A lot of people think songwriters have an easy life.
They think we get to wake up at the crack of noon and leisurely pour over pen and paper, drinking cup after cup of coffee until a few lines emerge onto a page.
Then, we stroll down to Music Row where our publisher eagerly awaits our latest brain fruit. Excitedly, they swoop up the song, rush it into the demo studio and whisk the newly minted tune over to their record label friends whose artists cut it and make everyone a lot of money when it gets played on the radio the following week.
Ha! If that were only the case! But the life of a songwriter isn’t nearly so cut and dry (or easy!).
So what does a real Monday morning look like for a real songwriter?
Well, that depends on which hat you’re mostly wearing that day… or more accurately, which hats.
Today, for example, I’ve got a few different tasks to complete and only one of them is writing a song.
This morning, I’m catching up on paperwork and administrative-secretarial stuff before an 8:30AM parent-teacher conference with my son’s teacher. Yes, we homeschool, but the kids are part of the Tennessee Virtual Academy and as such are technically public school students complete with teachers and standardized testing.
Next, I’ll race down to the Secretary of State to visit my pal Jaime in the Trademark office to fill out some paperwork on a new product line. Then, it’s back to Music Row where I’m writing a tune with my pal Sarah Aili on the NSAI porch until around 1, and then it’s up and down and all around 16th and 17th avenues where I’m delivering gifts to our Conference Industry Pros. (I’d tell you what it is, but if any of them are reading this it would spoil their surprise.)
Later, it’s back home to go over school, answer correspondence and upload materials for my SAE Institute class students (I’m teaching Business and Legal Foundations and the Music Business Culminating Project courses at SAE Nashville this semester) onto our new Canvas system.
Then at 6PM, it’s Monday Songpreneur meetup with our SMB Community and friends (it’s free and open to the public if you’re curious).
Whew. So only a tiny part of my day is actually songwriting and the rest of the day is other stuff.
Is it leisurely? Hardly. Filled with coffee drinking? Absolutely. Worth it? Most days I think so.
As Dad always said, “It sure beats working for a living.”
Once again, I am reminded of the miraculous power of songwriting to affect ones moods.
In the most desperate of painful conditions, when everything seems wrong, but there’s nothing to point to -
Picking up the guitar, virtual pen and paper -
soothes the savage beast that threatens to consume
and frees -
releases me from some of the burden.
The pain is diluted by the sounds I make
And by the end of the song
it’s almost gone.
Form be damned
Rhyme scheme tossed aside
Harlan would call it a pencil sharpener.
Not for the market.
Not for the screaming adoring crowds or the hopes of grandeur
or even dreams of seeing the light of day outside this box of zeros and ones.
Songwriting can do that.
That is why we write.
I went down to Dan McGuinness pub on Music Row last night to see one of my favorite performing songwriters, Dave Pahanish (“Without You” Keith Urban, “American Ride” Toby Keith) play his regular Wednesday night gig with one of my other favorite writers, Bruce Wallace (“My Baby” Kix Brooks).
Earlier in the day, I had gotten a mass text from Dave’s manager saying that he was going on at 8PM as opposed to his usual time of 11ish. Since the kids are with their dad for a few days helping his mom fix up her new house in Kentucky, I thought it would be an awesome chance to see all of Dave’s show for once, since the 11PM start times usually have me leaving after the first set to get home and get enough sleep for the grueling 14 hour work days I’ve been pulling for the past few years as a self employed songwriter-entrepreneur business owner.
But, I should have known better than to think Dave would take the stage anytime before 10PM.
Regardless, it was fun catching up with his wife Kristin, an awesome songwriter and performer herself who just had the couple’s second daughter six months ago.
I thought you guys would be interested to know, I asked her if Dave got his big cuts by pitching demos of the songs, or by pitching songs off his solo artist albums. Just as I suspected, Kristin confirmed that all of Dave’s big hits were originally released on his solo album projects, confirmation of what I’ve been saying for a while now about getting your music out there instead of holding on to it like some “precious” never to see the light of day outside the publishing house.
A few hours into waiting for Dave to get started playing, a long-haired, bearded fellow walked in and sat at Kristin’s table. We recognized each other, and acknowledged that when Kristin introduced us, but I couldn’t place him right away. His name was Leroy.
After a few minutes of thinking about it, I remembered that he had been in Shooter Jennings’ band years ago, and that he and I had jammed in a friend’s living room with Shooter’s drummer, Brian. Brian and I really hit it off musically on a tune of mine called “Children in the Garden” that Shooter expressed interest in maybe cutting some day.
After I figured it out, I leaned over and told Leroy that’s where we met. He kind of remembered it, and that was about all of our conversation. I noticed Kristin and Dave looking at me kind of funny, like I should know Leroy from somewhere else, but I blew it off thinking it was just my imagination.
Later, I ran into my pal George Shingleton, probably one of the best male vocalists I’ve heard in Nashville in a long time. George sounds pretty similar to a young Travis Tritt, with just as much power and soul, and on top of that, he’s a heck of a nice guy. Good ole West Virginia boy. George and I talked a few minutes, and Leroy waved goodbye as he walked past us to go home, and shortly after, my man and I headed for home, too.
…but we had to stop for dog food. So, we stopped off at the Walmart about 10 miles from our house and went in to get stocked up on kibbles.
Standing in line with my giant bag of cotton balls and Garth Brooks box set no one bought me for Christmas, my man suddenly exclaimed, “Look at the cover on that magazine!”
Lo and behold, the entire cover of OK Magazine is graced this week by the lovely face of Ms. Amy Wilcox, star of the new Nashville reality series on A&E “Crazy Hearts.” Better still is the fact that Amy and I got to do some writing last year, and she cut our song “Virginia Is For Lovers” on her debut CD. I even sang harmonies on one or two takes in the studio, though I don’t know if they ended up using my tracks on the final album.
On top of that, Anthony Billups, one of the other stars of the show cut a song I wrote with him about Amy’s mom called “She’s Just Like Her Mother” in which he expresses his untamed affection for, you guessed it, Amy’s mom who he claims, in typical Billups fashion, “is hot.”
Funny enough, the guy Leroy I had seen earlier is Leroy Powell, also from the show. Haha. That’s Nashville for you. I wonder if Dave and Kristin think I was pulling his leg and pretending not to recognize him from the show. Guess that’s what happens when you work too much to watch the TV show your songs might be played on!
Now y’all go buy Amy and Anthony’s albums now, y’hear? And Leroy’s too if he has one. J
How Winning Every Day by Lou Holtz Applies to Songwriters
By Amanda Williams
From the first lines of Lou Holtz’s book Winning Every Day, it’s obvious that the advice he gives and the stories he tells are about more than just football.
The first sentence of his award winning book is “Winning is never accidental.” Holtz’s premise is that by setting goals, being disciplined and moving forward every day with a definite strategy, one can achieve anything one sets out to do.
That’s good news for songwriters who often struggle to find the next right step to take, or even who to listen to for advice in what is the right step.
For Lou, it all boils down to fundamentals. He tells a story in his book about how strict he was with his team when it came to practicing even the most mundane aspects of the game – including how to get into a huddle.
Some of his players complained to him that they didn’t want to practice getting into a huddle because they thought it was a waste of time. He explained to them that it’s attention to the fundamentals of the game that leads to the greatest improvement. Also, if you encounter a team that is so well disciplined that their huddle is perfect, you are bound to be intimidated because you know that if their huddle is perfect, much of the rest of their game will be perfect too.
Applying this to songwriting, we can use this same advice and put more practice into our fundamentals.
We’re not going to have to practice our huddle, but we may well need to look back at some of the fundamentals of language – from literary devices and rhyme scheme, to reviewing the steps of the formal writing process. A lot of what we study in grade school and high school literature and language arts classes applies to songwriting, if we think about it.
Holtz breaks down the book Winning Every Day into chapters where he explores his main points. His plan for winning is broken into ten steps:
- The Power of Attitude
- Tackle Adversity
- Have a Sense of Purpose
- Make Sacrifice Your Ally
- Adapt or Die
- Chase Your Dream
- Nurture Your Self Image
- Foster Trust
- Commit to Excellence
- Handle With Care
These same steps make a great framework for developing a winning strategy with songwriting.
Most people understand the power of our attitudes to make or break us. It’s so important in the music business to have a positive attitude. The bars near Music Row are littered with disgruntled songwriters and naysayers talking about how bad the business has gotten, how there’s no hope for the little guy, how you have to give up everything to get anywhere and they still want more blood, and so forth and so on.
Nobody ever got anywhere with that kind of attitude.
If we take Lou’s advice (and we should), we start with a positive “I can do it” attitude, and let our actions support our decision to make it no matter what. We can focus on the negatives, and if we do, we’re sure to find plenty wrong to complain about. But if we focus on what we can do every day to build our sustainable careers in the new music business, pretty soon those same naysayers will be complaining about us and our successes instead of all the old stuff they’ve been complaining about for the past decade.
There’s plenty we can do every day to build our careers without looking at all the bad stuff. The power of a positive attitude can help us get to where we want to go with our musical careers.
Number two, “Tackle Adversity” plays right into this as well. We know the songwriting business is full of rejection, “no”s and crooks, right? Or so we’re told.
But when we see adversity as an opportunity to cultivate excellence in ourselves and with our craft of songwriting, we can use it to help us keep going, instead of seeing it as a stumbling block.
Point number three “Have a sense of purpose” is very important for songwriters. Music is important! Sometimes, when we’re pursuing songwriting as a career, we’re likely to get lost in the sea of commercialism and writing for the market instead of writing about what’s important to us.
Sure, it’s important to write commercial songs, but not to trim away everything that makes us unique in order to fit into a tiny box.
When we find what is truly important to us, and write about that, we often unlock hidden genius in ourselves that might never come out if we’re just trying to write about trucks and gun racks or whatever is the trendy subject of the time.
Writing for a cause is a great way to use our gift of songwriting to help others in our communities, and to unite songwriters with organizations who are trying to spread a message. Remember, not so very long ago, entire histories were passed down through songs and story telling. Maybe it’s time we get back to that with our songwriting.
Point number four “Make Sacrifice Your Ally” is a tough point for us to accept sometimes. However, anyone who has ever pursued songwriting as more than just a weekend hobby knows that this point is very true for songwriting, maybe more so than other professions.
We sacrifice time with our families, spend our hard earned dollars, and even allow well meaning consumers to share our songs for free with no compensation to us whatsoever except for the joy of sharing our gift of song.
Anyone who is not prepared to sacrifice something to achieve their goals isn’t really vested.
The real meaning of sacrifice isn’t some grim bloody ceremony like we think of in the movies, the kind of sacrifice we’re talking about is giving up our desires for what is going to benefit us in the long run. For example, not going out on the town on Friday night with your buddies, but instead staying home and working on your songwriting. When you’re doing it consistently, it hardly feels like sacrifice, because the rewards are more than enough to justify what is lost.
Adapt or die. Wow – this is a big part of what it means to be a songwriter in today’s market. It’s like the great book Who Moved My Cheese that talks about the same concept. We can’t expect things to continue in the same way forever. We have to keep our eyes peeled on the marketplace and learn new methods and techniques to keep our work and our commerce relevant under the current conditions.
Songwriters would do well to think about this “adapt or die” mentality with the current epidemic of illegal downloading and file sharing threatening our industry. Only by adapting can we survive.
Chase your dream – now here’s a point songwriters know all about. The very nature of doing what we’re doing is chasing the dream of being a successful songwriter.
Of course, we all want a hit song, but what does success really mean for you? Is being successful being able to make a living with your songwriting? Is it selling out Madison Square Garden? What does your dream look like?
When we write out our goals, we solidify them in our minds, and the very act of writing them out helps to clarify what it is that we expect to achieve.
Then, we can chase our dreams with greater confidence that we know where we are going. The challenge then becomes getting there.
We songwriters could really use a lot of this next point, to “Nurture Your Self Image.”
This point applies to songwriters in a couple of ways. One, songwriters are notoriously insecure. We are sensitive folks who have learned to cope with our intense observations of ourselves, human nature and our environments by writing songs. Is it any wonder most of us are emotional basket cases reeking with insecurities and self-image issues?
We songwriters can really benefit from some confidence building exercises like Lou prescribes to his players in his book.
Another aspect of this point “Nurture Your Self Image” applies in a unique way to songwriter – artists. This goes along with the whole idea of branding ourselves according to our true core values. If we aren’t sure who we really are, or what we’re trying so say, how can we ever let our audience and fans in on the secret?
As we build and nurture our self image, we are able to project a positive and consistent message with our music, and in the new millennium of music business, knowing what makes you unique is as good as currency when used properly to attract organic search traffic on the internet.
Fostering Trust is important for every profession, but especially so in songwriting.
For one thing, the old adage “Write what you know,” comes in to play. For people to resonate with what you write about, they need to see some authenticity in what you are saying. If you’re making everything up, it’s harder to build trust with the audience, and thus, it’s harder to make and keep real fans.
Another thing is to foster trust with our marketing and branding. Nobody likes to have someone selling to them all the time. The new model ways of doing commerce online are to 1) educate, 2) build trust, and 3) sell. Many of us try to sell first and forget about the first two steps. Building and fostering trust is an integral step in fostering a sustainable career in the new music business.
Commit to excellence is another great piece of advice. As we pursue our songwriting excellence, we show our audience that we care about what we are saying to them, and how we are saying it. That projects respect, a principle of right relations among our fellowman.
When we commit to excellence, we don’t put out half-ass material, we don’t try to sell people on our ideas, and we don’t go along with trends when we don’t agree with them.
Committing to excellence is a noble ambition, and one that definitely applies to the time honored craft of songwriting. The more we pay attention to what we are doing as a community, the more other people will pay attention, too.
“Handle With Care” reminds us to treat other people how we want to be treated.
When it comes to the music business, we sometimes forget that all the people involved are people just like us. The industry folks, the stars, the people reading your press kits – they’re just people, just like you.
When you think of the way you’d want to be treated and addressed, what kind of promo pics and bios you’d like to read, it suddenly becomes ever so much easier to pitch your ideas and promotions to them.
Lou Holtz may never have written a song in his life, but the ideas he laid out in his book Winning Every Day are some of the most beneficial ideas to consider when you’re building your sustainable career in the new music business.
Thanks to my new business mentor, Mr. Moorer of Nashville SCORE for recommending it to me.
The Spider as a symbol of what it means to be proactive
The giant spider who has taken up residence outside my bedroom door has caused some serious contemplative moments over the past few weeks.
In many cultures, the spider is a symbol of the writer.
In certain spiritual traditions, the spider symbolizes man’s aspiration to weave a thread connecting him to divinity.
In the physical world, we see the spider as a dangerous, mysterious, scary creature capable of doing us bodily harm if they bite us.
But when you get past all that fear factor stuff, it’s easy to see the spider as a great example of what it means to be proactive.
Being proactive means getting prepared for opportunity before it comes along instead of chasing after it.
As a songwriter, being proactive means to work at craft, writing better and better songs, keep good records and catalogue organization, and to make sure you know what opportunities exist within your sphere of influence.
The opposite of this would be writing a couple of “good” songs, hanging out in bars where you know music industry people frequent, and chasing after opportunities outside your sphere of influence.
Look at the spider: does she chase down her prey?
No! Instead, she picks a likely spot and builds an intricate web to catch her food. If she had to rely on catching her prey by chasing it down, she would probably not be nearly as successful considering as how most of what she eats can fly away, and she can’t.
So, as a songwriter, I can model this spider behavior by writing the very best songs I possibly can regardless of what’s going on around me. I can build a website to showcase my best work and make it appealing to folks who come there on purpose because they’re already fans, and also to people who are casually searching online for things I typically write about. Then, I can make it so engaging, so ensnaring, that people will want to stick around and keep coming back to see what else has been added to the web(site).
Just a little Sunday morning analogy thanks to the spider.
September 1, 2013
Watching a blue tailed lizard scamper across the porch outside, I am reminded how lucky we are to live out in the woods so close with nature. So many folks don’t have that in today’s world… so here. I’m sharing this lizard with you. He was hard to photograph, let me tell ya.
Gratitude is the first step to softening a hard heart. Whose heart isn’t in danger of hardening these days? It’s hard to watch the news or movies, hard to read the YouTube comments, hard to make sense of it all.
But then again, it’s meeting the challenges on the hard things that make winning worthwhile.
Doing my Stephen Covey 7 Habits work last night, I had to answer the question, what is the one thing I can do that will dramatically improve my personal life? The answer is regimenting a daily routine and sticking with it.
The busier we get homeschooling the twins (they’re 12), handling the SMB community, planning our workshops on the road, consulting with clients, helping friends, writing new songs, and rehearsing the new acoustic sets I’ve been working up leaves little time for anything else.
But you know what? Even though it’s hard, and some days I feel like no body cares, I have to remember that this is all the way it’s meant to be or it wouldn’t be this way.
If I feel like nobody appreciates anything that means I need to show those folks I appreciate how much I appreciate them, because maybe they’re feeling the same way. And maybe in appreciating them, I’ll forget myself in that simple act of service and quit worrying about what other people think about me. And when I forget about me, I can really get down to work.
Over the weekend, I met an aspiring songwriter who makes his living writing software code for a business to business company. After discussing various songwriting events we have attended, he leaned in and said, conspiratorially, “Actually, I think all music should be free. I started really enjoying my music a lot more when I quit worrying about making money with it. I mean, come on, I was making $100 or $120 playing in a coffee shop. That’s terrible! Nobody can do that.”
So his solution for himself was to quit trying to make money with his music and just do it for fun. He thinks people enjoy his shows better now that he’s not making money.
A couple of things pop into mind thanks to this guy.
First of all, the most obvious thing is that, after having written 100 songs (only) he is attempting to compare his hobby to my profession, his dabbling to my expertise – and that of thousands of professional songwriters and musicians just like me. Are we not worthy to earn a living for our families? After getting a degree in Music Business, studying the craft of songwriting at the feet of the masters, and putting in well over the prerequisite ten thousand hours it takes to be an expert (which, according to Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner refers to “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field”) I should still not be entitled to earn an honest living doing what I do?
Do people who think music should be free think we come up with it out of thin air? Do they think studio time and musicians are free to us? Are we supposed to invest in ourselves, take money off the table and out of our families mouths in order to support our artistry? Or are the studios and musicians, the CD duplicators, distributors and everyone else in the supply chain also supposed to labor indefinitely for free?
Instead of being offended (and rightly so) by these kinds of ignorant statements, I have learned to take such sentiment as a compliment. After all, a person who loves music so much to think it should be free values it a great deal – right up there with food, water, and air – the necessities of life.
Is food free? What about water? Air’s still free (for now) – that’s good.
As I told the software developer with a none too highly developed perception of irony (come on! He creates intellectual property for a living, but thinks I should give mine away for free!), “I agree, music should be free… and so should electricity and water.”
When the basics are free for everyone, then music can be free. Until then, someone has to pay for it.