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.
Here’s the scene:
You’ve put every ounce of creative juice into this one masterpiece. You’ve counted your syllables, you’ve leaned on hard rhymes, and your hook is killer. Every line of the lyric brilliantly supports the hook. (How will you stay humble?!)
If all that isn’t enough, then there’s the melody. Holy cow, the MELODY! You LOVE singing it. It just ‘feel’s right. It fits in that perfect pocket. Genius.
Let’s just be honest. If you had to choose between THIS song and your first born, you would actually have to have a quick internal dialogue about which one you love more.
THAT is how stinking amazing this song is.
…and then the unfathomable happens.
You play it for that publisher you’ve been trying so hard to impress and, well, they just don’t “get” it.
“I mean, it’s technically correct, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.”
SAY THAT AGAIN A LITTLE CLOSER TO MY FACE, HOT SHOT!
You start growing your horns. You’re ready for battle. Who does this joker think they are?
You breathe in. Breathe out.
You remember that burning bridges is a bad idea at this point in your career.
You thank them for their time and leave with your tail tucked.
By the time you get to the car, you’re fighting back tears.
Why do I even mess with this? Why bother?
The music industry stinks.
Everybody hates you.
…it’s all just a…
I’ve been there. Shoot, I’ve been on both sides of that. I’ve gotten that reaction and I’ve given that feedback.
Here’s what I suggest, Gang.
As writers, and especially as new writers, we pour so much of our precious time and thought in our songs that it can be hard to distinguish the line between where we, the person, ends and where the song begins. You have to remember that the person listening is only seeing what’s on the page and hearing what’s in the room. They are having a reaction to the SONG, not to you. When a listener doesn’t like your song, it is not a commentary on your worth as a human being.
If you really need to know, then ask. “Is there a particular part that’s not working for you?” “Do you see anyway I could improve it?” But remember, the answer could just be ‘no.’ And trust me, whatever you do, don’t start defending the song. It’s over. It’s done. You’re not going to convince someone to love a song by being defensive. Thank them for their time and move along. (Note** If you handle this step right, you could actually get a future meeting with a new song! Again, trust me.)
Based on the feedback you got, now you have to decide. Do you want to play the song for someone else? Do you want to shelve it for a while and see how you feel about it in a few months? Do you want to rework it? Regardless, DECIDE. Do NOT let the experience roll around in your head and defeat you. Make a decision, do what you need to do, and get back to work.
Remember, at the end of the day, you’re the writer and you get to decide what to do with your feedback, but navigating this field can be tough. Write the best song you can write today, and then tomorrow, write the best song you can write tomorrow. Always, ALWAYS take the good with the not-so-good and use it to get better.
I knew the past 6 weeks were going to be busy. I thought I was ready for it. I had mapped out my schedule, penned in slots for everything I needed to do, prioritized and pep-talked myself all the way to the beginning of the start. I was psyched. I was ready.
And for the past six weeks, I was on airplanes every week, I was in an intense Life Coach certification school, I was finishing up my very first ever Christmas musical (insert shameless plug here for, “Once You’ve Seen the Star,” coming soon), and I had a heavy disability advocacy case load (which meant lots more studying.)
Well, you’ve heard what is said about the best laid plans…
Gang, at about week 3, I looked around and thought, “Holy Mother of the Cows! What have I gotten myself into?!”
Calls started going unanswered, emails unreturned, I was missing Facebook messages, and my friends were thinking I’d left town for good.
At the point panic was about to take over, and under the heading of being kind to myself, I took an afternoon off. I happened to be in New Bern, NC, and it was a gorgeous day. So, I locked up my computer, my cell phone, my files, my manuals and my worries, and I just walked around. I wandered in and out of galleries and tiny specialty shops. I ate toast with butter (a HEAVENLY accident) at a little diner. I perused the Pepsi shop—the place where Pepsi was invented, and I took a long walk around the bay.
In other words, I took some time to participate in the world outside of ‘me.’ I stopped focusing on Princess Belinda (gasp!).
During that afternoon, I appreciated all kinds of beautiful and fun things. And to be honest, it was course-changing.
On the plane flying home to Nashville that night, I decided that for the next few weeks, there were some emails and calls that were going to have to go unanswered. I was going to postpone the launch of Dashboard Poets AND my 1-on-1 Mentoring course. My newsletter wasn’t going to go out, and I was going to miss a few social gatherings. And that was ok.
Sometimes you have to be where you are.
Sometimes you get your answers when you’re not actively looking for them.
And, like my Dad always says:
All you can do is ALL you can do.
And it’s ok.
…because when you get back from your personal hiatus, you’re going to be ready to get some serious stuff done!!! BAM!
So, picture this: I got on a plane and flew to Savannah, GA, for dinner. For DINNER!
Well, okay, it wasn’t just any ol’ dinner. I threw my name in when Susan Hyatt announced her, “Girlfriends Gone Wild” event. One night, 20 fabulous women, a little life coaching and great food.
Doesn’t it all sound like fun? Well, it was. …until it came time to actually ENTER the restaurant.
See, I’ve always had this ‘thing’ about walking into rooms of people I don’t know. It’s odd—I can be on stage in front of thousands and not bat an eye. I can teach a group without a moment’s hesitation. But to just walk in to a room of strangers and have to start making small talk???
Jesus, take the wheel.
Guess what? THIS IS SOMETHING I HAVE TO DO! I mean, I just big fat have to do it sometimes. Why?
Relationships are imperative for what we do. (Yes, for WHATEVER we do.) And, no, I’m not talking networking. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone’s business card unless I want it, and it’s likely that I don’t want it if there’s no connection. (Soapbox for a another day.)
So here’s how I handled my good, old-fashioned FREAKING OUT about entering a room of people I didn’t know.
1. I decided on my question.
You know, the question—So, what do you do? I spent a lot of years working at a job that in no way defined me or gave much insight into who I really was, and it was during that time that I stopped asking people what they ‘did.’ I’m not as interested in what someone does as who they are. So, I started asking other questions—What do you like to do for fun? or I’m planning my next vacation. Where’s your favorite vacation spot? Based on who was going to be attending this particular event, I decided my question was, “So what are you most proud of?” (…it was a good one.)
2. I decided on my answer.
Even though I don’t love the question about what I do, I knew I was going to be asked. Here’s the start of my answer: My name is Belinda Smith, and I work with the best people in the world.
3. I reminded myself of why I was there in the first place.
I was there to meet, be inspired by, and to inspire amazing women. …and I’d just taken a night away from home to do it. SOMEONE was going to make it worth the trip whether they liked it or not!
Needless to say, I stepped out of my comfort zone in a BIG way. And, yes, it was worth it. For me, though, thinking about how I was going to show up and the kinds of conversations I wanted to have really did help the room-anxiety. It was like I’d given myself a road map of sorts, and Heaven knows we all need a little direction.
So, now that you know about my ’thing,’ do you have tips on how YOU do this? How do you do parties with strangers? HELP ME OUT HERE!