I’m on a mission.
I’m working with writers from all different parts of the world every week, and I’m encouraging them to listen...less.
Let me explain a bit. There are some great places to pick up useful tools as a songwriter--plenty of them. They’re online, in books, in groups run by people who know what they’re talking about. There are teachers, workshops, and coaches. In a town like Nashville you can just go out on any given night and pick up some serious knowledge about what makes a great song.
It’s amazing to have these resources! Believe me, they didn’t exist when I started. If I had been able to pick the brain of someone who had actually done what I wanted to do, I’d have been there as long as they’d have me.
So what's the problem?
If you only take in information and don’t turn it into inspiration, you get more rules than tools. If you listen to every voice before your own, you might even find yourself discouraged when you take a hard look at what you’re writing. Doesn't seem to fit the rules. I hear this especially from new writers. They feel they have a gift; writing makes them happy and they go after expertise to take them to the next level. They go to a workshop, usually with writers in the same boat, they connect with the other writers, and hopefully co-write and gather even more information.
You know the expression, 'sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'? This can often be the case. You start to get critiques from other new writers who (hopefully with the best intentions) are passing on the new info they’ve been getting: Have to write uptempo positive...Titles can’t be more than 5 words...Every topic has to be relatable...No artist is going to want to sing something that makes them appear unattractive...Radio is male dominated, don’t bother writing something a female artist might cut...The listener has a short attention span so one verse, chorus, maybe post-chorus, no bridge and make everything feel like a chorus...If you write 'heady' you may want to dumb down a bit...Try to write what you hear on the radio.
Most of this is helpful, but if it's what's going through your head every time you start a song it’s like inviting a critic to co-write. At best you’re liable to get a pretty generic song and at worst you’re discouraged before you start.
Sure you want to understand what makes a song great, what sets a song apart from a million others. You want to understand this craft. But if it's only information (and not inspiration) you’ll just be competing with the countless writers who got there ahead of you. If you’re writing for Music Row, for instance, and you’re studying how to write a Bro-Country song...you’re too late. You’re competing with writers who not only know this type of song inside out, but are looking for the next thing and have moved on.
So what do you do?
Take the info you’ve learned, weigh it, and then be brave in your ideas. The only real hope you have to stand out is to find your voice as a writer.
P.S. Something I wanted to add as an afterthought . Always, always run from the toxic songwriters. Ones who are world weary, jaded, seen and done it all, no idea is good enough type. Guard that sense of wonder and hope you have at all costs and surround yourself with the best and brightest .Seek knowledge, experience and most of all ,encouragement!
May 20th, 2015
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About Mark Cawley
Mark Cawley is a hit U.S. songwriter and musician who coaches other writers and artists to reach their creative and professional goals. During his decades in the music business he has procured a long list of cuts with legendary artists ranging from Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross to Wynonna Judd, Kathy Mattea, Russ Taff, Paul Carrack, Will Downing, Tom Scott, Billie Piper, Pop Idol winners and The Spice Girls. To date his songs have been on more than 15 million records. Mark’s resume includes hits on the Pop, Country, R&B, Jazz, and Rock charts and several publishing deals with the likes of Virgin, Windswept Pacific, and Steelworks/Universal. Mark calls on his decades of experience in the publishing world, as an artist on major labels, co-writer with everyone from Eliot Kennedy and Burt Bacharach to Simon Climie and Kye Fleming, composing, and recording to mentor clients around the globe with iDoCoach. He is also a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, a contributing author to USA Songwriting, Songwriter Magazine, , sponsor for the ASA, judge for Belmont University's Commercial Music program and West Coast Songwriter events , a popular blogger and, from time to time, conducts his own workshops.Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark has also lived in Boston, L.A., Indianapolis, London, and the last 20 years in Nashville, TN.