I used to dream of winning awards for my songwriting.
I specifically remember being a kid in West Virginia picturing myself winning a Dove Award.
When I won said Dove, I assumed I would be living in a gorgeous house with a white marble entrance, and I’d have a personal driver. I mean, that’s what success means, right?
Well, I did win one eventually, but the reality looked a lot different. At that time I worked 40 hours per week in an extremely negative environment. I lived in a tiny house (which I did love—so there’s that), and I had to request vacation time off from work to attend the ceremony via my self-driven used Honda Accord.
I’ve been nominated several more times (including a just announced nomination for my musical, “Once You’ve Seen the Star.” Yay!)
My songs have found place after place, and some are more acknowledged than others.
What I wish I’d really known before I got into the biz, though, is that the most meaningful moments of my career wouldn’t come from trophies, medals and chart numbers.
I used to believe success was measured by everyone else. That it was measured by things outside of me.
And while I believe we all assign our own meanings to awards and affirmations, and I’m certainly happy to be included when those things do happen, the biggest moments for me have been in the ones without press releases.
…when a dying man asked that one of my songs be sung to him in his last moments—it was just he and his family in the room. An a cappella version to a few people that the world would never hear.
…when one of our songs was sung in China to survivors of a massive Earthquake. What do you really say to someone who is living with that kind of loss? How humbling that maybe we had something to offer. We just talked about Peace. And James Tealey & I had no idea that our 3rd co-writer, Maurice Carter, would die on the side of the interstate just months later.
…when a group of people from my hometown practiced for weeks to present my musical to their congregation at Christmas. They were amazing.
These are just a few of the moments that have made writing songs such a big thing.
I suppose I wish I would’ve known the real definition of success all along.
What I wish I’d known about the songwriting world that I had to learn the hard way.
So THERE’S a topic!!!!
I take on two groups of songwriters to mentor each year, and one of the main questions I get in those groups is HOW DO I GET MY SONGS CUT?
Oh, dear writer. How I wish I could give you the magic recipe. How I wish I had the magic recipe.
Of course, there isn’t one. And ultimately, who knows?
Having been on both sides of the aspirational coin, let me clue you in on a few facts that may just keep your self-esteem out of the toilet when you feel like you just can’t get anything recorded.
1. Sometimes you just big fat don’t have a shot at a recording.
There are so many reasons. I can’t even begin to fully delve into the politics, the egos and the financial machine that is the ‘biz,’ but you should know that there are truly times when you just don’t have a shot.
It’s not you.
It’s not your song.
Bottom line: It’s just not going to happen sometimes.
2. Some slots are solicited behind the scenes.
Every project that comes up is NOT wide open. Here are a few examples of why:
Artists solicit writers they know & trust. Sometimes it’s just easier.
Labels may want to own some of the publishing on a recording so their writers get 1st consideration.
Artists want to write on their own records so they co-write with established writers.
Producers want to get their own tunes on the record (royalties, anyone?)
Bottom Line: There are a lot of things going on you don’t know about.
3. It really is who you know sometimes.
Ask my mentorees, I preach about making connections. No, I actually harp on it. NAG, even. Why?
Because your chances of getting your songs heard are ASTRONOMICALLY better when you’re shooting something over to a friend vs. stalking some guy through a dark parking lot. (Trust me…wait…what?)
Bottom Line: Relationships matter.
Instead, this is a reminder that you don’t have to take every pass personally. It’s really not always about you.
The next time you’re sitting in your pool of pitiful feeling like you can’t write your way out of a paper bag, remember that things aren’t always as they seem on the surface.
I know it can feel tough sometimes. That’s even why I added my Platinum level of mentoring. I definitely can’t guarantee anything for anyone, but I know that if I co-write with someone, the song will at least get heard. I’ve been in the vacuum before, and I know how it feels.
My first publisher told me something when I moved to Nashville that I’ve never forgotten. He said the difference between a lot of successful writers and unsuccessful writers is persistence.
He said, “I’m successful because a lot of more-talented writers than me got discouraged and went home.”
Hold that one in your heart, Gang.
You just might need it one of these days.
It keeps coming up…
You songwriters keep telling me you’re not sure what it takes to be a successful writer.
You write and write and write…and CRICKETS.
One of my mentorees said to me last week that she didn’t feel like a “real” songwriter because she doesn’t feel successful.
What is your definition of success?
When you’re shooting your arrow for the air, it’s easy to hit, but impossible to land.
Be honest, how many of you have no idea why you’re writing beyond “I just write?”
Newsflash: you cannot be a successful writer if you don’t even know what that means to you.
So finish this sentence:
I am a successful songwriter when ___________.
(…when I write consistently? …when I have 32 Grammy’s? …when my songs matter to me? …when my songs matter to anyone but my Mom?
Belinda, you absolutely cannot define your own success as a writer by someone else’s.
There will never be another YOU, and your experience as a writer has to be uniquely yours.
Take a little time to mull over what success means to you. Otherwise, you won’t know it when you have it.
A few weeks ago, my publisher tasked me and my co-writer to write a specific type of song. He wanted the song for an artist that was cutting in just a few days.
We wrote the song and a few days later were forwarded an email from the artist saying that they “LOVE” the song.
Hooray! We did it!
The night before the artist was going into record, we were told, again, that the song was going to be on the record.
The next morning, however, we found out the artist had changed their mind overnight. A friend of ours had beat us out in the late hours of the previous night for the cut.
In the time it takes to get a short night of sleep, we lost our place on the upcoming record.
What did I do when I found out?
Here’s my transparency for you…
I took myself out to lunch…and then I wrote another song for someone else.
Because that’s what songwriters do.
You move on.
You write another song.
…and you NEVER skip lunch.
Get over it already. 🙂
Straight out of college I was dating a really nice guy who seemed to have lots of problems with the attention I got from performing music. Believe me, I say that humbly.
Again, I was straight out of college working for the State of West Virginia in a miserable internship with inept (understatement) managers.
I sang locally and that was it. NOTHING glamorous.
But this guy’s need for my attention over the music was problematic.
One early evening I was sitting in the backyard with my Mom and my lifetime neighbor, Joyce, talking about it, when Joyce said this:
But if you take the music away from Belinda, then there’s no Belinda.
I can still hear her saying it right now.
If you take away the music from me, I’m not me anymore.
And in all the years since, through the loves and losses, I’ve always held those words.
I sing because I like to sing.
I play piano because I can.
Songwriting is what I do whether anyone else sees a word or hears a note I put down.
I don’t know how to be anyone else.
This is how God made me.
When it all comes down, it matters because it does. Frankly, that’s enough.
Throughout the years I’ve worked with many new writers who enter competitions as a way to get their songs heard. While I admit that when I was coming up in the songwriting world competitions didn’t seem to get on my radar, I know that in this current climate they’re everywhere.
I even recommend entering song competitions to some of the people I mentor.
I don’t, however, think winning a competition is the point of entering the song.
I’ve judged lots of competitions, and I’ve listened to thousands of songs. As I sit here typing this, I can only remember the title of one song of all the winners.
And that one is a song one of my mentorees wrote which just won a competition over the weekend.
I think the point of entering competitions is to get your name in the game.
Like I said, I can only remember the title of one winning song, but I know countless names of writers who’ve entered those competitions. I’ve seen all kinds of writers land successes just based on being present. Some of my favorite people are ones I’ve met through being asked to give feedback on a song.
So, if your song loses a competition, should you quit?
I know, you were expecting a resounding “NO,” but I honestly can’t give that to you.
The question is more complicated than that to me.
See, every time my publisher sends one of my songs to an artist for consideration, I’m competing with other songs and other writers for a spot on a project. The entire nature of a staff writer’s career is based on competition if you think about it.
So, if you enter a song competition and your song doesn’t rise to the top of this particular competition, welcome to the reality of the whole thing. Music is subjective and sometimes even the song you wrote that you love the most doesn’t rise above the others.
So should you quit?
That’s a question only you can answer.
…but I can assure you it won’t be last time your tune gets passed over.
- Decide what matters to you.
- Figure out what you’re willing to put on the line for the sake of writing.
And whatever your honest answer to those questions are should dictate whether or not losing a songwriting competition makes you quit writing songs.
What does that even mean?
In a nutshell, we have to take a big idea and make it small.
Very, very small.
The thing about songs is you’re aiming for about 3:30. Three and a half minutes. That’s just not a lot of time.
Let’s take making a phone call as an example.
Big idea: A Mom is calling her estranged daughter after years of them not speaking.
When I started out, I’d probably try to tell the whole story of a lifetime of mistakes. I might want to give examples of why the daughter doesn’t speak to her Mom anymore and give the listener the whole story. The problem is there’s not enough time. I’m going to lose my listener.
So what’s smaller?
Smaller Idea: Mom is sick and she wants to call to say goodbye. At least that gets us in a smaller moment and out of whole lifetime for context, right? I mean, now there’s a pressing reason for the call and something for them to specifically talk about.
Still, I want less.
Where is the most tension in this idea? What’s the one problem that I most want to solve here?
Even Smaller Idea: What if I wrote a whole song in which the Mom is dialing numbers on a cell phone? What if we used the whole lyric to talk about what’s going on in the Mom’s mind as she dialing 10 numbers on a phone? We could call it “Dialing”…or “Stupid Phone.” (ha)
Do you see how I took a big idea and reduced it to a small piece?
Take a big idea. Make it smaller. Make it smaller again.
As I told one of my mentoring students this week, this is when the craft of writing really shows up. It was one (and still can be) one of the toughest parts of songwriting. It’s normal for me to be in a session with a co-writer and one of will say ‘wait, we’re not talking about that so we don’t need to bring it up now.’
It takes practice.
It takes patience.
And you can do it!
Remember, if songwriting were easy, everybody would be doing it. 😉
One of my first ever super-cool ideas for a song was butchered by a co-writer. I don’t mean he stunk it up a little, I mean what was once a cool idea became an unsightly boil on the hind end of my little catalogue of creations for all of eternity.
I still shudder when I think about how it all went down and what a WASTED opportunity it was.
The truth is I was new to Nashville. I didn’t know anything about co-writing, but people told me to do it. So, I figured it was as good a way as any to meet people. In my naiveté, it never occurred to me that just because someone SAID they were a songwriter, it didn’t mean they knew how to write a song.
I’d packed up my life in WV and moved to the ‘big city.’ I assumed that anyone who did that had to be good. Otherwise, why would you move here?
Poor Sweet Ignorant Soul
Before I knew it, I’d given a really cool idea to guy who had no idea what to do with it and no respect for me as a writer. We got together once—long enough for me to realize that I’d made a huge mistake. Not long after that, I got a note that he’d finished it with another writer (without bothering to include me) along with a bill for my 1/3 of the demo.
…I nearly pulled back my hair and took out my earrings!!!
Today, Gang, such a thing wouldn’t go down that way. I’m much, much more experienced, and I can handle a rogue if need be. (That means I can unleash my inner hillbilly, in case you didn’t catch it.)
However, the truth is there are growing pains to be had along the way. We all have them.
Since I’ve been there on a few occasions, let me give you a little advice just in case, God forbid, it happens to you as you’re wandering merrily along your way.
1. Open communication with your co-writer is not an option.
When you tell your co-writer about your super-amazing-brilliant idea, your job is communicate EVERYTHING about the idea. If you hear the song a certain way, tell them. Do not assume your brand new acquaintance can hear what’s in your head. NEVER assume that.
For example, it never occurred to me during that awful co-write experience I told you about that he wouldn’t hear the song like I did. It was just so obvious to me. …yeah, he did NOT hear the obvious.
2. Be open to hearing your idea a different way.
Before you fall off the deep end, take a step back and breathe. Consider, for a moment, that you’re wrong. What if they really did nail it and you’re the one missing it. You owe it to the song to listen with an open mind.
3. You work in service of the song.
At the end of the day, it’s not about your ego and it’s not about your co-writer’s ego. The dialogue is about the song and what serves it.
If it was your idea, and you and your co-writer can’t get on the same page, then politely ask for it back. It’s not a big deal. Just say, “Hey, this isn’t going where I wanted it to, so I’d like to take it back off the table. Let’s look for something that fits our collective styles a little better.” NO BIG DEAL. I’ve done it, and I’ve had it done to me. Absolutely no hard feelings.
Have you had an experience similar to mine? I’d love to hear about how you handled it.
I was home on a Friday night many years ago, and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” was on the television. I wasn’t watching it, mind you, but I just hadn’t flipped the channel.
In a moment of complete and utter writer BRILLIANCE, this scene happened!
If you’ve been in one of my songwriting classes, you may have heard me reference the Closet of Gratuitous Praise. It’s such a guilty admission, but it honestly comes from,” Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” Who knew I’d have a life changing moment?!?!
CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE HAVING A CLOSET LIKE THIS???
Every time you feel ‘less than’ or ‘loser,’ you could open the closet and be affirmed.
This week I got some feedback that I’m too encouraging. It was some terrific food for thought: I’d never want someone to rely on pleasing me instead of pleasing themselves. After all, who am I? If you can’t please yourself you can’t please anyone.
Still, it hit me in a really thoughtful way so you can imagine my joy when the amazing Romi Kamburg posted the video on my web page.
So HERE ARE 3 THINGS TO REMEMBER:
1.DO NOT mistake positive feedback from someone for positive feedback from yourself. You have your own answers.
2. NEVER wait for permission. Permission isn’t found outside of you.
3. NO ONE knows what works for you better than you.
…and with that, should you ever need some big, fat gratuitous praise, here is the perfect closet!!! You’re totally covered.