Thursday, June 1, 2023

A Would-Be Songwriter's Conundrum

It’s confusing to know whether you’re a songwriter or not.  It’s difficult to know what the qualifications are, as there is no one authoritative source that defines such things.  The question is one of earning money and popularity.  You can tell people you are one, and then you can worry if that is being dishonest.  You don’t want to be dishonest.

Since you’re reading this, you likely already have an idea that I’m one of the many people in the world who write and record songs that you can listen to via web streaming.  I used to tell people I did it as a hobby, and then technology evolved to allow me to offer my recordings of my songs to the world.  Does this make me more of a songwriter, or am I still just a would-be songwriter?

I like to write songs and record them, and I’ll probably keep doing it because it’s fun.  I shouldn’t care if I’m self-taught, and I shouldn’t care if I can safely say it’s something I know how to do or not.  A part of me feels like a poser and questions the legitimacy of what I do.  I can’t help it that my thoughts drift off to wondering whether I’m faking it or not, whether I’m a fraud, whether I can claim to be one or not.

You can write a song and play it, that’s one thing.  Another is you can record it.  The permanent record serves as proof.  It can be an art and a craft.  There are basic elements songs should have like a melody, and unless an instrumental composition, lyrics and rhyme.  Some of the definitions you can look up say in addition to writing the music and the words, you can especially be considered a songwriter if the song is popular.  Defining popularity is another conundrum.

I call myself a songwriter, but a part of me wonders if I’m qualified to be able to say that.  I write songs, record them, and then distribute them to music streaming services.  As someone who takes an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach, I produce and publish music independently from commercial record labels.  If I were young, I would try to achieve both professional status in some way and popularity with my songs.

I would definitely feel more confident telling people I am a songwriter if I achieved any of these:

Hit:  I wrote and recorded a song that had mainstream popularity

Signed:  I wrote and recorded songs but was signed to a record label

Staff:  I was a staff writer under employment contract for a publisher

Cut:  I could say I wrote a song that a label-signed artist recorded

Placement:  I could say I wrote a song used in a movie or TV show

I’ve done none of the above, so you could say I’m definitely not a professional, but as an amateur using a digital aggregator distribution service with my own publishing and label, I have actually earned some royalty income.

From my humble home studio near Flint, Michigan, I’m not in the ideal situation for going after any of those.  I’ll never be a great singer, so if I was advising my 20-yr. old self, I’d tell me to move to Nashville.

It’s important to focus on what you do have going for you though.  Occasionally taking stock in what you’re good at, and what you have to offer, can get you fired up to keep doing more of it.  It also presents an opportunity to tell people what makes you unique and stand out among the others.  Some people have more natural abilities than others, and you can’t be good at everything, but it’s fun to try.  Although delegation and collaboration and specialization can have benefits for songwriters, it is very satisfying to be able to say you did everything yourself without anyone’s help when it comes to anything creative.

Some things I’m proud of:

I‘m the sole writer of my songs

I write the music and the lyrics

I play all of the instruments

I’m the beatmaker

I’m the top-liner

I’m the arranger

I’m the producer

My house is my studio

I’m the recording engineer

I’m the mixing engineer

I’m the mastering engineer

I’m the video producer

I’m the publisher

I’m the label

I’m the marketer

My own webmaster

I’ve released over 100 songs

I am self-taught in all of the above!

I don’t co-write, and in this era, in which a famous artist like Beyonce lists 20 different songwriters on a single song, it is somewhat unusual.

I’ve had no lessons other than a single Intro To Guitar course my Senior year in college, yet I can play rhythm, lead, slide, fingerpicking and bass guitar.  Piano, organ, harmonica, ukulele, mandolin, marimba, drums and percussion too – all me, all self-taught.

I’ve never used a real recording studio, and I’ve never had another musician play on any of my songs…except accordion by my wife on a few.

I would be willing to bet that even though I think figuring out how to do all of the above myself makes me special, there are millions of others out there.  The world is a big place.  Many of them are probably also good at skiing.  Nonetheless, I think you should be impressed, because looking back, I’m impressed I figured all this out too.  I’m not sure why all of this seemed interesting to me, but it did.

As you can see, I am a lot more than just a songwriter, and being able to do all of these related things might help my case for being able to rightfully call myself a songwriter.  

I think the quantity thing has to score me a few points too in favor of being able to self-apply the songwriter to my identity.  A lot of people with a guitar or piano will tell you they’ve written hundreds of songs, but there’s no proof.  I have actually publicly released and formally published and copyrighted around 150 original songs.  You can find the proof online, so there’s that.  One could argue that I’m quite prolific.

Popularity is another thing.  How to define it?  All you can do is compare the streaming stats in this day and age.  It’s relative.  Some of my songs have a measure of popularity then, and some of them are mor e popular than others, and some of them are more popular than other songwriter/artists’ songs.

Let’s face it:  Although I’ve made a little money, I’m not a professional.  Although I’ve had some streams, I don’t have any real popularity.  People wouldn’t say either of those about me, and I don’t say them about myself.  Not a pro, not popular.

You can’t argue against those two statements, and being a popular pro is a part of most definitions of ‘songwriter’, so therefore, I am not a songwriter.

Being good is another thing, the whole judgement thing, appreciation being objective and all that.  Everyone has close friends and family who dish out compliments about their creative art projects.  Polite applause at the open mic night, the gig at the bar filled with people who know you.  Sales and streams can be measured, yet we all suspect that record company promotion and marketing and advertising can manufacture success through hype and create popularity when it isn’t necessarily deserved or organic.

You can write what you think are songs, you can play them, you can record them, you can even try to sell them on the internet.  You think they not only might qualify as being actual songs, but also you think they might even be pretty good.  You wonder if a great singer could really make them sound like great songs, like way better than even you could've imagined when you wrote them.  

You wonder if such a thing might even be a realistic possibility.  When you're not a good singer or performer yourself though, and thus can't really deliver the songs in a state that would prove they're pretty good, you think to really be able to call yourself a songwriter, you need to have someone who is a really good singer and performer record your songs.  Getting "cuts" is the one thing that would certainly validate your hobby.  

Are you really a songwriter?  Most people can hit a dance floor and move around a bit, but can't really call themselves dancers.  Lots of people go on talent shows on TV thinking they can sing, but the millions of viewers think otherwise.  Getting a song you wrote recorded by a famous singer is the holy grail if you're like me and can't sing well yourself.  You think your songs might be good enough for such a thing, but you're not sure.  So, you look into how to go about making such a thing happen.  

You'd like to be a songwriter who has his songs recorded by famous artists, but you don't live in a place like Nashville or New York or Los Angeles where the famous artists are.  You know the experts advise you to move to one of those places to have a chance among the massive competition, but you're not willing to do that.  You can try to pitch via email, have an online presence, even release your own demos, but dread the hassle and fear the rejection, so you don't do it.  You know the successful songwriters move to Nashville and pay for top-quality demos, then pitch them in person after networking like crazy.  

You know that your singing and instrument-playing and home recording capabilities on your self-made demos are not that good, but you can't afford to pay for pro session singers, musicians, recording engineers or real studio time.  You research services like TAXI who supposedly once in a while get songwriter's songs to famous recording artists, movie/TV music supervisors, record labels, and publishing companies, but in reality, they are in California and primarily get radio-ready songs to their connections in the movie and tv business.  They also offer critiques and tell you your demos do not have that radio-ready quality yet.  You pay them to tell you this, which you already know.  So that won't work, so you don't pay them.  

You're not a great performer, so you don't go that route of trying to get paid gigs as a solo artist yourself.  Such is the conundrum of the non-performing songwriter who doesn't have much money and doesn't live in a place like Nashville.  You can't really hit an open mic night at a bar and have an A&R guy in the audience approach you to have his major-label artist record the great song you just played.  

There's not even much of a songwriter community for you to network with locally where you live, or even much of a music scene for that matter, so the odds are not in your favor.  About the best you can do is to keep writing, recording, and releasing, and hope you can increase the sales without any money to promote, market, or advertise your records.  You can't afford to have decent music videos.  You hope for viral recommendation via social media.  You know some independent artists pay for fake likes and follows to artificially make their music appear to be more popular, which can actually make it more popular, but you refuse to stoop to such unethical tactics.  

Even if you were able to move to Nashville, you know that for songwriters, it's the equivalent of thinking you can act and moving to Hollywood.  There's gonna be a ton of other people from the small towns of America who flock there seeking to realize the same dream.  Where they are from, there were hardly any other people who could write songs at all, or act at all, so of course for their area, they were perhaps not bad, and perhaps think they're better than they really are.  

The cream rises to the top, as you know, and the vast majority of the rest give up and move home or serve people food in restaurants or whatever.  You don't really know for sure if you don't ever try, I guess.  It can take years of putting yourself in the right places with the right people at the right times for the now-successful ones who "made it" to get where they got.  

You know all of this.  You also personally know people who made the pilgrimage to Hollywood or Nashville or New York and came back being able to say they at least tried to be an actor or dancer or musician or singer or songwriter, and you wonder if they'd been better off never having attempted it in the first place.  You learn from hearing their stories, reading on the internet, forming your own opinions, taking it all into consideration as you wonder if you could have better luck.

Sometimes I think I barely know what I’m doing.  Lyrics, melodies, harmony, rhythm, vocals – yes, what I make checks these boxes.  Words set to music, meant to be sung.  I’ve created a lot of these.  Based on that alone, I guess I can say I’m a songsmith.

At this point in my life, I’m not going to move to Nashville or subscribe to pitch sheets and submit my demos to labels, publishers, agents or artist managers.  I’m not going to network in person or online.  I’m not going after cuts, placements, employment, or record deals.  What I am going to keep doing is writing songs, recording “demos” and just releasing those demos as a pretend solo recording artist myself.  Maybe the streams will increase, maybe not.

You only really wonder about these things when not in creative mode.  You’re wishing you were more popular, more legitimate.  You wish you made more than fractions of a penny for each stream.  You are reminded of this type of thing when you get a report on your “success” from one of the streaming services such as this one from Spotify that I just got:

Some creative art works can be easily made from your home, and songs are included.  They can also be made available for public consumption from your home.  Twenty years ago, this was not the case.  In May of this year, according to Spotify, I had 186 listeners, an increase of 94% over April.  Might even add up to over one penny this time, who knows.  Does having a monthly increase in streaming stats mean I can call myself a songwriter yet?  Still don’t know.  Does the appearance of popularity beget more popularity?  They say it does.  Does using the word ‘beget’ make me cool?  Definitely.  Is this all an example of humble bragging?  Yah, you betchya.  I write about this kind of thing a lot to make sense of it, and I keep coming back to an overall feeling of being in the right place at the right time for this to be possible, and feeling fortunate I am able to do it.  Thanks for being a reader and listener!