Guest post by Tunedly, a ReverbNation Marketplace participant and company catering to a community of music creators.
My years of wearing the hat of a songwriter and working with others in the game, taught me that it isn’t the most glamorous job. And when one considers that only a small fraction of the songwriting population actually make it big in the business, it would seem you’d have to be short of a few screws to decide that writing songs is what you want to do for the rest of your life.
Many songwriters started out doing it as a hobby, a way to soothe the turmoil in their minds, and then learned about the possible financial gains afterwards. With that said, every songwriter, who gets serious about making it a career, faces their own set of struggles along the way. But many of these struggles are not unique to one; if you speak with other songwriters, you will quickly find out that they pretty much endure some of the same problems you’re faced with on a daily basis. We’ll delve deeper with a few examples throughout this post, so you might want to stick around.
Here are five of the most common songwriter struggles and the things you can do to gain the upper hand:
Second-guessing your career choice
The songwriting community is one of the most regulated categories of workers, while being subject to getting ripped off by piracy, and low/no royalties. On top of that, songwriters have to deal with multiple input costs for gear, networking, and personal maintenance, as well as marketing their music and taking time to learn about the business side of things.
Yes, it takes guts to decide to be a songwriter. Yet, making a living from the art of creating music is still appealing, plus self-expression through lyrics set to music is therapy for many. If you’re like me, you probably feel a sense of accomplishment every time your song idea gets brought to life, especially if it ends up getting played on the radio.
Surely it’s no walk in the park, but if you really love what you do, you’ll realize that the struggles you face are all a part of the journey. Some of the most famous songwriters have reeled off stories of the years of struggles they faced before breaking the mold. The stories of Leonard Cohen, Ne-Yo, and even Lady Gaga are a few that come to mind.
Even The Beatles hit a roadblock early in their career when, after recording 15 songs, the group was dropped abruptly by their record label and told “they have no future in show business.” Now, just imagine being told your work had no place in the current music industry by people who are supposed to know best about what works and what doesn’t? You would probably be crushed, right? However, if The Beatles and others mentioned had thrown in the towel when life gave them lemons, their names would not be recognizable now.
Inspiration coming at odd times
Every songwriter faces days when words are hard to come by, and it’s not just about writer’s block. On the other hand, inspiration can suddenly spring at you in the wee hours of the morning when you’ve just retired to bed after a long day. Or it could happen while you’re at Starbucks, grabbing a quick bite before returning to the 9-5 desk job you’re doing while waiting and hoping for your music to ‘take off.’
Whatever the case, the possibility exists that you could be missing out on a potential hit song. Or even a non-commercial song that you might end up cherishing (after all, most of us tend to have that one song which the world might not necessarily fall in love with, but we absolutely adore it because of what it means to us personally – or is it just me?).
Either way, if you’re not able to find a way to record your thoughts when inspiration strikes at odd times and places, you might be missing out on a gem or two. Short of carrying around a “backpack studio” as confessed by renowned songwriter Ester Dean, here’s how to prepare for those aha-moments:
- Keep a small pocket diary or notebook and pen that you can whip out and jot down your thoughts whenever inspiration strikes.
- Carry around a voice recorder. Yes, they might be old-fashioned and might even raise a few eyebrows when you whip it out in a crowd of millennials, but they still get the job done.
- Use the voice recording app on your smartphone.
Faced with the big, bad blank page
You know you need to get down a song or two to in order to keep building your portfolio. After all, the more songs you have under your belt, the better your chances of making a breakthrough. But you’ve been staring at a blank page for the past hour or so and this keeps happening to you. Surely, this can be one of the most intimidating experiences for a songwriter. That song isn’t going to write itself, so what will you do?
Sometimes it’s best to get up and find something to do that will totally distract you from the task at hand. For example, you can call a friend, or go workout. For me personally, working out works best when it comes on to refocusing. Whatever works best for you, you’ll find that most of the times when you return to that blank page, your thoughts will start pouring.
Another technique to handle the blank page scenario is to just start writing…anything. Don’t worry about whether what you’re trying to write makes sense, just jot down whatever comes to mind. The more you write, the more your thoughts will start to flow, and as many experienced songwriters will tell you, write first and edit later.
One other way to defeat the blank page is to start hammering out a melody for your new song on a piano or guitar. Many song ideas are born as the stringing together of a few chord progressions first before the whole thing started to make sense.
So, you’ve managed to finally turn those lyrics into a decent demo or even a radio-ready song, but no one is listening to it, even after you’ve shared it on all your social media pages and sent dozens of emails to music publishers and film supervisors. Yep, getting heard is pretty difficult when the listening public is hooked on only a few popular artists. Why should they listen to you anyway, when there are tons of other songwriters competing for their attention?
You need to realize that gaining exposure takes time and strategy. Plus, getting noticed can happen in a number of ways. Start by setting up strong online profiles, including a professional EPK and social media accounts. Use professional pictures that contribute to your branding efforts and a well-written bio to make sure you stand out.
Talk to the people who are closest to you, including family, friends, and neighbors, then ask them to share your ReverbNation profile (a good idea to have one set up if you haven’t already done so) to boost your presence online. Connect with a local band, a club, bar, or community center to ask for a gig if you’re into performing. Start a YouTube channel and do cover versions of popular songs, and once you start getting a high level of viewership, introduce your original work.
Making money while making music
For songwriters just entering the field, if you don’t have another source of income, you’ll find that you have to, sooner than later. The truth is that unless you’re born to a wealthy family that has connections, or you’re lucky to get swooped up by a record label willing to invest a major down payment, early in your career, you’ll pretty much have to find a way to fund your lifestyle until you start earning from your music, which can take years.
Sure, you might want to do songwriting full time eventually, but until you’re making enough money from royalties to do so, you will need to find a J-O-B. The great thing is you don’t have to stray too far from music. Here are a few music-related ways to get paid in the meantime:
- Start a blog or website that allows you to not only share valuable content but where you can invite fans to stream/download your music, or contribute in some other way. Ever heard of Amanda Palmer? Well, she’s a prime example of someone who’s used the internet wisely to promote her music, to the effect of raising $1.2 million via Kickstarter towards producing and releasing her CD. By the way, just publishing a website won’t automatically pull people in. You need great content and good social media tactics to further market yourself (hey, no one said it was easy).
- Become a tutor or music teacher if you have expertise with an instrument or music theory. Your skills will only get better and you will be able to earn some money to keep the lights on and stay fed while you work on your music.
- Hone your skills at a music company. There are tons of positions (albeit desk jobs), which won’t directly allow you to make money from your music, but provide you with experience on the business side, as well as the chance to build up your contacts. The right connections could prove invaluable later on when you’re ready to put your music on blast, so to speak.
You can do anything depending on your skills and qualifications, including being a receptionist, a marketing manager, or even a music company salesman, with the added benefit being that you’ll be earning from a nine-to-five job while slowly giving legs to your own music-making ambitions.
From battling with personal challenges to dealing with the costs associated with making music and trying to get exposure, the journey of a songwriter can be a real rollercoaster – take it from someone who’s been there. Thankfully, you don’t have to ‘face the music’ all alone. If you need help navigating many of the pitfalls that songwriters have to contend with, you should check out what Tunedly has to offer, we really have your best interest at heart.
Chris Erhardt is the Founder & CEO of Tunedly – a virtual recording studio. Tunedly connects songwriters and music creators to some of the world’s most talented session musicians, to create professional-sounding music and help gain exposure. He is a songwriter and producer, and is a speaker at music events and tech conferences.
Oliver - November 6, 2017
Dude. I needed this. These are struggles I have faced at one point or another. In fact, I am struggling
now, especially with the getting exposure part. I don’t really worry about making money because I don’t
really do it for that. I make music because it is the best way to express myself and I want to share my
experiences with the rest of the world. Plus, I am pretty sure the compensation will come once more
people get exposed to my work and start sharing it. I think one of my struggles though, is not knowing
how/ when to be patient. Sometimes, when things seem to be going too slow, instead of waiting, I move
on to something else, and then I wonder what might have been if I had just stayed that course a little
longer. I know I’m not the only one who faces this struggle and I know I won’t be the last one, either. But,
anyway, before I go off telling my life story, I must just say that this was a refreshing article. As
songwriters, we are often taken for granted, even though we are among the most under-pressure groups
of workers from all the stresses of the music industry. My advice to fellow songwriters is to treat your
craft like a business and keep doing what you’re doing. Oh, and try to exercise patience when nothing
seems to be happening despite your best efforts. Peace!
Felicia_Ann Hobbs - November 6, 2017
Awesome post. I usually turn up my nose when I come across articles like these as they are usually not very helpful. The advice given here is both practical and realistic and will benefit any songwriter facing any of the identified struggles. I can say this because I have faced some of the exact struggles described. For example, two years after I started doing music, I was in the position of wondering whether I had made the right choice. I literally reached the point where I was ready to throw in the towel on my career. However, I realized that I was nothing without music, so it came down to me researching ways to diversify my music and finding creative ways to start making it happen. So, as the article states, if you really love what you do, you’ll use the struggles you’re facing to enrich your journey.
Nancy Stewart - November 7, 2017
That big, bad, blank page…can I tell you? Oh my, that is something I can definitely relate to. Over the years, I have found different ways to handle it. My personal secret: waking up early in the morning before the sun comes up, when everything is quiet and I can really think about what I want to write and let my thoughts flow. Otherwise, I have tried the tips given in this article and have some amount of success as well.
Thank you ReverbNation for sharing this, it’s a pretty good read. Actually, I have been checking out Tunedly before seeing this and loved the articles on their blog. I have even shared some of their posts on my page, and will be sure to share this one as well.
GEORGE SMITH - November 9, 2017
If I may, I also follow a couple of blogs that will occasionally post writing prompts, typically for poetry (but accepting lyrics as well), and one that prompts every Wednesday except in April and November, when the owner posts a prompt every day (it’s a “Poem-A-Day” challenge for various reasons…).
I tend to take the challenges because I’m just OCD enough to meet (or beat), the deadline of midnight each day, and some (okay, a lot), of what comes from the exercise is just that – an exercise.
BUT, there are often nuggets – a phrase or two, a line, a verse and/or a chorus – that are salvageable… and that have shown up in later…
Like all exercises, I find myself getting a little bit stronger each time… and a little sore in spots as well…
Broderick / B MUZIC - November 10, 2017
Thanks for the advice. It opened my mind. Especially the blank page. I had been thinking about giving up but I just may try the methods given. I don’t get around like I used to on the outside world but sometimes I believe I would know what to do or what to say in some situations. I’m diagnosed with schizophrenia and sometimes I write songs to believe in myself and also explain my struggles with it all and what I go through. Going through this struggle even inspires me to write poems as well as rap songs. I love everything said in this and will take in what I can to help myself get better at my music and poetry. I also make beats but my mixdowns and sometimes my melodies I’m not satisfied with. I need to be more committed to study how to make my beats sound better because I still feel like I’m not on level. My friends tell me to use youtube as a study guide for making beats and melodies. Is that good advice? My main tools for beat making are Native Instruments Maschine and FL STUDIO. Does anyone know anywhere else besides youtube for help on being more creative with beats/instrumentals? If so let me know. I want to get better at it. But all in all great advice. Thanks lots.
Scott - November 16, 2017
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The reason for songwriting in the first place, at least for me, was an outlet of sorts (that was almost 50 years ago), and then turned into a sort of necessity, a form of therapy some 24 years ago. I have always made my way as a “blue collar” worker and realized soon enough that I would not be making my living from music. That is more of a single-mans game. Family obligations limit what time you can devote to pursuing that dream, although there are exceptions as many have become successful writers and performers while raising a family. However, sacrifices are made.
The tips you have offered for writing, etc., are some of the very things I have been doing for years. Just write! Sort out the mumbo-jumbo later. If you just have an idea for a song or a song title, write it down. Or hum a tune into your old micro cassette recorder or whatever for use later on. I still have song titles I have written down more than 20 years ago that I have yet to do anything with.
Bottom line, write for YOU and don’t worry about what anybody else thinks about it. If it’s any good, your friends and family or that occasional listener will let you know if it will fly. Back when my son was 12 years old he told me why my songs wouldn’t sell. I asked him why? He said, “Because they make too much sense.” I guess that’s not what the listening public, in general, wants to hear.
Keep on writing, and “stay in tune.”-Skotski
Michael Holland Shepard - December 17, 2018
I wrote many hit songs. The copywrite office would reject my songs. I never got credit for writing many famous songs. I was often not paid for my works. The singers would claim they wrote my songs. Some of my best songs are Hotel California, Billie Jean, Money for Nothing, Knock Knock Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Like a Rolling Stone, Puff the Magic Dragon, I Shot the Sheriff, For What it’s Worth etc. etc.
Johnny divine - June 1, 2019
Good advice on songwriting. One question though… what label dropped The Beatles?
Sylvester Osaghae ( Osa's Bobby ) - September 17, 2019
Thanks a lot for the encouragements. Sound awesome and very meaningful. The most interesting part was the blank page, exactly it do happen and sometimes it could be days without finding words to write, but writing down anything …. later editing was a very useful piece of idea. Thanks soo much for this great article.