I live in Philadelphia and I want to break into songwriting so bad – I am not sure if I can afford to take classes at the moment and wanted to know if you had an alternative or knew what I could do. I have been thinking about relocation to NYC to hone my skills, but the thought of Nashville, TN always pops up in my head since that is the heart of Songwriting. What are your thoughts? I am self taught at guitar and have been writing song lyrics and songs all of my life. This is my passion and the thought of being stuck in an office all of my life really doesn’t appeal.
Many of us find ourselves asking these same questions as we contemplate a career in music. At the risk of sounding like a Dear Abby column, I’d like to talk a bit about the industry and the honest truth of the challenges we face as writers and artists. Perhaps you’ll find your inner compass pointing you towards new horizons.
First off, what does it mean to ‘break into’ songwriting? It could mean getting hired on as a staff-writer at a publishing company. It could mean becoming a vital part of a songwriting team already involved in the careers of promising artists. It might mean grabbing the attention of music supervisors for film and TV, or becoming known among communities of independent filmmakers looking for good music. It might be writing for commercials, or it simply might mean unearthing opportunities for writing music wherever music is played. There are so many reasons to write songs, it’s difficult to predict which path our career is going to take.
If you’ve got the ambition, there are a few good places to start exposing your music and talents to the world of songwriting. Many of those places I explain in other blogs, and here are two to get you started:
NSAI – Nashville Songwriter’s Association, International. Get involved in your local chapter, as most major cities have monthly meetings. Take advantage of all the resources this association offers and search the website for pitching opportunities, connecting with other writers, and critique and instructional services.
ASCAP – American Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Familiarize yourself with this association, and take advantage of the resources and information found on the website. Sign up for the free newsletter.
As important as making connections, it’s vital we keep improving and refining our skills as writers. If you truly want to break into songwriting, you must write consistently. Try devoting an hour a day to writing – and more if you can spare it. If you are reading any songwriting instructional books, and I recommend the melody and harmony books by Jimmy Kachulis and the lyric books by Pat Pattison and myself, make sure to apply the material of each chapter as you read. Read a few pages each day and to digest the material employ the techniques in a new melody idea, harmonic progression, or lyric.
Other things you can do to start your songwriting career is connecting with other artists and writers in your local community. Go to shows and introduce yourself to writers and artists you enjoy. Ask where they are playing again, and get to know their music, their story, their needs. Build relationships with people who are doing what you want to do on the local and regional level. Over time you’ll find yourself helping others and helping yourself create opportunities for advancement.
The major cities we think of when we consider a career in the mainstream music market are Nashville, NYC, and LA. The critical word here is ‘mainstream’. It’s really important to understand that these cities are overflowing with artists and writers just like you and me with the same dreams of making it in the music industry. With such saturation, a big challenge is getting noticed in the crowd. Lots of networking, long hours, and years of dedication with no assurance that it’s all going to pay off are constant challenges for anyone devoting a life to a career in music. Nashville is indeed a song town, with some of the greatest writers on the planet. Time spent in Nashville can be like graduate school for songwriters, and I myself lived and worked there for the first decade of my music career. There are many styles of music happening in Nashville, but the primary style is country music. If your goal is to become a staff writer in the country music vein, then Nashville would be a great choice. If your goal is to write mainstream pop, alternative rock, or work with bands and artists stretching their styles in the independent music scene, then Nashville may not suit you. Before you move, it might be a good idea to take a visit. NSAI has some wonderful multi-day workshops and camps during which you can get your feet wet.
It’s vital that we understand our own strengths as writers and clarify our goals as we consider where to live. In every major city there are people – large numbers of potential fans with varying preferences in music. Consider what opportunities you may be overlooking for reaching those people who might like to buy your music. Again, get familiar with the local artists and groups who are doing what you would like to do. Identify the places music like yours is played, and how you might become involved in those circles. Moving to a major music mecca can be one way to approach a career in the industry, but it’s not the only approach. We may be in a situation where uprooting our family or simply paying double our current rent or mortgage just isn’t an option. What that means then is you’ve simply got to take advantage of the opportunities available to you within your geographic area. Once you start scouting around, getting involved in your local NSAI chapter and meeting other artists and writers, you’ll find opportunities sprouting where you didn’t expect.
Becoming immersed in a songwriting community takes time and dedication. Take inventory every few months and assess where you’re at and where you’re going. Learn as much as you can about the industry in your local area, and also the industries of major music cities. Each city has a vibe, a style of writing and artistry, and a way of doing business. I encourage you to find out what unique aspects of your artistry call to various opportunities in music, rather than what opportunities in music you can define your own artistry by.