Lyricist Vs. Songwriter
Imagine these two scenarios:
- You’ve got notebooks full of song lyrics. You don’t play an instrument, but you know the words you’ve written are not just heartfelt and powerful, they’re also destined to be a hit song. You can totally hear Rihanna or Taylor Swift singing your lyrics on the radio…if only you could just find a way to get your lyrics to her.
- You’re constantly strumming your guitar, coming up with chords and lyrics on the spot, which you then construct into songs for you or others to sing. Often you find yourself writing for other people, crafting songs in various genres — but always with radio-friendly hooks. You can imagine the guitar player from a band like Fitz and the Tantrums playing your melodies while the vocalist sings your lyrics.
Does either of these situations sound familiar to you? We receive countless emails from readers professing to be super talented Songwriters or Lyricists and asking us for help in getting their songs heard. There are a couple of problems with these requests, however. Firstly, many writers are confused as to whether what they do can officially be classified as a Songwriter or a Lyricist. If you’re erroneously referring to yourself as a Songwriter when you’re really a Lyricist, you not only sound unprofessional and unknowledgeable, you’re also missing out on valuable career opportunities by incorrectly pitching yourself. Secondly, we don’t facilitate relationships between aspiring writers and artists or their record labels and/or management team. This may sound harsh, but it’s true, and it’s also why we’re sharing this blog story in the first place.
So how can you pitch yourself and to whom? You have to know what you’re selling (songs vs. lyrics) and who can buy it. That’s why it’s so important to be 100% certain of your role in the songwriting process and to contact the appropriate outlets. Don’t send blanket submissions to any resources with the word “music” in the title. Focus and target the outlets with the most likelihood of being interested in what you do, and you’ll automatically be many steps ahead of your competition.
Am I a Songwriter or a Lyricist?
So many people outside the music business use these terms interchangeably, but there’s one key difference. Refer to our two imaginary scenarios at the beginning of the article again. Are you more like Person #1, who writes lyrics in his or her notebook but doesn’t write the accompanying music? Then you’re a Lyricist.
Are you like Person #2 who writes lyrics and the main melody of the song? If you write lyrics AND music, then you’re a Songwriter. (You don’t have to arrange every single musical element in the song to be a Songwriter. For example, you don’t have to write the violin intro or the bass guitar parts. You just have to provide the general melodic structure of the song as well as the lyrics.)
It’s actually a simple distinction once you know what each job title really means. The annals of popular music are filled with examples of famous Lyricists, Songwriters, and the artists who became known for their work. You’ll recognize lots of these names, and hopefully get a better idea of the role these artists all play in their collaboration with one another.
If you’re erroneously referring to yourself as a Songwriter when you’re really a Lyricist, you not only sound unprofessional and unknowledgeable, you’re also missing out on valuable career opportunities by incorrectly pitching yourself.
Examples of Famous Lyricists and Songwriters
Some of the greatest teams in musical history have consisted of an artist and his or her favorite Lyricist or Songwriter. In many cases, Songwriters and Lyricists are also performers themselves, but who make a healthy living off selling their lyrics or complete songs to other artists. A fantastic example of this paradigm is Linda Perry, who first broke into the music industry as the lead vocalist for 4 Non Blondes but who also now has a mountain of hits for other singers under her belt. Read on to learn more about how these relationships work.
- Kesha is best known as a pop star in her own right, but as a Songwriter (she plays guitar and piano), she has written tracks for Britney Spears (“Till the World Ends”), Big Time Rush (“Windows Down”) and even Alice Cooper (“What Baby Wants.”)
- Linda Perry began her career in ‘90s rock band 4 Non Blondes, but soon built a booming songwriting career on the strength of her work with stars like Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful”), Gwen Stefani (“What You Waiting For?”) and Pink (“Get the Party Started”).
- You might not know the name Max Martin, but you have definitely heard his work. The Swedish Songwriter and Record Producer has racked up twenty-two number one hits on the Billboard charts. He has written or co-written some of the biggest songs in pop music, including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”
- Greg Kurstin began his musical career as a jazz pianist, and although he’s a member of indie pop band The Bird and the Bee and alt-rock group Geggy Tah, his six Grammy Award nominations came about because of his songwriting prowess. Kurstin has written and co-written hits for Adele (“Hello”), Lily Allen (the album It’s Not Me, It’s You) and Ellie Goulding (“Burn”).
- Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have more Billboard #1 hits than any other songwriting and production duo in history. Just a sampling of their work includes multiple hits by Janet Jackson (“Escapade,” “Miss You Much,” “That’s the Way Love Goes”), The Human League (“Human”) and Boyz II Men (“4 Seasons of Loneliness,” “On Bended Knee”).
- One of the most famous collaborative relationships of all time is that between Lyricist Bernie Taupin and Elton John. The two work separately, with Taupin writing on his own time, and then handing the lyrics over to the Singer, who then sets them to music. The list of songs this partnership has yielded is impressive, including “Rocket Man,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “Tiny Dancer,” to name just a few.
- Another iconic duo is Composer Richard Rodgers and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, better known as Rodgers and Hammerstein. The pair collaborated on a ridiculous amount of Broadway musicals, with Hammerstein writing the lyrics and Rodgers composing the song structure afterward. Their work can be heard in The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The King and I, and South Pacific.
- Before she became famous as a Singer-Songwriter, Carole King teamed up with her writing partner and then-husband Gerry Goffin to create several now-classic songs. King wrote the lyrics and Goffin composed the music for tracks like Little Eva’s “The Loco-motion,” The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Chains,” which was originally written for The Everly Brothers but later covered by The Beatles.
- Canadian prog rock legends Rush are another instance of a Lyricist/Composer duo. Interestingly, drummer Neil Peart is the primary Lyricist for the group while vocalist Geddy Lee plays a more active role in the instrumentation and composition of the music.
- Early on in the band’s career, Mick Jagger wrote most of the lyrics while Keith Richards handled most of the composing duties for the Rolling Stones. Over time these boundaries dissolved, but key examples include “Wild Horses” and “Beast of Burden.”
You have to know what you’re selling (songs vs. lyrics) and who can buy it.
Why the Distinction Matters
You need to know whether what you do falls under the Lyricist or Songwriter category not only so you don’t sound like an amateur but also because you don’t want to miss out on career-making opportunities. It’s vital to represent yourself and your work correctly when getting involved with professional or networking organizations such as the Nashville Songwriters Association International or Songsalive! or an online music community like The Songwriters Forum. This distinction is part of Music Publishing 101; it comes into play when breaking down songwriting credits and registering with performing rights organizations like BMI, SESAC or ASCAP. If an artist records your song and it becomes a hit, your cut of the royalties depends on the percentage of credit you receive as a result of your contribution to the songwriting process.
Additionally, if you’re seeking representation with a Personal Manager or Music Publisher, you have to know what service you provide. It’s not just about not looking clueless; it’s also about knowing what you need to do your best as a writer. Once you know you’re a Lyricist, you’ll want to consider teaming up with a Composer before pitching your work to Publishers. If you now know you’re a Songwriter, this new awareness can help you find the correct path to meeting your people through Songwriters’ associations or by cutting a demo of your tracks to send on to Publishers or Producers. As they say, knowledge is power: two essential elements to building a career in the music industry.
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