A Songwriter crafts songs for another artist in hopes of creating a hit.
How To Become a Songwriter
What Exactly Does a Songwriter Do?
Songwriter Jason Blume says that his “sole job duty is to create hit songs that are geared for the commercial market—and do the business required to get those songs to generate income.” As a Songwriter, his job is to write both the lyrics and melody for a song, whereas a Lyricist exclusively writes lyrics and does not write the music for the piece–an important difference between the two roles. (Check out our blog on this subject for a more in-depth explanation.)
As in many music industry careers, no two days are alike for a Songwriter. Blume says, “I have a few different types of “typical” days. First, it’s important to understand that songwriting is approached differently in Nashville than it is in other music centers, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and London. In Nashville, where I’m based now, pro Songwriters typically go to an office to write their songs. They sit with guitars in writing rooms and collaborate with other Songwriters. I did that for more than twelve years and wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs that way.
Outside of Nashville, in many instances, pro Writers have recording studios in their homes. Some Songwriters do nothing but produce musical backing tracks (i.e., the keyboards, bass, drums, guitars) but rely on other Writers to create the “top line” – the melody and lyric – that the Vocalist sings. When I was in Los Angeles I more often went to a collaborator’s home studio to write.
Some of a Songwriter’s time is also spent producing demos—recordings that are used to demonstrate the potential of their songs, and regardless of where or how you write, a portion of your time will likely be spent taking care of business. This includes having meetings to pitch your songs to record label executives, Producers, and Managers.
So, there’s not really a “typical” day. Some days—or parts of days—are spent writing; some are for having meetings; some are for recording demos.
Songwriters typically work with music publishers, other Songwriters, and Musicians. While some Songwriters might write alone, I typically collaborate with other Writers who bring out the best in me—and with Recording Artists and Record Producers who are looking for songs.
Most professional Songwriters are affiliated with music publishers, and interact with other music business professionals, such as Recording Engineers, Record Producers, Recording Artists, and Managers.”
Songwriters advance in their career by writing hits for bigger artists and therefore earning a higher income. Blume says, “the potential for earnings is almost limitless. The top Writers—those who consistently write or co-write hit singles for superstar artists—earn tens of millions of dollars. But the cold hard reality is that only the tiniest fraction of a percent of Songwriters ever reaches that level. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Songwriters never earn any significant income from their work and work “day jobs” to support themselves while they pursue their dream. There are no guarantees of ever earning a penny as a Songwriter—but some of those who are exceptionally talented, persistent, and good at promoting themselves do manage to break through.”
Education & Training
Although a handful of universities offer degrees in Songwriting, higher education is not essential for this career. In the words of Jason Blume, “Music publishers don’t care whether or not you have a degree in songwriting, or what else you’ve done. It’s a business, and they care about one thing: whether you can deliver songs that they believe will earn you—and them—lots of money.
I’m not saying that classes and workshops can’t improve your songwriting skills; they can be very helpful, and good ones can provide you with inspiration, tools, and techniques. Education is great. I teach that there are no “rules” in songwriting—but there are “tools” that are consistently found in successful songs. As a teacher, I explore what works—then encourage my students to use techniques that have proven successful—while adding their own unique flavor to it.
We’re not born with knowledge such as the popular song forms and structures, how to craft the most effective chords, or where to place rhymes. These are things we can learn in classes and songwriting workshops, as well as from reading books on the topic. The radio stations playing the current hits are our best teachers—but it helps to have a professional give direction and point out what’s working in our songs.”
What skills do you need to be a Songwriter?
Many Songwriters also create and perform their own materials. Blume says “it’s not mandatory that you play an instrument—but it definitely helps. So study guitar or keyboards if you’re so inclined. It’s also helpful to understand the business of songwriting.”
“As you can tell from my previous response, being a Songwriter requires unending perseverance and a willingness to keep pursuing your goal no matter how long it takes. You have to be able to deal with years of rejection, frustration, and disappointment, and still believe in yourself enough to keep writing songs, networking, and working on your craft,” Blume says.
“Also, you need to be someone who can handle not having a guaranteed, steady income, and you need to be able to cope with the pressure of needing to consistently produce ‘hits.’”
Songwriting is as much a business as it is an art. Jason Blume says that “I had a fantasy that Songwriters lay out by their pool, sipping a drink, and waiting for a brilliant song to strike them. HA! The successful Writers I know work incredibly long hours. When they’re not busy writing songs, they’re doing demos, having business meetings, and hanging out with people who can advance their careers. While it’s true that you are essentially your own boss—and can set your own hours—the successful Songwriters I know are driven and are almost always either working—or thinking about their work.”
Getting that first songwriting gig isn’t as easy as just submitting a resume or swinging by a restaurant to speak to the Manager. Jason Blume says, “In almost all instances, one doesn’t really get a “job” as a Songwriter. The extremely rare exceptions are when someone might be hired and paid a salary to create songs for a TV show, an advertising agency, or a theme park. But this would probably be less than 1% of all professional Songwriters.
If you want hit songs on the radio it’s not as if you fill out a job application and someone hires you to write songs. Unless you’re in a band, writing with a successful artist, or you’re an artist writing for your own projects, your goal will probably be to become a Staff-Writer.
Although that sounds like a “job,” what it really means is that you’ve signed an exclusive song publishing agreement with a music publishing company. Everything you write during the term of your contract is published by that company. You don’t have any set hours or go to an office. You just have to deliver a quota of songs each year—and in many instances (especially outside of Nashville) only songs that are commercially released by artists on major labels count toward your quota. But regardless of how many songs you write, you will only remain under contract if your songs are earning money, or the company believes you are delivering potential hits.
When you sign a staff-writing deal you are advanced money—as if they are lending you your own future royalties. In most instances, unless you already have a track record of hits, your advance will be just enough to survive. But it’s not a salary; when you have success, the money you were advanced will be recouped by the publisher before you see additional royalties.
The big advantage of being a staff-writer is that your publisher has a vested interest in promoting you and your songs in ways that few developing Songwriters could ever do on their own. Ideally, your publisher should have access to the Producers, record labels executives, Managers, and Recording Artists who have the power to say, “Yes.” They should also be able to set up collaborations for you with Recording Artists and Producers. In many instances, this is how Songwriters get their work recorded.
One typically gets a staff-writing deal by networking, collaborating with staff-writers, and meeting publishers at music industry events. It rarely works to send unsolicited material to companies. Publishers are very selective about who they sign—and seek writers who they believe have exceptional material—“HITS” that are geared to the current market.”
How Much Does a Songwriter make?
“As a Songwriter, except for the rarest exceptions, 100% of your income comes from royalties earned when people buy digital and tangible recordings of your songs (downloads and CDs) and from streaming, as well as “performance royalties” that are generated when songs are played on the radio, broadcast on television, on the Internet, on airplanes, and in places such as restaurants, nightclubs, and concert halls. It doesn’t matter how many songs you write or how amazing they are; you only get paid when people buy or stream the songs, and when they are performed or broadcast—such as on TV and the radio.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Blume is a big believer in networking opportunities for Songwriters. He advises that aspiring Songwriters, “Research your local songwriting organizations; they provide both educational and networking opportunities. Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) has chapters in more than 110 cities, and Songsalive meets in multiple cities, as well. New England to Nashville (NETN) has excellent events for those in New England who are focused on the Nashville music market, and the West Coast Songwriters organization provides opportunities for those in that part of the country. Taxi also provides pitching opportunities for writers who are writing material that is competitive. An extensive listing of songwriting organizations can be found in my book This Business of Songwriting, Revised 2nd Edition.” For other books that teach valuable business and creative skills for Songwriters, check out our blog post, “The 5 Must-Read Books for Every Songwriter.
Blume shares the story of how he got started as a Songwriter and provides some tips for aspiring Songwriters.
“I wrote my first songs when I was twelve by strumming my father’s mandolin. I performed in coffee houses and nightclubs, mixing my original songs with well-known songs. After college, I moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to pursue my songwriting dream. I knew there would be more classes, serious collaborators, and opportunities to make business connections in a major music center.
When I wasn’t working my day job I wrote songs, recorded demos, networked at music industry events, and took classes every spare moment. I wrote hundreds of lousy songs—although I didn’t know that at the time! But as I studied my craft and the market, received professional feedback from teachers, and rewrote my songs to make them as strong as possible, my songs improved and became more geared to the commercial market—meaning the songs that were on the radio.
I met with a music publisher who suggested I rewrite a country song I played for him. After seven rewrites—and seven new demos—he sent the song to his Nashville office. It was recorded by a new artist and became a single. Although it earned very little money, it opened up doors that led to my collaborating with professionals who were signed to a publishing company. That was seven-and-a-half years after I’d moved to L.A. to become an “overnight sensation!”
While my song was on the charts I went to Nashville to collaborate and make connections. One of the songs I wrote with a pro writer was recorded by a superstar group 3-1/2 years after we wrote it. It happened because my cowriter’s publisher pitched the song. That changed my life. Suddenly, every door was open to me and I signed a staff-writing deal. That was more than 11 years after I made the decision to move to L.A. and become a professional Songwriter.”
- “Identify your weaknesses and address them. For example, are you a strong lyricist, but not such a great melody writer? If so, block out time on your calendar to do melody rewriting exercises—or seek collaborators.”
- “Study what works. Analyze the melodies and lyrics of the songs you love. Put them under the microscope and study the chord changes; structures; lyric approach; and melodies.”
- “But, if you are writing for artists other than yourself or your own band, be sure you study songs that artists did not write for themselves. Similarly, study the songs that are currently having success; writing in styles that are no longer in vogue (i.e., the songs you loved in high school) will not get you commercial success.”
- “Write, write, write. Don’t expect the first songs you write to be your best. It’s like developing a muscle; you need to keep working on your craft to get better at it. Some say, ‘Your first fifty songs are for practice.’”
- “Plan to attend an event where you can network with other writers on the same path—a song camp; writing retreat; Taxi’s annual Road Rally; the West Coast Songwriters’ annual conference; the Kauai Music Festival; or one of my BMI Workshops (FYI, they’re free and open to anyone. Registration info is on my website.)”
- “And of course … read my books, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success and This Business of Songwriting—and listen to all my instructional audio CDs ;-).”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“It’s a tie:
- Underestimating the amount of time it will take to break in; and …
- Over-hyping their songs”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How can I improve my songs to make them undeniable? So many people think their songs are amazing; that they have nothing to learn; and that all they need to do is get them heard by the right people. That is rarely the case.
The reality is that it’s incredibly tough to write songs that millions of people love, and can’t get out of their brains. If it were easy, we’d all be raking in millions of dollars!”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“These were GREAT questions—and that’s another great one. How about: ‘How long should a person continue to write if they’re not earning a living from their songs?’
There are no guarantees that you will ever earn money from your songs. I’ve been teaching and writing books and producing instructional CDs about songwriting for more than twenty years, and I’ve had thousands of songwriting students. Five of them have had #1 singles; some have had significant successes. But the vast majority of them continue to work day jobs. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect success in less than five years—and I think ten is more realistic.
My suggestion is that if you are passionate about writing, give yourself 100 years to become successful. It’s only natural to feel discouraged at times, but if you lose faith in yourself; are focused solely on the money; and stop enjoying the process … then look for another goal.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
“I love them both … but based on the extraordinary songwriting it’s got to be the Beatles. They produced an astounding number of classics in such a short period of time, and pushed the creative envelope to places most artists would have never dreamed of.
When I taught at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney—in the building where he went to high school) I was given a tour of every imaginable Beatles site—including where some of the iconic songs were written. It was like walking on sacred ground!!!”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Get professional feedback — until you are writing songs that are amazing enough to beat out your competition. Note: your mother, spouse or best friend are not qualified to assess your material – unless they are professional music publishers ;-).
If you want to earn a living, push the creative envelope and write songs that separate themselves from the pack. You’ve got to give artists a reason to choose your song over the thousands of others they’ll be considering. Create the next big thing—but at the same time, realize that it has to find a place in the current commercial market—or it won’t earn you any income. And … be prepared for a long haul and years and years of rejection.”
Jason Blume is one of the few songwriters to have hit songs on the R&B, country, and pop charts simultaneously. His songs have been recorded by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and many other artists around the world. His work has appeared in movies and TV shows such as Scrubs, Friday Night Lights, Dangerous Minds and Disney’s Kim Possible.
Blume is the author of the best-sellers 6 Steps to Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing, Inside Songwriting: Getting to the Heart of Creativity, and This Business of Songwriting. He has been featured in American Songwriter, The Music Row Show, Taxi Independent A&R Radio’s Taxi TV, and McSweeney’s
He also teaches the business and craft of songwriting at industry conferences, colleges, and universities around the globe, including the annual BMI conference. He can be found online at jasonblume.com.