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.