Guitar 101: Learning The Hard Way

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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photo by Caine O’Rear

If you want to be a professional songwriter, you might not like it, but you’re competing. If you’re writing for your own project, you have a lot more latitude. But if you’re pitching songs to other artists, you have to please the publisher first, then the record label, then the artist and the producer.

I learned that the hard way. I wrote for one of the big Nashville publishing companies for several years. A major label artist recorded one of my songs. The artist loved it and so did the producer. However, the record label wasn’t so keen on it. The artist and the producer both wanted the song to be the first single and the title cut. The label got their way, of course. Our song was never even released as a single. The album did go platinum, though. Smaller labels may have more latitude. Major labels are about dollars. They are not about music. Record label executives used to be people who loved music. That is mostly a thing of the past. Sorry. Smaller labels are often run by people who love music. So that’s a good thing. My experience as a songwriter has been primarily in Nashville, so that’s what I’ll be talking about for the most part.

These are things you need to think about: Please get some professional feedback before you demo your song. Myself and every other musician in Nashville has made tons of dollars over the years in demo-ing songs that we all knew would never get recorded. They had obvious problems that any professional could have fixed. You can pay people to critique your songs, but you don’t have to if you know someone in the business personally who will do you a favor. 

I am not fond of this current “bro-country” trend, but most Nashville songwriters who do it for a living know they have to write a certain kind of song to get a big hit. There are always some high quality, well-written songs that sneak through the process, but they are definitely the minority now. I know tons of songwriters who have had big hits, but they were more traditional country than what’s popular now. In my opinion, if you like more than one musical genre, try writing something different every now and then. The music business is “people business.” It’s not about using people or being around people that you don’t like. After moving to Nashville, I got more blues cuts than I did in Memphis or Atlanta. The people I met here were not only friendly, they knew other people who could help. It’s a good place to “network,” and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

You’ve got to have a good demo of your song. There are many ways to demo a song. You could do a simple guitar/vocal demo, but it’s got to sound professional. It can’t be noisy, out of tune, or out of meter. Studio musicians cost money, but they’re worth it. Many songwriters are determined to sing or play on their own demos. Please be realistic. Many times I have been on a demo session when the songwriter’s singing or playing completely ruined the session for himself. Many realize they can’t play “in time,” even though they’ve played in bands for years.

I’ve sat in a Nashville publisher’s office many times and the guy never even listened to the song, because the intro was noisy or too long. Those things scream “amateur” to a professional. Noise is not as much of a problem as it used to be, but a too-long intro can sink your song.

Studio rates are variable so you want quality that you can afford. So many new songwriters have come to this town and have been ripped off by unscrupulous “producers.” So ask around. A lot. There are plenty of good guys, but there are a few rotten apples. Don’t sign anything or give anybody any money unless you’ve thoroughly researched them.

Okay, say you’ve got a good demo now.

Get your song published. For every recording project, there are thousands of songs submitted. This is where the competition comes in.

Of course, you can be self-published if you want, but it’s a lot of work that creative people usually don’t want to do. Writers usually don’t have the access to artists and record labels that publishers do. Unless you’ve got connections in the business already, you need to find a publisher. You have to get this song to please the publisher first. Be ready to accept rejection. Every pro songwriter has gone through many “passes” before they got a song recorded. I used to play songs for my publisher and I’d get, “What else ya got?” more times than not. Every song you write is not going to get demo’d. A good publisher will give you some feedback. You may or may not agree. At least try what the publisher suggests. He is responsible for paying for your demos and “pitching” your song. A publisher wants to make money.

Songwriting is a craft. There are always things to learn. Try to approach it as a learning experience, and you’ll be fine. Believe in yourself, but don’t be arrogant. Try co-writing, but don’t depend on it. Don’t play with matches.

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