6 Steps To Becoming A Professional Songwriter

When I wrote my first song at age 16, I scrambled to do a “poor man’s copyright” because I was convinced the song was so good that someone would want to steal it from me.  But it’s unrealistic to think that we are hit songwriters, or even good songwriters, from the very first song.  Not unlike any other type of profession you might choose, landing a career as a professional songwriter is a process made up of education, practice, determination, practice, marketing, practice, and all-around hard work.  Over the years I’ve had opportunity to coach songwriters on a number of levels – from teaching beginners at songwriter boot camps, to mentoring those majoring in songwriting at a local university, to helping develop new writer careers on the professional level.  The list below is a 6-step outline that should put you on the right track toward a professional songwriting career:

Some have their eye on becoming a lawyer, a doctor, an electrician, a truck driver.  To enter these careers, one must first obtain  specific and proper training.  Songwriting is no different.  People are not born as hit songwriters any more than they are born Vice Presidents of Corporations or Rocket Scientists.  Even so, I am frequently approached by people who have just written their first song, and they absolutely believe it has potential to be a hit … if only the right people would hear it.  (I built a volcano for the science fair in grade school, but that did not mean I immediately deserved a career as a volcanologist.)

Some emerging songwriters choose to take composition and arranging classes at colleges and universities.  Formal training is wonderful and I encourage it, but the school I’m talking about here is “home school”.  The point is that you need real training to develop your craft.  And if you can get it from professionals, that’s how you’ll learn the quickest.  There are many ways to educate yourself on the craft of songwriting and it will take a few years, not a few months or a few songs.  There are a myriad of  books, videos, websites, seminars, workshops, classes and even personal mentorship available to you.  Learn from these sources.  Practice.  Break down hit songs and seek to learn what makes them work.  See what type of lyric and melody writing devices these hit songs utilize and compare that to what you may be studying in books, classes, etc.  Invest time and money into training, just like you would for any other career.

To graduate from school, you must first pass the final exam.  In the same way, as you learn different writing techniques, have your songs reviewed and “graded” by someone schooled in the craft and business of songwriting.  Through seminars, workshops, classes, mentorships and even online, you can have your songs critiqued by professional writers and publishers.  Now if you’re a parent, you know how difficult it is to grade your own child’s homework.  If we’re not doing trigonometry every day, then we should leave it up to the trig teacher to both educate and grade the child’s work.  So don’t give your songs to family members or friends for real critique and review, if they are not accomplished songwriters.  (You’ll always get an “A” from friends and family.)  Take your “grades” to heart, and work to improve them until you can pass with flying colors.

You’ve studied long and hard to learn the subject matter.  You’ve practiced and improved your craft to a level that you graduated the school of songwriting.  Now it’s time to put your skills to work.  When I graduated college, I wanted to be a top executive of a music company.  But for obvious reasons, those jobs were not being offered to me right out of the gate.  I had to take an entry level position in an area of the business that was not my first choice.  I was happy to be working, and over time I proved myself and worked my way up the corporate ladder.

So by now, I’m sure you’re getting my comparisons.  Maybe your goal is to write songs for the biggest artist on the planet or for the next block-buster film.  Maybe you want your songs to be sung by choirs in thousands of churches.  Setting long-term goals for yourself is a must.  But what are the steps to get there?  Local and regional artists are a great first step.  B and C level national artists are easier to get songs to than those artists already at the top.  Find these artists, meet them, develop relationships.  Write for local projects, local churches, local radio, local advertisers, local television.  Maybe you can find a nearby artist or producer that will co-write with you regularly.   Maybe you have connections with local arrangers or church leaders who would be willing to work with you on choir arrangements for the choirs in your area.  These are just a few of the ways to “enter” a career of songwriting.  It’s rare that anyone can start at the top.  So baby-step your way up.  One cut leads to another, and another.  And although the money may not pay your bills initially, you’re building a reputation and improving your craft along the way.  Eventually, you’ll hit a home-run and promotion to the major leagues can come very quickly.

Networking goes hand in hand with step 3, because with songwriting you don’t typically land one, long-term job.  You’ll need job after job, co-write after co-write, multiple artist relationships, producer relationships, entertainment company relationships and the list goes on.  With today’s internet technology and social networks, this task is much easier than in any other time in history.  Face to face, you can build relationships and network locally and regionally, as well as through national conferences, workshops and events.  You can even make regular networking trips to music making towns like Nashville, New York, Atlanta and LA.  You may choose to move your home to one of these cities, making networking (and work) much more achievable.  But online, you can network nationally and internationally every day of the week.  If you have the talent, then being connected with the right people and the right projects is all you need to land work, and better work.

As you work your entry level jobs, you’re building your “resume” – or discography in this case.  And that discography not only includes who you’ve worked for, or with, but includes the successes of your songs.  Your  accompanying “demo” disc (or website) should include your best material – cut and uncut.  And you’ll need to tailor your demo disc to relate specifically to the opportunities you’re seeking.  This is where you’ll need to spend some money.  Demos must be absolutely great.  Unless you’re an accomplished producer, then don’t try to produce them yourself.  Same goes for singing.  You need the best vocalists, musicians and producer you can get for your demos, and preferably a producer who knows what your potential “employer” (i.e. artist, producer, record label)  is looking for.  Cities like Nashville, New York and others have numerous demo studios and demo producers that can make your songs sound extraordinary for around $600 each.   Two or three great demos may be all you need to get on your way.

Now it’s time to live that dream you’ve always had – writing for the big artist, landing an exclusive songwriting deal, hearing your song on the radio, writing songs that church congregations or choirs around the world will sing regularly.  You’ve worked hard to develop your craft and learn your business.  You’ve taken it seriously.  You’ve landed your entry-level jobs locally and have built your network slowly and methodically.  You’ve earned a great reputation and have had some success with your songs.  Your achievements and songs are in front of the right people with your resume and demo disc, and your talent is strong enough to compete.   Now it’s in the Lord’s hands.  Be persistent, be confident and live your dream!


29 comments on “6 Steps To Becoming A Professional Songwriter

  1. Lots of good advice in here. In today’s music industry, I think that a rewarding career operating at the ‘entry level’ with indie bands or artists at the local, regional, or in some cases national level can be a great goal in and of itself. Being a long term, consistent blessing to a local church or ministry will require all of the craft and talent you can muster. Would you say that time is better spent pursuing the industry as it operates today via demos, networking, etc, or would it be better to spend time figuring out how its going to operate tomorrow and how to make a living that way? I think that monetizing the entry level will definitely be a key skill.

  2. Hi Mark – good insight on both the indies and the local church ministry and monetizing the entry level. With regard to the future of the industry, I’m not sure demos and networking are going to change too much (unless you’re an artist yourself and you make indie masters and skip the demo process). Indie artists and labels will rise and large corporate labels may fall, but music will still be made and many of the same people will be making it, regardless of where or how they’re working. Delivery systems for consumer products are certainly changing – physical products vs downloads vs streaming, etc. But artists, producers, films, games, print music companies and churches will always need new songs.

  3. Wow,
    I found this article extremely informative and inspiring. I have been writing songs for 21 years now and just recently started developing an interest in getting them “out there”.
    Although your article answered a myriad of questions, I am still curious about different aspects of becoming successful and I would like to discuss this with you one on one if possible. If not, could you refer me to someone that has as vast a knowledge on the subject as you do.

    • Thanks for the review Frank, and I’m glad you found the article helpful. I’m no longer doing personal consulting due to time constraints. However, I would highly recommend the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International. It’s an extremely helpful organization for songwriters and they should be set up to answer any questions you may have. You can check them out at http://www.nashvillesongwriters.com.

  4. I am 38 years of age I have been writing songs sense age 10 I would very much love to obtain a professional lucrative career in this field of knowledge I was gathering resources and I found your expertise and I’m making this connection for the opportunity to accelerate business. I left my information you May contact me through email

    • Kleyoun – Thank you for you comment and I hope the blog continues to be helpful for you as you look to improve your songwriting and make a successful career from your talent. I would highly recommend the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International). It’s an extremely helpful organization for songwriters and they should be set up to answer any questions you may have. They also have training classes. You can check them out at http://www.nashvillesongwriters.com.

    • Mars –
      A career in songwriting can be both stable and extremely lucrative if one has the talent, determination and network. Since royalties are typically paid quarterly or semiannually, and because song activity can be erratic, music publishers often offer their contracted songwriters a monthly draw against royalties (we call them recoubable advances), to help songwriters keep a steady flow of income during the slow times. It does not take one or two, but multiple songs recorded, printed and used in other commercial products annually for a songwriter to truly earn a living. That means writing a lot of songs (because even the best songwriters in the world earn their living from only a small percentage of the songs they pen). Songs are valuable assets and the income from actively used songs can last for generations, providing not only present income, but retirement income and future income for your children as well. One must understand that like any other type of career, some people have the talent and skill to make it work, while others don’t. It’s hard work and it has to be treated like work, if that’s the way you choose to make your income. The good news is that songwriting can be done any time of day, any day of the week, and anywhere, which means it can (and probably should) be done as a part-time job until the income from it is substantial enough to make a switch to full-time.

      Hope that helps,

  5. I am definitely not a singer, but I have wrote a number of songs. I understand how difficult it is to break into the music industry, but how do I get noticed? I really want to give my songs to Pop artists as they are being wasted as I can’t use them myself because, as I mentioned earlier, I can’t sing 😛

    How do I go about getting my tracks to record labels and artists? Should I send lyrics or sheet music to record labels??

    Please help!

    Thanks in advance

    • Yours is a very common question and it’s not an easy one to answer. First let me say that most songs recorded by pop artists today are written either by the artist themselves, by their record producer, by their colleagues or by professional songwriters with a track record of hits. That makes it tough for all songwriters and music publishers. But don’t be discouraged. My best advice is this…

      1) Make great demo recordings of your songs. If you’re not a singer, then you need to find a very good singer and producer to make professional quality demos. There are demo studios in most every major city that can help you get quality recordings of your songs. Better yet, make friends with local musicians, engineers, singers, artists, etc. One of those friends might be able to produce demos in their home studio for free or for a fraction of the cost of the big city demo studios. Once you have professional sounding recordings of your songs, you can start to get some exposure by playing them for local artists. You can use your demos to enter songwriting contests, which are often judged by record label personnel, producers, publishers, professional songwriters and artists. You can reach out to see which music publishing companies might be open to hearing your demos, etc.

      2) Develop relationships with other musicians and artists in your area and see if there might be opportunity to collaborate with them. The music business is about talent and relationships. Most songs recorded today come from or are written with people the artists or producers know personally. One of the local artists around you now might be the next international superstar artist tomorrow and you could be the writer of their hit song. Relationships are important.

      3) Use YouTube to your advantage. Record labels and music publishers watch YouTube to see what songs and artists are gaining significant attention. That’s your absolute best opportunity for exposure. In fact, I heard just today that 50% of all internet traffic is YouTube and Netflix. That means a lot of people are watching video online. And YouTube is the number one music discovery tool today for the younger generation. Put your demo recordings on YouTube and see how people like them.

      Those are just a few of my immediate thoughts. To answer your last couple of questions… 1) You can send demos to labels and publishers, but most of them do not accept unsolicited material. The smaller independent labels will be more likely to accept unsolicited material than the larger ones. However, if you can build relationship with label personnel, artists, producers, etc. they can often walk your songs into a label for you, or make an introduction, if they believe in your material. 2) I would never send lyrics or sheet music to a record label, unless you’re dealing with classical music or choral music. Labels are all about hearing the song, so a demo is much better.

      I hope that is somewhat helpful. I do address these kinds of things in several of my blog articles. If you’ve not read my post called, 6 Steps To Becoming A Professional Songwriter, that one may be helpful.

      Thanks so much!

  6. What advice would you have for someone who is a strong lyricist, but not a singer or instrumentalist? Are both skills required. or is there a role somewhere for lyricists?

    • Great question! There is absolutely a role for lyricists. In fact, I believe there are more available opportunities for lyricists in the music business, than for those who write music. Why? Because musicians are a dime a dozen but great lyricists are hard to find. As an example, I work now with a top producer/writer in Christian music. Almost every time he writes a song for an upcoming project, the writing team is the artist, the producer and a lyricist. There are only 2 or 3 strong lyricists that this producer uses, and he pulls one of them in on just about every song he produces. He had 28 charting radio singles last year, so that means those 2 or 3 lyricists that he uses each had about 9 or more singles last year, compared to any individual artist that might have 2 singles out in a year. The key is finding one or two artists or producers who believe in you as a lyricist and who will consistently bring you in to write with them for their projects. This doesn’t happen overnight. You may have to start locally. But as your songs gain exposure and popularity, new opportunities will come knocking on your door.

  7. i used to write really well….. but needs someone to get publish … actually i can’t sing well to .. they are being wasted as i can’t make use of them as i can’t sing ………………….. i need help them to get published and record as tracks :/ ……………….please help me.. over it …. 😦

    • Thanks for your question! Our best advice is for writers to network locally. With the low cost of recording software these days, many musicians have home studios. Look for those musicians in your own area and connect with them to help you make good recordings of your songs. Local music stores, music teachers, churches or music schools are a great places to start to connect with other musicians, writers and singers. And your own home town (or one nearby) may even have musician or songwriter associations or groups that you could join for networking. There are lots of great singers out there and a very good chance that some are living near you who would love to sing on your tracks. Hope that is helpful. All the best! – SONGSPHERE

  8. Hey i m a lyricist.i have written so many songs but i don’t have any music in them.i tried to reach popular songwriters.two of them said they would love to read my lyrics.but i read their replies after a year so it couldn’t happen.now no one is listening to me.i have no studio in my city where i can record them.i really wanna be a songwriter.please can u help me?do u think i should give up on this dream?

    • Harman – I would never recommend giving up. But I do think it takes work and dedication. Serious dedication may mean going to Nashville or other cities every so often to try to connect with other songwriters. Also, there are numerous seminars, conferences, songwriter associations and the like where you can connect with other writers. I encourage you to do some research if you are serious about being a songwriter. It’s not easy, but there are countless stories of writers networking and making trips to songwriting towns for years before they finally caught their break. Keep moving ahead!

  9. Thanks a million for sharing your expertise! I’ve been writing songs for a good while now but started really building my portfolio over the past year or so. Not to go on about me… This blog is your’s, as well as the compliments I offer. I just wonder if there are any others like myself out there who have the hardest time conforming… It seems hard to be an “artist” and be able to put forth this sort of dedication to a single plan of attack. I’m all over the place… I used to think there was something wrong with me but have finally come to realize that it is simply a part of what makes me tick as an artist. But I’m one of those secluded, artistic types. Not really a performance artist. I am glad for the internet because of this. I am getting my studio set up at home and will go from there. So I wonder, from your knowledge, are there songwriting artists like myself that find ways of their own to make it work. I tend to want to become more creative in my networking and marketing. I have these ideas about different approaches and ways of doing things… So, in this industry, are there any folks that just went against the grain and still were able to make a good place for themselves in this industry? Or do you think an artist and a songwriter are 2 different sorts of people? Do they have 2 different places here? Not to discount anyone’s art… I use the term “artist” in the unstable, whacky way… Lol. Not to address one’s artistic ability.
    Thanks again for your time friend.

    • John –
      Many songwriters are artists and vice versa. The artistic bent often leads creative types to want to “go against the grain” as you stated. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. On one hand, if artists never broke out of the mold, then we would still be writing and recording the same style of music we were decades or even centuries ago. There is always a creative leader that the pack and then industry follows. However, you also have to be realistic, if you want to make a living with your music. You can’t become so insular that no one likes what you do, except you! It’s a balance. But if you want your songs on radio, then you have to do your homework and learn what radio programmers want right now. They run a business and they have consumers. They can’t take too many risks or they will lose their business. It’s a fine balance, but what I find a lot of the time is that artists can often be stubborn, selfish, overly confident and sometimes arrogant, thinking they know better than everyone else. At the end of the day, if we want our music to be enjoyed by others (and bought by others), then we have to take into consideration the type of music they like to listen to. We can always buck the system and make whatever kind of music we want, but that is no guarantee that people will like it. I hope that helps!

  10. Good morning! I am an artist but find it hard to focus on one talent alone and was hoping that you could give me insight on how to stay focused… For example I write songs but when I finish a song I tend to throw it aside or throw it away and move on to something else like painting and forget all about the song. I know it’s terrible and am really hoping that someone as accomplished as yourself would be able to help me in resolving this issue. Much thanks 🙂

  11. I would like to do songwriting and am currently living in Kenya. Is there any specific course i have to undergo to become a songwriter.

  12. good stuff in here! One question…send your resume to who? where? This is the point I’m stuck at. You can randomly send it out publishers who will promptly chuck it in the trash can. How can we ensure we are getting our stuff in the hands of the right people? can it only happen in a face to face meeting? or are there other ways?

    • Hi Brandon – To Whom? Where? That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Independent film makers, church music leaders, music publishers, record labels, festival booking agents, etc. If you’re looking to get your songs to music industry personnel at labels and publishing companies, you can always start with their websites and contact them that way. With the last company I worked for, we received several submissions or “requests to submit” each month via our general contact form on our website. Those songs always made their way to me.

      However, I would recommend researching to find the companies that you’re most interested in hearing your work, find their phone numbers online, call the receptionist and ask for the name and email of their Director of A&R if a label, or their Creative Director, if it’s a music publishing company. Use a company or organization name if you have one, or you feel that makes you seem more legit (Brandon Jamison Music). It’s rare that a company would not give out the info to you. Other companies call them all the time for this info in the normal course of business.

      Speaking from my own experience, I always tried to at least give a quick listen and respond back to folks who submitted songs, even when we officially said we were not accepting unsolicited material. It’s really just a matter of having time to do it. So, if someone would submit, then follow up 30 days later with a kind note, it would spur me to make some time. Yes, sometimes it will end up in the trash, but you have to keep trying.

      One quick note – people are busy and history tells them that grand majority of the material they receive unsolicited will not be strong enough for serious consideration. Therefore, the first 15 – 30 seconds of whatever you send needs to catch their attention. No long intros. No sub-par production. It needs to be great. They are looking for great, not good.

      Hope that helps!

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