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Daily Activities of a Career Songwriter
By Andrea Stolpe - 11/19/2007 - 02:47 AM EST

Many budding writers wonder what itís like to work day to day as a songwriter, and the picture is as varied as those who live it.  There are a few foundational activities, however, that every one of us finds ourselves immersed in on a regular basis. 

Staying afloat in the commercial industry requires that we get out of the house once in awhile.  Growing our network of fans and industry contacts is the gasoline we need to keep rolling.  When we hole up in our bedroom writing songs all month, we overlook the troublesome reality that no one will hear those songs without a team of believers.  This is such an important element of being a career songwriter.  Without a network of people who believe in our art, we stand very little chance of influencing a larger circle.  The tricky part is wading through the marshes of industry players and audiences who do not take a particular interest in what we do in order to find the ones who do.  But when weíre committed to letting as many people know about our art as possible, we see the effects resonate like waves on a lake. 

Being a naturally introverted person, I have to make an intentional effort to continue to build my network.  So instead of relying on my feelings, I schedule time in my calendar during which Iíll make phone calls, go out to shows, take CDs to non-music functions and tell 2 people about my music, or play a show with a friend.  I try to expand my network by meeting just 2 new people each month that could play an important role in my next big break.  Just 2 people Ė thatís all it takes.  Gradually those two people turn into 4, and 8, and 16, and before I know it, Iím getting emails from someone Iíve never met who heard my music and enjoyed it.  Two weeks later I find out my new acquaintanceís uncle is the best friend of a publisher Iíve been wanting to meet, or a writer Iíve been wanting to collaborate with.  You just never know.

As Iím building my network of believers, I do a lot of prioritizing and planning.  Without my calendar, Iím likely to lose track of where I put my time.  Every morning I glance at my to-do list and prioritize those things that are in sync with my vision for my career.  Itís easy to want to take every opportunity that comes along because after all, itís an opportunity.  We may never get another opportunity again Ė or at least thatís how weíve been conditioned to think as career musicians.  When I slip into survival mode, my vision gets put on hold.  Itís absolutely imperative that I keep a close watch on the small steps I take towards those bigger goals.

Many of the distractions that masquerade as my career are identifiable by their fruits.  They almost all keep me from writing.  So when I look back and see that I havenít written a song in a month, or Iíve got 5 unfinished ideas lying around and havenít been able to set aside time to finish them, I know Iíve got to regroup.  This is a real problem for artists, especially when touring.  Setting aside time to write is absolutely essential to being a writer.  It sounds ridiculously simple, but itís amazing how often we overlook that very simple equation.  Taking consistent time to write = songs worth recording.

As a staff writer for a publishing company, I wrote about two songs a week.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  I also co-wrote a few times a week, collaborating with other writers in appointments set up by either me or my publisher.  If my collaborator and I were already friends, we might get together at 10am and begin writing an idea that sprung from our morning conversation, or from the notebooks we carried with scratches of ideas.  If the collaborator was someone I had just met, Iíd ask to meet for coffee first to get to know eachother a bit better.  Some writers are comfortable just delving into the song.  I need a little time to acclimate myself to the new relationship before my strengths as a writer can really shine.  I learned this through the experience of many years of co-writing, and I encourage other writers to do the same.  Learn how your strengths as a writer flourish the most, and in what situations.  Do you prefer to write from a title, to discuss many different story ideas with your collaborator, or to finish a song in a short 2 hour session and come back to it later instead of laboring over each word?  Do you collaborate better when you come in prepared with an idea already percolating?  Do you need some time to generate ideas along before regrouping with your collaborator to discuss the best approach?  Understanding how you approach the process will help you find what youíre looking for in great collaborations.

Staying inspired is sometimes a challenging task for any prolific writer.  As a career songwriter, we often need to write even when not inspired.  I often use tools such as Destination Writing to coerce ideas out onto paper, using my 10-step process for writing songs as described in my book, Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.  Other times Iíll bring a title, an unfinished verse, or even a short melodic and harmonic progression to a co-writer to help get inspiration.  I read books, I watch movies, I go to coffee shops and listen to conversations (I admit itís true) and write down interesting phrases that could make for great song ideas.  I sit out on sidewalks and watch people, I travel, and I listen to music I love.  I allow myself the permission to write a mediocre song.  That last thought is incredibly important for a career writer.  We understand that if we create our art with desperation, as if each expression is the last great thought weíll ever have, then weíre bound for failure. 

I almost always finish every idea I start.  When even Iím not certain if what Iím writing is better or worse than the last song I wrote, itís an exercise in becoming a more consistent writer.  Finally, taking time to realize what makes my voice as a writer unique, and how I most effectively express that voice is a valuable enterprise and I wouldnít be where I am today without it.  Taking a look at the typical patterns within the songs I write, gathering feedback from trusted fans and collaborators, and even matching phrases of my life with the song material that sprung from them help me to summarize what I do well, and what kind of artist would be most interested in recording my songs.

Being a career songwriter is a precious gift, and one that comes with tremendous satisfaction.  Getting into the studio to record my latest songs with some of my favorite musicians is one of the highlights of the process.  On the contrary, pitching my songs through networking contacts is a nuisance Iíd rather not have to pursue.  But, both are necessary in sustaining a career.  Without pitching my material, I canít influence the world.  Great results come at the expense of time and energy, and are a small price to pay for the fulfillment of positively affecting the lives of others through my art.

I hope you find satisfaction in the day to day activities on the road to expanding your circle of influence with your music.  When you receive that email from someone who has been profoundly and positively affected by your music, youíll recognize how your unique road has been leading you in the right direction all along.

Andrea Stolpe

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