When I address groups of songwriters or independent artists, different issues concern them. I often find myself teaching or clarifying things that may seem contradictory, when in fact they are simply the flip side of the same coin.
There’s a big difference between being a singer-songwriter and being just a songwriter. I’ve done both at different times in my career. A singer-songwriter has the latitude to set the bar for his/her own career. He/she can write intelligent, obscure lyrics and promote the music on the Internet. With hard work, an audience (no matter how small and loyal) will be found.
If you only write, and never perform or record, you are dependent entirely on other artists to monetize your work. You really don’t have the option to write an obscure, artistic masterpiece, because it will sit on your shelf forever. You can’t write too personally. You can’t write too metaphorically either. These options aren’t available to you.
Why? Well, brace yourself for the hypocrisy : it isn’t a level playing field.
In most pitch meetings a song gets a verse and chorus to "kill" the producer and artist. If you haven't killed them by the end of the first chorus, your shot is over. They don’t discuss possible interpretations of your lyric, and they don’t keep listening hoping the song will clarify itself. No one has time. They are at the meeting for one reason : they haven’t written or found or cut the smash that the label thinks they need for the new CD.
This is a common mistake that many pure songwriters make-- they write as if they’re singer-songwriters. They write as if there's no one in between them and the audience. In fact, there is a big wall between the pure songwriter and the audience. It's called the Music Industry. You must first scale this wall or the audience will never even hear your song.
The Music Industry consists of thousands of song-jaded, busy people who no longer trust emotional reactions to music because the last time they did that, the record died, and they got chewed out by the promotion department. They aren’t necessarily fans of the music they promote. They need hits for the roster; Martina, Brad, Alan, Gretchen. They go home and listen to Prine, Ely, Emmy Lou, old Merle or Doc Watson. But at the office they listen like robots trained to identify a certain breed of contemporary song : the Clear Channel radio smash. And you get 90 seconds to show them your stuff.
Do I like this fact? No, I hate it. But I was forced to accept it during the restrictive years when I was not a performing/recording singer-songwriter.
Here are some tips for you, the pure songwriter. If you’re a singer-songwriter, these tips won’t hurt you either. Write lyrics that have immediate impact. Don't evade the issue, deliver the emotional blow as soon as possible. Choose hooks/titles that convey an intensity of meaning and impact, such as "You're Gonna Miss This" (current Trace Adkins hit). Study radio lyrics, not Jewel or Joni Mitchell or Dave Mathews album cuts (or whoever you listen to for pleasure). Separate your hobby from your professional craft. Keep your personal lyrics to yourself, write universally appealing, clear lyrics for the industry.
Melodies must contain big identifiable hooks and should be simple enough or repetitious enough to be nearly memorized after two listens. Get to your hooks as quickly and directly as possible. Make the melody dramatic and rangy enough to satisfy singers with years of training and experience. You are pitching to many people whose art is the voice, not the song.
The bottom line is that success is to some degree a calculated thing. You must aim for it. If you shoot in the dark all the time, you’ll probably never hit the target.
And now a word to all of you singer-songwriters. You might need a pure songwriter’s help one day, so don’t judge their motives too harshly. It’s a tough job, and somebody’s gotta do it.