Writing songs is both an art and a big business.
Artists around the world are making a go of it either playing and recording their own music or writing music for other artists.
How do you become a songwriter? How do you make money as a songwriter? What makes a songwriter a professional?
In this guide, I’ll try to explain all that and more.
But first, if it's your aim to do music professionally, you'll want to check out our free ebook while it's still available:
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If You Write Songs – You’re A Songwriter!
In any craft, it’s easy to develop imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is feeling as though you are not talented or professional enough, or busy enough, or authentic enough to fit in and be a part of the scene.
It’s easy to feel this way about songwriting.
Many people feel that because they are not making money off of their songs, not playing them live, not recording them, or not writing songs for a living, they are not a “real” songwriter.
In my opinion, the only thing you have to do to be a songwriter is write songs.
Short songs, long songs, pop songs, rock songs, songs with words, songs without words… whatever!
Writing songs is a deeply human practice. If you've cultivated the skills necessary to be able to write songs, then you are a songwriter.
Now, if you are serious about songwriting, there are a number of ways to improve your craft and develop your career as a songwriter.
From working on the nuts and bolts of songwriting, to practicing the different skills professional songwriters use daily, I want to show you how to take your songwriting from hobby, to craft, to paid.
Improving Your Craft
For the last couple of years, I’ve been on a quest to improve my songwriting – both quality and quantity.
I want to write a lot of songs, and I want to write good ones. I can only do this by practicing!
Here are a few ways you can work on your writing.
Finish The Songs You Write
One of the most frustrating things about songwriting is having a bunch of half-finished songs that you like.
Unfortunately, nobody wants to hear a half-finished song.
The only thing you can do with a half-finished song is finish it.
If a song isn't done, you can choose to flesh it out, record it, share it or just store it for later.
When I decided to finish every song I was writing, I ended up with a couple of interesting results.
I now have some short songs that I like. Minute and half long songs have a place in the world! They go on albums as in-between songs, and sometimes people love them!
The other, more important thing about finishing songs is that you realize that you are never stuck.
Being stuck is mostly just a state of mind. Force yourself to finish the song, and you’ll come up with more lyrics, melodies, whatever. Don’t overthink it, just do it.
You can always edit later. Finish that song!
Create A Songwriting Group/Network
I have a songwriting friend who started something I’ve talked about before: a song club.
It can be a short song, an instrumental song, spoken word, whatever. It can be a full demo, or a voice memo.
The point is to force your brain into songwriting mode more often, and finish more songs.
If you miss a week, you are out of the group, and don’t get to hear what everyone else is working on, until that round of song club is over, and it starts fresh.
This club is great for many reasons. It’s great to network and build community with other songwriters. It’s a fun way to push yourself to increase your output. And it’s fun to give and receive encouragement.
Only positive reinforcement is allowed in song club – the point is to write songs every week, not necessarily to write amazing songs every week.
Write In Different Environments
Writing in the same space is nice. Most songwriters have a favorite room or place they are comfortable writing in.
The problem is, this can become a bit of a crutch.
You’re not always going to be in the ideal songwriting space – either physically, mentally, or emotionally.
But you still need to write songs!
Practice writing in different spaces. Try writing when there are people around. Write outside. Write in a hotel room. Write in the car.
The more you think about writing, the more you will write, and the better you will get.
Learn Basic Music Theory
You don’t need to know much theory to write songs. Sometimes I think it helps to have a few gaps in your theory, because you’ll break rules without knowing them.
That said, learning some basics is a good idea. You should know:
- The Nashville number system. Understanding how the chords in a key work is very helpful, and allows you to easily teach your songs to others, and record them faster.
- What keys are, how to transpose, and how to work within a key.
- A little bit about how chords tend to move. For example, why the leading tones make a ii – V – I chord progression so classic and satisfying.
- How to take chances and even steal!
Never be afraid to write something a little out of the ordinary.
Write a song that you wouldn’t sing. Write a poem, write spoken word, write a rap, write some instrumental music.
You never know what will come of these creative experiments, and the worst case scenario is just writing something you’ll never show to anyone – which happens all the time anyway!
Take risks, it’s worth it.
The Professional Songwriter’s Skillset
A professional songwriter has several important skills you can work on. Knowing how to do these things well is not mandatory, but it will help as your songwriting career moves ahead.
Co-writing is an important part of a songwriter’s life.
A lot of the time, professional songwriters are helping artists write new songs and/or write better songs.
Often, the artist wants to be in on the writing session.
Learning how to write well with somebody is super important.
How to steer a writing session, how to say “no” in a way that doesn’t offend, how to quickly come up with lyrics and melodies – all of this is awesome. It will make you a better songwriter in every way.
Beyond that, if you start co-writing with people, and they start putting your co-writes on recordings, you can start making passive income from the royalties those songs earn.
When professional songwriters co-write, they (or an engineer/producer in the room) usually make a quick, but professional sounding demo to show off the song.
People like to think that they can hear a good song from just a voice memo – and maybe some can.
But for most, (especially those who are not songwriters) they need a demo.
The demo should have some general production ideas/moves, a beat, and some interesting instrumental ideas that you could see putting on the final recording.
I have been in songwriting rooms where you start the song, demo as you go, and by the end of the day, have a full song and a full demo that sounds great.
Demoing makes you a better instrumentalist, a better engineer, a better producer, and in my opinion, a better writer as well.
Writing For Different Genres & Specific Uses
Professional songwriters need to write for artists in all sorts of genres and scenarios.
If you’re serious about songwriting as a profession, you need to be able to write outside of the genre you sing.
My favorite way to practice writing in different styles is co-writing with songwriters who work outside of my genre.
Collaborating with different artists allows you to expand your idea of how music is made – for example, if you collaborate with an R&B artist, you may end up writing most of the song “in the box” (in the DAW).
Ways To Share Songs
As a songwriter, you need to know how you are going to share your music.
How you're planning to share your music impacts how you structure your career.
If you’re writing music that you want to record, sing, and play out, you’re chasing after a traditional artist career. Using the music you’re writing as a creative outlet, but also as a way to advance your career.
Here are several ways songwriters go about sharing music.
Recording & Releasing
Most songwriters write a song, record it, and release it. Maybe as a single, maybe as part of an EP or an album.
There are too many ways to release music to name – labels, self-release, etc. The point is simply that you are recording and releasing your own music.
Releasing music still earns you money – although it’s not nearly as profitable as it once was.
Streaming services pay per stream, some people are still buying CDs, and if you have enough capital to press vinyl, people still buy that too.
Before recording their music, many artists start by playing their original songs live.
First, for friends and family, then at open mics, then at gigs and festivals.
As your career and notoriety increases, live performance will most likely become your bread and butter. Through touring, you can play for different audiences every night. As you play larger venues to larger crowds, you should see your revenues increase.
Attendance at live shows usually goes hand in hand with money generated from streaming and sales. People at your shows are probably listening to your recorded music as well, and they’ll hopefully buy your CD at the show!
Pitching To Other Artists/Industry
Songwriters with publishing deals (and some self-published producers and songwriters) will spend a lot of their time co-writing with artists for their projects, or writing songs and then pitching them to artists.
If not to artists, then songwriters/producers will pitch their music to TV, movies and commercials.
This is all in an effort to generate income, notoriety and more work.
This way of sharing your songs can be a slow build, but getting a cut on somebody’s record can mean passive royalty income for a long time. It might just pay off!
How To Become A Songwriter; Ways To Make Money With Your Songs
Becoming a “professional” (full-time) songwriter is difficult. It is hard to generate income from your songs, and it always has been.
Generating income requires a multi-faceted approach.
You’ve got to have a combination of all of the below:
Live performance is where most artists make their money in 2019.
There are lots of places to play, and the world is more connected now than ever.
Start building an audience locally, showcase nationally, and then start touring. Eventually, you can build a profitable touring career.
These days, sales tend to go hand-in-hand with live performance. Most artists are selling their CDs and vinyl at shows.
You will still sell some copies of your album on Bandcamp and on other online retailers, but digital sales have plummeted since streaming has taken over.
There are many kinds of royalties your music generates.
A mechanical royalty is generated every time your music is sold, manufactured, or reproduced on a streaming site.
A public performance royalty is generated every time your song is played live. This means a set at your local bar, as background music at a coffee shop, or on the radio.
See our royalty breakdown for more info. Royalties are generated in many ways – from ringtones, to streaming, to live performance, to cassette replication.
Placements (Sync Licensing)
One of the hottest ways to earn money with your music is with a sync license.
With companies like Amazon and Netflix producing tons of new shows, there are lots of opportunities to pitch to shows.
Usually, a sync license is a one-time fee that is paid out to license the song to the movie. Another royalty will be payed whenever the movie is bought or reproduced.
Sync licenses can be incredibly profitable, particularly as you pitch to big companies with large ad budgets.
Publishing Deals/Record Deals
If you sign a co-publishing deal with a publishing company, you will probably be paid either an advance or a monthly salary to write songs, co-write songs, create demos and pitch them to both artists and TV/movies.
This is a great way to earn income while working at your craft, but these deals are hard to come by. It’s also not free money – your salary is essentially a debt to the company, and the royalties you generate will pay off that debt before you get paid.
Record deals usually work similarly – they may pay you an advance, but you’ll have to pay it back with sales and/or royalties.
Both of these deals could be great for your career, so they are worth chasing. They are not the be all end all – now more than ever, you can release your own music and start making a career!
How To Become A Paid Songwriter Conclusion
Becoming a songwriter requires patience and practice. Work at your craft, write lots of songs, co-write, expand your horizons, and learn how to create your own recordings, and you’ll be well on your way to a great career.
To me, if you can do all of that in a masterful way, you can be a professional songwriter.
The reason I say this, is because becoming a professional songwriter is difficult. Making all of your money off of music is not easy.
While there are many ways to make money with your music, they all take time, effort, and a good deal of luck.
That said, the right song, at the right time, along with a bunch of hard work can make a career – whether you’re writing for other people or singing your own songs.
Take advantage of all of the ways to generate income, and keep at it!