Courtesy of Russell Sheffield
As an aspiring songwriter, you've probably learned that writing a complete song isn't as easy as you may have thought...
Whether it's a chorus that sticks in your head for days, an infectious hook, a toe-tapping beat, or an ambient synth that somehow both warms and chills you at the same time, there are certain musical moments that make you stop in your tracks and wonder: how did they write that? As music fans, we've all been there. It's easy to forget that these moments all started out the same: as ideas.
You've spent hours writing and tinkering until all of a sudden, you're in a completely different place than when you started, but no further ahead. You might find yourself feeling that you've wasted time and quickly become frustrated. Well, you're not alone! The truth is that more often than not for new songwriters, you are your own worst enemy. Luckily, there are a few fundamental steps you can take to turn these obstacles into strengths!
1. Lack of creative vision
To continue on the "how did they write that?!" moment, the answer is that the songwriter had a creative vision of what the song should be and followed through. Perfecting this takes time and practice. Lots of songwriters talk about the song that they heard in their head before they endeavored to create it. Spend some time thinking about what your sound means, what you aim to achieve when it's done, and what type of vibe you'd like it to convey. Write these notes down so you can help yourself stay on track.
Especially when you're first starting out, you need to set goals. Goals can be as simple as implementing that new F# chord that you learned, all the way to developing an impactful bridge that brings the song to an unexpected climax. As a novice songwriter, you need to set simple, reasonable goals for every writing session.
Key takeaway: Make notes that help you stay on track about your vision for the song when you start your session. Set achievable goals to measure your success in the short term, and you'll dramatically improve your chances of finishing with a song you can be proud of!
2. Imbalance of inspiration vs. discipline
A common misconception is that you need to only wait for inspiration to strike and the perfect song will just spill forth from your fingertips. What many people don't see are all the songs an accomplished songwriter has on the cutting-room floor. It took a lot of trial and error for some of your favorite songs to come to light.
Don't wait for the heavens to pass along the perfect chord progression – improving your craft and understanding the process takes discipline, and the lessons that come with writing a bad song or two. You're going to have days where you feel like nothing has been accomplished. Trust us – this is exactly what is supposed to happen. But if you stay focused, diligent, and disciplined for your craft by working hard every day, the chances that those magical moments will grace you are that much higher.
Key takeaway: Be patient with yourself, and put your head down and do the work. Improve your craft daily, and don't get frustrated if those magical moments of inspiration aren't knocking down your door every single day.
3. Sharing paralysis
A major hindrance for many artists early on is the instinct to be overprotective of your work, so much so that lots of great music goes unheard. You may be deathly afraid of criticism, and there's probably a reason for that – it's not because you're an "artiste" and people just can't relate. It could be because you lack confidence, and the best way to build confidence is through critique from your peers. Begin by simply showing your work to people you trust the most (family, friends, music teacher), and slowly you should become comfortable enough to seek the opinions of a larger audience.
Don't get stuck in the sharing paralysis trap and wake up five years in, and notice your cat is your only fan because you couldn't work up the courage to share your art!
Key takeaway: The ability to show off your work and accept critique will be a fundamental step forward in your songwriting process and will open the doors to potential collaborations. Collaborating with other musicians will help open your eyes to new songwriting methods and techniques, adding depth and structure to your work!
4. Never celebrating your growth
It's common for songwriters to want to take down and erase older works. Sure, you've grown past them and no longer feel they represent your voice an artist. That's fine. But don't forget to take a second to appreciate your growth and progress as an artist. Old songs are a snapshot of your past and were crucial to helping you develop into the artist you are today.
We would urge you to never delete these oldie but goodies. Keep them backed up somewhere, because you never know when an old idea could be revamped. Let's be honest – who wouldn’t kill to hear young Tom Waits' bedroom demos?
Key takeaway: Celebrate your growth as an artist, and don't hide from your past or hide your past work! You've put hours into your craft, and unlike a lot of crafts, you can quite tangibly hear that growth in your songs. Take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back and be proud of your old songs!
5. Being disorganized
So you've gained confidence and a long list of friends to collaborate with – amazing! But now you've got so many brilliant ideas in progress with so many different collaborators that it's impossible to keep track of everything.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It's 2:30 a.m. You just got home from an amazing show and are getting ready for bed, when a genius melody comes to your head. You pick up your guitar and record it into a voice memo so you don't forget. Fast forward two days later – you've recorded four different parts for the same song on different "memos." You sent a clip to your bandmate across town, and she's sent three different files back for you to add into the song. You're trying to piece it all together, but it's a mess and you're losing valuable creative time by trying to figure out the logistics of your messy demoing system.
Although not the most exciting component of your creative process, figuring out a way to neatly and quickly organize your progress and ideas is one of the most vital keys in becoming an efficient songwriter. Invest some time into figuring out what works best for you and your collaborators. Once you've landed on a format, you can fine tune as you go along until you're a well-oiled music making machine.
Also, please back up your files on a reliable hard drive. Please, please, please!
Key takeaway: In order to maximize creativity, it's extremely important to stay organized. Stand-alone apps like Trackd allow you to focus more on being creative by providing all the tools you need for your songwriting process.
6. Forgetting the most important rule
Whether songwriting is your hobby or your profession, you should never forget the reason you do this: to have fun. Don't take yourself too seriously, and understand that you're going to have good days and bad days. Take both in stride. Embrace your gift and never lose sight of the bigger picture.
Key takeaway: If you're not enjoying yourself, you're doing it wrong.
Let's recap: set your goals, be patient, seek constructive criticism and new collaborators, celebrate your progress, stay organized, and have fun! Master these too-often-overlooked basics, and you'll find yourself with greater creative capacity so that you can focus more on the fun parts.
Russell Sheffield is the co-founder of Trackd and a music die-hard. He’s a drummer by day and by night he manages some incredible bands. Before Trackd he had success in FinTech and design. Russ’s biggest skill is uncovering amazing talent and linking people together to get huge results.