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Ask Jack & Diane

If I want to be a professional songwriter, where should I start?

There is no magic formula or blueprint to follow, since there are many roads to success in this business, but there are some serious guidelines to pursuing your individual path.

First, we would encourage you to analyze why you write. If it is a form of expression and something you do with passion, then that is a good reason. If you are doing it for the money, we’d highly recommend you explore other options. The ratio between the number of songwriters and the number of hits is staggering. Great songs will find their audience and possibly pay out, but it shouldn’t be the motivation. Some of the best songs we’ve ever heard will never find commercial or mainstream success. That is not because the song isn’t worthy. It is simply a case of promotional dollars, limited slots available on radio and a variety of other reasons. The best songwriters, in our opinion, do it because they love it and in many cases it leads to a very lucrative living. Even if they are not household names, they can reach a good level of success by licensing songs to TV, film, etc. But, there is a definite process to growing as a writer and honing the craft.

So, if you’re sure that songwriting is in your heart and something you want to pursue, then the first thing we suggest is to become willing to listen and learn. Listen to songs that really speak to you and analyze why they got your attention. What stands out to you most: the melody, the lyric, the instrumentation, the tempo? Then, explore other genres of music, outside of just ones that you like. Remember that in order to be successful, you have to appeal to the masses and be willing to stand back and listen objectively. People have common struggles, emotions and triumphs. They come in different packaging and layers, but our underlying needs and desires are the basically the same. Your job is to find a way to tap into the soul of another by being authentic, unique and creative.

There are lots of great books, videos and workshops around town on the craft of songwriting. NSAI (www.nashvillesongwriters.com) is a helpful resource. You can gain a lot of insight from these options, but be careful about taking them too literally. We are not fans of counting syllables or rhyme schemes that limit creativity or encourage formulas. We believe that the heart is the best place to write from. But, you must learn the basic rules before you try to break them. Once you’ve got a solid understanding of those, then let your heart lead.

Lastly, don’t try to jump out on stage right away. Spend some time getting comfortable with your instrument, your phrasing, your lyrics, etc. Wait until you are extremely at ease with the song and live with it for a little while before you perform it publicly. You may tweak lines and refine it over a few weeks or months and be very happy you gave it a little extra time. Play it for a few folks privately until your delivery is smooth. Get some feedback. Don’t believe the individual, extreme comments, such as “that is the best song I ever heard” or “that sucked.” Look for the impact on the majority and try to get constructive criticism. This can be hard when you are starting out because your songs are like your children. They are so personal and come from such a deep part of you. But, you must learn to separate yourself a bit and have an objective eye. Once you feel like you’re ready, than play it in public for an unbiased audience several times. If you play it five or six times and it goes over BIG each time, then you’ve probably got something special. If it bombs three out of five times, then rework it or go on to the next song. But don’t give up and keep at it. No matter where you are in your career, you haven’t yet written your best song!

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About the Author

Have a question about the music industry, ask Jack & Diane at jackanddiane@nashvilleunleashed.com or see them in person at their monthly show at The Center For The Arts.

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