While technologies, fashions, genre stylings, and streaming platforms might always be evolving, one through-line has held strong for the entirety of the music industry’s colorful history: good songwriting makes for good songs.
Yet, for many songwriters around the world, the high demand for their product hasn’t exactly led to career opportunities just jumping up out of the blue. Rather, the songwriting industry has grown into a pretty interesting beast, one that embraces all sorts of niches and creative facets and might not be so obvious to the untrained eye (or ear). So, earlier this week, American Songwriter hopped on a Zoom call to discuss some tips for making it as a songwriter with three industry veterans: Phil Naish, Davis Naish, and Marshall Altman.
Altman got his start as the frontman of the rock band Farmer in the mid-’90s. Then, in the 2000s, he switched over to helping other artists and eventually collaborated with the likes of Katy Perry, OneRepublic, Switchfoot, and more. Meanwhile, Davis kicked off his career in Nashville under the guidance of his father, Phil—who now serves as the executive producer for Sweetwater Studios. Phil’s 40-year-long career includes Grammy-winning production credits and appearances on tracks by Kenny Chesney, Kenny Rogers, and Elton John. Davis, taking after his dad, went into the industry and has since racked up writing credits for acts like Eric Church, Armin van Buuren, NEEDTOBREATHE, and more.
Speaking with American Songwriter, Altman and the Naish’s shared their 10 tips for making it in the songwriting industry. All three pros will also be featured in an upcoming 3-day workshop offered by Sweetwater Studios (from Sep. 30 to Oct. 2) that’ll give an even more hands-on opportunity to dive into the nitty-gritty of songcraft. Learn more about the workshop HERE and check out the 10 tips below:
- Learn how to record
Home recording technologies have advanced so rapidly in the past 15 years that you could make almost studio-quality recordings all on your own. But whether you’re using top-of-the-line technology or just a voice memo app, the most important part is getting a physical way to share your songs with others… that certainly helps them get heard! “That’s the first rule I would tell anybody who wants to know how to make it in songwriting,” Davis said. “Be able to have something to show for your work. You could even do it on an iPhone.”
2. Listen to music like a songwriter
“Identify the moments that affect you and try to figure out what it is about them that does that,” Altman explained. “When you’re a kid, you can listen to music and it’s so visceral and immediate—if you love it, there’s this curiosity as to why you love it. You can discover how a phrase works, how a melody works. That’s important. I think young writers can sometimes think it’s all about luck, but there’s a lot of skill involved.”
3. Be brave enough to fail
All three pros identified this one as a big one. Songwriting tends to be a spiritual and personal endeavor for many… but it also tends to be pretty hard on the front end. Putting yourself out there and taking the risk of embarrassing or disappointing yourself with a bad song is a scary prospect, but a lot of the greats have written terrible songs too (in fact, it was writing bad songs that eventually showed them how to write good ones). “You have to be vulnerable,” Phil said. “It’s like a relationship—you have to be brave enough to throw yourself out there. I’ve done so many where I say ‘Okay, I guess this sucks.’ But that’s how you get through to the good ones.”
4. Play your songs for others
Closely related to the advice about learning how to record, just showing your songs to others goes a really long way in helping you see what’s good and what’s not. See how they react to it—did it seem like they liked it? Did they understand the message you were trying to get across? “Especially when it’s for people you don’t know, that’s the most honest feedback you’re gonna get,” Phil added.
5. Always strive for excellence
This one goes for anything, not just songwriting. “Never be satisfied,” Phil said, explaining that there’s always time to go back and make sure you do something to the fullest of your abilities. “This is dating me a bit, but we used to say ‘Vinyl is final,’ which meant that until the record was spinning, then you still had a chance to work on it and make it the best it could be.”
6. A great song could be played on accordion and would still be a great song
“Dad used to tell me that,” Davis said with a smile. “What that means is: great songwriting doesn’t depend on production. With just one voice, one instrument, your song should still be strong. Production is still cool and you can add all sorts of stuff, but you don’t need any of it for a great song.”
7. Find your niche
“There are so many different avenues to success,” Altman said. “If you’re a great writer, there is a way to make a living. You could do sync, you could do commercial music, you could even do topline writing, like country music.”
8. Geography matters… sometimes
“If you’re doing a Nashville thing—like country, Americana, that style of music—then yeah, it certainly helps,” Altman said. “But for pop and hip-hop, it doesn’t matter. You can make a great song anywhere.” For his part, Davis added that being in Los Angeles made a difference for him being able to get his foot in the door for a different sphere than Nashville, but he’s glad he waited until he was a little bit older before making the move.
9. Join a PRO (Performing Rights Organization)
“CSAC, BMI, and ASCAP are huge resources—not just for collecting royalties, but for protection, education, getting introductions, and more,” Altman said. “They are essentially looking out for songwriters, and getting another layer of people to hear your songs is always a great start. CSAC, you have to be invited, but BMI and ASCAP have workshops and online tutorials and contests.”
10. Have thick skin and be patient
“It’s a difficult business and it’s gonna be difficult,” Altman said. “If you’re getting into songwriting just to be rich: don’t!”
Altman and the Naish’s will be leading a three-day workshop hosted by Sweetwater Studios from September 30 to October 2—learn more about the workshop HERE.