Songwriter U: Mentoring

Written by Judy Stakee

Videos by American Songwriter

“Mentor” is an English word derived from Greek Homeric poetry. In Homer’s The Odyssey, “mentor” is not a descriptive noun but the name of a trusted caretaker who supervises Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he grows from babe to child to man. Now we use the word mentor to describe those who inhabit the qualities of the Homeric Mentor; guides, tutors, teachers, professors, and counselors all come to mind. In a lot of the work that I do with songwriters, I do my best to inhabit the ideals of the Homeric Mentor. 

While working as a publishing executive at Warner Chappell, I guided songwriters from nascent careers toward notoriety, expertise, and financial stability. I aided them financially through publishing deals and obtaining cuts, ushered them through the process of co-writing by assigning them sessions, critiqued their work in order to help them improve, and made myself available as an emotional guide when they lost out on cuts or soldiered on through a difficult part of their career. Mentoring could be a years-long process; some days I felt like a mother helping her kids learn how to ride without training wheels!

It was a joy when this process led to success. Watching Sheryl Crow’s career roar into being after we worked diligently to get her a record deal stands out as a highlight. Celebrating with Kevin Kadish and Julian Bunetta as they became better and better producers filled my soul. Securing Allie Willis the Friends theme song cut allowed her financial freedom to pursue all of her passions and allowed me, as a mentor, to feel like we had optimized our time together. 

Photo by Emily Magers Photography

These victories were hard won. In the era of digital downloads and quick consumer songs, it feels like many artists would opt to bypass that important process of development. Many pursue fame in the absence of refining their craft. My hope is that I can get more songwriters and artists to slow down and focus on what’s really important: their art. 

That development process works best when you—the artist—have a solid relationship with a mentor. And, the best mentors are those who can act as mirrors, reflecting back at your strengths and your weaknesses. You want a mentor in your corner who is not afraid to point out your flaws, in a kind way, and show you a path forward where you can improve upon them. They should also be capable of identifying your strengths and help you figure out ways to capitalize on them. 

Ultimately, the number one factor in a great mentor is that they have experience with your desired field of interest. A pop songwriter should seek out tutelage from a pop songwriter or pop publisher. A songwriter who wants to write exclusively for film and television should link up with a mentor who has song placements in film and television. Someone who doesn’t have experience in your given field will not help you get farther in your desired career. That seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people fall into the trap of relying on advice from miscellaneous, uninformed characters.

These days, I put on songwriting retreats where I mentor groups of songwriters over the course of a week. During our time together we refine their craft, nitpick their flaws, and brainstorm ways to meet their career goals. In addition, I work one-on-one with songwriters on a number of goals. I now have clients that never want to perform and those who want to tour the world. I have clients that want to only write for film and tv. I have one client who is perfecting his songwriting skills so he can teach his three daughters and have a family music night at home. Fine-tuning songcraft is at the heart of all my clients’ goals. 

As a creative, it is your duty to yourself to seek out a great mentor. In order to improve with alacrity, student-mentor relationships are essential in your life. Ask your friends to introduce you to potential mentors in your field of the industry. Cold email (when appropriate) those you look up to. And, if you’re looking to improve your songcraft, reach out to me about songwriting retreats and/or critique sessions. My job is and always will be to mentor songwriters. 

For more information and to sign up for Judy’s TN Retreats click HERE.

Photo by Emily Magers Photography.

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