It’s common for songwriters to feel overwhelmed when finishing their songs and getting them ready for their audience. There can be tremendous blocks going from inspiration to song completion. Listed below are the top issues I’ve encountered while interviewing songwriters and students of music who write music.
1. Not knowing “where to go next” with your song.
This is a major problem for many songwriters. They’ll write one or more good sections but get stuck without knowing what to write next. They’ll put the song on the shelf in hopes that they’ll have a fresh perspective and be able to finish the song when and if they come back to it later. Unfortunately, this can take a long time, multiple years, to get that perspective or new inspiration. This problem is a symptom of a greater problem: not properly diagnosing what the song issues are. Diagnosing means getting very specific about what’s not working and disrupting the flow of the song. There’s a great fear in admitting that certain parts are faulty and many songwriters take it personally. Write down exactly what is bothering you about your song. Use your imagination to come up with a “placeholder” section. It’s better to write placeholders and write a note to yourself saying “Rewrite the bridge” or whatever the specific issue is. Often-times, we’ve forgotten the listener when we’re trying to craft something brilliant. I wrote a post a while back about embracing simplicity and making sure your song is focused on a singular theme. My best recommendation is to make a demo of the song after putting in placeholders so you can hear what’s happening in real-time. Keep the listener in mind while doing so.
2. Feeling like your songs aren’t “good” enough so you don’t finish them.
It can be very frustrating to be working on a song and you realize it isn’t saying exactly what you want it to say. The lyrics are a little scattered; some lines are especially poetic, and some are just not communicating how you want them to. To improve your lyrical ability, it’s always a good idea to have a main point in mind (a central idea) when writing. I’ve found many of Pat Pattison’s ideas helpful. Check out his book, Writing Better Lyrics and his concept ”object writing.” Knowledge brings us confidence, so the more we study lyrics and implement what we’ve learned, we’ll learn to love the process. There are no rules at the end of the day; your style is your style and you should own it. Don’t hesitate to make your main points bold and clear.
Another great article: Show—Don’t Tell: 3 Steps to Writing Better Lyrics
3. Not being fluent in the language of music.
All too often guitarists and other musicians have a deficit in music theory knowledge. A guitarist discovers a unique chord voicing with open strings and couldn’t tell you what the name of it is. This stems from an incomplete knowledge of how chords are constructed and what notes you’re playing on your instrument. The foundation of this comes from learning about how major scales are constructed and what chords are in each key. The more you know about music theory, the better! This isn’t to say that you won’t be able to communicate with other musicians but it’s difficult to find people who know what you’re trying to say without you having to say it.
4. Unknowingly violating a copyright by using a hook from someone else’s song.
We all do it. We “stumble on” a great riff or hook that seems too good. It came together a little too easily because you are merely recreating a song that you’ve heard before. There’s almost no way to avoid this because we are inspired by the music we hear. I recommend to send your riff ideas and completed songs to a group of musically educated friends for review before releasing your music widely. Specifically ask if there are any musical moments that seem a little too familiar. The good news is, if your music is widely distributed enough to get the attention of a major artist, you’ve got some serious promotional ability!
5. Being unable to fully coordinate singing and playing an instrument.
This is an incredible challenge that many of us choose to take on. Instead of solely relying on the rhythm section, we want to be able to play and sing for live and recording purposes. One must work to improve their singing and playing abilities separately and together. It can be slow and painstaking. Private lessons help greatly. I’ve been taking private lessons on guitar and drums since I was 8 years old and it has helped immensely. I’ve often thought that my voice isn’t suitable for a “commercial” sound, but in recent years, I decided to stop complaining about it and take vocal lessons with a trained opera singer named Vincent Stringer. When singers ask “Is my voice good?”, it’s merely an indication that they aren’t confident in their abilities at this point.
6. Not fully understanding the different types copyrights and their importance.
Copyrighting is a complex subject, so it’s understandable that one gets confused about what the first step is towards protecting their music. There isn’t a single right answer to doing this, but here’s what I’ve done over the years: I initially did a large batch copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. You can copyright 1 song, or a thousand songs, it’s all the same fee. This protects the core essence of your work from theft; the date of copyright is proof that you wrote the song before the potential thief. Nowadays, I copyright my finished and unfinished songs at the beginning of every year. Since I plan on releasing my music, I will also file the song titles before release with ASCAP, a performing rights organization. BMI and SESAC are the other big organizations. If you use CD Baby or TuneCore (both are great), then they can file the performing rights licenses for you. There are more complex cases to consider, but this is just a simple overview.
7. Not being able or willing to find musicians to contribute to their music.
For years I had a very short-sighted approach to putting together bands. I would find band members. We would put a list of songs together, then rehearse them weekly. When we had felt like we had enough material for a show, we found a couple of showcases to be a part of. This plan sounds good in theory, but we worked ourselves to death on that one setlist, didn’t find more gigs, and eventually lost motivation and disbanded. This definitely indicated a fear I had of not being “good enough” to play live, so my self-fulfilling prophecy worked itself out. Since then, I’ve gained a lot more performing confidence by trying out many different band types. I found that excessive rehearsal can kill the vibe of the band. The approach which improved my musicianship more than the above process was to take on a number of performance opportunities (open mics, jam sessions, etc) in order to network and meet people. This more “open” attitude greatly enhances confidence for on-stage performance. Eventually, when you do put a band together, you can focus exactly what you want to achieve with them and be open to performance and other band opportunities that come your way.
8. Not having the means to record their music.
It’s easier than ever to make quick demos of your music. In the 90’s, we were making recordings with mostly cassette players. This was the easiest choice at the time and we certainly didn’t know any better! The early days of computer recording were slow and limited. I did, however, very much enjoy using making MIDI demos of my instrumental music. (Fond memories of using Cakewalk and a long-obsolete program called CyberSound Studio). It can seem very expensive to get into home recording and there is certainly a learning curve. I recommend joining and perusing a subreddit called We Are The Music Makers. It has answers to many important questions, the most important being “how can I make a demo on a budget?” What a songwriter needs to consider is: how well-polished to you want your music to turn out? Be prepared to spend over $5,000 on an album if you want to record and mix in a studio, hire a producer, and pay session musicians if you want a radio-competitive album.
9. Not having a live and online promotion strategy.
Depending on what you want to achieve, there are ways to create an intelligent promotional strategy. If you’re just starting out, you probably want to perform and network with musicians. Playing your music at open mics is a great way to get started. Doing a Google search for ‘open mic (your state)’ will give you an idea what open mics are around you. If you have music recorded that you want to share online, I highly recommend Bandcamp over ReverbNation. Soundcloud was a great platform for sharing your music, but is in decline due to strange business practices. If you make a simple business card, you can point people to your websites at your live performances. When you (and possibly your band) are ready for more serious gig opportunities, the promotional strategy gets a little more intense. You’ll want to have an email list, a website, and CDs and merchandise to sell at your shows. Download cards are an excellent option for promoting your single before your full album is released.
10. Having a lack of faith in your abilities to make money with your music.
It’s easy to feel crushed under the weight of giants. You might ask “who wants to hear another original singer-songwriter?” I believe that any contribution to original art is valuable. Never belittle your desire to communicate something with your music. Your style is unique and your message will be meaningful to someone. An excellent resource in the existential music crisis department is the book Effortless Mastery. It might just be that you haven’t found your place yet. If your lyrics aren’t coming together, maybe you should team up with a lyricist (consider the story of Elton John). Maybe writing instrumental music for soundtracks could be your thing! Even though it’s getting more competitive for live musicians, if you become exceptional, there’s no way you can’t succeed.