On Being A Professional Songwriter by Danny Arena
Almost Famous? Money For Nothing And Your Chicks For Free? I received an email this week from a songwriter who thought writing a hit song would lead them to financial independence. This is not the first time I have received such an email. In fact they come regularly, this was the second email on the topic I received this week (I'm staring at another one right now). I still had to shake my head and wonder. Is there really that much misinformation out there about the business of being a songwriter? If so, I really need to find out who's doing the PR for the entire songwriting profession and congratulate them on a job well done.
Well, let's shed some light on this and talk about some of these reasons why you might consider becoming a songwriter:
- Fame? Ummm, actually no. The songwriter usually remains unknown unless they are also the artist singing the song. How many non-songwriters out there know who Joe Leathers is? Did you know that Tim McGraw sang a song Joe co-wrote called, "Still" recently on the ACM Awards on national TV? How about Georgia Middleman? Keith Urban sang a song she co-wrote, "I'm In" , on the ACM Awards. Both songs are likely to be big hits, yet not many people will know the writers behind the songs. Dave Berg was ASCAP Songwriter of The Year a couple years ago. This is considered one of the highest awards a songwriter can receive...does his name ring any bells? Probably not unless you're in the music business. And those rare times when the songwriter is mentioned or acknowledged, it's not uncommon to find incomplete or missing relevant information. I read in the newspaper the day after the ACM's the following blurb: "For his latest single, Keith Urban looked toward one of his favorite writers, Radney Foster, for a rockin number called, "I'm In". The author of the article managed to leave out the name of Radney's co-writer on the song, Georgia Middleman (Radney is a former major label artist, hence the extra recognition he has). No, fame and glory are definitely not included in the benefits package for the professional songwriter. Sure, you might get a "that's cool" at your high-school reunion when they find out what you do for a living. But the truth is that even the most successful songwriters are only well-known in a relatively small circle.
- Make Lots of Money? Yes, surely, you should consider becoming a songwriter if money's tight and you need to make a few bucks quickly. Uh, no. Do you know the difference between a large pizza and a songwriter? One of them can feed a family of four (the other delivers the pizza for a living). Know how to make a million dollars as a songwriter? Start with 1.2 million. There's a reason why jokes like this exist. It's because there's a grain of truth in them. Very, very few songwriters actually make a living from writing songs full time. Those that do usually have been working steadily at it for a very long time. It might take a good 7-15 years working at it full time before you actually start seeing any money from your hard work. And yes, if you are one of the few songwriters who catches lightning in a bottle and lands a big hit song, you might make $300,000 in one year (before taxes). But as any financial advisor would tell you, when you average that big windfall over the 10 years prior when you've made next to nothing, it turns out you would have done better financially working at the local Lowe's Hardware. Plus you'd get health benefits (something that's not part of the deal when you're a professional songwriter). So, if you're looking for a sound financial plan, landing a gig as a professional or hit songwriter probably isn't the best career path for you.
- Job Stability? Sorry, no. The couple hundred songwriters who are lucky enough to land a steady gig writing songs usually sign a 1-5 year contract with a publishing company that has an option at the end of each year. That option is for the publishing company to decide whether or not they want to keep you around for another year. In other words, every year you're "on the bubble". So if you go a couple of years without some significant action on your songs, you're likely to be out on the streets looking for another writing deal. I might also add that the job itself is inherently fraught with highs and lows. Having lived this life now for a number of years, I most definitely would not call it a "smooth ride". One day you might get a call from the head of the record label on his airplane saying that they're going to cut one of your songs on a well-known group. But a month later, the group breaks up or declares bankruptcy. You might find out you have the next single on an established artist on a major label. But then out of nowhere, the record label shuts its doors and your single is dead in the water. You could attend opening night on Broadway and see your songs performed on stage but come back to the hotel to an email that informs you that your publishing company is closing so they can't pick up your option. Signing on for a career in songwriting is definitely signing up for a roller coaster ride [author's note: yes, as you've probably guessed, those are all real examples from the life of real songwriters, myself included].
Ok, so why become a songwriter then if it's such an incredibly difficult, unstable and financially unwise lifestyle? Well, Well, every once in a while all the stars line up in the universe and it's magic. You hear your song on the radio or you watch Tim McGraw singing your song on TV or Raul Esparza belting your song on Broadway. And it's that one brief moment that you always dream about as a songwriter...it's the thing that keeps you going through the days when you're out of a job, or people criticize your work and tell you that it's impossible to make it as a songwriter. You work your butt off for 10-12 years to get that one brief second where you feel like it's all worth it. And when it happens, it's truly a magical moment. My wife, Sara Light and I, have been lucky enough during our years as songwriters to catch lightning in a bottle a few times. I was actually nominated for a Tony Award the same year as three of my childhood idols who I always wanted to be like -- Elton John, Billy Joel and Michel Legrand (you may not recognize this last name...see point #1 above about fame). It was an unbelievable dream come true for me.
So while watching the ACM Awards on TV the other night, the first thing I did when I saw Tim McGraw singing Joe Leathers song was to email Joe a note to congratulate him. Right after that, I phoned Georgia Middleman and did the same...because when you get down to it, here's the thing. Songwriting is a calling - not a career choice. Those who succeed as songwriters didn't pick it as a lifestyle. Songwriting picked them. If I could give this up and choose another career and be happy doing it, I'd do it in a heartbeat. But I can't. This is what I do. It's what I've always wanted to do. It's what fills my soul. And given the choice, I'd do it all over again. Every professional songwriter I know is the same way. We can't not write songs. That business stuff -- just comes along for the ride, good and bad...and if you're still reading this and I haven't managed to convince you to not become a songwriter by this point, then welcome to the hood. You're a songwriter.
Danny Arena is a Tony-Award nominated songwriter and co-founder of www.SongU.com. SongU.com provides multi-level song writing courses developed by award-winning songwriters, song feedback, mentoring, one-on-one song coaching, co-writing, unscreened pitching opportunities and more. For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, visit: http://www.songwriting.net