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.
Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts
So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.
And the questions people ask completely threw me.
They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”
These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.
Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:
what are prologues for?
what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?
If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.
These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.
Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages
Fat cheeks (Welsh)
Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
One who hoards (Hebrew)
Silk fur rat (Japanese)
Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
Eating mouse (Hungarian)
This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.
He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —
“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”
Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).
Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.
This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:
I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.
Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.
John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.
But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive.
But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.
I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root.
The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?
There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.
With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.
I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:
“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”
The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:
“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”
What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.
The most effective way I write songs is to immerse myself in songwriters. I like to remind myself of the songwriters who will always, without question, ignite something in me. Here is my list.
These writers don’t just write great songs; they are GREAT SONGWRITERS. Drenching myself in the structures, forms, and developments of lyrics and music of these songwriters will always set up my songwriting practice.
I will often then cross-pollinate this listening by immersing myself in a style or genre that I am either interested in or inspired by.
When I do this ‘stealing like a songwriter,’ I always keep in mind the most important lesson I took from reading Austin Kleon‘s (absolutely refined gem of a book) “Steal Like an Artist“:
Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.