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Q&A: I want to make it in the songwriting business. How? Help!
By Mary Dawson - 07/23/2002 - 12:00 PM EDT

Dear Mary,
I am in desperate need of some good advice please. I am trying to find out how I go about getting some of the songs I have written either recorded by an artist or just published and bought by a company. I would dearly love to be earning a living from writing. My problem is this.......I write lyrics and I know exactly how I want the song to sound but I don't play an instrument and I can't write music in sheet form. I do play the piano very basically but the songs I write have long since outdone my skills as a musician. I don't know what to do. It seems like a jungle out there! All the places I have tried to contact for advice on the net either want me to pay a subscription fee ... or send a demo!

Those who have heard my songs have said that they are worth recording and it would be a shame to let them just sit in a folder forever gathering dust. I agree but have not a clue where to start. Can you please please help me or am I just flogging a dead horse thinking I can do this for a living?...I have so much inside my head..bursting to get out and the frustration of it all is terrible! I so hope you can help me....I'm not afraid of the climb ...I just need some guidance to find the right mountain. Love and kind thoughts to you, -- Claire


Hi Claire:

Thanks so much for your email. You express many of the frustrations that most songwriters face along their musical journey. However, you must find a way "around" or "through" these hurdles or you will remain stuck where you are.

Your first frustration is that you don't play an instrument and cannot notate music on paper. You feel that your songwriting skills are more developed than your musical ability. The good news is that hit
songwriting (creating memorable lyrics and melody) is truly a different skill than musical skill on an instrument. Many of the greatest songwriters of all time have been unable to read or write music --
including Irving Berlin and Diane Warren.

But...in order to get your great songs out of your head and into the ears of other people you MUST have some kind of demo. The demo is the "calling card" of the songwriter. That leads immediately to the
question..."What kind of demo do I need?" The short answer is that it must be clear, professional, and adequately represent the song. If you do not have the engineering and technical skills to do this yourself, you then must find someone with a studio who can record your song for you. There are many great "demo producers" who are able to take a VERY rough demo (you singing "a cappella" into a box recorder) and turn it into a radio-ready production that you would be proud to pitch to any producer or publisher. However, there is going to be a cost for this!! It can range from $50-500 -- depending on the kind of song and what is required to make the song sound like you "heard it in your head."

Many songwriters feel that they shouldn't have to spend any money to get discovered. Unfortunately, that is almost an impossible fantasy. As with any other career development program, you MUST budget and invest money to bring yourself to the next level. If you wanted to pursue a law degree, you would immediately realize that it would require a great deal of time, effort and financial commitment in order to become a recognized attorney. It is no different with songwriting!! I am not suggesting that you have to spend extravagantly or unwisely. If you get to know your local music community, you can usually find people with very adequate home studios who can help you create your demos at reasonable fees. But you must be prepared for SOME cost! Otherwise, you will remain where you are now.

You also mentioned that you thought of your songs as "poetry to music." While lyrics definitely have some of the same attributes as poetry, there is a world of difference in how they are constructed. If you have not done any serious reading and studying on the "craft" of lyric writing, you may find that even with an adequate demo, your songs will be rejected because they don't fit the standard song forms and criteria for hit material. I would seriously suggest that you do some reading on the subject of lyric writing and then also invest some money in professional song critiques BEFORE you go to the expense of a demo. You also must educate yourself on the subject of copyright. It is not nearly as intimidating as you may think, but it is a necessary link in the chain if you are to succeed as a songwriter.

In summary, I guess what you need to ask yourself is -- "How badly do I want to get 'unstuck' from my present situation?" It is possible to advance, but it will require self-education. networking with other members of your music community, and financial investment.

I hope this helps you somewhat. You sound like a very gifted songwriter, but you MUST realize that "gifting" is only the first link in the chain. Each songwriter must decide for him/herself how much they want to succeed in this business. The investment will vary accordingly.

All the Best, --Mary Dawson


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