Songwriter U: Toughness Trumps Talent

There’s no way to hide from this. I’ve talked about it before and I’ll talk about it again. These days, non-performing songwriters have their work cut out for them if they’re going to survive as professionals. Having said that, I insist that there are real survivors, pros that year after year get enough cuts to keep their families fed and enough hits to live comfortably. It can be done, because today big hits mean big money. But…

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I don’t know how to underline the importance of what I am about to say in such a way that you won’t go crazy when you get your first big hit. I’ll try.

That first hit is a life-line—it’s not a one-way ticket to the good life. A few hundred-thousand dollars is not that much money these days. Use it to pay your debts and sock the rest away, ‘cause you’re gonna need it!

It’s hard for non-performing songwriters, and one reason is the horrible fact that A & R people who don’t necessarily understand the country music industry that employs them have made it the norm that singers be songwriters. That mindset has created an opening for music publishers, who have successfully appointed themselves the artist development arms of the record labels. This is as it should be, because at least good publishers know a songwriter when they hear one, and, consequently, one of their aims in artist development is to school singer/songwriters, or at least require a modicum of songwriting talent before they pitch one of their singer/songwriters to a label (do I hear laughter in the background?).

If you are a singer/songwriter in search of a deal, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that your best portal to a record deal is through a publisher. Publishers love to sign songwriters who can sing. If you are one of those, and they give you a publishing deal, they will not only pay you a draw—if they are doing their job, they will put you and your best songs in a studio with good musicians, produce a good session, and pitch you to the labels.

This, of course, does not guarantee you a record deal. Always and forever, most would-be artists get turned down, but rejection is the music industry’s only constant. That’s good for most of us, because talent cannot be taught, but toughness can, and I truly believe that, in this business, toughness trumps talent.

OK, I’ve made my first point, that the industry as we know it today is set up for singer/songwriters. But, you say, I am not a singer/songwriter, I am a songwriter. Should I just rip up my legal pad, smash my D-18 to toothpicks and become a starving poet? Certainly not. I have already averred that I know non-performing songwriters who do well year after year.

They do so because they know that writing songs is just half of what songwriters must do—or maybe less than half—and this is nothing new. When I first came to Nashville (in the Precambrian Era), many of the top songwriters knew all the artists, producers and label heads, and spent as much time pitching songs as they did writing them. I remember one songwriter who went on a bus trip with Charley Pride and did not pitch Charley a song through the entire tour. Charley was no fool; he knew that songwriter was not riding his bus just to see the U.S.A. On the last leg of the trip, on the way home to Nashville, Charley was fairly itching with curiosity and demanded that the songwriter open his satchel of tapes and start playing.

The songwriter got his Charley Pride cut.

It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes non-performing songwriters successful. It was true in 1970. It’s true today. Successful songwriters cultivate successful singers to write with. They cultivate songwriter/producers to write with. They cultivate productive three-way writing opportunities. They write songs their best songpluggers will pitch till they get the song cut. They can brave a year of rejections, cuts that did not make it onto the album, promised singles that don’t happen for the worst of reasons. They save their money for years like that. They have a powerful conviction that their talent, their sense and their toughness will pay off in the long run.

They climb the mountain the first time, take their successes in stride, and when they tumble down the mountain, they just consider the tumble part of their profession and don’t even waste time mourning their slump. They continue to write, make new connections, and move forward toward a new round of success.

Oh, and if enough time passes and they still don’t make it back, they find another purpose to their life and don’t waste a moment in regret. You can be all this and more, when you finally, truly believe that toughness trumps talent.

Photo by William Recinos on Unsplash


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  1. Toughness refers to the acquired ability of getting kicked in the groin so many times as to become impervious to the pain.
    Talent refers to that inate, unquantifiable ability to do something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
    So I ask ” who holds the trump card?”
    As stated by the author toughness can be taught and talent cannot. So I ask ” who holds the trump card?”
    No doubt the author refers to those few out of the hundreds of thousands of song writers who, after years and years of cleaning toilets, pumping gas, waiting tables, playing dives and getting relentlessly rejected, finally got a song they had written cut by an established artist. Yes thats tough.
    And it takes a whole lot of ass kissing, brown nosing, fib telling, belly crawling and tear crying.( I believe they call that “networking”these days.) And yes thats tough and makes you tough.
    However no matter how tough you are or how tough you get
    if at the the end of the day you ain’t holding a great song all you got is one great big aching groin.
    And that great song was brought forth by talent not toughness.
    To suggest otherwise is to suggest that the songs we hear on the radio are not the best songs written by the best songwriters but rather songs written by the toughest songwriters and that would be a real shame, not only for the listener but also for those very talented songwriters who are perhaps not so tough.
    Perhaps that’s why the Indie music movement?
    So don’t think for a moment that toughness trumps talent.
    To do so would serve only to belittle yourself.


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