How To Become a Songwriter
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Songwriters compose songs by writing chord progressions, melodies, and lyrics. In today’s music industry, it’s common for Songwriters to work in teams varying in size from two to nine or more individuals. Many Songwriters write songs for other artists to perform, while Singer-Songwriters perform their own songs, whether solo or with a band. Songwriters also work closely with Music Producers, Artist Relations Representative, and A&R professionals to write, record, and perform songs intended to be hits.
There are many examples of successful Singer-Songwriters and songwriting teams who have become popular household names. Everyone knows their music, mostly, and could name (or even sing) some of their best-known songs. Other Songwriters toil away in relative obscurity, although they might still be able to earn a great living writing songs for other artists to record and perform, and for placement in films, TV, or advertising (jingles).
Most popular Songwriters try to write hits, using “hooks” that stick in the memory of the listener. These hooks combine melody and lyrics in a way specially designed to be memorable to listeners so that they will want to listen to the songs over and over. Listeners can find well-crafted songs with hooks in many genres, such as country, rock, jazz, blues, funk, rap, reggae, soul, R&B, or hip-hop. Many Songwriters specialize in a particular genre or style, while some others cross over between many styles of music.
Successful Songwriters might have their songs placed in movies, video games, or TV shows, and many Songwriters have found success writing for Broadway musicals and even advertising music. Often, Songwriters write both the lyrics and melody for a song.
There are as many kinds of Songwriters as there are people writing songs, and Songwriters have unique opportunities to put their personal stamp on the music and entertainment industries.
To learn how to become a Songwriter, we talked to several Songwriters working in various genres:
- Jason Blume, who wrote hits for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys
- Emily Warren, Writer for Dua Lipa and The Chainsmokers
- Dann Gallucci, who has worked with Modest Mouse and Cold War Kids
- Jean Baptiste, Songwriter for Rihanna, Lil’ Yachty, and The Black Eyed Peas
- Rick Nowels, who has penned hits for Lana Del Rey, John Legend, and Adele
What do Songwriters do?
The 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.
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 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.
They typically work with Music Publishers, other Writers, and Musicians. While some 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.
There are different levels to this. We’ll start where I am now. I’ve been in the industry for quite a while, I’ve been blessed. I’ve had successes, so that allows me to kind of create a schedule that works for me.
So, I’m usually at the house. My studio sessions are somewhere between 1:00 to 7:00pm. I go to the studio either by myself with my Engineer, or I’ll go to collaborate with a circle of a few friends that I love to work with. That’s the creative process of it and then I go home. I try to treat it like a job. I know that my brain is fresh in the morning so I feel like I get my best ideas during the day.
Now, when I was younger, I started off in a band. That whole life is a completely different, slightly chaotic thing. That was number one for me, touring and all that stuff. But when you’re trying to make it, usually you have a side job—whatever that is—that takes precedence. So whenever I got off my job, I would go straight to a studio situation, or I would just write at home and write songs.
We’re lucky in this day and time where you can get an inexpensive laptop and an inexpensive mic and literally create your own music with a program like FruityLoops and just record your vocals yourself.
Is it hard to be a Songwriter?
It’s very difficult to make money with songwriting. You have to write hit songs or have a big fan base.
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 ever reaches that level.
In fact, the overwhelming majority 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—but some of those who are exceptionally talented, persistent, and good at promoting themselves do manage to breakthrough.
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 ones I know are driven and are almost always either working—or thinking about their work.
Songwriters earn their living in two distinct ways. They can write songs as “work for hire” where they are paid a flat fee to write for an artist who then receives the credit (and royalties) for the song. This method of earning money has the appeal of guaranteed income, since nobody can know in advance if a song will be successful in the marketplace and earn money. Some Songwriters work for a company and are called “Staff Writers.” Good Writers who can produce many songs quickly (sometimes in teams) can generate a steady salary working this way.
More commonly, Songwriters prefer to retain ownership of their songs so that they can generate recurring royalty payments through licensing agreements. These payments might broadly be called “residuals” since they result from monetizing the value which resides in the work. There are different types of royalties from licensing which are differentiated based on their source. For example, “synchronization rights” come from licensing agreements allowing the work to be used in visual media (TV, films, advertisements, etc.), while “master rights” pertain to only the recording and not the composition.
Songwriters earn money when their songs are streamed on a platform like Spotify. In theory, a Songwriter should get paid something every time their song is played or listened to. In short, there are many ways Songwriters can earn money with their songs. (Check out our blog on music rights and licensing for a more in-depth explanation.)
When it comes to total earnings, the sky is the limit for the most successful Songwriters. For example, Songwriter Dan Wilson earned approximately $883,000 in royalties for one song, Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which he co-wrote with the star. Recently there’s been a lot of news stories about famous Songwriters who are selling the rights to their catalogs to investors for hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are plenty of examples of moderately successful Songwriters who have been able to earn enough money from just one of their songs to provide for a decent living. A famous Songwriter once said: “My songs are like my children; they will take care of me when I’m old.” Having a catalog of well-written and protected (copyrighted) songs can also give extra credibility to those seeking a career in any facet of the music business, and especially as a Recording Artist and Performer.
When starting out, a Songwriter isn’t likely to make much money right away. They must first write a number of good songs, which may entail writing a bunch of bad songs. As they say, it takes fertilizer to make the grass grow. Most Songwriters start out having another source of income, i.e. a “day job,” and are only able to earn a good living from their songs after having scored several hits, or getting songs placed in prominent places or with artists who then generate a stream of recurring revenues. Of course, it’s also possible to have a hit right off the bat. For the lucky few who do, the challenge then becomes to continue to write songs that will be well-received by the public.
How much do Songwriters make?
According to Glassdoor.com, the average annual salary is approximately $65,300.
How do Songwriters get paid?
There are two MAIN ways a Songwriter is paid. First, a Songwriter can get an advance from a publishing deal, but it is recoupable. What this means is that you could sign to a Publisher who gives you an “advance” that goes with your contract. Once you start making money, part of what you make goes towards paying back that advance.
It’s very similar to taking out a loan from a bank, although a Publisher (differently from a bank) also offers you services along with the money (i.e., booking sessions, placing songs, creating opportunities, etc.). The other way Songwriters are paid is by fees and royalties. This works in a couple of different ways.
If, for example, a song you’ve written gets put in a movie, you are generally paid a fee for the use. Royalties accumulate when your song is played. For example, if your song plays on the radio, you will be paid for each play.
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.
First of all, you have to sell your song to someone. Your song can get synced in a TV show. It can get synched in a movie. It can get synced in a commercial. That’s one way.
Artists who want to use your song—that’s another way. You’re getting paid off mechanical royalties, you’re getting paid off publishing, which is the actual writing.
So there are physical and mechanical royalties. There are digital downloads, streaming royalties. There are so many ways. Either get your song synced in your favorite show, or in a commercial or try to get your song to an artist and have them buy the song.
You get to participate in your publishing and your royalties. Also, if you sing your own song and put your song on a DSP (digital streaming platform), you get paid per stream. There are so many different ways in which you can maximize your worth.
For the most part, you’re getting paid for your intellectual property. The song is your idea; there are a number of different ways that you can sell your idea. You can license it. Aside from playing live, unless you can gather a ton of interest in the music that you’re making, it’s almost impossible to make money off of a record.
Unfortunately, people don’t get huge advances on publishing anymore. I mean, huge bands do but fewer people do now. Before, if you wanted to get the biggest publishing deal that was available to you so that you could have money in your pocket and just be able to create, then you would give a far bigger percentage of your publishing over.
That’s when my Lawyer started talking to me about admin deals and how I could give away ten percent of my publishing as opposed to a far bigger number, and get an admin deal, where they’re still working for you. If you can get someone who is going to help you, someone that is actually explaining the process to you, and they’re giving you honest answers of what’s possible, seek those people out.
My main advice is to care about what you’re doing. An eighteen to twenty-three-year-old who is being told that they’re so special that someone wants to work with them, and is being told that they’re going to make money, will take basically any advance that you give them, you know?
There are a lot of people who are very comfortable with manipulating kids in that situation, at that age. They’ll step in, and they’ll offer you approval that you maybe have never gotten before, and recognition, and all that. If they tell you that you’re going to get five thousand dollars, which is more money than you’ve ever seen before, but you have to give away fifty percent publishing on the first six songs that you write or whatever, it’s hard at that point to say no.
Even the most hardened eighteen-year-old who believes that they have more integrity than anyone that’s ever walked the Earth will sign away so much for so little. It’s just so hard not to. So many adults, sadly, are just capable and comfortable with manipulating people, especially young people.
It’s really hard to make money. If you can do it on your own, then you have to because there’s no one else that cares about your idea except for you and the people who’ve heard it that really like it. The more that you control it, then the more money you actually stand to make.
It’s not bajillions of dollars, but it could be a steady income. Learn how to market yourself, learn how to make the connections that you need to make, put out really creative and interesting output.
The more you can control how many views you get or how many downloads or listens you get, or how many people are following you—[that] gives you a way to reach more people and your income streams could be coming from anywhere. The more you have, and the more you control it, the better off you’re always gonna be.
Do Songwriters own their songs?
Songwriters own their songs unless you sell a portion to a publisher when your song is released.
Does a Songwriter need a Publisher?
A Songwriter needs an advocate. If yo