21 Aug 2019

How To: Become a Professional Songwriter

While many artists  are singer songwriters, the music industry is also filled with songwriters who just write. Take Max Martin, for example. Martin is arguably one of the most prolific songwriters of this, or any, generation but most of the public have never heard his name. Global superstars like Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones may have had more total sales, but judging by the breadth of artists he has worked with on pop songs over the last twenty years, there isn’t anyone who holds a candle to Martin. His 22 US Billboard number one singles range from his first, Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ to his most recent, Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t stop this feeling’, with the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Maroon 5 in between.

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Martin eschews fame, when out in public his response to potentially being recognised is an automatic ‘I hope not’, so it’s not surprising that this musician, who has had access to, but consistently refused, the limelight, rarely gives interviews. But when he does, they’re filled with useful information for budding songwriters. In a 2017 interview, his first for sixteen years, the songwriter laid out his best advice:

  1. You should be able to feel and remember a song after hearing it only one or two times. Martin says your reaction to listening to a song should be ‘I need to hear that again’.
  2. A song should be recognisable after just one second. That opening chord or drumbeat should instantly resonate with the listener and make them excited about what’s to come.
  3. You don’t have to start writing at the intro and end on the outro. Work your way through the song and write it as it comes.

But what are the realities of writing music?

Songwriting Isn’t Just A Party

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One of the first things to realise about songwriting is that it doesn’t automatically grant you the glamorous lifestyle people expect – some people imagine themselves partying with celebrities, then occasionally sitting down to pen a masterpiece. The reality is that songwriting takes a lot of graft, some luck, then a load more graft.

Most songwriters work from song to song, this means they work for themselves and aren’t tied down into contracts, but for those who want a little more stability, you can become a staff-writer for a music publisher. These songwriters aren’t salaried and are advanced their wages, but it’s a steadier income than freelancing.

There is a chord sequence that has been used so often in the last few decades it has become synonymous with pop music. Songs including Jason Mraz ‘I’m Yours’, Elton John ‘ Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ and even Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Under The Bridge’ all use is and these, along with many others, are collected into one song by the Axis of Awesome. But as much as all these hit songs, and many others, sound so similar they fit together into a medley, you can’t just break out these chords and expect to get a hit.

Songwriting is as much a skill as playing the guitar, singing or even skateboarding. Nobody writes a hit on the first try, in the same way that nobody manages an ollie their first time on a board. Paul McCartney once famously said that he and Lennon would sit down and say ‘lets write a swimming pool’, meaning that anything they would churn out would be a hit. But they didn’t get there overnight. Songwriting ability needs to be nurtured, you may be blessed with some innate talent, but it can always be worked on.

What’s out there to help?

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Once upon a time, songwriters were left to work out how to break into the business on their own. But these days there are tons of courses available to songwriters who want to hone their craft, with many of the best running at ACM:

Rap & MC Pathway

focussing on rap music and MC-ing rather than pop and rock music, this course gives insight into ‘“4 weapons of rap” (lyricism, flow, delivery, and originality), while rounding out their knowledge with other classes, including music theory and analytical skills. Learn more here.

Creative Artistry

A more generalised course available at foundation and degree levels. Students learn songwriting alongside production, music business and performance to arm themselves with the knowledge of exactly where they want to end up in the music industry. Learn more about the course here.

Commercial Songwriting

Taught at ACM London, this course focusses on all aspects of songwriting. This goes from lyric creation to score production, with modules that teach how to write to briefs, teaching students to write for movies, TV and video games. Find out more here.

It’s easier said than done, but as a songwriter, your main job is to write a hit. As time progresses, so does musical taste, so you need to be on top or in front of music trends. The Beatles will forever be one of the greatest bands of all time, but if someone released ‘Love Me Do’ as their debut single in 2019, their career wouldn’t be going very far. Immerse yourself in the kind of music you want to write, arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can and write yourself the next number one.

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