How to Successfully Network as a Songwriter—my answer to a slightly petulant question on my YouTube channel

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.

Seth Godin

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.

Arooj

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:

“Hey Michelle,

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:

“Hi Michelle,

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.

If you made it this far reading this, firstly, thank you. Secondly, you would probably enjoy (actually, I think your mind would be permanently ennobled) by reading “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon, and “Art and Fear” by Bayles and Orland.

**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. 

The 3 Things I Did This Year to Write Over 20 Songs

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.

More videos on my YouTube Channel, here.

Lyric Writing Masterclass March 16 2020

Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?

Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.45.43 amIn my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.

Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)

Sign up here.

More info here.

What Can Business Learn from Songwriters?

I was kindly invited by Soren Trampedach and Work Club Global, in collaboration with the Sydney-based organisation Affectors, to present an information session on some of the Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 4.13.55 pmcraft and process of a songwriter and musician. The audience were entrepreneurs and culture creators. The discussion that came about found fascinating interplays between language in song and language in all types of communication.

An excerpt is provided below, but you can read the whole article and listen to the discussion by clicking HERE.

Keppie played with language, testing us all on our ability to recall certain words, she shared the theory and the practice of song craft and she played some beautiful indie folk tunes that were open to interpretation.

And in the space of 2 hours, relaxing on a lounge enjoying wine and cheese, I learned three business relevant insights:

1. We must show people what we mean, rather than tell them, even if it’s with their imagination. We can do this by painting a picture with words that our audience can relate to.

2. Sense based language is far more memorable than task orientated words. When I talk about a strategy and use words like ‘approach’ and ‘task’ they don’t stay in the mind as easily as nouns (Keppie proved this with an audience participation experiment). So I’m going to re-evaluate my language and look to bring more colour to ‘strategic dialogue’ in future.

3. Evocative words, memorable language, losing yourself in the music – all of these create an experience in music that’s carefully crafted around notes, but also silences, pauses and spaces. We can be afraid of silence and so keen to fill it – but what if we don’t? What if we allow people to create meaning and to connect with us in the same way they connect with a piece of music. Wouldn’t this allow us to have far more interesting relationships?

The Secrets of Successful Collaboration

Reposting here a short article I wrote for ASCAP a while ago, with some thoughts and musings about successful collaborations, and some of the transformations that can happen in the process…

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.39.05 AM

SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATIONS

Creative collaboration is very much like dating. I can’t think of any other experience that comes close to the strange alchemy that either happens, or doesn’t. Everyone has that person in their life, someone you really admired and were absolutely sure if they just returned the admiration that you would dance, heel-clicking, off into the horizon…only to discover that your dream came half-true. You DID get close to that person, and found out that they only brush their teeth twice a week. Or yell at their mother. Or give you dirty looks when you eat meat. The idea of what you think your partnership will be doesn’t turn out to have the right chemistry even though you were sure it would. Well, creative collaboration is very similar, and also similar in the way that you get better at predicting success, knowing what to look for, being totally fine when it doesn’t work out, and counting your lucky stars when it does.

The article continues here: ASCAP

Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat

 

EAGLE ROCK SONGWRITERS RETREAT – OCTOBER 8 2011

 

Former Berklee Songwriting faculty Keppie Coutts presents the Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat on Sunday, October 8!

 

Fall Retreat will involve a series of creative exercises and time-proven writing techniques in the morning, equipping you with processes to bring your unique perspective and voice to the page. The afternoon will consist of song listening and feedback, giving you insight into the tools, techniques and strategies used by professional songwriters to generate ideas, develop, revise, edit, and fine-tune their songs. Fall Retreat will be a small and focused group, building strong connections, community, empowering participants to develop their creative processes and write the best songs possible!

 

In order to keep the retreat focused, the group is limited to 10 people, on a first come first served basis. REGISTER TODAY to secure your spot, by visiting www.kcsongstudio.com or by emailing kcsongstudio@gmail.com.

 

COST:

$80 Early Bird Discount (signed up by September 15)
$100 (after September 15)
$90 (Member Affiliations – West Coast Songwriters, Berklee Alum, previous attendees)

 

The Whole Brain Process

In 1968, a psychologist called Roger W. Sperry published his groundbreaking study that showed that the two hemispheres of the human brain – the left and the right – process information in very distinct ways. Since then, there has been a lot of research and interest in left-brain and right-brain theories, and how this relates to creativity.

One thing is for sure – songwriting is a Whole Brain process. It requires you to access your ‘right brain’ mode of cognition, when you are gathering ideas, making connections, being inspired, finding out what the deeper meaning of your work is, or even letting your subconscious figure out the right word, image or line.

It also requires you to access the ‘left brain’ mode, when you putting your ideas into a structure, making decisions about rhyme scheme and meter, cutting out lines, switching verses, rewriting melodies, testing out different points of view, checking for consistency in your tenses, and cutting out all the times you use the words ‘just’ or ‘really’ in your song!

Most of us relate to one part of the process more than the other. We might be ‘right-brain’ dominant, and find it really easy to get inspired, to have lists of beautiful images, to spill something heartfelt onto the page. Or we might be more ‘left-brain’ oriented – deciding on a song form early on, setting the meter or melody early and challenging ourselves to find word combinations that sit within that structure, choosing and interesting, challenging, and unusual rhyme scheme from the start.

Either way, at some point, we need to engage with all of it, and that is what ‘songwriting is’ – it is inspiration and imagination within a structure and a pattern.

For more reading about left-brain and right-brain cognition in the creative process, I recommend these books:

  • ‘Songwriting and the Creative Process’, by Steve Gillette (Chapter 7)
  • Sheila Davis has written about these topics in ‘Successful Lyric Writing’ and ‘The Songwriter’s Idea Book’.
  • ‘Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain’, Betty Edwards.

Getting Fruitful Feedback – (Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this weekend!)

One the most important things in the journey of a songwriter is being part of a community who can give you helpful feedback. Your friends, parents and audience will always be more than willing to tell you how much they love your songs (aka how much they just love you), and sometimes how much they don’t. Alas, while this feedback can be a joyous validation or an ego-rattling slap, it rarely helps your songs actually improve. There is hope! Other songwriters with the experience and vocabulary of songwriting are often the best community to tell you a) what works and why, and b) what could use development and why. The WHY part is so important, and requires more than just “I wasn’t feeling it there”.

I encourage you to seek out opportunities to be with other songwriters, whether it’s local organizations, regional camps or workshops, or annual conferences. Berklee College of Music has a wonderful online school (berkleemusic.com).

In the spirit of this community, I am hosting the first Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this coming Sunday, in east Los Angeles. If you are in the area and would like to come along, follow this link: kcsongstudio.com/workshops/spring-workshop-sign-up

Listen to What People are Listening to

In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing I would do differently? Why do people like this?’

No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.