Sunday, December 29, 2013

Nashville’s Not An Option…For Now, Anyway

I’m not interested in being famous.  I don’t have the right personality to enjoy the life of a celebrity.  That’s one reason I’ve never been interested in performing live.  Don’t get me wrong – applause and compliments are addictive, and I’ve experienced that, and loved it of course.  I have an addictive personality, so I instinctively know to stay away from something like that, just as with alcohol or gambling.

I would, however, like it if someone famous recorded and released one of my songs, and the song became famous, and the artist even more famous.  I do want to have more people appreciate my songs, and I’m not sure what that says about me, but someone who is a vehicle for that – someone better at the delivery aspect – is who I need to find.  I’ve heard you need to go to Nashville for that to happen, or possibly NY or LA. 
It’s the end of 2013, and when I look at the lists of the most popular songs of the last year, I realize I barely know any of the artists’ names.  I don’t recognize any of the songs either.  When I listen to these songs, I find myself not liking many of them.  Then I try to listen to more by that artist, and again, not finding much I like. 

There’s either terrible hip hop, or terrible mainstream country, and there doesn’t seem to be any rock and roll anymore.  If there is, it has a lot of synthesized drums and keyboards.  It’s a weird time for a songwriter like me to be pitching songs due to the weirdness of what’s popular now. 

They say if you’re going to be a non-performing songwriter, it’s all about who you know, and you have to go to Nashville and network and make connections.  A guy from Michigan with a day job can’t pre-arrange meetings for a vacation down there very easily.  I’m thinking it would be a waste of time anyway, since I don’t write the type of stuff I hear on the radio, nor do I want to.

So, that leaves me with the prospect of selling my own recordings of my own songs, and I’ve got to do it online, since there are no record stores anymore.  In doing so, would anyone looking for a song for a movie or a famous singer’s next album ever run across one of my songs for consideration?  No, probably not, and so I would still need to pitch if I wanted that to happen I suppose.

Questioning why I continue to pursue this hobby makes me think of next steps, getting to another level, etc. which is a natural thing.  In doing so, I question whether I’m good enough to do so.  The reason I don’t give it up and replace it with something else in that free time slot is that I really enjoy it. 

I get a kick out of listening back to my recordings years later, and am a little amazed that without any lessons or training of any kind, I have five or six songs that are real songs, and pretty darned good.  Comparing yourself to others is something that isn’t healthy.  It’s good for me, and what’s good for me, may not be good for a famous artist, but I have a few songs that might be close. 

If presented to those seeking material for an artist to record, they might agree.  There is something to be said for garage rock being played acoustically, and that’s my sound.  It’s quite different than someone trained at Berkley or Julliard who would be writing for a play or a movie or a ballad for a pop star.  It’s rock and roll, which has always been about rebellion, and not too serious, and about having fun and not getting too fancy.  Taking that thought a step further into punk, you’ve got the anti-establishment, ant-mainstream.

They say you have to study what’s commercially successful in the mainstream in order to sell a song to a recording artist.  I don’t do that.  I don’t care.  I don’t listen to the radio or watch MTV.  I don’t care what’s in the top 40.  In fact, I’m primarily influenced by what was on the radio when I was a kid in the 70s.  So, I write what I write, the way I like to do it, and never have an artist in mind, or a style based on what’s currently popular. 

Sure, I could quit my day job, find something similar in Nashville, and after I move there, see if anyone is interested in any of my songs.  I could hang out at the right places in the evenings, get involved in the community, meet people.  Would that help me get a cut?  Probably not, if I don’t pay attention to what the great singers are looking for.  I have my own weird style – a blend of different genres. 

I could go to a studio and bend them into what a popular artist would sound like, and maybe that would work.  I could possibly do that from Michigan – just pay a demo service down there to do a fully countrified version of some of my songs, and then figure out who to pitch them to and how to go about that.

Sounds like a lot of effort, doesn’t it?  I’m sure there are countless others like me whose passion for songwriting led them to do just that – pack up and move to music city.  I’m sure they find places to get the applause, the compliments after the show, the local open mic or song pull or songwriter in the round deals, or those house concert things.  Maybe they’ve made connections, have spent hard-earned cash on pro demos, pitched them, maybe got a hold or two.

Then you have to wonder – are they happier?  Are they discouraged?  Was the place all it was cracked up to be?  Has rejection and criticism gotten them down to the point they wish they hadn’t done it?  I wonder what that’s all like.  I wonder what about those who achieve the cut by a major label artist.  What is the pressure like after that?  What about those who’ve never been able to duplicate that, and many years have gone by?  Are they better off?  Would I trade being in that position for being close to family and friends here in my home state?

All I have are unanswered questions here.  We’ve all heard it said that it’s better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all.  If I believe that, those people are better off than me.  Maybe they can write books about their experiences now, be instructors at song camps, instead of writing “what if” blog posts like me. 

Personally, I’ve gone for it before with certain pursuits in my life I had contemplated, sometimes against my gut feeling, and they didn’t work out, and I didn’t gain anything from the experience.  I call those regrets.  So far, my gut tells me I’m not good enough…..yet.  Would I get better any faster if I were to dive into that world?  Probably, but then again, I might give up faster, and not have enjoyed all these years of my hobby.  Nashville is out for now.  Thanks to this blog no one reads, I’ve typed my way through to that conclusion.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Songwriting, It's A Lifestyle

I guess more than anything, this blog is a lifestyle blog.  It’s about songwriting, which is something I like to do.  It’s a part of my lifestyle.  It’s one of the many things I do fairly consistently in my free time.  Once in a while, I blog about it here.  I just sort of share my experiences for no apparent reason.  I’m not good enough or expert enough or experienced enough or credentialed enough to write a column for American Songwriter magazine, for example.  This blog is not meant to be educational necessarily.  I don’t know why anyone would read it, really.  I don’t specifically provide instruction to people who aspire to write songs.  As a recording artist, I don’t share my experiences on the road during a tour like touring musicians would, because I’m not a touring musician.  So, it’s not aimed at my fans either.  Maybe by the end of this post, I’ll figure out why this might be of interest to anyone.

More than anything, what is notable about me being a songwriter is that I am self-taught in all aspects of the craft.  I suppose if you’re someone who has already figured out how to write songs yourself, you might be interested in the struggles I share, as a sort of misery-loves-company type of thing.  Like many a blogger out there, I tend to rant and rave about the frustrations I experience related to writing and recording songs.  Actually, I love the writing and recording part, but it’s the “getting an audience” part that has been difficult for me.  I’m not someone who will ever aspire to be a performing songwriter who plays gigs and gets fans from playing live shows.  I hold out hope that I can gain an audience just by having an online presence, and that eventually, recommendation will increase my fan base and music sales.  I’m not big on promotion, advertising, or marketing myself, so herein lies a dilemma that is at the core of what I blog about most – the desire to be heard by more people, combined with a passion only for the creative part of the craft.

It used to be that record companies sunk tons of money into an artist they signed to get them publicity, and that this was the only way the famous bands we all know and love became famous in the first place.  Technology has made it possible for musicians to be self-contained, self-employed professionals who can gain large audiences without record companies.  Although there are some overnight successes and those who have the right idea go viral at the right time, the majority of these acts pay dues by building a fan base by relentless touring, and by having teams of people who help them handle the promotion and publicity.  Creative types typically don’t have much interest in the business side of music.  With a day job, no desire to play live, and no extra cash to hire people to help grow my audience, I’m one of several million.  Although I’ve found free ways to have an online presence and cheap ways to get my music in online stores, and cheap ways to record my songs with a decent level of quality at home, it’s not enough.  I may have been among the first wave of people to do all these things totally alone and very inexpensively, but now everyone and their brother can record a song at home and put it on iTunes for sale and have a website.

Writing about your struggles to gain a greater audience is one thing, but sharing the joy of your passions is another.  Maybe this blog would be more interesting to more people if I wasn’t trying to get them to buy my music, but rather, just to focus on what it’s like to spend a few hours a week writing and recording songs.  Since I know there are millions of others like me out there, maybe they’d be interested in reading about the experiences of someone else who has a similar life.  That’s got to be the audience this blog will gain, if any.  Fans of my music might like to hear how the next album is coming along too.

The best thing I can say about this hobby of mine is that I can’t go very long without doing it, without thinking about it at least.  I wrote a song recently that started in my head on the way to work one morning.  I’d written about half the chorus during my 10 minute commute.  Then I worked all day, and when I got home, I had the whole chorus in about 5 minutes.  Then from that, I knew what I wanted the verses to include, content-wise, since this was a story-type song.  So, I made a few notes, and then all that was left was looking up a couple rhymes at (free rhyming dictionary online) and writing a bridge.  After about 20 minutes, I had the whole song typed up in a word document.  What I’m really glad about was remembering my morning thoughts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had great ideas and lines for a song in my head just from thinking in my car, but no recorder or pen and paper to write them down, then forgot them, and they’re lost forever.  All I remembered was that I wanted to remember the great song ideas, but when you wait too long, it’s all over.

The beauty of this hobby is, you can always write more, even when you lose a song.  My memory ain’t what it used to be, but that’s why a big part of my time spent on songwriting is actually typing the lyrics and typing the chords once I have those figured out.  So, with this song, I already had one of those things they call a dummy melody in my head.  Just reading the words to myself in my head made me envision the music, since the lyrics were intentionally written with a certain meter in mind – you know – close to the same number of syllables in each line and so forth.  I never have trouble picking a key, due to my limited vocal range, so then it was just a matter of getting out the guitar and finding some chord changes that worked.  Typing up the lyrics is the key, because after I do that and just read them to myself, I can “hear” in my mind where the chord changes will be.

Sometimes I will even type an X above the word or syllable where the chord would be strummed throughout the song.  Then I’ve got lyrics, and where the chords are to be played, and all that is left is choosing those chords.  Typically, certain chords in a song in a certain key go well with each other – you know, those “chord family” deals.  Sometimes though, you can go outside those rules and still make it work.  This song was one of those.  So, after about 10 more minutes, I had the chords nailed down and I just reach over the guitar in my lap to type those on the lyric document.  I’m lazy, so I only put the chord letter symbols in the first verse, chorus and bridge, knowing they repeat for subsequent sections.

The next step was to hit record on my cassette recorder I use for first takes.  I recorded it once all the way through, rewound, then listened back, when I discovered a few little things to tweak pronunciation-wise and arrangement-wise, then made those adjustments to my document and hit record again.  This time, when I listened back, it was exactly how I envisioned it that morning in my car.  Keeper, done with the songwriting part.  Now, when I get (make) time to record next in my digital multitrack software on my computer with microphones and everything, I’ll do that again, and separately record bass, drums, etc.  That’s another thing – you can “hear in your mind” what instrumentation is appropriate for the song as well, very early when writing it.  So, there I had a finished song in maybe 45 minutes.  It will probably take me, for this particular one, about another hour to get the final studio recording done.  So, yeah, about 2 hours per song, start to finish is not too far off from the time spent.

I release a new album of 13 songs every two years, so it’s like one every two months.  It’s usually a an hour or so on a weeknight, a couple nights per week on average, and then about two Saturdays per month for longer recording sessions where I crank out two songs in three hours or so.  Some songs don’t come so easy, and those are the ones that don’t end up being that great.  All of the above is fun for me.  It’s literally a blast, and if I go a month or so without doing any of the above, I get a little bummed out from missing it.  That should give you a glimpse into what the time spent is like for people like me who consider themselves songwriters.  If you look at it this way, it’s a fairly large part of my lifestyle, and I’m thankful I’m able to do it, whether I sell any records or not!  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Why The Pope Shits In The Woods

To answer this question, and relate it to my free-time hobby of writing songs and recording them, I have to express my thoughts about wanting people to have access to my music while not wanting to spend money on promoting it or playing live shows.  I need to reach deep into my psyche and try to examine why just writing songs and recording them for myself is not enough.  Wax warning:  This post might be construed as all three, but do you ever notice anyone waxing anything but philosophic, poetic or nostalgic?  Maybe some novelists with PhDs and knowledge of literary criticism do to impress each other, but we aren’t them, are we?  Songwriters write songs to try to impress each other I suppose, but what does that say about us?  The pseudo-intellectuals of the world and those who self-identify with being some variation of geek/nerd/dweeb, etc., and who also happen to write songs, may very well get into using big words and trying to out-do each other that way.  Some with songwriting expertise advise the twist on a tired cliche thing as an ingredient for a good song, so if you follow that, maybe you are going to wax something else in your song, or maybe waxing bikini, as in to assume the identity of a hot babe’s bikini.  I’m getting away from the point of this post already - which is to answer the question in the title as it relates to the craft.  

I know, it’s a wacky proposition, but I’ll get there, and if you read along, you’ll get the point, which is that if art is only appreciated by its creator, it doesn’t really exist.  Another way to put this idea is that you must make people aware of your music, like it or not, to truly get the most out of the craft of writing songs.  My wife cured me of being a swearer long ago, but I thought using the only swear word I’ve ever used in one of my songs was necessary for this topic, just as it was absolutely necessary in my most popular song, Mackinac Island (HS&F).  In the continuing saga of the non-performing songwriter/home recording hobbyist and hermit who knows deep down in a bygone music era not too long ago he’d have no business in the music business, but now finds himself able to just barely get a virtual foot in the door, I’m going to attempt to answer one of life’s funniest questions and relate it to my sad struggle to be discovered, heard, and appreciated.

“Does the Pope shit in the woods?”  I’m pretty sure this was a line from one of my all-time favorite movies, The Big Lebowski, delivered hilariously by the main character the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges.  It’s a funny twist on “Is The Pope Catholic?,”  which is what you say in place of “of course” in reply to a yes/no question.  

There are a lot of variations of this we’ve heard throughout our lives, which all sort of combine elements of philosophy, science, and comedy:
  • If a bear shits in the woods, and there is no one around to smell it, does it still stink?
  • If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?
  • If a man speaks in the forest, and there’s no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?

The answer isn’t always so obvious though, in my way of thinking.  People tend to immediately accept an intended meaning when hearing these, and after laughing, rarely discuss alternate meaning interpretations.  Without delving deeply into metaphysics, and hopefully not getting myself into deep shit for using a swear word and speaking my mind and offending people, I’m going to describe how the classic tree version applies to songwriting.  If you write songs and never play them in the presence of other people, or never record them and make those recordings available for other people to listen to, then they are the trees.  

If you don’t take a risk, you can’t get the reward, but then again, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself up shit creek without a paddle.  That is, with no income to offset your albeit modest investment in making your music available, which frustrates you to the point where you become a harsh ranter, raving foul-mouthed filth to offend and thereby hypocritically use your way with words to criticize and cause harm instead of helpful laughter, you blog it out and carry on.  Some bail out and swim to shore, admitting defeat, but not me.  I’m raging on in a changing music business that allows amateur hacks like me to peddle my wares, trying to remember not to take it all too seriously, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that many who’ve come before and achieved sales, did so with wares I personally consider substandard to my own.

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream

That’s a great song we all know.  If life is but a dream, then you’re not really reading this blog, and the moon in the sky at night doesn’t exist, whether people see it or not.  This concept applies to music marketing/promotion/advertising.  It used to be you could put the CD in the brick-and-mortar record store, and there was a chance a shopper would see it, be intrigued by the album title, the artist name, the cover artwork, the song titles, and/or the liner notes.  Those stores don’t exist anymore, but the same principle on the web means people have to visit the music store site, otherwise, the music doesn’t exist either.  The science behind audience definition/targeting and search optimization isn’t applicable and doesn’t matter when there’s no physical matter to apply it to.  But there’s a revelatory philosophical principle about this simple old tune that is not only a good approach to music, but also to living your life:  Don’t try too hard, and have fun.  I take it, and I advise it, for life and for songwriting.  You typically want to share the things you’ve had fun creating though, with the hope that they’ll be appreciated in a positive way.

Those seven words sum up my approach to this songwriting hobby very well, but the reason I record and distribute (the part that’s not fun) is based on a lack of certainty that this is all a dream.  The “what if?” thoughts of there being no afterlife, along with a belief that art doesn’t exist without appreciation, drives the “work” I put in to be an independent recording artist.  Fortunately, I’ve become aware of some appreciation of my art due to this work.  That appreciation is my fuel for continuing to be a songwriter.  Let the trees continue to fall.  What if the pope, while shitting in the woods, notices a bear also shitting nearby, while simultaneously hearing a tree falling nearby, and a woman is there to verify and provide feedback that it’s all sick and wrong? Songwriters need the feedback, or else their songs don’t exist, so they can either play live in a bar, or use CD Baby to get on iTunes.  It begs another question:  If you’re like me and people won’t pay to see you play live, despite trying, why shouldn’t you also give up when no one will pay .99 to download your MP3.  The answer:  a few people actually have paid that .99, which gives me hope that more of the same will occur, that I’ll get repeat customers if I repeat the process of releasing more trees into the wild, so at a nominal cost, why wouldn’t I trudge on?

We’ve all been alienators and bridge-burners at one time or another in our lives, and some find those personalities a little more interesting.  Maybe the rebels, the ne’er-do-wells, the slackers, the class clowns of the world write better songs.  If you’re going to answer a question with a question, it helps if it’s both funny and deep.  Serious questions are no fun at all.  Take the typical cop question “do you know why I pulled you over?” and think that through.  I always want to say something like “I’m flattered that from briefly glancing at me and my car, you had enough observatory power to gather information and surmise that I might have the type of extra sensory perception that has given me the ability to read your mind.”..and then follow that up with the word “Yes.”  Not a wise strategy.  The cops I’ve met don’t seem to be deep thinkers.  And one might think the smart and expected answer is simply “no.”  After the yes, the cop would then likely retort with something like, “why?,” to which I would then reply, “how would knowing the answer to that help you protect and serve any better than you already are?”  If life is but a dream, a maximum fine and jail time is a nightmare, not to mention the risk of random violence cops are prone to committing, such as being shot and killed by the cop right then and there.  

The “their word against yours power” isn’t fair, and if you’re dead, you don’t care if a passerby got it on video with their phone as evidence for justice in court when the cop lies and claims you were reaching for a weapon, especially if there’s no afterlife.  When a question isn’t funny, and it’s totally on the surface, it’s meant for places like courts of law, not private life conversations with real people.  Lawyers are skilled with asking questions they already know the answers to, and seem to in a sick way really take joy in playing dumb and acting as if they really don’t know the answer when they ask the question.  It’s too bad that their profession trains them for this, which they then inevitably use in their personal lives.  

What you do for a living, unfortunately, can shape the person you are, and certain traits don’t work outside of work.  Winning friends and influencing people is not accomplished by beating people up with words and using questions as weapons.  On the other hand, the hand I’m talking about here, replying to a question that would seemingly have a simple, predictable answer with a funny, philosophical question is always pleasantly thought-provoking.  Add in an unexpected swear word, and you’ve got the makings of an almost sure-fire way to get people to crack up and like you.  When you hear such a question, there’s a brief second before you laugh where you think of the alternate implications it presents - you may not want to admit it, but you’ve experienced it.  

Those who like to self-identify with being intellectual, pseudo or not, will take this ball and run with it, making a game out of pointing out the technicalities and logic flaws involved.  They’ll have follow-up questions of their own in response to your question replies, such as the living thing argument - creatures present with the capability of hearing, the possibility of aliens in parallel dimensions travelling faster than the speed of sound past the tree when it fell, ad nauseum.  Your stereotypical comic book / science fiction fan will have a field day, and it will annoy you, because you’re not like them, and you’re sad realizing they’ll never think it’s funny like you do to hear someone say “Does the pope shit in the woods?”  You’ll glaze over as they ramble, and you’ll start thinking of great new song lyrics but have no pen and paper or recorder.  That’s a bummer, man.  Makes you want to say “fuck it, let’s go bowling.”

To truly expose the underlying, hidden truths behind a question where the answer is obviously going to be yes, you’ve got to talk about why the Pope would shit in the woods in the first place.  You figure they mostly hang out in big cities, travel in luxury popemobiles, spend a lot of time in churches with modern plumbing.  You can brainstorm this.  You can try to think pope, papal, paper, toilet paper, papal paper, no paper handy while in woods, the convenience of the robe vs. pants, you picture squatting, them being right-wing conservatives, yet probably not opposed to walking in woods.  Say you’re a pope, the urge hits, and you happen to be in some woods, it could happen, probably has happened.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say there have been a lot of popes, and I hereby submit they’ve all shat in the woods before,  because there ain’t no papal porta johns in woods, not even when in Rome.

I’m digressing, so to get back on track and do as they do, I’ll write a prayer:  Dear God, please let more people hear and appreciate my songs.  That’s another thing with the internet lately - with all the free streaming going on, you don’t know if your song was played and liked by someone or not. Yes, star trek fans out there, some such services have analytics available, but most don’t for free anyway, and because of google, who pays for analytics nowadays?  People who work in sales I guess. The sales aren’t there, but who knows, maybe lots of people listened and loved my songs, but didn’t feel like e-mailing me to let me know, or didn’t feel like posting a kind review,  or recommending it, or clicking some sort of Like or +1 button.  It’s a hassle to do all that when you’re just out to find and listen to some interesting music for free and move on.  So there’s the finding it thing, and then there’s the liking it, and then there’s me finding out about any of this actually occurring.  

Even the best, most famous songwriter/artists out there don’t get paid for their art like they used to, and even the ultra-popular make more from playing live shows than selling records now.  Despite the business changing, it’s pretty cool that the potential is there for someone to be present with hearing ability when the tree falls, and at least I’m doing what’s necessary to stink up the Amazon, Google Play and iTunes forests with my shitty music, and it’s better that someone could smell it, than to not be that bear at all.  For you fellow songwriters out there, remember:  don’t work too hard, have fun, be the bear.  Luckily, technology has made it so that there’s not much to lose.  There are a billion others like me - with a microphone, computer, and guitar who make up words, try to sing, and hold out hope for something accidental and viral to happen with little expense or effort to boost our audience.  Like the lottery, you can’t win it if you don’t have the ticket.  Well, I’ve offended the intellectual community, the legal community, and the religious right community, so I’ll conclude with a question for you left-leaning, tree-hugging hipsters in the forest out there:  If an internet music fan finds and free-cloudstreams a songwriter/recording artist’s song, and the songwriter never becomes aware that it happened, did it?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why I Hope Pono Takes Off and My Unsolicited Advice for Neil Young

Names are more important than you think for products and services to do well.  It’s a big reason why Bandcamp and Soundcloud are cool.  The word wiki is cool, especially when you figure out what they do and that the word means quick in Hawaiian.  Which brings me Pono, another Hawaiian word meaning righteousness or maybe just righteous.  I know as little about the word as the new music service it’s named after.  What I do know is that Neil Young is spearheading a company to make higher-quality music available to everyone.  He showed the device on Letterman – an unusually large and oddly-shaped orange thing that kids won’t think is as cool as their new smartwatch music player for sure.  Kids only know low-quality compressed MP3 and iPods. 

To them, vinyl records are things hip-hop DJs scratch, and otherwise, are uncool, old-fashioned, grandparent things and not even used by their parents who listen to CDs.  Kids these days – there might be pockets of them who have record players and buy something from Jack White, but that’s a really small market.  So Neil’s initial market will be his fanbase which includes me, then he’ll have to hope it catches on with the kids.  If it does a little bit, Sony and Apple and Amazon and Google will follow suit and improve their quality, and then Neil will have another achievement to add to his legacy for kick-starting this long-overdue thing.  This itself is somewhat of a contradiction on a few levels.  Neil isn’t known for perfect and pristine music-making like Pink Floyd or Boston that would really shine in high def.  If you read up on Neil, he gets on kicks.  He supposedly got on a kick about digital being the thing of the future back in the 80s and invested in it, then changed his mind and went back to analog. 

If you are a Neil fan, you like the fact that he does what he wants and gets away with it – there’s just something about the guy that is appealing.  He can sell stuff, no problem, especially if it’s music-related.  He’s sold toy trains and electric cars, or maybe if he hasn’t really sold many, he’s tried to make a difference in the world in his own way that makes sense to him.  Willie Nelson sells bio diesel, or at least his bus runs on it.  These guys try to make a difference, and it’s admirable.  Neil’s got connections, he’s influential, likable.  He changes styles a lot, and you like that.  If you read about him, he’s one of many people in the music business who believe records should be made live in the studio, with few overdubs, real instruments, on all-analog equipment, then converted from some type of tape to high-quality digital. 

Many argue the digital-from scratch recording equipment and software like ProTools produces better-sounding, higher-quality music than Neil’s current older-school approach.  You can google music engineer forums and read all kinds of arguments for and against this approach.  You read about what the human ear can and can’t hear, frequency-wise, and learn about hertz and bits and stuff you don’t care about so much.  We all want the highest quality music we can get, and we are willing to pay extra for it, that’s the bottom line.  We care about quality, and we know MP3s don’t sound as good as our records did under the needle when they were new, even if we had cheap stereo turntables. 

CDs are pretty good quality, but are inconvenient.  We all carry around phones with us everywhere now, so there’s got to be an easy way to get high-quality music on them that’s low-hassle.  Neil needs to make something that can be a part of your phone, not some weird-shaped orange deal that is an extra thing you’ve got to carry around in addition to your phone.  The Googles and Amazons of the world have had trouble getting all the “major” record companies on board to compete with Apple’s iTunes, so that’s obviously a hurdle, as is the streaming digital locker in the cloud concept, which is here to stay.  It’s going to take more bandwidth and space, which costs more, but we’re getting there. 

The technology exists for high quality music, and with cheaper cloud storage and faster internet connections, there’s got to be a way to buy and organize your music collection on a website, and listen to it on your mobile phone, and have it be 24-bit/196hz or 1 bit or DSD or SACD or FLAC or OggVorbis or whatever the higher-quality standard is going to be.  We all agree on this, so Neil needs an app with online store/storage/download/sync//radio/streaming service to get it on people’s phones somehow, not the weird orange thing.  I’ll buy the weird orange thing myself, and put up with the hassle of carrying around an extra gadget in addition to my phone, and other Neil fans will too, but eventually, I’m going to want the whole shebang on my phone. 

Another thing is, iTunes won’t let the non-major independent artist to distribute unless they go through an aggregator.  Totally annoying.  There are tons of us out there who can go direct on Amazon, direct on Google, direct on Bandcamp, but have to go through Tunecore or CDBaby to get on iTunes.  If Neil only goes after the major label artists or the next step down from major, that will suck, just as MP3s suck.  Neil should start by letting in independent artists who are DIY’ers without a record deal with an established record company first.  It should be a slow-building, grassroots thing from the ground up.  His approach we’ve read about so far was to first get the majors on board, just like Google and Spotify did.  That’s backwards thinking, in my opinion, and it would really build momentum if something were in place for independent artists to distribute their high-quality recordings at service launch time, along with the major label artists. 

Of course, Neil is himself a major label artist, and might not fully recognize or appreciate the huge audience of independent artists out there in the world who would love to distribute to Pono directly right away.  Affordable home recording equipment and digital technology has made it possible for millions to get their music out into the world without getting lucky with a major label contract first.  He shouldn’t blow us off. 

So, to sum up my advice for Neil:  1) ditch the orange thing and make it work on everyone’s phones, or better yet - make the orange thing be a smartphone as well, and 2) let in the independent artists for direct DIY distribution at launch time.  It has great potential and I hope it works, if for no other reason than to force the big players in the music service game to up the quality.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Secret Public Life As A Musician

If you’re like me, you have a secret-yet-totally public part of yourself that is your online music presence.  You never talk about it with people at your day job, or with your family, or even your friends.  Only a few people you’ve run across in your life know little tidbits - maybe they remember you mentioning you taught yourself a few chords on a guitar, and maybe that you like to strum and try to make up songs once in a while in your free time.  Technically, since you’ve had no formal training, don’t read music notation, and basically don’t think you’re very good, you don’t even qualify to be able to say you’re a real musician.

Most people you know don’t know you have a blog, a website, and your songs for sale in online stores.  You love making music, and can’t go long without getting cravings to do it some more, but few people know about this habit of yours.  Maybe you’ve kept it that way because you’re modest.  Maybe you’re modest because of your personality but also because you’re not confident that this passion of yours will result in your music being appreciated by other people.  A part of you wants people to know, to listen, to compliment you, to buy your albums.  A part of you envies other amateur musicians who go for it, and make it known to everyone they know, even though they’re not that good in your opinion.  No guts no glory, but you want to keep this part of your life separate.  

Even though it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, nothing that could wreck your career if people found out, you keep it hidden, yet it’s out there online for the whole world to discover.  Your music isn’t all that controversial or explicit or even overtly rebellious.  It’s pretty tame and far from being reputation-damaging, aside from the potential fact that it might not be good, which then might cause people to feel sorry for you, or ridicule you, or think less of you.  Yep, when you’re like me, and when you’re kind of afraid of playing in public, and you have a cheap little home recording rig, and a few cheap instruments, and you like to make up words and sing, you put your recordings of your songs online and nobody notices or buys them.  This helps solidify the notion you already had in your mind that you’re not very good at this little hobby.  

You still love doing it though.  You don’t have money for advertising and you have no fan base or mailing list.  There are little things that you can focus on, which might help attract listeners.  For example, since you’re up against short attention spans, which means you’ve got to have short intros in case someone ever hits that play button.  It might help if the songs are really good, but they’re not.  It might help if you have a great voice or great instrumental chops, but you don’t.  There’s got to be a way to improve your chances of gaining an audience.  

You think about these kinds of things when you’re not writing & recording.  You know how it is yourself to surf around the internet and stumble upon music and listen with your headphones on.  Maybe it’s a recommendation, maybe an accident, maybe someone you know, or someone that someone you know knows.  When you’re a closet recording artist, or non-performing songwriter like me, you miss out on audience feedback from playing live, and you’re forced to take into consideration what can get you recognized online.  This boils down to catchy song titles.

A few months ago, I ventured out of my basement studio and performed some of my original songs in front of a live audience for the first time in at least 15 years.  I had been scared beforehand because it had been so long, and also because the audience included many professional performing singer-songwriters.  I decided to go for it and do the best I could, and it worked out fine.  I got the audience to sing along, got lots of applause, and even got compliments afterward.  This made me feel good.  It also made me feel like I could do this more often if I memorized more of my own songs and practiced more.

Overall, it made me look back on my involvement in music – from my beginnings as a music fan, to someone who learned to play guitar, to someone who played in duos and bands, to someone who played solo at open mic nights, to someone who wrote his own songs, to someone who records his own songs while playing multiple instruments and singing.

Prior to the recent live performance, I had evolved at my own pace to become someone who treated music as a hobby – writing songs and recording them alone in my basement.  In my home studio – where I have a computer, audio interface, multitrack recording software, guitar, bass, drums, microphone, etc. – I have taught myself to be able to record one track at a time and mix those tracks together to produce a song that sounds like a band had played it.

With no formal music training and limited natural talent – particularly vocal talent – I do the best I can with what ability I do have, and with the help of the internet, learn little things here and there about music along the way through trial and error.  I take it slowly, and my progression with the craft of songwriting and recording has slowly improved over the years in small ways that may only be noticeable to me.

Live audience feedback can be a good indicator of memorability.  Herein lies a missing ingredient – the input of others.  Although I sell my recordings online, I don’t sell much, and I get very little feedback from those who do buy them.  Playing live would probably help me sell more, and it would also give me an idea of which songs are better than others.  Instead of relying on my own intuition or a review by a relative or friend, a live audience would help as an additional means of weeding out prior to releasing.

So, the pre-conlcusion here is playing live would no doubt help my cause to bring people my best songs.  What works and what doesn’t in front of a live audience would also help me refine works-in-progress.  There is potential to self-market when playing live and get more people to buy my music online.

Another conclusion I came to when playing live recently was that people love a funny song.  In a live performance setting, people remember your funny songs, or your songs about drinking or partying, much more than your love songs or statement songs or story songs.  When you look at the list of an artists songs online, you read the song names and certain ones jump out at you.  The ones that are funny always do, and the ones that are unusual in some way.

What’s going on here is that catchy titles and humor seem to rule the age of internet singles.  Which brings to mind something music consumers have always known - catchy titles are more important than you might be willing to admit.  For the same reason you liked Fat Bottom Girls by Queen or Big Balls by AC/DC, or even songs whose name you remembered because of a memorable phrase it contained like Hair Of The Dog by Nazareth, catchy titles combined with a little humor and/or rebelliousness stick in our minds.  As a songwriter, you don’t intentionally try to write these, but they happen, and even though the artist in you never admits that such cheap novelty tricks work, they nonetheless do.  

There are artists whose entire careers are built around songs about drinking and partying.  They’d be nothing without those songs.  The music business has evolved into more of a singles business versus an album business.  In an era where single-song downloads are the norm, catchy titles rule.  Memorable song titles that grab the attention of potential listeners seems to be more important than ever.  Something tells me that the kinds of songs artists are remembered for most are the ones that are humorous, controversial, and rebellious…and most importantly, have those elements reflected in the song title.

My guess is that a song is more likely to be downloaded when it has a catchy title and poor melody/lyrics, and that a song with great melody/lyrics that does not have a catchy title is less likely to be purchased.  A part of me thinks it’s unfortunate, but a part of me thinks it’s always been this way.  It’s just emphasized more due to the way people find and buy music online now.  Videos seem to have great potential to help a cause like mine, but I don’t like seeing myself on video, and I never like how I look or sound, just like when you first got an answering machine for your phone and recorded your first outgoing greeting message and played it said to yourself “Is that really me?”  People discover YouTubes every day and overnight sensations are made and recordings get bought.

Just like no one will ever discover this blog if I don’t do anything different than continue to write rambling posts like this one, findability, “sticking outedness,” getting noticed, getting remembered ain’t gonna happen by happy accident.  Naming is important.  Artist/band names get noticed first, followed by album titles, then song titles, and it helps for all three to be attention-grabbing in some way.  Nailing down what constitutes ‘attention-grabbing’ is part user preference - that is, based on the individual’s personality and taste, but also part advertising.  General advertising principles apply, such as the fact that babies and sex sell products.  Songs that have familiar places, famous people, or that have blatant nose-thumbingness in their titles stand out in the crowd of song titles online.  Other qualities that appeal to the masses include anything popular - from popular phrases to cultural colloquialisms to well-known slogans to favorite words, etc.  These same principles are similarly important for books and movies as well.  

Theme time could be the right time.  Just as authors become known for a certain style of writing, songwriters/performers become known for a style of songwriting and performing.  Take Jimmy Buffett for example - chances are if you brainstorm a list of words that are tropical (coconuts, palm trees, sandy beach, ocean, etc.), you will find them in his album titles, song titles, and within the lyrics of the songs themselves.  There is a clear theme to his music.  You can say the same about instrumentation for certain musicians, as well as their clothing, performance style, dancing, etc.  Certain musicians are well aware of the importance of aesthetics - Jack White of White Stripes fame comes to mind here with the red & white theme he created for that band.  Album art can no doubt draw people in, but not as much as the old LP brick and mortar record store days.  Not only do you have a theme in visual style, but you also have a theme of musical style, and a big part of musical style involves the lyrics.  Lyrical themes delivered consistently create an expectation, and thus, draw an audience accordingly.  Here you get into pigeonholing, labeling, classification, categorization, genres, tagging and so forth, which goes against the grain of artistic freedom.  Having a recognizable signature style evolves out of experimentation, and can eventually help one build an audience.

Figuring out what people like while not repeating a formula is something to keep in mind.  Rather than taking a risk of your music being considered contrived, you can blow off trying to repeat something that appealed to many.  Record companies who get a hit out of an artist want another just like it, and rightfully so.  However, no artist wants all of their songs to sound the same as each other.  AC/DC stuck with a formula and have had a consistent signature sound, whereas Led Zeppelin included more variety in tempo and style, doing reggae, country, folk, and ballads as well as hard rock and blues.  You can change tempos, instruments, song forms, singing style, etc. and still sound like you, but sometimes, it’s contrived when it’s obvious you’re intentionally stretching too far from your home base.  

Punk rock musicians who suddenly switch to classical, or jazz musicians who change to recording country are rare.  Crossover attempts sometimes occur, but other times they are more contrived like when Garth Brooks recorded a rock album as a different persona.  Nashville songwriters seem to successfully pitch formulaic songs to mainstream country artists and it’s noticeable.  Sometimes you notice, and you don’t care, you like it anyway, and it just works.  There’s no accounting for people’s tastes, except that you can bet something fairly new and different will come along eventually that will be a breath of fresh air, and then others will try to emulate it.

Dealing with this knowledge can be tricky.  Despite knowing all of the above, I still just write what I feel like writing, and record the best of what I come up with.  The self-rated keeper ratio remains about the same from year to year, and I throw away about three fourths of what I write.  The remaining one fourth may suffer further weeding out due to not sounding so great after my best effort with the recording process, and then I’m left with a handful of songs every year that I consider “release-worthy”.  The songs I release are perhaps unconsciously influenced by my knowledge of what works, but I never set out to try to write a hit according to my knowledge of what worked in songs by others I enjoy.  My songs just happen, and although I’ve done some rewriting that worked on occasion, it’s usually a case of trusting the weeding out process I use.  The song has to be pretty good from the get-go to make my final cut.  The best ones fire on more cylinders than others right from the start, as if by pure accident.  More often than not, those that make the cut have some of the important catchiness in their titles and lyrics, and always in the music, but getting people to hear the music is greatly aided by the title.  

We’re in a try before you buy world now, where you stream it online first.  Prior to hitting play, the song title matters.  Can you rename a great song so that the title stands out more?  Yes, but only if it doesn’t take away from the song.  It usually means rewriting the chorus too, so you have to be careful.  The bottom line here is if you have a few attention-grabbing song titles, you’ll maybe be lucky enough to get fans who want the whole album.  They might be intrigued enough to try out the more boring-sounding song names as well.  Catchy titles happen naturally for me, but I never start writing with a title in mind.  It’s an accident, but when it happens, it helps to have a catchy song title.  The beauty of it is when you’re writing a song, maybe mid-way through, and you realize it’s going to be good, and then you realize at some point it’s going to work out that it has an attention-grabbing title according to the aforementioned criteria, you’ve got a definite keeper.  It’s cool when that happens, and I know that if I write enough songs, the keeper ratio will produce another.  It’s just a matter of time.

From a bedroom, basement or woodshed, you can get a somewhat decent recorded product, depending on your quality standards.  Nowadays you can record at home, then sell online, and never have to get out of your pajamas.  You can remain anonymous if you want to, and develop a following without ever needing to play in front of people though viral online recommendation.  Since I don’t even have a good voice, and am not a great guitar player, I shy away from playing in front of people.  I’m realistic in knowing I’m not a good performer.  Yet, I think my finished recordings show that my songs are pretty good.  It’s not that I doctor them up with fancy digital trickery - in fact I intentionally resist these temptations and try to produce a very realistic version of each song using the bare minimum of effects.  I must admit that I wish my music could reach a wider audience.  I’d love it if people liked and bought my music, and so that’s why I’ve made it available for sale in digital retail stores.  So my main confession is that I want that to happen without having to perform live.  Secretly, I’d like to maintain a slight bit of mystery, and maybe someday there would be a demand for me to play live.  If that ever happened, I would definitely be excited to learn my own songs and play them for people.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How To Write Songs

How To Write Songs

I have no formal music training, and am completely a self-taught musician and songwriter.  This is just one songwriter’s process, described with lessons learned and advice for the like-minded.  If someone had shared this with me 25 years ago when I wrote my first song, it would’ve helped.  

Songwriting can be almost effortless at times, and that’s when it’s fun.  Other times it feels more like hard work and a struggle.  Rarely can you boost a bad draft to a keeper, but it is possible, and when it happens, it is a result of hard work spinning your wheels when the magical solution presents itself.  Those are the exception, and usually the songs that you write quickly as if it’s being channeled through you are the best.  Different aspects of songwriting come easier for some people than others, depending on things like their natural talents, inclinations, preferences, abilities, etc. - whether they be the lyric writing, music writing, or other various aspects.  Based on this, I will divide this post into sections accordingly to cover my experience and comfort level with each aspect.  

The amount of pain and agony involved with songwriting varies with the stages in the process, and depending on your process the sequence of those stages may vary as well.  The experience factor is similar to playing an instrument - some can log a ton of practice hours and still not be very good, while others are seemingly born with a high level of talent.  Everyone has different strengths, but here’s my assessment of my own pain level for each stage and a description of how I don’t always follow a consistent process for every song.  

The Scott Cooley approach to songwriting described herein assumes you’ve already looked up the basics about typical song forms (verse/chorus, verse/pre-chorus/chorus, AABA, etc.) and song sections (chorus, bridge, verse, etc.).  It also assumes you like popular vocal music (rock, folk, blues, country, etc.) that has words and singing versus classical or instrumental jazz.  It also assumes you at least know how to play some basic chords on an instrument.

Sequential Approach
I’m usually a lyrics-first writer, only because I find myself most often inspired about an idea for a song when I have a way to get the lyrics written but don’t have a way to get the music written (no instrument).  We all have smartphones on us most of the time nowadays, and they usually have a text editor or audio recording app.  You’re not always near a piano or happen to have a guitar with you.  So, you hit record and do a note to self, or you type stuff, or you write it on a napkin, etc..  Even without the phone, you can always find a pen and paper in most places where you find yourself, but don’t necessarily find yourself in a place where you have a way to borrow a handy instrument.

This article focuses on writing lyrics first, but of course I also am fully capable of doing it the other way around, and have done so with success in the past.  Quite often a musical idea you come across will drive how the entire song is written, including the lyrics.  Making lyrics fit music is in some ways easier.  My songs are not super complicated musically, and I believe the lyrics are slightly more important for someone who writes the kinds of songs that I do.  Sometimes you like songs only because of the music, others you like only because of the memorable chorus and have no idea what the lyrics in the verses are, but more often than not it’s the total package that you like, and that usually means good, meaningful lyrics throughout.

Fun, somewhat painless.  The idea for the song is the most important part - not just the main topic, but your point of view on that topic.  If you’ve got a great concept for a song, it can write itself.  The concept has to be about a feeling - and the concept itself must be the thing that motivates you to finish the rest of the song in the first place.  Follow the inspiration.  Of course it can be about topics covered in other existing songs - either your own or other people’s, but it has to be a new take or a different way of looking at the topic that hasn’t been done before, or at least, not that you’re aware of.  Starting with a title that summarizes that concept can be one way to start.  Coming up with a topic idea for a song is typically pure inspiration.  The emotion you’re experiencing is what drives you to finish writing about it.  You’re basically just filling in details of a skeleton theme.  

On the other hand, sometimes you come up with it only in the process of stream-of-consciousness lyric writing.  Usually though, the idea usually just strikes you, maybe as a reaction to an experience you’ve had, a conversation you’ve had or overheard, reading a book, watching a movie or tv show, listening to other songs, etc.  This often leads you to a title for the song, and a good idea of what the main theme of the chorus and hook will be.  From these, you can build the rest of the song, so it’s not a bad way to start.  Typically, you’ll operate within the subject matter and associated genre confines of, for example, love found/lost (pop, R&B), celebration/party/wild&crazy/escape (rock), a song about a place (folk), drinking/fishing/patriotism (country), etc., only your goal will be a fresh take or angle on these that hasn’t been done before – I guess that’s the challenging part, but when it strikes you like a lightning bolt, it’s a no-brainer.

Lyric Writing
Fun, somewhat painless.  Especially on a computer, with a word processor and online rhyming dictionary and google, you’re set.  This assumes you’re starting with the words as opposed to fitting words to existing music, and further it assumes you’re probably starting with a title and overall concept already.  It’s really just a matter of expanding the title and concept into a chorus, then making it a conversation/story that has the basic elements of a story – the verses can identify a beginning, middle and end, and a bridge can provide a different perspective or tie things together.  

You’ll want to select a form structure along the way – either from the start, where it serves as a skeleton template form where you simply fill in the blanks, or just focus on getting all the story down, and after you have all the lines of information you want to include in the song, then rearrange them to fit the form structure.  Google ‘song forms’ and you’ll see there are only about 5 or 6 that most songs use, with optional variations.  
If you’ve started with music, and are trying to write lyrics to fit the music, you obviously already have a set form, and again, it’s a fill in the blanks thing.  Typically, you’ll want to pay attention to having lines with close to the same number of words and/or syllables as each other in each song section (verse, chorus, bridge), and change the rhyming scheme between sections, making sure you have agreement and keep in mind the basic and commonly-accepted rules (rules which if broken in the right way, of course produce great variations).  

The lyrics, when flowing out of you, are words and ideas you can’t wait to get out of your head and down on paper before you lose the cool concepts for the content.  Jot it down quickly, as you can always fix the little things like syllable pronunciation and meter later.  It’s the ideas that you want to capture while they’re fresh - the things you want to say and the point you’re trying to get across - the rhyming and story details and sequence of information can be perfected later on after you’ve got the bulk of the content down.  A final clean-up is then just a matter of getting it as close to ideal as possible while wearing your editor hat and looking at the song in its entirety.  

Music Writing:
A little more painful, depending on things.  When you’ve already got the lyrics done, and you have a structure with the song form, and a rhyme scheme, and the number of syllables in each line comes close to matching similar lines, then you’ve got something that’s easy to work with.  As you read the lyric either in your head or out loud, without pausing, the song as a whole will usually have patterns that become more evident - and these patterns will help you “envision” the music as you read it.  It’s got to be interesting to listen to, only not plagiarize existing songs that are interesting to listen to.  

Style considerations must be taken into account if you are after a particular genre of song – they can often dictate the key musical elements.  You have to come up with something new, yet something that uses some commonly-accepted elements that provide tension and excitement.  You probably want to use some commonly-accepted chord families for the key the song will be in.  You will want to stick with the structure of one of the major popular song forms, and not stray too far from it.  

You must have an exciting melody – hummable, whistleable, memorable – this is by far the most difficult part.  When you’re trying anyway, it’s hard, but sometimes it just happens naturally and you stumble upon a good one by accident.  Otherwise, you need to know how to read music unfortunately, and piano might be a better instrument for guitar for writing melodies.  When writing music to fit lyrics that are already written, this makes it a lot easier, at least from a harmony/chord perspective.  

Well-written lyrics have lines with close to the same number of syllables.  Within those lines, if you just speak the lyrics aloud or in your head, there is a built-in meter where you can hear a rhythm while reciting, and then you can place “ghost” markers above words where the chord symbol will eventually go.  This is where a “dummy melody” starts to form in your mind as you read through the lyrics.  You can hear where a chord should be played and where the changes would most likely be (usually at the start of a phrase within a line, and associated with emphasis on a syllable), and then mark those with an X above the word where the chord would be played throughout the lyric sheet.  These serve as placeholders for the actual chords.  Then it’s just a matter of picking a key and chords within that key and replace the X markers with the letter of the actual chord.  

A final step then would be to play those chords on a guitar and start singing the lyrics along with them, and the melody sort of naturally appears.  You could do this with a piano or some other instrument besides guitar, if you know how to play chords on it.  Music-first writing for motown tunes often started with a bass groove, so don’t rule out writing on bass, where the chords are the root notes.  

When selecting a key, go for one that is good for your own voice if you’re singing your own demo, of course, otherwise consider the range of the singer.  The chords you select can be fairly easy if you just do a google search on chords for a particularly.  There are usually five or six chords that are in the same family, and usually go well with each other, then there are substitution chords that sometimes also work well.  You can use the circle of fifths chart too - so google that and look at it.  The melody notes themselves usually are notes that make up the chord being played while sung, so I’ve been told.  

For writing music first, when you don’t read music, you can just play a chord sequence and hum or whistle along with it until the whistling sounds good, then replace whistles with sung words.  These serve as the dummy singing melody.  Then just write your lyrics to fit.  Otherwise, if singing in the key the song is in, usually the first chord played in the song, the melody notes just sort of work themselves out naturally, so that when you’re done with your song, someone who does know how to write/read music can verify for you that they are technically allowable notes you are singing that are in the chord being played, and in the key the song is in.

Arrangement stuff can come last.  If you’ve got your verses, bridges, and choruses written - that is, both the music and lyrics for each part - then the order they take will come naturally according to commonly-accepted song forms.  The toughest decisions might be where to place an instrumental break, and which chords to play for the intro, and then whether to end the song with a fade out or something more abrupt.  These decisions are minor and can be tweaked once you start recording.  Often when you listen back to one of the first recorded versions of your song it will occur to you how to handle the arrangement.  Other times you know from playing it live and solo how it should best be arranged.  It is important to notate these decisions on your lyric sheet so you won’t forget when it comes time to do a final recording.

Rewriting bad songs is a waste of time, but some parts you might re-use someday, so don’t throw it away completely.  Save the lyrics at least.  Rewriting borderline keepers can promote a song to keeper only rarely.  You can rewrite the heck out of a mediocre song and maybe elevate it to a deep album track keeper, but never a hit single.  My advice is to move on to the next new song, and don’t spend too much time rewriting.  Keep coming up with new ones, and then you’ll have a better chance at one that sort of writes itself into being a quick keeper.  When you run out of those completely, need more to fill out an album, then go back to the borderliners and polish them up to get an acceptable filler song, but only when you need a break from trying to write new songs.  

Songs that aren’t very good at all from the get-go might have some recyclable parts and pieces for a future song, but again, do the recycling as a last resort.  Many times I’ve listened back to my catalog tapes of first take recordings, and I make notes right next to the titles on the cassette j-cards, or on the lyric documents.  The notes will often say something like “awesome music, bad lyrics” - in which case I can make future lyrics with no chords yet fit the music.  The opposite has also happened where I’ll note the lyrics are excellent, but don’t work with the music, and a future set of chord changes can be made to fit.  This is again why writing down both the chords and lyrics, accompanied with a rough first take recording, are good things to have to fall back on.  Going back through your notes and parts of songs that worked is a good exercise to get yourself through writers block.

Vocal Key
The key the song is in matters after you’ve listened back to a recorded version and you realize it’s too low or too high to work well with your voice.  Re-do it with a capo, or transpose if possible to make it work better for your range.  This is a hassle, but worth it, and may even be an important factor in whether a borderliner has potential to be a keeper in the first place.  The most painful is the re-recording in the new key, so it’s important to take this into consideration early in the songwriting process.  

Lead Sheets
Not writing down the chords (or lyrics for that matter) can be a huge source of pain later on down the road.  I’ve recorded a ton of songs early in my songwriting experiences where I never wrote down the lyrics or the chords I was playing, and it’s a big pain to listen back to the tape and pause constantly to type up the lyrics and get out the guitar to figure out the chords and then type those too.  Document it as you’re doing it, and don’t assume you’ll remember certain parts later.  Tapes wear out, so your cool songs can be lost forever.  

You can’t rely on your own memory either - even if you regularly practice and memorize your own material, when you’ve written hundreds of songs, it’s nearly impossible to remember everything given your free time availability.  Write it all down in that word document, and back up your hard drives.  If you actually know how to write music - that is notation on a staff, go for it.  If you know the Nashville number system, document that too.  I don’t know either, but writing the chord letters above the word where strummed at least helps, so I highly recommend the discipline to do this.

Instrumentation and effects decisions are often driven by the overall feel of the song.  This gets off the topic of this article, but the recording process matters a little bit since the finished product is important in the overall process of writing a song.  Aside from being able to teach a band the song or perform it live by yourself, the recording ends the songwriting process, so it does indeed matter what it sounds like.  Sometimes only after it’s fully recorded in a multitrack environment with several instrument and vocal tracks mixed, do you hear the need to tweak to the point of where you would consider it rewriting the song.

Giving it time is maybe another important aspect of writing a song.  Once you’ve got a batch of keepers you’ve written, ignore them for several months.  Then re-listen.  You’ll be surprised that some aren’t as great as you thought when they were freshly written, and on the other hand, you’ll be surprised that some you were on the fence about are much better than you originally thought.