July 30, 2010

Role Call - You Are Bartholomew Cubbins

"In the Beginning, Bartholomew Cubbins did not have 500 hats. He had only one hat." -- Dr Seuss

In the traditional music business model, you, the songwriter or artist would be under contract to a large record company and publisher, who would then call all the shots. In today’s world of Independent artists, YOU are the one who puts others under contract to you.
The key is to know
(a) what types of roles/tasks need to be done
(b) which ones you can do yourself
(c) which ones you need to engage others for
(d) how to find the right person(s) to do the tasks you want to contract out.

There are three parts in the journey from creative inspiration to released recording. These are:

Creation – (Songcraft): the process of conceptualizing, creating and crafting the song, including getting critique and making revisions.

Realization – (Studiocraft): the process of taking the finished song from paper (or in your head) to fully arranged master recording and/or performable piece

Proliferation - (Salescraft and Stagecraft): the process of getting copies ofthe song as widely disseminated to as many people as possible through a recording or live performance

Within these three phases, a number of different things must happen, each requiring different types of skill sets. Each related group of tasks that must be done comprises a role. In big label, big budget projects, each role may have a dedicated person (or more than one person) doing those tasks. For the typical Indie artist, all the roles are filled initially by you. These are the many hats you have to wear. The reason it often seems so daunting is that the knowledge and skills you have will fit some of the roles, but not others, and when you come to a point where those roles need to be filled by skills you don’t posses, you feel adrift.

If you know what each role is, when it is needed, and the skills required, you will be able to make informed decisions and you will be able to continue to move ahead with much less stress. First, let’s take a look at some of the key roles required to get a song from beginning to end.


Actual songwriting occurs in the Creation phase. Realization involves arranging, recording, and production, while Proliferation centers around distribution, performance and promotion. Each of the roles above is a combination of creative elements and technical elements, but the skill sets and objectives for Realization and Proliferation are different than those for the initial creation of the song.

A song is traditionally and legally defined as a melody and lyric. For purposes of this discussion and the Creation-Realization-Proliferation paradigm, Creation means the initial writing of a melody and lyric, along with (optionally) the initial accompanying chords. Anything beyond that (for example when the rest of the band or the producer starts adding parts) becomes elements of Realization, i.e. deciding stylistic elements of how the song will be arranged and produced. As songwriters, we want to be able to create a lyric and melody which, if sung a capella or in any stylistic arrangement, will always stand on its own as a well-crafted song. That is how a song gets covered by many artists across several different styles.

As a self-contained Indie artist, you may indeed have to wear all 500 hats, but while you are acting as a songwriter, you have to deal with only four roles: Lyricist, Composer, Idea Generator, and Sounding Board. Remember that one person can fill more than one role (e.g., you write both the music and the lyrics) or one role can be filled by more than one person (e.g., two people collaborate on a lyric).

The Lyricist role is the one which writes the lyrics. The Composer creates the melody and optionally, the initial chord accompaniment. These are well known and easily understood roles.

But where do the inspirations for songs come from? What ignites the spark to want to write about something ? This is the role of the Idea Generator. The one who has the “songwriter’s antennae” always extended, scanning life for moments to be captured in a sonic snapshot. Many songwriters generate their own ideas, from life experience, from an event in the news, from a line in a book or from seeing something on TV. But just as easily, it could be someone else who provides the key idea for a song. That person may not write a single lyric line or melody note, but they can provide the spark, the hook, the central premise that becomes a song.

In that case, they are acting as the Idea Generator. It is important as a songwriter to always remain open to all sources of inspiration. The person who insists on being totally self-contained may miss out on some great ideas that come from others. If someone else provides the idea for a great song, an idea is not a copyrightable entity, thus you are not required to credit them as a co-writer, but it may be good business and interpersonal etiquette to do so. That becomes one of your early choices. If there is one less co-writer, you get a larger piece of the pie. But will it cause hard feelings and possibly burn a valuable bridge? Like all choices in the arts, there is not an absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decision. -- just the one that seems right for you, and you can only make it if you stop to think about it.

The fourth role in the realm of Creation is that of Sounding Board. This is one role which is usually impossible to fill yourself, and it is an extremely important part of Creation. Sadly, many writers are afraid of this role and leave it out of the process, to their own detriment.

The Sounding Board is the person (or persons) whom you let hear your early versions of the song, or see the initial drafts of the lyric, to get feedback and constructive critique. The skills required in order for this role to be valuable to you are that the person(s) filling it have no reason to say they like or dislike your song for any reason other than its own merits. This means that your spouse, your mom, you dog, or your employee will not effectively fill this role (unless they are also a qualified music evaluator whom you know can be objective) A music professional, a knowledgeable teacher, a qualified songwriting coach, or a Songwriter Association provide good sources
of constructive feedback.

Think of Olympic athletes – how would they ever reach their full potential if they didn’t have a qualified, objective person observing them and telling them what was good and what could be improved. If all they ever got was a supportive parent or partner saying “good job!” and “great effort” to everything, without someone pointing out areas for improvement, there would be limited advancement of skills and no intensifying of inner drive. However, there would be that warm fuzzy feeling of affirmation, which everyone likes.

On the other hand, if all one ever heard is relentless criticism, which unfortunately can also come from parents and loved ones, there is no better way to kill motivation and creative spark. And in both cases, your eyes would certainly not be wide open to what could really be achieved. Only you can determine where the right balance lies for you. Many songwriters tend to avoid objective critique, but it is one of the surest, fastest ways to advance your skills.

In my years of song critiquing, I’ve seen so many writers bring fully produced studio recordings, representing significant time and money, to critique sessions. This is clearly outside the Creation-Realization-Proliferation paradigm, as a fully produced song is ready for Proliferation, while the Sounding Board role as it relates to critiquing the song (as opposed to the production), is part of the Creation phase. When good suggestions are made that would really improve the song, the writers are faced with unpleasant choices: go back to the studio and spend more time and money to make the improvements, or live with a song they know could be made better. (NOTE: The Sounding Board role in the Realization phase relates to input on arrangement and production. In the Proliferation phase, the Sounding Board offers input on marketing strategies or live presentation).

The simple way to avoid this rock-and-hard-place situation is to get your constructive feedback early in the process, before anything is fully committed to a final form. Then, adjustments are easy to make and don’t cost anything. Rewriting and revising is an integral part of songcrafting, thus its value lies in the Creation phase.

You are always in control of your artistic choices, even when the options come from a source external to you. It is not easy to offer up your creation for strangers to pick at, but to avoid critique is to deny yourself the opportunity to make choices, and if your head is in the sand, you cannot choose with your eyes wide open.

Once you move beyond the Creation phase, there are many new hats to wear, each with a different set of skills. Your choice is always

(a) Do I do fill the role myself, and

(b) If not, how do I decide who to get to fill it ? .

These are important decisions for all songwriters and artists, and they are discussed fully at www.songcrafterscoloringbook.com

...Bill Pere

Songwriter Organizations - What's Right For You?

In 1979, when I helped start the Connecticut Songwriters Association, there was no Internet, no one had heard of "Indie Artists", and there were relatively few songwriter support groups around. In this current day of thriving Indie music, and social media, there are new organizations, both real and virtual, constantly springing up, presenting themselves as support groups for artists and songwriters. How do you know which might be right for you, and which would not be a productive investment of your limited time and resources? I am asked all the time about Taxi, NSAI, SGA, ASCAP/BMI, Songsalive, Indiegrrl, CSA, WCS, PNSA, ASG, SongU, Indie Connect, and so many more.

Ask a hundred people what the role of a songwriters organization is and you’ll likely get a hundred answers. In practice, there are many different roles that such an organization could play, thus it comes down to how the organization defines and presents itself.

The three broad facets relating to songwriting are: (1) the art, (2) the craft, (3) the business.

What would an organization look like if it focuses exclusively on each of these?

(1) An arts-based group would be one which emphasizes and supports creative expression in any form, with little application of rules, guidelines, structure, or technique, and which does not judge or evaluate songs in any prescribed way. Members would be seeking affirmation, encouragement, and the opportunity to network with like-minded folks. “Success” is measured solely by the artist’s own internal criteria. Such an organization may be a non-profit entity, functioning as a support group, and discussing topics such as creative process and where to find local open mikes. Critique would not be a central part of the activities. Informal song circles might be structured this way. A common thread in these organizations would be that the songs can be writer-centric (expressive) rather than audience-centric. (communicative). Most of the members in this type of group are likely to be performers (singer-songwriters) as opposed to just writers who do not perform.

(2) A craft-based group would have much of the above, but would add a new element. Craft is often misunderstood, for when confused with the artistic focus as discussed above, it may perceived as “imposing too much structure”, “selling-out”, “compromising artistic integrity”, etc. But exactly what is “craft”? Consider the craft of woodworking – a woodworker is an artisan, and may create what he or she wishes without regard to any guidelines. However, one can certainly learn about such factual things as the nature of different woods; how to make smooth, secure joints; how to sand and varnish wood; how to use different kinds of hand tools or power tools, etc. This knowledge can be used to build skills which enable the artisan to bring craftsmanship to his or her art. The emphasis here is on education with the objective of providing tools to make the best possible product. . Individuals still have their own definitions of success and complete artistic freedom. These organizations may discuss rules and guidelines as they apply to craft (i.e. how), not art (i.e. what), and may evaluate or critique the execution of technique (i.e. how) without judging artistic value (i.e. what). Members may be seeking the same types of things as in an arts-based organization, with the added desire for education about tricks of the trade and seeking to create a more polished end product. Such an organization is likely to be a non-profit entity functioning as an educational group centered on optimizing music and lyrics. The perspective is that to successfully share songs in a competitive environment, the songs must be honed to be the best they can be, and be audience-centric (communicative), rather than writer-centric (expressive). Many of the members in this type of group are non-performing songwriters.

(3) A business-based group focuses on commercial outcome of the product. The emphasis is on whether or not it can sell, regardless of the underlying elements of art and craft. Success is generally defined in terms of tangible outcomes such as money or recognition, and members would be oriented toward this type of goal. Critique of products is done with commercial outcome in mind, and the information presented usually revolves around marketing and promotional strategies and tools. Such an organization is often organized as a business league, and though it itself may be non-profit, it will not typically have a tax-exempt status. Discussions may focus on production, marketing, touring, royalties, and generating income streams.

So where exactly would a songwriters organization fit? The answer is that a songwriters group can be any of the above, individually or in combination. It is up to the organization, but what is important for the individual writers is to make sure that their personal goals fit with those of the organization, or at least to be aware of where they differ.

When evaluating an organization to see if it is a good fit for you, visit the website, look at its history, its programs, and the people who run it.. There are national and international organizations with many chapters, and there are smaller regional or statewide organizations.(See www.songwriteruniverse.com for a directory).

In this Internet age, there are also many virtual groups who interact only online, some small, some large. Facebook and Yahoo groups are loaded with them. When it comes to support groups, bigger is not always better – it depends on the kind of access and individual attention you are seeking.

Look specifically at the mission statement (if they don’t have one, it's a red flag). An example of a mission statement, from the Connecticut Songwriters Association (www.ctsongs.com) is : “A non-profit, educational organization dedicated to improving the art and craft of original musical and lyrical composition”. That is a clear statement of purpose and all of the programs are centered around this mission – helping writers craft the best songs that they can, while defining their own personal goals and artistic outlets. A look at the organization's activities shows that it clearly acknowledges and addresses the importance of providing programs about the commercial and business. side of songwriting, but that is not the focus.

No matter what kind of group you decide is right for you, there is one overarching principle: Success comes from opportunity, and opportunity comes from involvement. Joining an organization does nothing for you unless you are prepared to fully involve yourself in it. Become a familiar face so that the rest of the members know who you are and what you do. Music is first and foremost a relationship-driven business, and being involved is what leads to opportunities to show others what you have to offer.

As an independent artist, you only have so much time, energy, and resources, so they need to be used in the best possible way. Involving yourself in a songwriter organization is an investment in yourself. Involve yourself fully, but be sure the organization it is one which fits your specific goals and aspirations. While there is allure in getting immersed in the business end of things, or in being part of an affirmation group, don’t overlook the importance of craft and critique in making your end product be the best it can be, to successfully compete for the limited amount of attention that is out there. Craft is often overlooked in the zeal to find affirmation or commercial success, but it sits right in the in the middle of that journey from creation to realization to proliferation, and thus it’s hard to get around it, or to get around without it.

...Bill Pere