In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not.
These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with.
Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.
Here’s How it Works.
Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:
You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.
A few tips.
Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.
Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow.
You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!
Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for.
The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one.
When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:
SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH
Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.
A few tips.
Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.
Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”
There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video.
Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ).
Examples of Sense Writing
Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:
I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)
That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)
The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)
How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics
Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:
sleeping with sand in my toes
The salt of the sea
The evening buzzing and alive
curled back like Elvis’ hair
thumping against the cage of my ribs
hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass
sweeping out onto the street
wash its ink over the day
turning the street gray
blanket of the sky
Here’s the secret:
I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all.
In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:
In fading moments of indigo twilight
We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky
And spilling out onto the street
You are I are a bottle of wine
Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song.
In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring.
Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.
Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant.
I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish.
Here’s the outline for Verse 1:
The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon.
Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):
The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods
But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…
Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.
As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).
As writers, creators, artists, and musicians, we all have the same ugly little inner voices that try to sabotage us from doing our work. They come in different flavors: You’re not good enough. You have nothing important to say. This is boring. Ssssleep is sooooo much better than thissss (hear that in translated Parseltongue, please).
Here is the tricky thing though—there is another little voice in there, the Inner Guide, that is getting caught up in the machinations of the Little Arsehole. It’s a helpful voice. A voice that wants you to succeed, to get better, to discover the jewels of your craft. But it’s not obnoxious like the Little Arsehole so it doesn’t speak so loudly.
The first work that we need to do is to be able to differentiate between these two voices. And really, it’s easy when you know how to tell the difference.
And here it is.
The Little Arsehole has one goal: to make you stop.
So its messages always end the same way:
“You’re not good enough—you should just stop now before you embarrass yourself.”
“There is nothing in here that has not already been said better than you could ever say it—stop now and do something else. Go buy stuff for your kids on Amazon.”
Stop. Stop. Stop.
The Inner Guide has a totally different goal: to make you try harder, and do better.
It sounds more like this:
“That line is a little cliched—what else have you got?”
“There’s not enough contrast between these sections—what can you do to make it pop more?”
“This feels meandering. You haven’t found the hook yet. Keep looking.”
Can you see the difference? One says stop. The other says keep going.
So what to do about that pesky Little Arsehole, because the truth is, it’s not really ever going to disappear. It’s part of you. And like silly putty, the harder you push it, the more rigid and strong it becomes.
So here is the revelation. You put that Little Arsehole in its place by treating it gently, sweetly, kindly. Why? Because it’s actually there to help you. It’s a vestigial feature of our evolutionary biology, designed to prevent us from standing out from the crowd—lions will eat you if you are the lone little deer wearing a pink tutu on the savannah.
The Arsehole is really fear, whose tactic is protection. But there’s no lions, not in the sense that they can really hurt you. So we don’t really need that voice to be so loud and obnoxious when all we are trying to do is make art, do something creative and beautiful and weird.
Here is the 3-step method for putting the Little Arsehole in its place:
Step 1: Identify.
Pay attention to those voices, and practice identifying the Arsehole (“stop”) versus the Guide (“try harder”). Once you’ve recognised it for what it is, you can stop identifying with it.
Step 2: Treat it kindly.
Remember, if you get angry or frustrated with ‘fear’, it will perceive threat and double down. Here are some things I say to it:
“Oh hi! There you are again. Thanks for trying to protect me, that’s sweet of you to care so much. But in this moment, your services are not required. See? No lions! But please stick around for some other moment where I will almost certainly need you.”
Shorthand: “Thank you – but not right now.”
I know this sounds a bit cute, but honestly, if you recognise it as a protective function that is truly trying to serve you, just in a misguided way—and, you treat it (which is to say, yourself) with respect and gratitude—it will stop popping up in unnecessary moments. And! You get the added benefit of training it to be more attuned to situations where it might actually come in handy.
Step 3: Put it in its place.
Which is to say, in the corner with a lollipop and an iPad. We are not trying to belittle it, just to remind it that now is not the time.
Once the Little Arsehole is quiet and distracted, the Inner Guide gets more of a fighting chance of being heard, which is notoriously difficult. So many of my students ask how they can tell when a song is done, or even how to know what they need to change when they’ve created a first draft. The answer lies in your ability to hear the Inner Guide, to pay attention to it, and to dial it up. Its advice and guidance get better and clearer the more work you do. Its quality is a function of quantity.
So get the lollipop jar ready, and go do your work.
Want to kickstart your songwriting in 2023? Join us for the…
Studying and understanding the tools that go into making a song can help anyone learn how to write a song more effectively. I hope these conversations give you ideas for your own songs and songwriting.
We were lucky enough to have a long conversation with Berklee Professor Pat Pattison. But was my teacher and mentor at Berklee, and eventually my colleague and friend. Studying Pat’s material transformed my songwriting practice – it gave me a tools and techniques to draw on to develop ideas into full songs, to understand the relationship of sections, and most importantly, to understand how structure can amplify meaning.
In this video series, Pat takes us through the elements of lyric writing – and demonstrates how making decisions about the structure and placement of lyrics can amplify the meaning and emotions we are trying to convey. Motion creates emotion.
Starting with loops is one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to spark new ideas and breathe life into your songwriting process. In this video, we write a whole song from scratch using loops as inspiration – featuring the sample-based instrument ‘Chromatic’ from LANDR.
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Little note! When you use this coupon, it helps us sustain our channel and blog – we get a small percentage of the revenue from people who sign up with it. With that said, we only accept sponsorships like this from companies we believe serve our audience, and give you access to things that are in line with your interests. Thanks for your support 🙂 We hope you find Chromatic as delightful and inspiring as we did!
The idea to offer access to a songwriting group to others comes directly from my own experience in my songwriting group, which I have talked about here on the YouTube Channel. My own songwriting group is the primary reason I wrote more than 20 songs last year, and have written almost 10 songs this year (we’re in May 2022 right now!).
The songwriting group isn’t a class. No one is the teacher. It’s a community space to give you the structure and accountability to write regularly, and receive some feedback from your peers.
The group will run for 8 weeks, and is fully online (by email). Songwriting Groups in 2022 will run:
May 16 – July 10
July 18 – Sept 11
Sept 19 – Nov 13
Here’s how it works:
I will send the group a songwriting prompt and a due date (due SUNDAY night every two weeks).
You write a song, with or without the prompt by the due date.
You send a recording and lyrics of the song (worktape or production) as a reply-all to the prompt email.
You all listen to each other’s songs, and can send feedback and compliments (or not!) only to the person (not as a reply-all).
The group doesn’t meet live; it’s all by email (old school!).
The “rules” of the group are:
Submit by the due date.
If you miss a week, you get 1 free pass if you email me beforehand. If you miss more than one, you’ll be put on the waitlist for the next round, if you’re keen to rejoin some other time. (The group requires regular, on-time participation.)
The aim is to write something every two weeks. Sometimes it will be something you love. Sometimes it won’t. Both are excellent. The goal is regular songwriting, in a community, and all that comes with it.
The 8-week session is $40AUD (I’m charging a nominal fee to cover the cost of logistics and communications). If you’re keen to join, please go ahead and send the registration fee here:
Once that has come through, I’ll confirm your registration on my end, and away we go 🙂
Please feel free to email me if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
One final note on my role: my role is to host the group, to facilitate and coordinate. I won’t be participating or providing feedback. The function of this community is to produce work, and learn from your own work, listening to others, providing your own feedback, and asking questions of others. I felt it important to be clear about my role to avoid any confusion 🙂
One of the best ways to learn how to write great songs is to learn from great songs and songwriters. In this video, songwriter Ben Romalis and I take 6 songs that each taught us a crucial principle or technique about writing great songs.
Drawing from a range of inspirations from Radiohead, Tom Waits, to Gillian Welch and John Mayer, Benny and I talk about the specific musical or lyrical technique that we learned from these 6 great songs.
Of course, these 6 songs are just a beginning! We picked these for this video because they showcase a range of different principles and techniques: we talk here about chromaticism in chord progressions, about borrowing chords outside the key, about balancing types of language in your verses, about narrative and non-conventional song forms, about verse development and great chorus writing, and how a great intro can set your song apart.
More will come out of this series, as we explore how to listen to music so that you can extract ideas, and put them to practice in your own songwriting.
I was recently asked a question on my YouTube channel that went something like this:
The most important part of building a career as a songwriter is building a network, establishing good contacts, and schmoozing. Could you please tell us how you did that?
I’ve actually made it significantly more polite than the question was phrased on my channel. And hey, SPOILER: My number 1 ‘schmoozing’ tip is this: be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet. So you know, if you want to know how to do it, start by phrasing your questions with a tone of curiosity and kindness, rather than barking demands at people you don’t know…but my issues with people’s tone-blindness aside, I think there’s something in this that is very universal to songwriters (and probably a whole lot of people) starting out in a field, or struggling to get ‘inside’.
So here, I want to give you my top tips on how to build a career as a songwriter, and how to create strong networks of people around you. This is simply my experience, and my observations of the behaviours of people who I like and respect in the industry, not the ‘science of networking’, so take what makes sense to you. I hope it helps.
#1: Make. Good. Work.
The first thing to debunk in the question above is that “the most important thing” is your network. No, it isn’t. The most important thing is that you make excellent work. In this chicken and egg scenario, there is definitely a clear cause and consequence relationship: good work leads to good connections.
There isn’t any point trying to network or ‘schmooze’ (although I’m going to rip that idea apart in a moment) if you don’t have good work behind it.
Once you have good work, building a good network is not only then helpful, but also much easier. As marketing writer and thinker Seth Godin says, the best kind of marketing (which is just shorthand for communicating to others about yourself or your product) is when you can whisper quietly to people who are interested, rather than yelling loudly at strangers who don’t care.
How do you get people interested? Make. Good. Work.
If you’re struggling to build a network, it’s likely that your work isn’t at a level yet where people will naturally have an interest. You’re spending too much energy trying to yell people into your corner, and not enough actually creating work of undeniably good quality. As Steve Martin says,
“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
So spend less time marketing, and more time on your craft.**
#2: Be kind, curious, and polite to everyone you meet.
While you’re busy making good work, you can practice this with everyone you meet, regardless of whether they seem like someone who can ‘make something happen for you’, or they are the person getting coffee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a room with someone who seemed quiet and unassuming, and that very same person has become an incredibly successful musician, producer, or some other creator with a great career in music.
A spirit of curiosity, kindness, and enthusiasm, combined with being reliable (ie doing what you say you are going to do, on time, and with solid communication) is an absolutely winning combination. People (including myself, all of the time) prefer to hire someone who is nice and reliable and competent, rather than someone who is a genius and takes 2 weeks to respond to an email.
Let’s also put to permanent rest that this is ‘schmoozing’. Schmoozing implies that you are trying to get something from someone. If you change your mindset to one of trying to give, rather than get, you’ll find more success in the quality of the relationships that you form. As Austin Kleon says in “Show Your Work,”:
“Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network.”
Networking brings with it the idea that you are collecting contacts like coins. ‘Building relationships’ is much better. The idea in a relationship is reciprocity, but not necessarily transaction.
So, words matter. How you express yourself and your ideas matters (you’re a writer, right?). Be careful with your words. Let me give you an example. Here is how the asker of the question that inspired this post actually wrote their comment:
“The most important part of how you made a career as a songwriter is how you networked, used contacts, schmoozed etc. to get into the business to begin with. Tell us how you did that.”
Let me show you how this person could have phrased this that would have made me think, ‘oh this is a thoughtful person who I am willing to give my personal time to’:
“Hi Keppie! Thanks so much for all the content you’re putting on your channel, I’m learning a lot. It seems to me that building a career as a songwriter also involves not only the songs, but a lot of networking skills as well. If you have any time to answer this question, I’d love to know more about how you have approached that, and what are some tips you would give to people starting out? If not, I will continue to enjoy and support your work! Thanks again.”
That’s a message I would personally respond to. If I had time. Which I might or might not. But if I happened to, this is the one I would gravitate toward.
#3: Make yourself useful to others.
One of the most important ‘networking’ moves I have made was to start creating opportunities for others. While a student at Berklee, I started a student organisation called the Global Students Network, to give international students a chance to meet, and to gig together on campus. You know who my co-founder was? Arooj Aftab, now nominated for a 2022 Grammy as Best New Artist.
If you’re looking for gigs, think about becoming an organiser. Invite 3 other artists to perform with you, and book a venue.
Find a young filmmaker, animator, or poet, and offer to compose the music for a video.
Or, you know, start a YouTube channel, and provide information that is of use to other songwriters, or invite other people onto it and use your platform to promote other people, too. Start a podcast, and share your ideas, processes, things you’re reading and learning. Invite other people on. Create a platform that you can use to elevate and promote other people. Brian Funk recently invited me onto his podcast.
He’s built a platform and is using it to promote other people. Brian and I are now ‘networked’ (but, really, we’re now friends and colleagues, which is way more interesting and fun and valuable than ‘network’…).
Meta note: See how I am using my platform here to promote Brian's work? Coz he's lovely? And didn't even ask for me to do it? But I will, because that's how it works...
If you find yourself in the position of wanting to ask a favour of someone, see if you can figure out a way that you could make their life easier or better (in a way that is appropriate and commensurate; it would be off-puttingly one-sided and bribe-ish to offer someone to build a website for them listening to your music for 3 minutes; but would be fine to offer to do the coffee and lunch run for the chance to sit quietly in the corner of a recording session at a studio, if you get the chance to meet a producer or engineer or recording artist).
And you know what’s even better than asking a favour? Asking for nothing in return. If you like something that someone else does or creates, simply use your platforms to promote them and their work. The value of that is worth 10x whatever you might get by asking for something in return.
#4: The practical stuff.
Once you’ve got good work, and are working on the basic operating system of kindness, curiosity, and value-adding, there are things you can do to put yourself in a position where you might meet the people you want to meet (just remembering there’s no guarantees, no paved road, it’s all speculating, but as the saying goes, “the harder you work, the more luck you seem to have…”):
Play open mics. If you are a songwriter starting out, cut your teeth at local open mics. It’s where I met the people who I still consider my closest musical allies and friends 20 years later. For example, Ben Romalis, Brian Campeau, and The Green Mohair Suits.
Release work. You need to have work in the world for people to be able to discover you. Don’t expect a single song to be “the song” that’s going to launch you. Keep making work regardless of whether it gets attention. As Bayles and Orland say in ‘Art and Fear’, your audience’s concerns (whether they be total disinterest or lavish attention),
“are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.”
Show up. If you are at school/college/university, go to your professors’ open office hours, with specific questions, or to show them your work, and ask for feedback—genuinely! Not secretly only wanting a pat on the back – REALLY get their feedback, and experiment with their suggestions. Then go back the next week, and show them that you followed their advice, and talk about what worked for you and what didn’t. This shows them two things: that you are dedicated to actually improving your craft, and that you are exercising your own taste and discretion about your work, not just following others’ ideas…turning up in Pat Pattison’s office on a weekly basis (with Good. Work. And a solid work ethic), was part of what put me front and center of his mind to invite me to be in the room with John Mayer for a week in 2008.
It was also what brought me to mind when a faculty position in the Songwriting Department opened up in 2010.
Have a good website. Again, make it easy for people to find you, and find out about it, and dive as deep as they want into your body of work.
Go to music and industry events. Every country has a performing rights association who very frequently will run an array of professional development seminars, panels, master classes, etc. In Australia, you can check out what’s offered by APRA/AMCOS, MusicNSW, MusicVIC etc. In the States, look out for what’s on through ASCAP and BMI.
Take a class. You can always take an online (or F2F) class to meet people, and find collaborators. I have talked about this in more detail here, and there are some links in the video notes there, too.
Make your emails personal, well-researched, and succinct. If you are emailing someone you have met, or even cold-emailing someone, make it clear in your email that you are writing specifically to them, and not sending out a generic email you have copied and pasted. An example of this might be to include info that shows you have researched them, and that there is a reason they might want to check out your music.
This is no good:
I’m a young songwriter looking for opportunities to get my work in front of people in the music industry. I would love for you to have a listen to these tracks, and let me know what you think.”
This is better:
I noticed you recently signed Pink Bottle to your label! I’ve followed their careers for a while, and my own band, The Scorpion Queens recently played on the same bill with them at The Candy Castle. The Queens have have another show coming up at The Candy Castle on June 13…”
You can see where this is going. Notice that it is clearly an email for Michelle, and no one else. It shows that there is a musical connection between a band she’s signed and my (totally fictional) band (ie a reason she might be interested), and that we are an active band, not waiting around for someone to do something for us, already playing and booking gigs, with more activity on the horizon. I would then follow up with offering to put a ticket for Michelle on the door, offering to buy her a drink, and then thanking for her time, and sending her a link to my website, and one or two of my songs.
Follow up and thank someone for their time. If you meet someone at an event who you’ve had a conversation with and they have shared their contact information with you, follow up with a short and polite email within the week. If they don’t respond to you, it’s okay to follow up once more a few weeks later. After that, let it go. Don’t hassle them. You never know when you might bump into them again, and if they happen to remember you, they will also likely remember that you were professional and tactful.
Deliver on time. Provide more than you are required to, where possible. I don’t think this needs much elaboration.
#5: Keep. Making. Good. Work.
Ninety-seven percent of people who graduate from a degree in the creative arts are not making work 3 years after they graduate. This means that all you need to do to eliminate 97% of your competition is to keep making (good) work over a longer period of time.
Honestly, this last point here is where a career as a songwriter is made. After all, what is a ‘career’ as a songwriter? What is success? Each person has to answer this question honestly for themselves, but if your only (or even main) conception of success involves fame and fortune, you are on a dark and murky quest bound almost certainly for the land of Profound Disappointment. The ‘careers’ that dominate the media (Ariana Grande, Adele, John Mayer etc) really only represent the tiniest fraction of people who are actually making careers that involve songwriting in some capacity. The flipside of this, however, is to understand that people who DO make a living as songwriters also make a living doing lots of other stuff. This describes me, and lots of songwriters I know. I write and perform my own music; I teach songwriting. The combination of these has established me as someone who can help other people make their songs better. Which has put me in the room with other artists and bands, co-writing. Continually producing work has led to other commissioned work in interesting and unexpected formats (I have a full album of original work that will be released interwoven into an audiobook published by Penguin Random House next year). Which is likely to lead to other writers interested in commissioning songwriters to collaborate on other work…etc. And even if it doesn’t, I have an idea for a musical that I plan to start writing next year…I do believe there is a mindset thing going in here: my ‘career’ is really just a string of projects that interest and excite me. Having a career, and a network, is really an offshoot of doing work that excites me, regardless of whether anyone else is giving me permission, or even giving me a hand.
And in conclusion…
So, dear reader—and dear Asker of Slightly Rude but Nevertheless Interesting Question/Demand on YouTube—networking is not the most important thing. Your love of writing songs, a determination to write better songs, the perseverance to keep doing it, a mindset of kindness and generosity, and making yourself findable, are way, way more important.
**Footnote. I want to clarify that I am not a believer in pure meritocracy. Just because your work is good is often not enough, and very often is much harder for people who have histories and systems of oppression and marginalisation stacked against them (women, people of colour, LGBTQI+ folks, I'm shouting it out for us!). The experience of these people is often that their work needs to be even better to get the same attention.
In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.
Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.