Street Smarts: Songwriting U

Don’t look now, but across the country there are scores of universities offering programs in the music business. And many of these schools offer songwriting instruction as part of the deal.  In the face of a shrinking record industry, does this make any sense?

I can almost hear the laughter from those who are in the habit of reading this column. “Where’s he going?  He teaches songwriting too!” Right you are. Puts me in a position to speak from the inside – well, sort of.

First of all, the reason colleges and universities have started these programs is because they draw students. In case you’ve forgotten, money drives almost everything these days, and music business programs would not survive unless they were successful. And apparently many of them are. There are hundreds of thousands of kids around the country who would love to make their living making music, but they don’t know how to get started, and here’s this university telling them they can help.

This is American Songwriter, after all, so let me restrict my comments to the songwriting business, if I can. In the Nashville area, there are at least three universities with full-blown music business programs.  Because they are all in or near Nashville, they are well connected to the music business in Nashville, and students from these schools often get entry-level jobs on Music Row.

But songwriting is a different story. When you find your way into a publishing company to play your songs, the people who listen do not care where your degree comes from, or, for that matter, whether you have a degree in music or anything else. They care about the quality of your songs and whatever talents that might make you a successful singer-songwriter.

Can songwriting be taught? Tricky question. There are song forms, rhyme schemes, chord progressions, tricks of phrasing, melody, rhythm, lyric, but most of us learn the craft by listening to songs on the radio, playing them with a band or writing them alone in a small room somewhere. Then there are the social skills involved in co-writing, or the endless quest for that great song idea, and most important, the critical faculty that tells you when your song is finished or if it just doesn’t measure up. The critical faculty can make you look your co-writer in the eye and say, “This song is going nowhere, let’s have lunch and start all over again.”

We learn these things by writing song after song, alone or with co-writers. The better the co-writer, the greater the learning possibilities. The teacher can inspire. The teacher can help put the creative process in motion. But in the end, the pupil learns to write good songs by writing a lot of songs.

At the bottom of this page it says I am the director of the Cumberland University Songwriters Institute. But I never intend to offer a degree in songwriting. I give my students enough information about the business so they know there is a real world of songwriting out there, and here is how to pursue it. But I want them to get a degree in something that will help them earn a living while they are pursuing a music career. I don’t believe in starving artists. I want my students to have a life – a life that does not need to be validated by having hits on the radio or lucrative concert tours. Who knows if there will even be hits on the radio ten years from now?

Please understand that I do not discourage my students from pursuing a music career. On the contrary, I take them – all of them – to Music Row where they meet publishers, songpluggers, studio people, record people – people who have had successful careers and can tell you what it takes to have one. Some of the students get a chance to play their songs for these professionals in their offices, and the professionals respond as they do to all the others who play them songs. They don’t play down to my students just because they’re students. They strip the romance and glitter away, and my students love it because they get to experience Music Row as it really is, not as the media tells us it is.

But I can’t help but wonder, except for the schools located in music centers like Nashville, New York or Los Angeles, how are all those colleges and universities around the country able to offer their students a live industry experience? Do they take their students on long field trips? Do their instructors and professors have the background to convey that experience? Or do they teach out of a textbook?

I’m not trying to be snide. It might be a failure of my own imagination. Maybe those schools have marvelous programs. I do believe that a good songwriting teacher can lead his students in the right direction. If I didn’t believe that, I would not be teaching. A good songwriting teacher can shape a student’s attitude, and help show a student the myriad influences of multiple genres. Any career songwriter is going to have to learn a whole lot more than any teacher can offer. A teacher can inspire a student, but to become a successful songwriter involves leaping into the business with both feet, and that requires the kind of guts you can’t get from an academic degree.