clear.  The best of all worlds is a great production of a great song, but if your self-identity is that of a songwriter,  don't confuse production values with the quality of the song itself.   If it's a great song, it's going to be a great song no matter how it is produced (which is different from whether or not it might be a 'hit').

Kelly Clarkson is a great singer.  After the huge success of her first two albums, she fought with the record company to do something "more personal" on her third album. Nothing wring with that, as she clearly had earned the right to more creative freedom.   However, instead of working with the professional writers whom she had been aligned with, she wrote or co-wrote every one of the songs herself.   Kelly Clarkson is a great vocalist – she is not however, a great songwriter.  Before the album was released, she was offered ten million dollars by Sony BMG record executive Clive Davis to replace five of the tracks with songs that he'd select for her.  Clarkson refused.   She gets credit for  doing what she believed in (Just as Jimmy Webb above insisted on doing his own vocals),  but  when released,  the album "My December" came nowhere near the success of her previous releases, and damaged her standing with fans, although she did subsequently recover from that stumble.  (Note: It eventually did become a platinum album, due to Clarkson's popularity as a likeable artist).   A successful artist like Clarkson has enough pull with a record company to do things like that, and there is certainly nothing wrong for fighting for creative freedom.  But she could perhaps have avoided lots of disappointment and angst by acknowledging to herself that it might have been prudent to work with better songwriters to help her develop her own skill, rather than assuming that being a great singer means you can be a great writer.

If you are clear in your own mind that you are primarily a songwriter rather than a performer,  there is one more question to answer:  Are you primarily a musician or a lyricist?  Does your passion, your joy, your fulfillment lie in finding a great melody or chord progression, or is it in finding exactly the right words and metaphors to communicate what you want to say?     Again, it is important to know your strength and true self, and let that be the beacon and light that guides your path.   You can do any of the other things yourself  (sing, produce, perform, etc), but do so knowing that perhaps someone could help you do that better.

Music is one of the most collaborative of  human endeavors, and the reasons for that are clear – no one is exceptional at all the skills needed to create well-crafted songs, and produce them and perform them and market them in the best possible way.  
Songwriting is also very much about putting inner parts of yourself "out there" for others to accept or reject.   You do yourself and your career the best service when you look long into that musical mirror and know which of the many hats you wear is the one that fits best, and let that be what guides you.   Celebrate your strengths, and never be afraid to acknowledge your weaknesses, while resolving to improve where you can, and seek assistance when you need to.

In the long run, you'll feel much more fulfillment and enrichment as you travel your path with clear eyes.


The concepts discussed in this article are a part of the comprehensive analysis of songwriting  presented in the complete book "Songcrafters'  Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective  and Successful Songwriting" , by Bill Pere.  For
additional information or to order a copy, visit
Bill Pere is a Grammy-Winning songwriter,  named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music  Industry" by Music Connection Magazine.   © Copyright 2014 Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any way without permission of the author.

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