If you knew how long it took to become a great songwriter, would you stay true to course, do the work, so that you could become a great songwriter? Often the songs we’re hearing on radio are ‘hit songs’, songs by established great songwriters. But what really went on for all those years behind the scenes to write that song? Most people don’t know. Even songwriters themselves don’t really know how long it takes to become a great songwriter and write great songs.
In this blog we take a look at the stages of development of a songwriter to appreciate how many years it takes to become a great songwriter.
If you knew how long it took to become a great songwriter, would you stay true to course, do the work, so that you could become a great songwriter?
Many songwriters want to become a great songwriter. They want to hear their songs on the radio and in films.
But do they know what’s involved in becoming a great songwriter?
How long will it take them to become a great songwriter? How many songs do they have to write before they start writing great songs?
How long is a piece of string?
For curiosity sake, let’s take a snapshot view at a very different creative process parallel to the song making process. I often find comparing a process that one has no attachment to or expectation around, can help us understand our own songwriting journey in a richer way. I’m going to use the analogy of wine-making for song-making. Ever made wine? Bet you’ve tasted a really great wine before. But have you thought how long it takes to create that great bottle of wine? What went into the process to get to that point where you’re sitting around the table with your friends talking about how great this bottle of wine is?
I recently went on a grape-picking adventure at a small boutique vineyard in the Granite Belt region, South East Queensland. The vineyard was planted in 1999, and since then has been lovingly growing each year cycling the annual season of budburst and leaf growth, flowering and fruit set, the ripening process and then the harvest, before the winter dormancy phase. The wine-making process starts with the harvest and in this instance hand-selecting, for the upcoming vintage, perfect bunches of Cabernet grapes from what has grown despite the heavy rain. Last year, raging fires burnt so much of the crop around this area of the world. Trailing behind us on the ground are the abandoned rotten fruit caused by pesky birds that peck through the nets. These rotten fruits aren’t used to make the wine, but simply go back into the earth to nourish new growth.
Most of the small group I’m picking with are first-timers. They are here because they are wine lovers. We talk as we pick. Before picking today, they had no idea how wine was made. Most wine-consumers don’t. By the 4th hour and only the second row of grapes, they’re asking how other vineyards do this. It’s a big job. Not many vineyards pick by hand. This is a boutique winery. Bigger wineries would likely use a machine (and those machines would also collect those rotten fruits).
The next day, we crush the four bins of grapes we picked the day before. A simple crushing machine removes the stalks, crushes the skin and starts the juice extraction process. Because half of these Cabernet grapes are going to make a Rosé, we press the grapes straight away, which requires doing a light-footed Lucille Ball ‘dance’ in a bin of crushed grapes before the juice is siphoned into the fermenter. The other half of the Cabernet will sit in a barrel for 6 months to a year to age before bottling, labelling and sending to the store so that the consumer can buy it.
This is a very small glimpse into the wine making process. This often unseen process of the vineyard lifecycle, the picking, crushing, pressing, fermenting, bottling, labelling to make wine reminded me of the songwriting journey in a lot of ways, in so far as there are many parts of the journey that the final consumer often never sees, knows, understands or perhaps even considers. Hear me out.
When you drink wine, you are experiencing the final product. You might be considering the taste, the mouthfeel, the bouquet, the label, the ratings and reviews, where it sat on the shelf at the shop… But have you considered what goes into the making of that great $25 bottle of wine? What happens before the wine makes it into that bottle, before you buy it and enjoy it with a group of friends around a dinner table?
Becoming a great songwriter is much like producing fine wine
When music consumers listen to a great song, they might consider how the song makes them feel, the sonic landscape of the music, perhaps the genre, instrumentation, mood, tempo, what the song’s message is, where they are listening to it, what they are experiencing in their life at the time. But rarely does the consumer consider what went into the making of the song, what constitutes songwriting process, or the figurative blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of that one song that they are listening to.
Was the song created in a moment of catharsis, a stream of consciousness, or in a crafted, collaborative or solo write? Did it take years to write the one song, or was it written in an hour? How many songs had to be written to write this one great song? What made this one stand out amongst all the others? What other songs were abandoned to create fertiliser for the others to grow? What did the first draft of the song sound like? Did the songwriter perform the song themselves, produce it themselves, promote it themselves?
Often these songs we’re hearing on radio are ‘hit songs’, songs by established great songwriters. But what really went on for all those years behind the scenes to write that song? Most people don’t know. Even songwriters themselves don’t really know how long it takes to become a great songwriter and write great songs.
It’s so easy to experience (read: judge) a song solely based on the final product. And unfortunately, most commonly that final product didn’t cost a cent to the consumer. It was completely free. How many people actually buy music? There have been many articles shared in the media recently about the plight of songwriters to be paid fairly for their work. Some articles interviewed songwriters now working as Uber drivers to pay the bills.
Songs are at the centre of the music industry and songwriters create those songs. Without songwriters there would be no songs, without songs there would be nothing for an artist to record, nothing to exploit… and therefore no music industry. Our songwriters are driving Ubers because there is little value placed on their intangible offerings.
I feel that if more people understood the expansive heart and soul that goes into making these amazing creative offerings, the value and appreciation for songs and songwriters would be higher.
Here are some common behind the scenes insights to writing great songs that many people overlook.
This is what it takes to be a great songwriter:
Songwriters spend years developing musical skills
Whilst not all songwriters play a musical instrument or sing, many do. Often playing an instrument is an effective way to communicate songwriting ideas. Songwriters might spend 5-10 years attending piano, guitar, singing lessons, practicing each day to become proficient to express themselves musically. Developing these skills costs money, takes time and persistent effort. These skills can be learnt through lessons and classes.
Songwriters spend years developing their lyric writing skills
Songwriters want to be able to say something relatable through their songs, but often the process of lyrical expression takes years, perhaps decades, to develop. Many songwriters practice and develop skills through exercises like stream of consciousness, object writing, metaphoric linking. These skills can be learnt through self-directed creative practice, songwriting books or songwriting courses.
Songwriters’ first songs are rarely good
When songwriters start writing songs, that is when they are combining the music and lyric in a creative process, the result can be awkward. Some songs don’t form well and the ideas that come from within the songwriter can feel confronting for the songwriter to hear back at them in a song. Again, when you’re comparing your songs with hit songs, it’s hard to not feel self-conscious and critical about what you’re writing. But to become a great songwriter, one must move through that, which takes time and persistence.
Many keen songwriters start to realise that being creative is different to learning an instrument. Creativity is a whole different skill to learn. There is definitely no one way to write songs. I believe that empowering a songwriter with songwriting tips and tools and a practice to create and express themselves freely is a wonderful way to help set up a vibrant, lifelong skill of creativity in a songwriter.
If you’re just starting out on your songwriting journey, try not to attach to your songs and commit to writing 30 finished songs before making plans for any songs. That process can take many years for some songwriters (or only 30 weeks if you’re in I Heart Songwriting Club!).
Songwriters benefit from feedback to develop their songwriting skills
As most songwriters feel quite attached to what it is they’re writing, it’s important to have some objective feedback on songs – how is the song being received by others, is the message clear, is the structure in support of the song, where are the hooks, is there enough contrast musically, lyrically, is there enough space, is there enough repetition, is there too much repetition, is the tempo and key all working in support of the song?
Working in isolation as a songwriter can be incredibly limiting to the creative development process – songs might all sound the same, songwriters might feel like they are not getting anywhere – which can lead to a decline in the confidence of a songwriter and their momentum to keep going. But keep going they must if they want to be a great songwriter! The feedback process can happen through a song critique service, or a peer songwriting community like a writing circle or a songwriting club.
Songwriters need to write a lot of songs to start writing great songs
When you listen to a great song, do you consider that 100 songs were written to get to this one great song? Based on the research amongst members in I Heart Songwriting Club, 1 or 2 out of every 10 songs a songwriter writes is worth pursuing. Based on this 10-20% conversion rate, if you want to record an album of 10 great songs, you will need to first create a volume of 50-100 songs. Which also means, much of what you create will never be heard. But the point of writing that amount of songs is to have that volume to choose from and in the meantime build and develop songwriting skill, craft, receive helpful feedback, grow, learn and experience. This process for many songwriters can take many years, possibly a lifetime, depending on how often they show up to their practice – or you could do this in 1 year in I Heart Songwriting Club.
Songwriters need to write regularly and consistently
If you want to be a great songwriter, you need to write songs regularly. Not big bursts of creativity for 1 month, and then nothing for 11 months. Being consistent can simply look like writing a song each week. And no, you’re not going to write a great song every week, but that’s not the point. Songwriters in I Heart Songwriting Club show up week after week to write new songs and as a result of this practice, many songwriters have seen a growth in the quality of their songs. For some songwriters, some of these songs created simply for practice have completely changed the trajectory of their careers. So whilst writing a great song is not the goal in this instance, it is the outcome from writing consistently.
Songwriters draw from real experiences to write great songs Songwriters draw on their experiences in life – travel, relationships, love, breakups, emotions, insights – and write about these experiences. If you’re a songwriter that isn’t experiencing a rich inner or outer life, perhaps writing about your experiences might feel limiting, like you’ve got nothing important to say. Reading books, watching movies, interacting with a community, traveling, having rich and meaningful conversations are all simple, accessible experiences that can enrich the inner and outer lives of any creative person.
Sometimes being a great songwriter isn’t about a successful song
Someone that shows up to their craft week after week, month after month, year after year, someone who continues to develop, grow, listen, upskill, collaborate, create, may never have one of their great songs heard by a lot of people. Sometimes this is beyond the control of the songwriter, there is some luck involved plus the input of others for the success of the song. And many a time a great song doesn’t make a great songwriter. This is a journey and often simply to be able to continue creating and sharing songs with others is the most fulfilling part of the songwriting journey.
Who determines what it takes to be a great songwriter anyway? Sometimes we think it’s a review, a price tag, a body of people. But is it? Once you get the dream review, abundant royalty streams, and people saying you’re great, does that mean that you’ll be a great songwriter? Will that change how you feel about yourself as a songwriter?
I’ve talked with many hit songwriters, and many share that being able to continue writing day after day, week after week and seeing what they can create next is what they live for.
There are many many benefits to valuing more highly our music-makers (and our small wine-makers) and understanding why songwriting is important (though we might keep some of that for another day). It is for the benefit of our wellness, our connectedness and our community. Perhaps if we appreciated the creation process of the things we hold so dear to our everyday lives, the makers of those things would be able to continue to sustain the process of creation to begin with.
If you’re a songwriter who wants to be a great songwriter, check out how I Heart Songwriting Club can help you here