I don’t know if you’re a musician. If you are, I don’t know what kind of musician you are. Maybe you’re a songwriter; maybe you’re a classical pianist; maybe you’re a didgeridoo player. Maybe you’re a poet, a sculptor, or a choreographer. Throughout this article, I’ve used the word “songwriter,” but hopefully you can adapt this advice to your own creative pursuit.
I also admit it’s pretty darn bold of me to give advice to beginners, when I am in so many ways just a beginner myself. My music production company has been in business for less than a year. But on the other hand, I’m old enough to remember when CDs were invented and when mullets were cool, so I hope that with age comes some wisdom that others can benefit from. As I like to tell my mentees, “I’m not any smarter than you; I’ve just been around longer, so I’ve had time to make more mistakes than you.” (The mullet, by the way, was definitely a mistake.)
I’ve been thinking about what advice I wish someone had offered to me back when I was just a kid trying to write music, with the occasional crazy idea that someday maybe that would be the main thing that I’d be doing and that someone might be even crazier and be willing to pay me to do it. Alas, I can’t go back in time and offer this advice to myself, but the next best thing is to publish it here on the internet for all the kids (and those with child-like hearts) who still have these crazy dreams…
- First of all, you aren’t trying to become a songwriter. You already are a songwriter. You’re just trying to become a better songwriter. You write songs? Then you’re a songwriter. The question of why you do it never even occurs to you; you just do it because that’s what you need to do. So ignore any voices (especially you’re own) that try to tell you that you’re not a songwriter yet.
- Write a lot. Write often. Feel no shame in not finishing things (if something’s not working; abandon it and start something else). Learn the discipline of writing everyday, even if you don’t feel like it. (One of my favorite pieces of advice, although I can’t remember who said it: “So you can’t think of anything to write about? OK, write about that.”) Most of the fight is just showing up. I promise you that if you show up, the music will show up too.
- Be prepared for inspiration to strike anywhere, anytime. Always carry some way of capturing those unexpected moments of inspiration. I recommend a miniature digital recorder. You can hum a melody, recite a few lyrics, even just describe an idea (like “hey, I should write a song about the old remains of a kite that I saw stuck in a tree”).
- Collaborate. Most of the time you’ll probably write by yourself, but seek out opportunities to write with other people. Remember that co-writing, like love, doesn’t often blossom at first sight. The first (or second or third) time you write with someone, it might be hard and might not produce good results. But if there’s even a glimmer of hope that the collaboration can produce something that you can’t produce by yourself (assuming of course that you like that product) then go back for another try.
- Spend time with people who know more than you. Oh man, how I wish someone would have told me this. You might even be surprised that older, smarter, more experienced people won’t mind having you around, as long you don’t become a nuisance. I saw a cool documentary about how Mark Knopfler likes to invite young musicians into his mixing sessions, as long as they stay silent and sit in the back and just watch. Some ideas: look for internships, go to symphony rehearsals (they’re usually free), take lessons, take someone to lunch and pay for lunch in return for just listening to their stories.
- Be true to yourself. Don’t write the songs that you think people will like; write the songs that you like, then find other people who also like them. Imagine how awful it would be if you write a hit song in a popular style that you don’t like, and then everyone expects you to keep writing in that style.
- It’s hard work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. But it does mean that success is not going to come quickly or easily. You have to listen a lot, write a lot, practice your playing or singing, take lessons, etc.
- Don’t wait for a song to be perfect before you record it or perform it live. Guess how many songs you’ll record if you wait until they’re all perfect…
- Join a community of songwriters where you feel safe sharing your songs, getting constructive feedback, and being enouraged. You can find such groups through your school, your spiritual community, on bulletin boards at music stores or studios, and there are lots of “meetup” groups that advertise on the internet (for example at meetup.com). When you go to a songwriter meeting, each person is usually expected to bring one song to share with the group. There will probably be snacks and drinks and opportunities to talk to the other songwriters. This is a great way to find collaborators (see above) as well as people who know more than you (see above).
- Get your music to be heard. There are lots of opportunities to perform live (count it an extra blessing if you get paid, but don’t expect it): coffeehouses, open mic nights, art galleries, farmer’s markets, talent shows, etc. And broadcast your music: Start a YouTube channel, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, use a music sharing site (like SoundCloud or Bandcamp), etc.
Obviously the list could go on and on. But I really do think that these ten things are the things that I wish I had known dozens of years ago. Instead I probably was fixated on getting my mullet just right, or saving up some money to buy the coolest new keyboard (so that I could sound like everyone else).
It’s been years, but like I said, I’m still a beginner (just in different things than before), so I’d love to hear any advice that you can give me …
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