Doing the Work

I haven’t blogged much lately. Sorry about that. It’s just that I’ve been really busy doing the work.

When people ask me what kind of work I do, I always tell them that I have the best job in the world: I’m a staff songwriter! And usually, in return, I get an incredulous stare. People can’t believe that you can write songs for a living. And pretty soon, that incredulity turns into a smile that says “wow, that’s a sweet gig”. Sweet, in this case, meaning easy. However, there I’d have to disagree.

Being a staff songwriter is an amazing job. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

It IS getting tougher and tougher to do it, and there are fewer and fewer of us doing it successfully (there are only 10% of us in the business now compared to the numbers of us when I started out 15 years ago), but that’s another blog entry about how 70% of downloaded music is stolen these days. I’ll save that one for another time.

To write for a living, you need to spend every waking hour thinking of song ideas. I mean when you’re watching TV, going to the movies, sitting in a coffee shop and talking to your friends – nothing that you see, hear, think, smell or taste is off limits. You can get song ideas from your trips to the grocery store, your meditations, even from the dreams you dream when you’re fast asleep at night. And especially, you mine your heartaches, explore your fears, and collect your most personal emotions – because those make the best songs of all.

You collect those ideas in a hook book, or in snippets of melody recorded into your computer, and you stockpile them…you’re gonna need them.

In Nashville, you’re gonna be collaborating with other songwriters or artists 4 or 5 days a week. That means you’re in the office, butt in the chair, at the keyboard or behind your guitar, coming up with a new original song every day of the week. You start at about 10:30 in the morning (after a couple hours of preparation – I’ll tell you about that later) and you work until the song is done or until the song defeats you enough that you need to stop and schedule another date. Many pro songwriters schedule 2, or even 3 cowrites in a day. You find your own balance between quantity and quality, but either way, it’s the kind of concentration that can make it feel like your brain is bleeding out your ear day after day. For every staff songwriter, there are 100 people out there who would kill to have the job. For every song that’s recorded and released to earn money, there are 1000 songs out there that were turned down and didn’t earn a cent. So you need to stay on the ball and be as productive as possible. Sure, there are some of us who get off easy and have success quickly, but as a whole, the songwriters I know are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met.

Songwriting is not just the time you spend dreaming up hooks or sitting in the co-writing chair. You also spend a lot of time preparing for your cowrites. If you’re writing with an artist, you should listen to their music to figure out their style, study their vocal range so you know what your melodic limitations are, and also do some research on their life so you know what kind of ideas might catch their interest. If you’re working with an artist who doesn’t have a lot of songwriting experience, which is often the case, you will be responsible for the lion’s share of the collaboration – but you will need to draw from that artist’s life experience and learn how to use their instrument (voice) in a way that works for both of you.

Co-writing is like being on a series of blind dates. You just have a few hours to meet someone for the first time, tell each other your life stories, and then write a song from the bottom of your hearts. You can’t be shy, and you can’t hold back, even if you feel like you’re talking about intimate experiences with a stranger. You also need to be tuned in and listening to what’s going on in your subconscious brain – melodies, thoughts, little whispers in your ear – and you need to be able to multitask by doing that while carrying on a conversation with your cowriter. Not everyone is comfortable with silence, so that can be a tough balance to strike in a co-write – the sharing versus listening balance. Some writers have more internal processes than others.

In between writing songs, part of your job will be to go into the studio and produce demo sessions. You’ll have about 30 minutes per song with 6 musicians, a singer and a couple of engineers, and you’re responsible for making sure your song comes out on budget and sounding like a record. In order to do that, many of us also learn audio engineering in order to cut costs and use home studio software such as ProTools. That’s a whole other learning curve!

Finally, one of the most important things you’ll need to learn as a staff songwriter is resilience. You’ll struggle to make ends meet on a poverty-line salary – sometimes even after you’ve had hits to your name (this business has a very short memory for success). You’ll be signed by a company that thinks you hung the moon…and then you’ll be dropped a year later because your songs didn’t have the success they were expected to have, no matter how good the songs are or how hard you worked. You’ll be told that one of your songs is about to be recorded by Carrie Underwood…and then it won’t be. You’ll be told your song will be a Kenny Chesney/Tim McGraw duet by the end of the day…and then it won’t make it out of the studio. You might even be told your song is on a record, and then buy the record at Walmart, only to find that it was dropped from the album at the last minute. You’ll be so used to having your heart broken that you’ll start promising yourself not to get excited about anything.

But you have to get excited. You have to keep that hunger, keep writing, and keep that sense that anything is possible, or else you’ll lose your spark. Staying positive in the face of constant “no, that’s not good enough” is a tough thing to do. And maybe somewhere along the way you’ll have a moment when you get to hear one of your songs coming through the radio speakers, and that’s gonna be a pretty amazing moment. But that’s not the moment that makes it all worthwhile. What makes it all worthwhile is being fully present in every day, taking responsibility for doing the work, and experiencing the joy of doing something that you love.

Staff writing jobs are fewer and farther between every day. There’s no retirement plan for a staff songwriter. There’s no career advancement for effort put in. You work on a series of short term contracts, so you’re never guaranteed a job for more than 2 years at a time. There’s no benefits package or medical insurance – you have to figure that stuff out on your own. So maybe someday, it’s just gonna be too tough to keep doing it. But for now, if you ask me what I do for a living, I’m still gonna tell you that I’ve got the best job in the world: I’m a staff songwriter.

*****

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