Songwriters write the words and music for songs, including songs for recordings, advertising jingles, and theatrical performances. We hear the work of songwriters every day, and yet most songwriters remain anonymous, even if a song’s performer is famous. Many songwriters perform their own songs.
Songwriter Career History
Songwriting played an important part in the growth of the United States. The early pioneers wrote songs as a way to socialize and relax. Some of the difficult experiences of traveling, fighting over land, farming, and hunting for food were put into words by early songwriters, and the words set to music, for the guitar, banjo, piano, and other instruments. Francis Scott Key became famous for writing the words to the “Star Spangled Banner,” set to a popular drinking tune.
Toward the end of the 19th century, sheet music was sold by hundreds of publishing companies, centered in New York City in what became known as Tin Pan Alley. This name was coined by a songwriter and journalist named Monroe Rosenfeld. The name referred to the sounds of many voices and pianos coming from the open windows on the street where many of the music publishers were located. By the 1880s, sheet music was sold in the millions; most songs were introduced on the stages of musical theater, vaudeville, and burlesque shows. Radio became an important medium for introducing new songs in the 1920s, followed by the introduction of sound movies in the 1930s. Sheet music became less important as musical recordings were introduced. This presented difficulties for the songwriter and publisher, because the sales of sheet music were easier to control. In the 1940s, the first associations for protecting the rights of the songwriters and publishers were formed; among the benefits songwriters received were royalties for each time a song they had written was recorded, performed, or played on the radio or in film.
By the 1950s, Tin Pan Alley no longer referred to a specific area in New York but was a term used nationwide to denote popular songs in general, and especially a type of simple melody and sentimental and often silly lyrics that dominated the pop music industry. The rise of rock and roll music in the 1950s put an end to Tin Pan Alley’s dominance. Many performers began to write their own songs, a trend that became particularly important in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, a new type of songwriting emerged. Rap music, featuring words chanted over a musical background, seemed to bring songwriting full circle, back to the oral traditions of its origins.
The Job of Songwriters
There are many different ways to write a song. A song may begin with a few words (the lyrics) or with a few notes of a melody, or a song may be suggested by an idea, theme, or product. A song may come about in a flash of inspiration or may be developed slowly over a long period of time. Songwriters may work alone, or as part of a team, in which one person concentrates on the lyrics while another person concentrates on the music. Sometimes there may be several people working on the same song.
“One of the most important things,” says songwriter Beth McBride, “is collecting your ideas, even if they’re only fragments of ideas, and writing them down. Sometimes a song comes to me from beginning to end, but I can’t always rely on inspiration. A lot of my writing has been personal, derived from experience and also from the observation of others’ experiences.” McBride performed for a decade with the band B and the Hot Notes, for which she wrote and recorded original music. After she left the band, she focused on writing and performing her own songs, and released her first CD, Recovering Grace, in 2000.
Most popular songs require words, or lyrics, and some songwriters may concentrate on writing the words to a song. These songwriters are called lyricists. Events, experiences, or emotions may inspire a lyricist to write lyrics. A lyricist may also be contracted to write the words for a jingle or musical, or to adapt the words from an existing song for another project.
Some songwriters do no more than write the words to a potential song, and leave it to others to develop a melody and musical accompaniment for the words. They may sell the words to a music publisher, or work in a team to create a finished song from the lyric. Some lyricists specialize in writing the words for advertising jingles. They are usually employed by advertising agencies and may work on several different products at once, often under pressure of a deadline.
In songwriting teams, one member may be a lyricist, while the other member is a composer. The development of a song can be a highly collaborative process. The composer might suggest topics for the song to the lyricist; the lyricist might suggest a melody to the composer. Other times, the composer plays a musical piece for the lyricist, and the lyricist tries to create lyrics to fit with that piece.
Composers of popular music generally have a strong background in music, and often in performing music as well. They must have an understanding of many musical styles, so that they can develop the music that will fit a project’s needs. Composers work with a variety of musical and electronic equipment, including computers, to produce and record their music. They develop the different parts for the different musical instruments needed to play the song. They also work with musicians who will play and record the song, and the composer conducts or otherwise directs the musicians as the song is played.
Songwriters, composers, and musicians often make use of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) technology to produce sounds through synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. These sounds are usually controlled by a computer, and the composer or songwriter can mix, alter, and refine the sounds using mixing boards and computer software. Like analog or acoustic instruments, which produce sounds as a string or reed or drum head vibrates with air, MIDI creates digital “vibrations” that can produce sounds similar to acoustic instruments or highly unusual sounds invented by the songwriter. Synthesizers and other sound-producing machines may each have their own keyboard or playing mechanism, or be linked through one or more keyboards. They may also be controlled through the computer, or with other types of controls, such as a guitar controller, which plays like a guitar, or foot controls. Songs can be stored in the computer, or transferred to tape or compact disc.
Many, if not most, songwriters combine both the work of a lyricist and the work of a composer. Often, a songwriter will perform his or her own songs as well, whether as a singer, a member of a band, or both. Playing guitar has helped McBride in the writing of lyrics and music. “My songwriting has become more sophisticated as my playing has become more sophisticated,” she says.
For most songwriters, writing a song is only the first part of their job. After a song is written, songwriters usually produce a “demo” of the song, so that the client or potential purchaser of the song can hear how it sounds. Songwriters contract with recording studios, studio musicians, and recording engineers to produce a version of the song. The songwriter then submits the song to a publishing house, record company, recording artist, film studio, or others, who will then decide if the song is appropriate for their needs. Often, a songwriter will produce several versions of a song, or submit several different songs for a particular project. There is always a chance that one, some, or all of their songs will be rejected.
Songwriter Career Requirements
You should take courses in music that involve singing, playing instruments, and studying the history of music. Theater and speech classes will help you to understand the nature of performing, and involve you in writing dramatic pieces. You should study poetry in an English class, and try your hand at composing poetry in different forms. Language skills can also be honed in foreign-language classes and by working on student literary magazines. An understanding of how people act and think can influence you as a lyricist, so take courses in psychology and sociology.
There are no real requirements for entering the field of songwriting. All songwriters, however, will benefit from musical training, including musical theory and musical notation. Learning to play one or more instruments, such as the piano or guitar, will be especially helpful in writing songs. Not all songwriters need to be able to sing, but it can be helpful.
Songwriting is an extremely competitive field. Despite a lack of formal educational requirements, prospective songwriters are encouraged to continue their education through high school and preferably towards a college degree. Much of the musical training a songwriter needs, however, can also be learned informally. In general, you should have a background in music theory, and in arrangement and orchestration for multiple instruments. You should be able to read music, and be able to write it in the proper musical notation. You should have a good sense of the sounds each type of musical instrument produces, alone and in combination. Understanding harmony is important, as well as a proficiency in or understanding of a variety of styles of music. Studies in music history will also help develop this understanding.
On the technical side, you should understand the various features, capabilities, and requirements of modern recording techniques. You should be familiar with MIDI and computer technology, as these play important roles in composing, playing, and recording music today.
There are several organizations that help lyricists, songwriters, and composers. The Songwriters Guild of America offers weekly song evaluation workshops in select cities. The Nashville Songwriters Association offers workshops, seminars, and other services, as well as giving annual awards to songwriters. The Songwriters and Lyricists Club (P.O. Box 023304, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11202) provides contacts for songwriters with music-business professionals. These, and other organizations, offer songwriting workshops and other training seminars.
Many elements of songwriting cannot really be learned but are a matter of inborn talent. A creative imagination and the ability to invent melodies and combine melodies into a song are essential parts of a songwriting career. As you become more familiar with your own talents, and with songwriting, you’ll learn to develop and enhance your creative skills.
“I enjoy observing,” Beth McBride says. “I also enjoy the challenge of finding the most succinct way of saying something and making it poetic. I enjoy the process of finding that perfect turn of phrase. I really love language and words.”
Exploring Songwriter Career
The simplest way to gain experience in songwriting is to learn to play a musical instrument, especially the piano or guitar, and to invent your own songs. Joining a rock group is a way to gain experience writing music for several musicians. Most schools and communities have orchestras, bands, and choruses that are open to performers. Working on a student-written musical show is ideal training if you want to be a songwriter.
If you have your own computer, consider investing in software, a keyboard, and other devices that will allow you to experiment with sounds, recording, and writing and composing your own songs. While much of this equipment is expensive, there are plenty of affordable keyboards, drum machines, and software programs available today. Your school’s music department may also have such equipment available.
Most songwriters work freelance, competing for contracts to write songs for a particular artist, television show, video program, or for contracts with musical publishers and advertising agencies. They meet with clients to determine the nature of the project and to get an idea of what kind of music the client seeks, the budget for the project, the time in which the project is expected to be completed, and in what form the work is to be submitted. Many songwriters work under contract with one or more music publishing houses. Usually, they must fulfill a certain quota of new songs each year. These songwriters receive a salary, called an advance or draw, that is often paid by the week. Once a song has been published, the money earned by the song goes to pay back the songwriter’s draw. A percentage of the money earned by the song over and above the amount of the draw goes to the songwriter as a royalty. Other songwriters are employed by so-called “jingle houses,” companies that supply music for advertising commercials. Whereas most songwriters work in their own homes or offices, these songwriters work at the jingle house’s offices. Film, television, and video production studios may also employ songwriters on their staff.
Songwriting is a very competitive career and difficult to break into for a beginner. The number of high-paying projects is limited. Beginning songwriters often start their careers writing music for themselves or as part of a musical group. They may also offer their services to student films, student and local theater productions, church groups, and other religious and nonprofit organizations, often for free or for a low fee.
Many songwriters get their start while performing their own music in clubs and other venues; they may be approached by a music publisher, who contracts them for a number of songs. Other songwriters record demos of their songs and try to interest record companies and music publishers. Some songwriters organize showcase performances, renting a local club or hall and inviting music industry people to hear their work. Songwriters may have to approach many companies and publishers before they find one willing to buy their songs. A great deal of making a success in songwriting is in developing contacts with people active in the music industry.
Some songwriters get their start in one of the few entry-level positions available. Songwriters aspiring to become composers for film and television can find work as orchestrators or copyists in film houses. Other songwriters may find work for music agents and publishers, which will give them an understanding of the industry and increase their contacts in the business, as they develop their songwriting skills. Those interested in specializing in advertising jingles may find entry-level work as music production assistants with a jingle house. At first, such jobs may involve making coffee, doing paperwork, and completing other clerical tasks. As you gain more exposure to the process of creating music, you may begin in basic areas of music production, or assist experienced songwriters.
It is important for a songwriter to develop a strong portfolio of work and a reputation for professionalism. Songwriters who establish a reputation for producing quality work will receive larger and higher-paying projects as their careers progress. They may be contracted to score major motion pictures, or to write songs for major recording artists. Ultimately, they may be able to support themselves on their songwriting alone and also have the ability to choose the projects they will work on.
In order to continue to grow with the music industry, songwriters must be tuned into new musical styles and trends. They must also keep up with developments in music technology. A great deal of time is spent making and maintaining contacts with others in the music industry.
Songwriters specializing in jingles and other commercial products may eventually start up their own jingle house. Other songwriters, especially those who have written a number of hit songs, may themselves become recording artists.
For many songwriters, however, success and advancement is a very personal process. A confidence in your own talent will help you to create better work. “I’m not as vulnerable about my work,” Beth McBride says. “And I want to open up my subject matter, to expand and experiment more.”
Songwriters’ earnings vary widely, from next to nothing to many millions of dollars. A beginning songwriter may work for free, or for low pay, just to gain experience. A songwriter may sell a jingle to an advertising agency for $1,000 or may receive many thousands of dollars if his or her work is well known. Royalties from a song may reach $20,000 per year or more per song, and a successful songwriter may earn $100,000 or more per year from the royalties of several songs. A songwriter’s earnings may come from a combination of royalties earned on songs and fees earned from commercial projects.
Those starting as assistants in music production companies or jingle houses may earn as little as $20,000 per year. Experienced songwriters at these companies may earn $50,000 per year or more.
Because most songwriters are freelance, they will have to provide their own health insurance, life insurance, and pension plans. They are usually paid per project, and therefore receive no overtime pay. When facing a deadline, they may have to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Also, songwriters are generally responsible for recording their own demos and must pay for recording studio time, studio musicians, and production expenses.
-Work Environment Songwriters generally possess a strong love for music and, regardless of the level of their success, usually find fulfillment in their careers because they are doing what they love to do. As freelancers, they will control how they spend their day. They will work out of their own home or office. They will have their own instruments, and possibly their own recording equipment as well. Songwriters may also work in recording studios, where conditions can range from noisy and busy to relaxed and quiet.
Writing music can be stressful. When facing a deadline, songwriters may experience a great deal of pressure while trying to get their music just right and on time. They may face a great deal of rejection before they find someone willing to publish or record their songs. Rejection remains a part of the songwriter’s life, even after success.
Many songwriters work many years with limited or no success. On the other hand, songwriters experience the joys of creativity, which has its own rewards.
Songwriter Career Outlook
Most songwriters are unable to support themselves from their songwriting alone and must hold other part-time or full-time jobs while writing songs in their spare time. The music industry is very competitive, and there are many more songwriters than paying projects. This situation is expected to continue into the next decade.
There are a few bright spots for songwriters. The recent rise of independent filmmaking has created more venues for songwriters to compose film scores. Cable television also provides more opportunities for song writing, both in the increased number of advertisements and in the growing trend for cable networks to develop their own original programs. Many computer games and software feature songs and music, and this area should grow rapidly in the next decade. Another boom area is the World Wide Web. As more and more companies, organizations, and individuals set up multimedia Web sites, there will be an increased demand for songwriters to create songs and music for these sites. Songwriters with MIDI capability will be in the strongest position to benefit from the growth created by computer uses of music. In another field, legalized gambling has spread to many states in the country, a large number of resorts and theme parks have opened, and as these venues produce their own musical theater and shows, they will require more songwriters.
The number of hit songs is very small compared to the number of songwriters trying to write them. Success in songwriting therefore requires a combination of hard work, industry connections, and good luck.