One of the most exhilarating parts of recording a record is collaborating with players, producer(s), and engineers who ‘get’ our music. When we find a match with good chemistry, our songs take on new life with more focus, more energy, and the ability to more fully connect with our listeners.

A producer is a musician who oversees the recording project. On small records, this person may co-write many of the songs, program the tracks, hire and schedule the players, book the studio, work with the songwriter to decide which songs and how those songs will be arranged, work with the vocalist to get the best takes, and sometimes even mix the record when all the tracks are laid down. On a large project a producer may take over any of these roles often with the exception of serving as the mix engineer, or may only handle the financial plan for the project.

The job of a producer is to bring out the best in the artist – a role that sometimes involves sweat and tears. He/she helps to translate our vision as songwriters and artists to the rest of the world. Even great writers can have a solid vision but fall short in expressing that vision in a way that is accessible to listeners. As an objective ear, a producer can help us to share that vision with a broader audience when our ears have numbed, having lived with a song for so long.

A producer should be the guy with the experience – someone you trust to know the ropes. A typical producer may produce 10 records a year, while as artists or writers, we might produce one record a year or every two years. He/she is also the guy with connections. In order to make the high quality imprint of the music we’re trying to create, he/she knows the right musicians and engineers.

Producers can be affiliated with a particular studio he/she works out of often, or independently employed and contracted by publishers and record labels to work with particular artists. Sometimes producers start out as songwriters, getting a foot in the door through innovative writing and production of demos and the projects of development artists.

Finding that match that makes our songs better than we songwriters can make them on our own can be difficult. To talk more about how to identify producers we might like to work with and convincing those producers they might like to work with us, I’ve spoken to producer/engineer Jan Teddy. His production house, SonicArt Productions, has produced and engineered tracks for independents and major label releases. These artists range from Big Band to country to jazz, pop, hip-hop, R&B, and rock, have charted nationally and internationally, have been nominated for Grammys and appeared on such broadcasts as “America’s Favorite Band.” To learn more about Jan Teddy and SonicArt Productions and the services his production house offers, visit www.sonicartproductions.com.

Q: What are some ways songwriters/artists should research and identify a producer for their next project?

A: That depends on genre. If it’s hip-hop or R&B, you can research on myspace and find people that make beats. Find projects online that you like the sound of and then contact those people. For rock, pop, and singer-songwriter genres, find music online that you like – and in these markets that music doesn’t have to be in your genre – and then take note of who the producer is. Globally, it’s worth mentioning that Grammys and awards don’t necessarily matter in this industry anymore. There are a lot of people with little talent who have great awards, and a lot of incredible musicians and producers who really capture amazing music and art who have little recognition. Awards can be a matter of who you know rather than a reflection of musical talent or quality.

Q: What do you look for in a songwriter/artist who comes to you needing a producer?

A: Something unique, and at the very least, the commitment to finding something unique within themselves. People like Paramour, Linkin Park, Sarah Bureilles – there was something unique about each of these artists when compared to the cross-section of their own genre. It’s okay if the artist doesn’t know what that element is, but he/she is going to have to take the time and money to invest in finding out what that is within him/herself. As a producer, I want to know the artist believes he/she is worth it – I don’t want to be part of a losing game. After all, I’m going to invest my own time, effort, and potentially money in this artist myself, so it’s important the artist feels as strongly about those investments as i do.

Q: What are some things a songwriter/artist can do to appeal to a producer he/she wants to work with?

A: Have a significant quantity of songs to choose from, lyric sheets, charts, and work tapes. The side effect of having a lot of songs to choose from is that I can avoid the ‘this is my baby’ syndrome and really hone in on the strongest songs, and also work on those if necessary with the artist. It’s hard for artists to be objective about their own songs, but it’s imperative the artist is open enough to listen to the producer as a reflection of the public ear, too.

Q: What kinds of questions should a songwriter/artist ask a producer in a first meeting?

A: After playing a few work tapes, ask what artists or vibe seem to carry on the vision of these songs. You just need to talk. Ask the producer to play you something that he/she feels would be a good reflection of the vibe you’re going for. Or, you might propose the deal of working for half-price on the first song you do together. Many experienced producers will specifically request a two or three song synergy in order to figure out if they are a good match. You don’t need to commit to a whole record right away. A good producer should be interested in knowing some things about you personally, or at the very least, where the songs came from. Keep communicating. Losing a thousand dollars to find out whether this producer can take you to the next level is worth it, where losing 10 grand on a full record to find out whether the synergy was right or not makes it hard to trust the producer throughout the process.

Q: Are there any red flags a songwriter/artist might notice in determining if a producer is not right for him/her before agreeing to work together?

A: Most red flags don’t appear until after that first 3-song demo working together. If the producer is highly opinionated and has a lot of strong ideas, that can be an amazing thing. But if those ideas counter your own personal vision, and it turns out that he is the perfect producer for another approach, it’s time to cut your losses. At the same time, you can also assess whether it was your vision that was limited, and that this producer brought you to the next level. The type of music this producer has arranged in the past is not as relevant as the quality of the music the producer has arranged. If the producer can’t translate your vision into music, run. For instance, if the producer isn’t able to adequately translate into musical terms your emotional intentions to the musicians participating in the project, the project can go south quickly. Amongst great producers there are great players, but great producers can simply be excellent musicians without top-notch chops on any particular instrument.

Q: What kinds of details does a typical contract include between a producer and the artist/songwriter?

A: Duration of the project (be flexible – art doesn’t always flow as you want it to, however there are reasonable limitations to extensions), scale per song or per hour, budget – drawn up by the producer and okayed by the artist (the producer is then solely responsible for spending within that budget), when payments should be made to producer and musicians and studio, etc. Producers should protect themselves from artists who need a ton of revisions. In that case, the artist treats the producer like a puppet. Remember that a producer isn’t just a puppet that you can pull 50 revisions out of as you please. A producer is someone whom you trust, and if you are convinced you need 50 revisions to get the sound you’re looking for, perhaps you should consider self-producing instead. In that case, artists are generally not looking to be grown by another valuable musical visionary, but simply looking for an engineer – someone with the technical know-how to record whatever it is the writer/artist has in mind. Just remember, even highly capable artists like Sting use producers on their records, whether for feedback, new ideas, or simple all-around personal and musical support. If a producer has his own equipment, remember that you’re not only paying for experience and another musical vision, but for a fairly large investment of time acquiring the skills to produce and mix, and often tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars of musical equipment.

Q: Do you ever work long-distance with a songwriter/artist, producing or engineering tracks and utilizing the mobility afforded us by the internet?

A: Absolutely. An artist from Norway heard some of my tracks and requested that I work with him on his next record. We exchanged ideas over email, he sent me examples of music he likes, and over a period of time I kept him updated on the recording process as he requested. After I sent him the final mixes, he sent me his wishes for adjustment, and we finished the project from there. It was a pleasant experience for both of us, using our strengths and working in synergy sending tracks back and forth and communicating online.

Thank you Jan for your expertise. I have one final question. Would it be alright for a songwriter/artist to contact you at SonicArt Productions, and if so, how should he/she do that?

A: Go to www.sonicartproductions.com. The best way to get a hold of me is by email. These days you’ll find me producing a few records a year while more of my time is spent mixing records for other producers. If I’m not able to help, I’ll certainly try my best to help the artist or songwriter find what he/she needs.

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One great way to exercise our writing chops without digging deep into the lyric writing process is to do some plot development. I like to do this when I’m just motivated enough to sit down to write, but not motivated enough to commit to a few hours of working out the nuts and bolts.

Try taking out that notebook of titles you carry around with you, choosing 3 titles that spark your interest. If you don’t have a notebook of titles, consider sifting through your daily Object Writing or Destination Writing for title ideas. Take each title and challenge yourself to write out the basic plots for 3 different songs around that title. If you continue to do this for a week, you might notice your plot ideas moving from less expected or cliche, to more original and authentic. I also like to challenge myself to keep the ideas simple. Too many twists and turns or late introductions of more and more characters can complicate a song and leave the listener feeling disconnected and disinterested. You might also use the worksheet technique described in the blog What’s In A Title to help you brainstorm for subject matter. Taking each word of the title and letting it suggest related ideas can lead to some great new takes.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

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I would like to spread some information about an opportunity for songwriters offered by The Johnny Mercer Foundation. The foundation offers a week-long summer intensive program for writers between the ages of 18-30 (for writing teams only one member must meet this criterion). The submission deadline for this year has passed, but for those of you involved in Berkleemusic.com courses, perhaps submitting your material to the workshop next spring would be a good goal. I am not personally affiliated with the foundation, and can’t vouch for its value. However, it’s free, and the foundation will even help cover travel and boarding expenses. At the very least, it may prove an excellent networking opportunity, and a source of inspiration from peers and guest clinicians with experience in the industry.

More information below:

The Johnny Mercer Foundation and the American Music Theatre Project at Northwestern University seek talented young songwriters to apply for the fourth annual Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, June 21st to 27th, 2009. This week-long, no fee intensive will be led by master teachers Craig Carnelia, Lin Manuel-Miranda and Lari White. Carnelia is the Tony Award-nominated lyricist of Broadway’s Sweet Smell of Success. Miranda is the Tony Award-winning composer, lyricist and creator of In The Heights. White is a three-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer.

The program will include master classes and workshops, a master teacher cabaret and a student songwriter showcase, all taking place on Northwestern University’s Evanston Campus.

Last year’s program featured emerging songwriters from across the country in the fields of pop, music theatre, hip-hop, folk, Latin and country. To qualify, writers must be between the ages of 18 to 30. For writing teams, at least one member must meet this criterion.

Past Mercer Songwriters Project participants include Adam Gwon, winner of the prestigious 2009 Fred Ebb Award; the songwriting team of Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, winners of the 2007 Jonathan Larson Award; and Chris Dimond, winner of the ASCAP/Harold Adamson Lyric Award.

Through the generosity of The Johnny Mercer Foundation there is no fee for this workshop for the writers and writing teams selected, and a stipend will be offered to cover a portion of travel and boarding expenses.

All 2009 applications must be postmarked by April 6. To learn more and download an application, visit: www.amtp.northwestern.edu/mercer.html. Email questions to mercersongwriters@northwestern.edu.

About The Johnny Mercer Foundation
The Johnny Mercer Foundation is a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and celebrating the work of Johnny Mercer and other great American songwriters, and introducing their music to a new generation through educational programs for students from elementary through college age. The Foundation also supports charitable organizations through royalties from Mercer’s more than 1,500 songs. This year marks the centennial of Mercer’s birth.

The legendary Johnny Mercer, master of the American song and award- winning composer of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Accentuate the Positive” and “Moon River,” was dedicated throughout his career to the development of young songwriters and singers. This year marks the centennial of his birth, with many events planned to celebrate his legacy. To learn more about the Foundation, visit: http://johnnymercerfoundation.com/intro.html.

About the American Music Theatre Project
The American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) nourishes the vitality of American music theatre through the development and production of new musicals by music theatre’s leading artists; increased opportunities for education and training with Northwestern’s theatre, dance and opera programs; and the creation of new opportunities for intersections between the professional and academic communities. To learn more about AMTP, visit: http://www.amtp.northwestern.edu/index.html

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Rhyme More Naturally

Sep 27 2009

Rhyme is an important structural and sonic element of great lyrics. When used well, rhyme helps us to control the pace of the lyric, where the listener feels conclusion of our thoughts, and distinguishes song sections from each other through contrasting schemes. Great rhyme pairs let the listener stay focused on the content rather than the rhyme. Poor rhyme pairs steal the focus away from the content and result in cliche or contrived lyrics.

A great tool for broadening your scope on rhyme is Pat Pattison’s instruction on the 5 types. (For more in depth study, refer to Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies and Commercial Songwriting Techniques. Being able to recognize rhymes outside the small circle of perfect rhyme broadens the content available to us as we write. But I’d like to share with you a simple technique for finding rhymes that requires no pre-thought at all. You might find you’ve been doing this all along in one form or another, and the switch to being more intentional with your technique requires very little effort.

Using a style of free-writing called Object Writing or Destination Writing, the search for rhymes can be quite simple. The goal here is to find rhyme pairs within our original thought, not forcing ideas inconsistent with those original thoughts. To begin, do a few minutes of Object Writing or Destination Writing, using your senses to arrive at highly sense-bound language. If you’ve taken Berklee’s online lyric writing courses, or read Pat Pattison’s books or my own book, Popular Lyric Writing, you understand that this style of free writing focuses around taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, and movement.

Now that you’ve got a page or two of sensory focused writing stemming from an object or location, you can look within the sentences for possible rhymes. Taking directly from your original language, you may find many assonance or consonance rhymes that wouldn’t ordinarily occur to you. The rhymes are also directly related to the subject matter of the song that will come from the free-writing itself. Below is an example:

I watched the condensation slip down the sides of the plastic cup, beading on the surface like a snake shedding skin. A green straw slid into the slits on the lid, diving into the icy water and plunging to the bottom where I’ll find sweet relief on a humid September day in LA. The faint sting of chlorine singed my tongue as the roof of my mouth retreated into a numb stare. The hollow tingle of ice cubes floating like life savers on the surface riding the waves as I set the cup down on the sticky metal table. Starbucks in the afternoon, skateboarders clicking over seams in the concrete sidewalk, students with laptops, purple blossoms half decomposed littering the ground…

From this bit of writing I can set the scene for the next song I write. For rhyme and line ideas, I can look within the paragraph and find a few of following:

lid – skin – click – slip – slits – singe
shed – bead
sweet relief – chlorine – green – retreat – seams – bead
plunge – numb – tongue
laptop – sidewalk
roof – ice cubes
faint – LA – day – savers – skates – waves
water – litter

These are some of the rhymes available to me as I start to construct my verse sections of my song. You can use the same technique for chorus writing. This technique and many others are studied in the online course Commercial Songwriting Techniques and companion book Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.

Happy writing,

Andrea

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Awhile back, this question was posed and I thought it well worth a blog.

What would you do with a song that stubbornly refuses to offer up a chorus, or am I expecting something too substantial (other than just repeating the song title)? Sometimes, within one or two verses the point is made, and I’d rather be sharp and concise than meandering or boringly repetitive.

If verses are the veins and arteries of a song, the chorus is the heart. It pumps life throughout the whole tune, and when that section is struggling, the whole song struggles too. Without going too deep within the study of choruses in a blog setting, I’d like to offer up some simple ideas that may help our choruses come easier, and serve the song more effectively at the same time.

Let’s first define the function of the chorus. Very simply, the chorus delivers the main message of the song. Sometimes it’s one word, or one phrase, repeated over and over. Sometimes it’s a section as long or longer than the verses with the title set in various power positions such as the first line and last line. Another important idea with the chorus is that it’s singable for the listener. The more singable, the easier it will be to remember.

When a song is stubbornly refusing to offer up a chorus, I think a good first step is to take a look at the verse sections. When our verse sections seem to ‘say it all’, what can be happening is they have overstepped their boundaries as verses. The function of a verse is to set up the scenario for the chorus. If the chorus is the answer, the verse is the question. More clearly stated, the verses tell ‘how’ the story happened, and the chorus tells ‘why’ that story matters. Check to see whether your verses are making big statements that seem to sum up the bigger picture rather than provide details about what happened within the smaller moments leading to that big picture.

One neat technique taught to me by Pat Pattison is flipping the verse sections. The tendency is to write that first verse with kid gloves – gentle and vague instead of specific. Second verses (after the first chorus) often carry that quality of becoming less specific, more centered around the big picture. As writers, it’s often this second verse where we start to become brave enough to give away specifics, and really delve into the details of our story. So in this idea of ‘flipping verses’, we might try using verse two as the real verse one, and verse one as the real verse two. Or, try using verse two as verse one and writing a new verse two for after that first chorus. The main idea here is to make sure we stay specific in verse one so that we don’t tread on that big message chorus material.

Sometimes it’s helpful to write the chorus first. To do this, you might try talking out loud, as if you were in a conversation with a good friend. Sum up the moral of the story, and why this story is important to hear. Think about what you want your listener to walk away knowing. I like to record myself talking, so that I can play it back and copy many of the phrases word for word into my lyrics. Many times it’s my internal editor that tries to convince me the way the words came out is not ‘clever enough’. But for choruses, often the most effective lyrics are those that just say it like it is.

One final thought about choruses – don’t beat around the bush. Use that section to speak boldly and clearly to your listener. If you’re finding this difficult to do, then take a few moments to clarify what you’re really trying to say. If we’re not clear as writers what our main point is, then the listener won’t be either. One main point is stronger than several smaller points. Don’t be afraid to lay it all out on the line. You can always draw the language back later if you need to.

For anyone interested in deeper study and practice writing choruses, I suggest the online course ‘Writing From the Title’. In it, you’ll discover how rhythm, rhyme, structure, and other tools provide excellent brainstorming fuel for that critical song section.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

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A familiar topic floating around artist and musician circles is how to decide how much time to spend on writing, and how much to spend on marketing and promoting our music. The balance is often a challenge. As one writer responding to my blogs says, “On good marketing days I rarely get time to write, and on good writing days nothing sells because I’m not marketing.”

For some first-hand insight into this issue, I talked with Kelly James http://www.kelleyjames.com/, an artist based out of Los Angeles who recently released his fourth record, Break Free, available on iTunes. Kelly finances his music and personal life through extensive touring, record sales, and business ventures, including an endorsement by Oakley. Each day of the week he’s juggling the art and business of being an artist, a songwriter, and a businessman. Here’s what he has to say about his journey so far.

Q: What are some of the highlights of your artist and writing career so far?
A: Putting out my first album. I wrote all the songs, and it was a thrill to get that first copy – I thought, wow, it actually worked! You can sit and write all you want all day long, but until you have a finished album you can give people, nothing really matters. Definitely some other highlights are touring all across the nation. We’ve been to 70% of universities around the nation on sorority and fraternity tours. We’ve been to Australia twice, and it’s great to have a batch of songs that you can go to different parts of the world and still have it resonate with the crowd.

Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges along the way as an artist?
A: Doing it on our own. You got to lose the the mentality that some big hand will come and pluck you out of the sky. It just doesn’t exist anymore. Not that it can’t happen, it’s just that you put yourself in a terrible position if you sit there and wait for it. I know I need to take every aspect of my career into my own hands. Once I started to do that, that’s when the hands started coming out of the sky. Other challenges have been turning this artistic thing into a real business model that supports our artistic ventures, allowing us to do music every day. Booking shows, taking advantage of the right opportunities, and tackling questions like ‘how do we actually make money from this and expand on that as opposed to staying at same level?’ occupy a lot of our time.

Kelley tours with producer and artist Bren, and you can follow them both on Twitter at ‘brenmusic,’ and ‘yourboykj.’

Q: How do you determine which marketing opportunities are worth pursuing?
A: We look at ourselves as a brand – we are what we are, how we act on stage, what places we push our music out to, who we tour with – put it all through the filter of our brand Let’s be honest with who we are and let’s base everything around that.

Q: You have been approached by record labels in the past and turned turned them down – why?
A: A couple of reasons. They didn’t understand the slow burn process I wanted in terms of the grass roots build I wanted to have. That’s not a focus in the music industry now – they want return on their investment NOW. I knew I needed to develop on my own, and I wanted to pursue these things on my own. Also, nobody is going to believe in me and my music more than me. In the last few years I’ve proven to myself that by staying true to my brand I’ve accessed opportunities, endorsements, and achieved sales that labels only promise. At this point, I don’t need a label to do what I can do for myself, taking a huge piece of the pie and taking away the control I have.

Q: How do you determine how much time to spend marketing yourself, and how much time to spend writing and recording new material?
A: It’s a balance – you gotta do both all at the same time. If you’re in the studio, you should twitter. Social networking is so important. When Bren is in the booth, I’m not just waiting – I’m on the computer blogging. Be able to multi-task on all levels. Can you tour, market, and write songs at the same time while you’re on the road? It’s not “today I’m a songwriter, and tomorrow I’m my own business manager.” You gotta do both at the same time. 99% of artists don’t have a management team – but it doesn’t matter if you do have a team, even Kanye West has to keep marketing himself.

Q: How do you measure your success from day to day, month to month, year to year?
A: It changes all the time. As long as there’s progress and we’re hitting our short term goals, we’re doing okay. The focus has to be on the short-term, attainable goals. Even one-day goals. Lay out a path for 3 months with specific goals you create each day. If you’re brilliant enough to come up with 3-year or 5-year plan, great. And if you design Sunday to be chill out day, then that’s a successful day. You know, if you do what you’re able to do today and are just getting overwhelmed by your 3-year plan, relax the rest of the day.
To do this for a living, as your career, you’ve got to do something every day. I might spend a whole night listening to old records, looking for samples. But I can’t do that every day, or I wouldn’t have success.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring artists and writers?
A: Take control of everything yourself. If you can do it on your own, that’s when the money, the help, and everything else will come in. If you’re sitting back and waiting for something else to happen, it’s not gonna happen. Even if it’s on the lowest level – write the song, record the song, and send it to music supervisors. If that doesn’t work, walk into the music supervisor’s office, or write a different song – then call everyone you know. Try something else. Don’t keep hearing ‘this is the way to do it’ and keep knocking on that door – it may not ever open again in the state of this music industry. Try something new, even unconventional.
The singer songwriter generation including folk artists and guitar playing traditional music artists really need to take a lesson from the rap world as far as the effort. Rappers have their hands in all different pots, always marketing, always promoting. But the rappers could take a lesson from the singer songwriter generation too in preserving the art of the craft. So both need to learn from eachother. If you really investigated the lifestyle of successful artists we follow today, I bet most people would be shocked. The teams behind them, the marketing strategies, the business focus, the hustle – these artists aren’t just sitting around writing songs letting a team do their work. They’re out there leading the team. It’s like Bren – he’s got another project on his own outside of our venture, and he’s got to drive all the way down to South Orange County for a meeting and then be back up in Hollywood to record later in the day, then somewhere else to co-write that night. Multiple projects can be overwhelming, being in Miami with Jim Johnson, then back in LA, juggling all these projects and still do it – that’s the goal.

Thanks to Kelley and Bren for these insights. You can follow their music and careers at http://www.kelleyjames.com/, and on Twitter ‘brenmusic,’ and ‘yourboykj.’ The new record, Break Free, just released August 19th is available on iTunes.

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One of the hardest questions we writers can ask each time we sit down to write a song is, “what should I write about?” It seems almost ridiculous, with there being so many experiences, events, ideas, beliefs, values, hopes, discouragements, struggles, etc. to write about. After all, no-one is more equipped to write about our own experiences than us, and no-one else can give the song the personal perspective we can.

I think the real question lying behind the question ‘How do I come up with themes to write a song?’ is ‘How do I narrow down my ideas to write one, singular and strong theme?’

When I’m staring at an empty page and coming up blank, it is not usually a lack of ideas that prevents me from putting pen to paper. It’s that I am grazing the surface of so many choices that no one choice seems worthy enough to follow. To combat this problem, there are a few things we can do.

First, we can start a daily journal using Object Writing and Destination Writing. With this kind of writing, we’re coming in through the back door of an idea. We’re letting our journaling lead our creative minds to ideas that are worthy of songs, instead of starting with the idea and trying to conjure up angles that make that idea really shine. By choosing an object at random as we do with Object Writing, the pressure is off to start with anything remarkable. The same is true for Destination Writing, where we start with a person or a place as our topic. Then, we just write for a few minutes using sensory language, letting the ideas flow where they will. For more detail on Object Writing and Destination Writing, see Writing Better Lyrics and Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling. These types of journaling are the currents running through the two songwriting courses, Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies and Commercial Songwriting Techniques.

Other ways we can hone in on a song theme is by starting with a title. Instead of choosing such a broad theme like ‘love’, or ‘letting go’ or ‘schooldays’, we can make a quick list of words associated with a broad theme and let it take us to title phrases. For instance, with ‘schooldays’ I might list the first nouns, verbs, and adjectives that come to mind:

Tardy
bell
bus
note from the doctor
homeroom
homework
empty locker
gossip
bag lunch
milk money
ring
teenager
golden days
naive
having fun
football games

As I’m making this list, experiences I had come to mind. I remember what it was like to walk into a classroom of faces I don’t know. I remember eating the same bag lunch 5 days a week, sitting with a group of friends, counting down the 30 minute break like waiting for execution. I remember some things vividly, and they all paint a picture of how I perceived that time in my life. Now, if I step back and sum up how I think and feel about that experience in just one statement, it might be:

Though my schooldays were doused with excitement and spiked with horror, I will always keep them close to my heart, as the time I was learning to be me.

Looking back over that list of words and my simple statement here, there are more specific song directions emerging. If this tune were uptempo, it might be a light and fond look at those schooldays now that I’m an adult. If it’s a slow, melancholy tempo, it might be a look at how I’ve changed since those days, learned hard lessons from those days, or perhaps need to recapture something I’ve lost since those days. As a country tune for a male vocalist, maybe the idea is about my rebellion during that time of my life and the feeling I could carry on like that forever. As a female country vocal, perhaps the tune is a bittersweet remembrance of a coming of age.

Setting the theme in context of a specific genre can help to narrow the idea. With this process, we’re going with what our gut knows is typical of that genre, and what fans of that genre are accustomed to. Of course, we can certainly push the limits of a genre, providing we’re still relevant to the fans who listen.

As I hoped to clearly express in my book, Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling, what makes our songs unique is our perspective. In songs in which the lyric takes a major role, ‘what’ we write about isn’t nearly as important as ‘how’ we write it. We can all write a love song, but what makes that love song believable and heartfelt are the details each of us brings based on our personal perspectives. So write your next song boldly, and infuse it with experiences that matter to you. And when you don’t know what to write about, ask yourself if you’re getting specific enough. Choose a major theme, and think of a time in your life when that theme became real for you.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

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Co-writing can be a truly freeing experience. In a good co-writing relationship, we can expect to come upon ideas together we wouldn’t have normally thought of on our own, broaden our lyrical and musical scopes, finish songs faster much less finish them at all, and just plain have a good time. Even co-writing relationships that last only a short time have monumental benefits for each writer. It’s not unusual for two writers to come together and without a previous meeting or relationship, write a truly fantastic song.

As with all working relationships, co-writing requires some special skills on both sides. At some point both parties will need to be flexible, to trust the other’s judgment, and keep a commitment to work on the song until it satisfies both writing partners. Sometimes the pacing of each writer is different, one writer accustomed to tossing around ideas quickly, and another more comfortable with processing an idea internally before offering it up for consideration. There’s no wrong way to write if it yields good material, and so it is with co-writing. What works for one pair may not work at all for another.

But what about those situations in which the relationship goes sour, or disappears into thin air when there is half a song in the balance? Who owns what? What if one party wants to demo the song and another doesn’t? Who pays for the demo? What if you’re not proud of the song, but your co-writer is playing it everywhere for everyone with your name plastered all over it?

There may not be rules, but there are some good guidelines of conduct we can apply to these situations. The first guideline is to sit down with your co-writer before beginning to write and discuss how you both wish to divide up the song. Whether you’re a lyricist and don’t write any music, or both you and your co-writer are both chipping away at lyric and music ideas at the same time, a very common split is 50/50. That means that even if you’re writing with an artist, and that artist simply says ‘yes, I like that’ or ‘no I don’t like that,’ the split is still 50/50. The reasoning here is that over time, all of us are more or less helpful in coming up with song material during a writing session. What goes around comes around, and to count words or count notes that belong to each writer just complicates things and adds unnecessary stress to the relationship.

It’s not uncommon for the writers to lose steam mid-way through the song, and the tune sits unfinished for months on end. If the idea is really as good as you thought it was when you started it, you’ll know after hearing it again for the first time. If you’re bound and determined to finish a tune and your cowriter is MIA, you don’t have to scrap the tune. What I’ve done in the past is let my co-writer know through an email and a phone message that I’d like to finish the tune, and to please let me know when is convenient to get together. If I get no response, I leave another message and email, this time with a deadline after which I will finish the song on my own if he/she doesn’t respond. Now, if we’ve signed a split sheet agreeing to a 50/50 split, then that agreement still stands. If no agreement was signed, I let my co-writer know that I plan on finishing the song as 50/50 (if I intend on keeping what we wrote together). If I want to scratch the whole tune, keeping the title I brought into the co-writing session, for example, then I let my co-writer know that is what I intend to do. His/her lack of communication is an acceptance of the terms.

When it comes to demoing, it gets a little tricky. I don’t expect a co-writer to chip in 50% of the cost of the demo for a song he/she doesn’t believe in. So if I feel very strongly that the tune is worth recording, I’ve got to eat those initial costs myself. Certainly, if the song gets placed and makes money, I can bring half those initial costs up with my co-writer again. But one word of warning – if your co-writer isn’t totally psyched with the song, consider why. Is the song really as strong as you think it is? Is there is a disconnect in how you view the direction of the lyric or the music, and you need to record a simple rough piano/vocal or guitar/vocal to get your thoughts across clearly? It can sometimes be easy to ride on the excitement of a collaboration and start to believe a song is better than it actually is. Nothing heals this better than time. Give it a few months, and see how the song hits you as you listen more objectively. If either writer is bound by a publishing contract, then the publisher should be involved in the decision of whether to demo the song. After all, if the publisher believes in the song enough to invest a little demo money, it suggests the publisher believes the song is worth pitching. If the publisher doesn’t think the song is marketable, then the writers may decide it’s a better idea to go back to the writing room and work up a song everyone can stand behind.

Finally, if your co-writer thinks the world of the tune you wrote together but you’re on the fence, don’t sweat it. If you’re not keen on contributing to demo costs, suggest a simple piano/vocal demo or guitar/vocal demo instead. Explain that you like to write several songs before taking them all into consideration for which are the top tunes to be demoed. If the writer is so pleased with the tune that he/she is constantly playing it for folks, don’t sweat that either. If you’ve got stronger songs, that reputation will precede you, so you simply stay the course striving for better tunes, a bigger network, and more opportunities. Other songwriters understand we are the sum of our body of work, not just one song. One song can as easily be chalked up to serendipity as it can be the result of consistent, hard work. I’m thankful for those songs that fall out without much effort, but grateful for those that come from my desire to create a specific and intentional experience.

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

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Songwriting for Film

Jul 03 2009

Among the many opportunities for songwriters to get our songs heard is connecting with independent filmmakers. To get a little more insight into how to approach this, I talked with Tyler Gibb, a talented filmmaker, artist, and songwriter who has experience writing, producing, directing, and promoting film. You can visit his website to learn about his work and view clips of his most recent film “Refrain,” which was selected by the World Film Festival (Montreal 2009) coming up in August. http://www.tylergibb.com.

Q: How did you find the songs for your film?

A: Since “Refrain” itself is a movie about a songwriter, there had to be music for the lead character to appear to write and sing. Therefore, the majority of the music in “Refrain” was written specifically for the film. Most of the lyrics were written by me as I wrote the screenplay, and the musical compositions were written by Vidya Lutchman (who played the lead) and a guitarist by the name of Tom Simpson. The music was written to appear unpolished and off the floor – in keeping with the portrayal of a novice songwriter but sweet and beautiful none the less. All that to say, we needed to write most of it ourselves (Vidya and I are long time partners in songwriting – and in life) so that it would suit the film.

That said, there are still some spots for background songs in the movie that haven’t been assigned yet. We’re still looking for those songs and we’ve been taking our search to the web, mostly on MySpace. And if I could give any advice to musicians out there with MySpace pages it would be: Keep those pages simple, small and clean. If I’m looking for music for my films and I visit your page but it takes five minutes to load and is unsightly – I’m probably going to close the page and move on.

Q: What are some ways songwriters can identify filmmakers and those looking for original music?

A: The internet isn’t a bad way to go about it but I would stress research. Independent films are more prolific than ever and every filmmaker out there is dying to be discovered just as much as an independent musician is. So use those search engines, seek out films and introduce yourself to their producers. Networking is everything.

And don’t underestimate your hometown. If you’re writing songs wherever you are I’d bet someone nearby is trying to write a screenplay. Find them. Work with them. Start your own scene. You can write some music for their short film and in turn they could shoot a video for your band. There’s no wrong way to get your feet wet.

They say you can’t force your way into the film industry, you have to be invited. But no one’s going to invite you in unless you make yourself seen, so work your way up.

Q: In what form do you prefer to receive music submissions – CD, MP3 by email, other?

If a musician sends me a link to their music that has been placed online (either to stream or download) I will definitely check out their music. Unsolicited MP3s sent by email clutter up my email inbox and if I want a CD I’ll ask for it. But having a website, or a MySpace page (that is well built!) means I can visit your music at my own convenience. Though a lot of people I know refuse to visit MySpace pages just because so many of them are out of control. And check your website (an MySpace page) on several computers (including Macs), make sure it works on all of them, some computers give different results.
The Refrain webpage at http://www.tylergibb.com/refrain has a bunch of examples of free media players you can add to you website to play your music and video.

Q: Are there publications, websites, conferences, and festivals that songwriters should frequent in order to develop relationships with filmmakers?

A: There probably are! And I would say this falls into the category of doing some research online for where you can connect with like-minded people. There are festivals that combine film and music and those are definitely on our list of festivals to approach with “Refrain.” I can’t speak about them specifically without having been to them yet, but I’d say any film festival (there’s probably one near you) has got dozens of filmmakers just milling around hoping someone’s going to come and talk to them. Filmmakers talk with each other. And you never know where somebody’s going to be in a year, so get to know some filmmakers who are just starting out, if you connect with them, they’ll remember you.

Q: Is there any other information that may be helpful for songwriters aspiring to get their music heard through film?

A: You will get rejected. But don’t let it get to you. Remember that a rejection doesn’t mean your music isn’t good no matter where that rejection is coming from. Music is subjective, so all a rejection means is that your music may not be suitable for the film you’re hoping to appeal to.
Filmmakers have a vision. My vision while working on “Refrain” was of a young woman who is struggling to write soft, acoustic music. If a heavy metal band had approached me and asked if they could write a song for my film, even if they were a fantastic heavy metal band, that just wouldn’t have been appropriate for the tone of my film. I would have had to reject that band, but it wouldn’t be because they weren’t any good. What would come out of that exchange, however, is that a year later, if I was working on a film that could use some heavy metal music, I’d remember them.

That said, don’t decide not to approach a filmmaker just because you’re trying to guess what will appeal to them. Just introduce yourself, be polite, and make yourself known. Songwriting is an art but finding an audience is a numbers game.

As far as getting heard goes, we’re actually trying out a bit of a musical experiment with Refrain that we’re calling the “Side Project”. Essentially we’re opening up all the music that was written for the film to the interpretation of other musicians. No strings attached, just an open-source project for getting artists to collaborate and create some great music. So far the results have been incredible! The Side Project will launch this summer (join our mailing list to keep tabs on it) at which point it will be open to everybody to participate and be recognized.”

Thanks to Tyler for taking the time to answer these questions. If you’d like to know more, check out his website at http://www.tylergibb.com. And remember – musicians and filmmakers need eachother. If you were moved by Tyler’s work, tell someone about it, and you might even introduce yourself to Tyler in a brief email.

Andrea Stolpe

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When I tell people that I teach songwriting courses for Berkleemusic.com, it always inspires an interesting conversation. The first question usually is, ‘can songwriting be taught?’ followed closely by ‘how can one teach songwriting online?’

Having been on both sides of the fence with a music degree from the brick and mortar college and now teaching online, I’ve had the benefit of seeing the inner workings of each. I’d like to try to outline some of their value, and talk about which path a songwriter desiring a career in the industry might follow.

Music is often viewed as an elusive art, as something that speaks to the soul rather than something understood by the mind. My experience as a songwriter in the commercial music industry has taught me that whether I enjoy it or not, at some point, my brains do need to be involved. From understanding my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer, taking feedback from my publisher and applying those suggestions, pitching to specific artists looking for songs, and expanding my business network through co-writing and other opportunities, I realized early on that I would never stop learning. I learned from co-writers how to craft songs, from publishers how to rewrite and rewrite again, and from meetings with label executives where my own perspective on the pitchability of my songs drifted from the industry’s perspective. Many of these opportunities to learn were available to me because I had a foundation of tools for the craft that I had gained through my music degree.

This foundation included basic tools and strategies for songwriting, the very same tools taught in Berkleemusic.com’s online songwriting program. Integral to any songwriter wanting to write better songs is consistent practice. With consistent practice comes greater awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, and how we use or don’t use elements that are effective in songs across all genres. With this awareness comes the ability to control these elements, and that means better songs more of the time.

What I received as part of my music degree was personal, weekly feedback on my writing from an experienced writer. I also received peer feedback, and had the opportunity to give feedback as well. I began to grow the confidence I’d need to start promoting my own music in the field. I had the opportunity to visit my instructor during a weekly office hour to discuss any questions I had regarding my writing, my goals, and my future. I attended the brick and mortar school because I wanted a true 4-year college experience, and that is what I got.

Comparing this brick and mortar experience with an online experience, we find similar elements and some additional perks. We have the opportunity to play our songs for peers and experienced instructors for feedback. We have weekly chat hours where a relationship with these peers and instructors can be built. What’s more, we have daily writing assignments instead of weekly assignments, flexibility to complete the assignments when it is convenient throughout the day, and an opportunity to network with others with similar goals. We can even find co-writers and support groups to keep us writing and pursuing our art, whether that be as a paid writer or as a hobbyist looking for greater fulfillment through the process of creativity. Its drawback is also its benefit – those looking for a 4-year college experience won’t find it online. What they will find is a supportive, diverse community and quality education they can access from the comfort of their own livingroom. There is no need to uproot our family or our jobs, and the financial commitment is light enough to help us take one step at a time towards our songwriting goals.

If you’re on the fence about whether to take the plunge and enroll in an online songwriting course, take a few minutes and talk with an enrollment adviser. Discuss your concerns openly and gather more information to make an informed decision. Many aspiring artists and writers are surprised at how easy it is to get involved, and how far-reaching are the benefits.

A few courses I recommend as you’re getting started:

Lyric Writing:
Tools and Strategies
Writing From the Title

Music and Lyric:
Commercial Songwriting Techniques
Songwriting Workshop: Melody
Songwriting Workshop: Harmony

Andrea Stolpe

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