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:

1.  GO TO SCHOOL
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.

2.  GRADUATE
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.

3.  GET AN ENTRY LEVEL JOB
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.

4.  NETWORK
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.

5.  SEND OUT YOUR RESUME
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.

6.  LAND YOUR DREAM JOB
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!

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Have Something To Say?

Sometimes songwriters start to write songs before they have very much to say. We assume that an outpouring of emotion is all that’s needed to write a great song. – Bob Kauflin

Songwriters – do you have something to say or only a great musical idea when you launch into your writing session?  The apostle Peter tells us that, “If anyone speaks, let it be as it were the very words of God.” (1Peter 4:11)

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the best congregational worship songs give us powerful biblical truth … and words of response to those truths.

As the body of Christ, we know the Truth which sets men free. We have experienced the power of real truth, the ultimate Truth. His word is Truth (John 17:17).  The Word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12).  It accomplishes what God intended it to accomplish when He spoke – it never returns to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11).  As writers, we could never come up with any words as powerful or effective.  Yet, we have the ability to deliver the living Word through a song.

Consider the songs that are impacting you and/or your congregation the most right now.  Which ones really have something to say that cuts to the deepest part of you – that touches your heart and your spirit?  Consider songs like Jennie Riddle’s REVELATION SONG, straight out of scripture.  Could that be why it is one of the most popular songs sung by the Christian church today?

His Word is most powerful, our word is less.  Relay the most powerful words that have ever graced our planet.  You DO have something to say.  Make it count!

Telling The TRUTH

My focus for the most recent 10 years, has been working with writers of today’s most popular church songs … those sung by congregations around the world on a weekly basis. And as unfortunate as it is, I’ve come to realize that too many Christians today learn or develop their theology from the songs they sing.

Christian Songwriter, did you hear what I said?! That puts a HUGE responsibility on you to write Biblically sound lyrics!

In the Hillsong book on songwriting entitled, Songs of Heaven, author Amanda Fergusson says it this way, “Worship songs and hymns are a powerful medium for teaching truth because they are memorable and so it is especially important to make sure that our songs are theologically sound.” She goes on to point out that Jesus spoke only what He heard the Father saying and that likewise, everything we say in our songs should be submitted to the Word of God.

Any songwriter that has ever worked with me can tell you how much I stress the importance of the lyric in a Christian song. Yes, from a creative and commercial standpoint (as you will note from many of my blog posts), but even moreso from a theological standpoint. As a matter of fact, in a songwriting mentorship session just this week I pointed out to a student that we need not ask God to do what He has already done. Instead, we should thank Him, or rejoice in, explain or proclaim, what He has done.

Songwriter Joel Houston, from Hillsong Church said it this way, “I want everything I write to be based in Scripture, even if it is a prayer. I want to make sure that every line has biblical substance and integrity. That doesn’t mean that it has to be word for word Scripture, but the tenor of my thought has to line up with the tenor of the Word of God.”

Songwriter Jennie Riddle, writer of REVELATION SONG, once told me that when we write worship songs we are putting, “words on the lips of the Bride”. That’s what’s in Jennie’s mind when she writes songs that the Bride of Christ is going to sing.

How often we forget that the Word of God is living and active. We have the ability to put the most powerful words ever spoken into song. Don’t let your lyrics take the back seat … ever. If you’re more of a “music person” or a “track person”, then by all means find a “lyric person” to partner with you in your songwriting. Please don’t simply throw something together lyrically because it sounds right, or sings well, or rhymes, or because you’ve “heard it said before”. Always remember the responsibility we have as Christian songwriters to tell the Truth!

Link to TELLING THE TRUTH (pt 2)