I’ve been observing songwriters in Nashville for a long time and have seen many very talented ones who never got a publishing deal or a cut. I’ve pondered why this is. I’ve concluded that there are lots of reasons why writers who move here full of ambition and determination fail to achieve their goals. Many of them simply don’t have the exceptional level of talent and creativity necessary to rise above the crowd. Of the ones who do have the talent, many don’t work at it hard enough, either because the demands of life get in the way or because they don’t accept how much work it takes. Some have such arrogant or negative attitudes that they alienate the people who could help them. Some just get discouraged and give up.
But even writers who don’t fall into any of the above categories don’t always make it, and right now I want to discuss one particular mistake that, in my observation, has held back many wonderful writers. That mistake is working in isolation. There are some people who, either alone or with co-writers, work diligently and frequently on their writing. They carefully ponder every note, every chord, every word. When they are done they slave over the demo. Many of them get home studios and spend hours and hours getting the perfect sound. Then when their masterpiece is finished they are ready to offer it to the world.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that they are the only ones reflecting on how the song should be written and recorded. They are relying completely on their own judgment, their own insights. They aren’t taking classes to learn the craft, they aren’t attending workshops where they listen to songs being evaluated by knowledgeable people, they aren’t playing the first draft for anyone whose judgment they trust or getting feedback from people who are working successfully in the business.
This holds them back in several ways. First of all, there is a lot to learn about the craft of writing. Beyond even the basics like structure and rhyme there are many elements that go into a great song, such as using fresh imagery, having a good payoff and creating appealing characters to name a few. A novice writer who is not listening (or even an experienced writer who has never listened) to professionals pick apart songs may not understand all that goes into a great song. Some writers have good basic instincts right from the start, but I’ve never met one who didn’t have some weaknesses they needed to have pointed out to them. It is sad to me how many people with genuine talent move to Nashville full of dreams and confidence, and end up bitter at the raw deal they got from Music Row, when the problem was that their songs were weak.
Secondly, and this is so important, no writer ever has an objective view of his or her own song. Trying to write a good song without hearing anyone else’s reaction is like a woman trying to put on make-up without looking in a mirror. Writers are too close to their own creations. They may miss mistakes that are obvious to an outsider with knowledge of the craft and the market. Someone else’s insights can sometimes push a song to a whole new level. A publisher friend of mine told me that he has seen a pattern with the writers he has worked with over the years. When they are new and hungry, according to him, they listen to what he has to say and use his help to polish their songs. Once they’ve had a string of hits they quit listening. Then when they stop getting cuts, they’re back in his office asking for his help. Even hit writers need a mirror.
Before I go on I want to clarify two points about getting feedback. First, I am not talking about getting the reactions of your friends and family who love everything you do. Of course, it’s wonderful to have that kind of support. It can keep you going when the struggle gets overwhelming. But you need to find people who know what they’re talking about who will tell you the truth. Second, I am not suggesting that you take every bit of advice you get. Don’t change your song because someone told you to. But be open-minded to what they’re saying and if you believe they’re right, then re-write.
Another thing a writer needs in order to be successful is strong relationships with people active in the industry. The best song in the world sitting on your shelf at home won’t make you any money. The novice writer who finds professionals willing to help him or her grow into a commercially viable writer already has contacts by the time the songs are strong enough to be pitched. The ones spending all their time by themselves or with their co-writers are strangers to the people who can get songs to producers and artists.
I realize it is not easy for new writers to get appointments with publishers and established writers, but there are ways to develop contacts and get feedback. There are workshops all over the country staffed by professionals. There are critique services like the Nashville Songwriters Association’s,(www.nashvillesongwriters.com), Jason Blume’s (www.jasonblume.com) and mine (www.barbaracloyd.com) that give recorded evaluations through the mail. Taxi gives feedback to those who send in songs for consideration. ASCAP, BMI and SEASAC have well connected staff members who will listen to new writers and who will refer them to publishers if they think they’re ready. There are also less formal ways to meet music business people like attending writers nights or other industry functions open to the public. You have to be careful not to alienate your potential allies by trying to impose on them when you are a total stranger, but the more you put yourself around the industry the better chance you have of getting to know someone who may become willing to help.
As a songwriter myself I know that it is much more fun to write a song than it is to listen to someone criticize it and pick it apart. But I also know that even Stephen King has an editor and gold-medal athletes all have coaches. The venerable songwriter and publisher Bob Morrison has been quoted as saying, “To be a songwriter you need the heart of a poet and the hide of a rhino.” It takes a tremendous amount of confidence to be willing to look at what you’re doing wrong. If you’re so emotionally invested in your creations that you can’t bear to see any flaws in them, you’ll never grow. The music business is grueling and competitive, but it’s also full of smart, fun, generous and creative people. Find some who are willing to help you, and let them. If you’re trying to make it on your own, you’re not only lowering your chances, but you’re missing half the fun.