How To Become a Lyricist
What Exactly Does a Lyricist Do?
Although the structure of their days might be different, the main job duty of both Freelance Lyricists (self-employed Writers who pitch to publishing companies) and Staff Lyricists (salaried Writers employed by a publishing company) is to write a good song. They sometimes work alone to create song lyrics for performance in musicals, film/TV, commercials or individual songs, but more often than not, they collaborate with other Lyricists, Songwriters, Composers and Recording Artists. It’s important to note that Lyricists write the lyrics to songs, whereas Songwriters write the lyrics and melody. (For a more in-depth discussion of the difference between Lyricists and Songwriters, check out our blog on the topic.)
Lyricist Pamela Phillips-Oland describes this collaborative process and how it works to write with another person. She says, “If I’m in Nashville I have to get up and be in a writing session by 10 am. I write for two hours or three and then I leave and pick up some lunch and go to a second writing session and finish the second song by the end of the afternoon. And within that period of time, it’s your job. You sit there and write a song. And it’s very intimidating when you first start it. And so if you’re working with someone else and they come up with a better idea you start to feel dreadful. You feel like. . . am I holding my own in this collaboration? Don’t worry about that. Of course, you’re holding up your own. It’s your job as a collaborator to make sure your collaborator looks fabulous. That’s your only job. And they do it for you, too. That’s how the best songs get written. If you’re willing to let somebody say to you, ‘I didn’t like that line’ or ‘that sucked’ or ‘we’re on the wrong track’ or ‘Oh my God, that line you just said? It’s great! Let’s start over. That’s a better title for a song than what we’re writing right now. Let’s just chuck what we’re doing.’”
Advancement as a Lyricist can mean working with higher-earning and better-known Artists. It can also mean penning a song that generates a large amount of royalties, leading to an increase in income and demand for the Lyricist’s songwriting skills.
Education & Training
Aspiring Lyricists can take courses to hone their skills and learn new ones. An advanced degree is not required for this position, but language skills are essential. The ability to play an instrument or two is also important.
Many beginning Lyricists start by writing poems before moving into songwriting. However, many beginners do not know how to differentiate between poems and lyrics.
When she was growing up, Phillips-Oland says, “I kept writing poems. I wrote millions of poems, most of them terrible. They were just full of angst and awful and I put them to music and eventually my dad bought me a guitar. It was really poems to music. It wasn’t lyrics, but it was a beginning. And then eventually I became a Writer.”
This is the essential training that Lyricists must have: the ability to tell a poem from a lyric. Phillips-Oland says, “First of all, poetry is of your mind. Songs are of your heart. . . . A lyric should be conversational. It should be accessible. It should be like a conversation between two people. It’s sung by somebody, to somebody, and it’s very immediate.”
She recommends aspiring Lyricists educate themselves by listening to the classics in the Great American Songbook. She says, “A lot of young Writers pooh-pooh that and they have no interest in listening to anybody like Hoagie Carmichael or Irving Berlin. I mourn for the Writers that are coming up. They don’t bother to listen to Ella Fitzgerald for the phrasing or to Sarah Vaughn’s “Broken Hearted Melody” and they don’t listen to Don McLean’s “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.” I would give the advice to start loading up your iTunes with the Great American Songbook. Start listening. Or if you don’t want to pay for it, go on YouTube. Put in the names of 1950s songs, 1960s songs, 1970s songs, 1940s songs. Some of it is drivel. Some of it is dreck. Some of it is great and you have to start to learn to know the difference where you can see that ‘this is just a copy of everything else and it was ok but it wasn’t great‘ and ‘my God what a terrible rhyme or what a terrible line.’”
What skills do you need to be a Lyricist?
The biggest skill a Lyricist must learn is how to edit to keep a song simple, relatable, and interesting. Of course, the only way to gain these skills is from writing many, many songs and learning from other master Lyricists. She says, “Many songs are TMI. You know you don’t want to sit there and listen to somebody spilling their guts. People want something when they listen to a song that they can relate to. It should be simple. That’s the hardest thing to do, is to write a simple song. It’s very easy to write a long, rambling complicated diatribe that goes on and on and on and has umpteen verses. . . .And a lot of beginning Writers always say ‘I don’t want anybody to tell me what shape to write a song in.’ And what I’m saying is, have you ever seen pictures lined up next to each other on a wall? What do they all have in common? They’re all in a frame. And they may all be in identical frames, all along the wall. What’s different? What’s in the frame. So what Writers have to learn is that the frame is merely the thing you put what you do into and that’s what a formula for writing a song is. It’s the frame for the picture, and so never be afraid of working in a formula. Your job is to be brilliant within the framework. Get to the essence of your song and your story. What is the bottom line here? What are you trying to say? You need to start making the point in the first line.”
Language skills are essential, as is an awareness of your genre. “You have to have a good sense of the language you write in and speak in. Don’t try to write in a genre you don’t live in. If you aren’t a hip-hopper, you aren’t a rapper, you don’t live in that world, don’t try and write that. If you’re not country, dropping a “g” is not going to make it a country lyric.”
She adds, “You need to learn how to use a computer so you can look words up. You also have to have a sense of research so you can research ideas. You need to have the ability to get along with people and have the generosity to collaborate and allow somebody else to be talented and appreciate them for what they can bring. Your name goes on it anyway, even if you only wrote one line. You could’ve written the best line in the whole song. So never worry about that.”
Phillips-Oland says, “The personality you need is one that is very optimistic. Somebody who doesn’t give up easily. Somebody who doesn’t let rejection foil them, someone who is just willing to keep going. Somebody who does it because they love it and [who] isn’t brittle and fragile, who doesn’t fall apart under criticism. I’d say that if you fall apart under criticism and it continues and you don’t learn to be stronger, then you’re not cut out to be in the entertainment business. Because it can take one week or it can take ten or fifteen years before you have your break. And some people never have a break, but you do it because you love it. I think that you can create your own breaks sometimes.”
The lifestyle of a Freelance Lyricist varies from that of a Staff Lyricist. Freelance Lyricists set their own hours, writing whenever inspiration strikes. Of course, Staff Lyricists do this, too, but in general, they attend writing sessions during normal 9-5 or 10-6 business hours.
It can be a solitary job, although most Lyricists do collaborate with other Writers and Composers. Phillips-Oland says, “Most of my career has been spent working with collaborators because collaboration is the art of being better than you are on your own; each person brings what they can bring; each person brings their talent and their exciting abilities to the process. So then what you get in the end is something better than what either of you could do alone.”
This is not an easy field to break into. It’s very competitive and it can be hard to get your work noticed. Phillips-Oland says, “The things that have happened for me have happened because I just was in the right place at the right time and things happened. I didn’t do anything to make them happen and throughout my entire career all the things that I have gone out and beaten my head against the wall and called and emailed and texted and written letters and sent CDs and sent cassettes before that, [when I had] gotten meetings and tried to convince people I was the right person, none of that worked. Anything I ever got, from Sinatra to my publishing deal to meeting some of my favorite collaborators, all these things just came out of nowhere. People would say, ‘Oh you’ve got to meet this person.’ Or I’d get a phone call, or I’d get a letter. People would ring me up and say, ‘I’ve got this thing. You’ve got to do this thing. I want you to meet so and so.’ And I think the art of letting go is probably the key to being successful. Because I think too many people who want to get into the business of the arts, they do it because they want the recognition, the success, the fame, the money, all those things, all those wonderful perks. But those are the perks and the truth is, the only reason for doing anything is to do it. And that’s the dirty little secret.”
Putting in the time and effort to write great lyrics is important, but so is networking. Phillips-Oland tells how she landed her first songwriting gig after talking to a man at a tennis court and asking him what he did. He said, “’I manage Songwriters’ and I said, ‘I write songs.’ And he was producing, too. He was producing Lou Rawls, so I played him some of my stuff. He liked my stuff. And those were my first cuts.”
She advises aspiring Lyricists to seek balance as they attempt to further their careers. Work hard, but don’t beat your head against a wall trying to get a door to open. “People waste their time. I wasted plenty of time trying to pitch for certain projects or Artists. Once in a while I’d get it. I’d pitch for a movie theme and I’d get it. Quite often I’d get it, then the Director’s son would write something and I’d get booted out. There are no guarantees in the music business. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that opportunities will arise that you can pitch for. And I don’t say, ‘don’t pitch for them.’ You know, definitely be proactive. You can’t sit around and wait for something to jump on your head. No, that’s the opposite end of it. So there’s something in the middle where you really just focus on the creative process.”
How Much Does a Lyricist make?
Staff Lyricists receive a weekly salary. Freelance Lyricists earn income through selling their songs to a Music Publisher. They also receive money from royalties, the amount of which can vary greatly based on the type of project.
The typical publishing split is 50/50, but in order to get their work out there, Phillips-Oland advises beginners to not “be afraid to give away 100% of your publishing early on. As you go on, you can keep more of it.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Lyricists typically belong to a performing-rights organization such as ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. These organizations advocate for their members and also collect their royalties.
For online resources, Phillips-Oland suggests SongU.com, “a songwriting university. They have classes online. You’re all in the classroom together and you can discuss things together and they have online workrooms so you can write. Say you live in Minneapolis and somebody else lives in Tokyo and they want to write with you. You meet each other and you work together in this little chat room they provide on this site. You can write with somebody anywhere in the world, no matter where you are. Like, if you’re a terrific country Writer but you live in Alaska and don’t have anyone who will write country with you, you go on this site and you can maybe find a collaborator that you can work with in Nashville.
There’s another resource called Taxi.com and they evaluate songs and they do pitch a little, too. [Check out] Songs Alive. They have branches all over the world actually. There’s the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International that has branches all over the place and there are other local songwriting associations.”
- “You need to have a demo of the song. Nobody is going to look at a lyric you send in. You have to demo it and you do have to copyright it if you send it in, because copyright will protect you. If you have ten songs you can copyright it as a songbook, you know, ‘Jane Jones’ Songbook Number One.’ Just get a Form PA from the Library of Congress, which you can download, and you can copyright all of them at once. Later if a Publisher picks it up or if an Artist does one, you can copyright it as a single copyright.
- Join a songwriting group in your town. And if there isn’t one in your town, start one. Put an ad in your local newspaper. Go on the radio, say ‘looking for other Songwriters. We need to band together. We need to help each other.’ One of you can sing on one of the other one’s demos. One of you can play. You start working together and you start creating a little community of Songwriters so that you can critique each others’ work and you can have meetings once a week or once every two weeks. You each get up and play your songs and have the rest of the group kind of weigh in on what’s working and what isn’t and listen to the criticism.
- You need to have no more than three songs on [the] demo. That’s the first thing because nobody has the patience to listen to more than three. So if you can’t decide which three are your best songs, you haven’t written three good songs yet. So you have to be able to determine which songs are really strong.
- When you contact a Publisher you have to first contact them by phone. Speak to somebody in the office. Be sure that you have a name to send them. You have to have permission to send it. If you send a demo in without them requesting it, they will put it in the trash, only because they don’t want to be accused of stealing your idea. It all has to do with copyright and permission. But if you speak to, you know, Jane the Assistant, you say, ‘may I send it attention of you?’ and then Jane says yes. You can also do that with Music Supervisors for films.
- You can also go up to an Artist in a club or an Artist that you meet. Say ‘I think I could be a great collaborator for you. Do you have a melody or track that I could write something for? You don’t have to use it.’ Or, ‘Can you look at one lyric of mine?’ They’ll usually say no, but if there’s somebody who knows you through a family friend or something, you know, utilize all the nepotism you have. You never know who’s going to know someone or how they’re going to help you.
- Don’t sing your own songs if they’re not good for your own voice. Get someone else to sing the demo. If your sister-in-law or your cousin wants to sing it, they may be willing to do it for nothing, but it could be very expensive because it could cost you [the deal]. Because they may not know how to do it. They may just want tape on themselves. They may want to get into the studio and get something to pitch themselves with. So it’s using common sense.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Perform in your local community. Build a following where you are. Not everyone can live in LA. Not everyone can live in New York or wants to. But you can find your niche where you are. There are many people who never leave their hometown and they write commercials for local adverting agencies or they write songs for church or they write for a local television program. They do underscore for a TV show or they’ll write little musicals that they can perform around the state. They can perform in public events. (Young singers are always singing the national anthem at local sports games.) Parlay that into visibility. Participate in charitable events and offer to perform and in lieu of money, donate whatever you will be playing. Just be active in your community. Play in bands in the local clubs, in the local coffee houses. Walk into a coffee house that has nothing and say ‘can I bring a chair in here and a guitar and a mic and do Friday and Saturday nights and perform for three hours, just for tips?’ and they’ll quite often say ‘let me hear you sing’ and if they like you it might start a whole trend and you bring in your tall chair and you bring in your mic and your instrument and you come in there and sing. You’d be amazed how many ways there are to go out there and establish yourself if you just stop worrying and start thinking creatively and inventively and start looking at what is possible. My greatest lesson in my life has been to never worry about what isn’t because every moment you spend worrying about what isn’t is a moment you could’ve spent thinking about what is that’s lost forever. ”
She adds, “I would say the biggest thing is never getting discouraged. You’re going to get thrown out of offices. You’re going to get rejections. You’re going to get letters saying, ‘sorry I’m not interested in this.’ ‘Sorry, we didn’t get a chance to listen to this’ or ‘it was too late when it arrived.’ Or ‘it sounded too much like something we already have’ or ‘we’re not looking.’ ‘We don’t accept unsolicited submissions.’ You’re going to get all those kinds of things. And you just have to say ‘oh well’ and move on to the next thing you have, to keep turning the other cheek and just keep going, because eventually, it works. The only people who succeed are the ones who stay in the game, and I guess I can leave the reader with this thought: the one song you’re never going to get recorded is the one song you never write. So just keep writing, and you’ll get better and better at it. The more you do it, the more your intuition will kick in because intuition is our greatest asset and ally. It’s just letting an idea come through you and onto the page. Those are the best lines. Those are the ones where you’re right every time.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Not being willing to edit. Not being able to let go of an idea. As they say in the musical theatre, not being able to murder your darlings. You write a line and you love it and you’re not willing to change it for anybody, for love or for money. Your song’s going to fail. It may be the best line you’ve ever written in your life, but it may not be the right line for that song. And that’s the deal. It’s really about knowing what story you’re trying to tell and sometimes you come up with a very clever, florid line, but it’s not going to work. So it’s about knowing that if you can write one thing, you can write another equally good or even better–but equally good is fine, too, if it’s the right idea.
The second thing is don’t copy. Don’t be simplistic. Try to find a better, interesting way to say what you want to say. If you just say the same old thing, ‘I love you’ is not an original line. There have been so many Songwriters with wonderful ideas ahead of you that it’s never the imitator who makes it. It’s the original.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“’Tell me about the art of rewriting. How do you rewrite for a project?’ How do you understand what they’re looking for and how do you let go of your own notions of what to do in order to meet the requirement of the song. At the end of the day, nobody cares about what you think. They only care about what they think. The only person that matters is the listener or the end user.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“I would say probably tenacity. Optimism. Or another word for it is stick-to-it-iveness. The other thing is, I have a tremendous belief in myself. I’ve always believed in what I do and that I’m good at it. I’ve always believed, whether it’s true or not. Whether anybody likes the stuff or not, that’s not even important. It’s that I believe in what I’m doing. And therefore I’m able to get into co-writes and I can give my best because I’m showing them belief in myself that will give them faith in me so they won’t be nervous to work with me. It’s very important that the Writer you collaborate with believes in you and believes that you’re going to enhance the process; that they’re not feeling like, ‘what am I going to lose if I let this person work on it?’ So they have to believe in you. I think, in my career, I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great people. And people say to me, ‘I always know that if I call Pamela P-O for a lyric, I’m going to get what I need. And that’s the reputation I’ve created.”
Pamela Phillips-Oland is a Grammy-nominated Lyricist whose songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Selena, The Jacksons, Peabo Bryson, Reba McIntyre and Gladys Knight, to name a few. She co-wrote the most successful musical in Dutch history, Soldier of Orange, and has written songs for film and TV projects such as 102 Dalmatians, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The Sopranos. She is the Author of two books on songwriting, The Art of Writing Great Lyrics and The Art of Writing Love Songs.