appendix: Songwriting 101 (Excerpts)
PROFESSIONAL SONGWRITING 101
(OR "EVERYTHING I WISH I'D KNOWN BEFORE MOVING TO NASHVILLE")
by Kyle Matthews, (probably the finest songwriter we have ever seen)
(for the whole article go to http://kylematthews.com)
My publisher has discouraged me from taking song submissions any longer because things are so litigious these days,
but I struggled for years outside the publishing world and I truly understand the desire for practical information...
...Anyone who listens to the radio can tell you that the standards of the pop industry do not produce great art-
- yet there are very specific standards.
That means that your music may be great art and still not sell in pop music.
So, create whatever the muse tells you to create, but understand that your music has to be crafted in some very specific ways to get the attention of a publisher.
If you feel led to make your own art, create your own standards of quality and accessibilty and don't give-in to conventions that merely stifle creativity.
Being true to those standards is more important than pleasing the publishing industry.
If, on the other hand, you want to participate in a commercial industry, be prepared to have to change some things about style and craft...
There's no bones about it; it is an indoctrination process.
Since there is so little money in the Christian marketplace to go around, the litmus test for "quality" in Christian music is too often "whatever makes money", as un-Christian as that idea is...
1) LEARNING A CRAFT-- I have tried many difficult forms of writing in my life: preaching, school papers, speeches, poetry...
Nothing has the unique difficulty as writing a good song. ...
It seems like everyone I've ever met has written a song.
But few are willing to go through "songwriting school", in order to have a career;
especially those who write out of a need for personal affirmation rather than a desire to learn a craft.
Furthermore, even people with loads of natural talent for music and lyrics have to be taught how to negotiate the chaos that is commercial publishing.
Publishers don't want a writer with a good song.
... They want a writer who can write 20 songs a year, most of them very marketable, that they can sign to long-term contracts and mold into money-makers.
So, if you want to submit songs for publication, you will have to
- start at the beginning like everyone else,
- be unafraid to revise,
- be willing to co-write as an educational exercise,
- and practice for a long time.
2) THE "MAIN IDEA" -- Don't underestimate this one.
The one invaluable commodity we have to sell as writers is the "big idea".
Big ideas tend to write themselves, but they are as rare as blue marlin.
Many songs can be crafted into something clever, but the big ideas always stand out.
(...Most big ideas are evident by the provocative title alone.
In commercial writing, the title is the advertisement for the song...)
3) CONVENTIONAL SONG FORM --Conventional song structure is essential for new writers to get respect.
Some standard song forms are:
a) Verse- chorus- verse- chorus- (bridge)- chorus-(repeat chorus)
b) Chorus- verse- chorus- verse- chorus- (bridge)- chorus
It's a good idea to evaluate the forms of songs you regularly listen to for standard forms and variations on them. ...
Here are some of the fine points of lyric writing:
*You must grab their attention with the first line and hold it throughout the song.
*You must use simple language, but try to choose imagery over literally saying what you mean.
For example, ... And Alan Jackson doesn't sing "We went out drinking", he uses great imagery, "Pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight".
The elements of good creative writing apply, regardless of genre.
*The song should strive to be shorter than four minutes, and contrary to what it might seem, the timed length of a song is as much the lyricist's job as the composer's.
In this genre, brevity is everything.
It is also a major discipline.
Just for fun, try to fit one of your original songs into a shorter song form and see if it strengthens or hinders it. Try it!
*The only problem with the law of brevity is that it's coupled with the law of clarity--especially in Christian music.
*The only problem with the laws of brevity and clarity is that they can both be done well and still fail to accomplish the third crucial element: interest.
I heard a journalism editor say once that the ideal length for a good article is the length of a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting.
*The title or hook almost always appears in strategic places: the last line of the verse, the first and/or the last line of the chorus.
Amateurs always believe their first drafts are divinely inspired.
The pros know the humbling truth about lyric writing: there's always a better way to say it, you just want to get as close as possible.
4) LINEAR THINKING-- The thing most overlooked in songwriting, is that the listener has no point of reference to understand what's going on except the song itself.
We have to lead them down a very linear, stepwise path. ...
your listener must get all of his clues from the song itself, in their particular order.
... delaying gratification as long as possible while still drawing people in line by line, word by word.
(Grisham, Fall to Fly, We Fall Down)
8) REWRITING: The unwillingness to re-write or the inability to see the need for re-writing is a sure sign that your desire to write songs is being driven by something other than the desire to learn to craft great songs.
The mature songwriter knows that there is always a better way to say it and a better musical choice to say it with.
9) CO-WRITING--Bold assertion: no matter how good a songwriter you are, co-writing will make you better, even if you still do a lot a writing by yourself.
... It's where I become more conscious of my own bad habits and the ways they leave my tale-tell fingerprints on the songs I write.
(Trust me. You do too!)
The only training ground for songwriting is songwriting, and since that's the way it is, two heads are better than one.
10) DEMOS & PRODUCTION -- ... Publishers are listening for the song itself, and the biggest liability of most amateur demos is that the recording gets in the way of the song.
Everything you add to the melody and lyric is another excuse for a publisher to dismiss the song for being
Because of the sheer number of submissions they get, they're looking for reasons to dismiss your songs.
The best course is not to open yourself up to unnecessary criticism in production.
The sound of the recording is not nearly as important as song structure.
If your song isn't effective with a simple piano/vocal or guitar/vocal recording, all the production in the world won't make it a better song.
By making simpler demos and working harder on structure and tighter lyrics, your songs stand a much better chance of being heard.
11) THE TRUTH ABOUT COMPENSATION--
The average annual income of a professional songwriter (including the high-end pop writers), is $4,700.
...it's easier to become a starter in the NFL than to be a multiple-hit songwriter.
..."don't come unless you're prepared to give it a full year before giving up."
If you do find a publishing relationship, you will most likely be offered a small advance.
It won't be enough to live on for two months, but it will be enough to keep you from ever seeing any additional money from your first cut: advances must be recouped.
Add to that the fact that your royality income won't even show up on your publishing
statement for nine months to a year and you get some sense of the slow pace of the music industry.
Don't believe that you can subsist as a songwriter without another job to support you.
Even the best songwriters have had to do other things to help pay the bills.
wait tables, they play in bands or in studios, they engineer or produce.
Even a good streak of cuts is not job security.
It won't last forever: styles change.
If you get a cut, it may be eighteen months before you're paid.
If you're lucky enough to land a cut with an artist who sells 100,000 units (most Christian artists sell between 30,000 and 75,000), you only make $1500 as a co-writer, $3000 as sole writer.
11) PUBLISHING DEALS--
*There is no such thing as a "standard contract".
Everything is negotiable.
If they tell you "it's standard", they're lying.
I have one friend who have negotiated for medical dental benefits in lieu of advances, one who gets an office instead.
One friend only takes $1,200 a year another $50,000.
Yet they are comparable writers.
Some writers have a share of the publishing, most deals are split in different ways.
*You will usually appear to be "in debt" on your publishing statements.
Remember that, if your royalties are split 50/50 with your publishers, you only have to recoup half of your advances for the publisher to have broken even.
It doesn't appear that way, but it's true.
The appearance of indebtedness is a tool publishers use to keep pressure on their writers.
The truth is, publishers can turn around and sell your catalogue for five to seven times what it is currently earning.
They hardly ever lose money.
Unless you somehow participate in the ownership, you will not participate in any of the income from the sale of your catalogue.
I'm continually amazed that something that sounds as simple as songwriting can be so difficult, but I'm finding that the harder I work at it, the more love and respect I have for it.
Keep up the good work!
(The above is simply a small taste of Kyle's vast wisdom, for the whole article go to http://kylematthews.com)