Is Your Songwriting Artist-Centric or Writer-Centric?
Put another way, for whom are you writing your songs?
Put another way, for whom are you writing your songs? There are several answers to this question, and no answer is right or wrong. But, if your heart is set on hearing one of your creations sung by a voice other than the one in you head, then you owe it to yourself to answer the question posed in the title of this article, because knowing the answer may help you to move closer towards achieving your goal.
When we first embarked on the journey that is songwriting, the creative process was new, exciting and, appropriately, self-absorbing. Creating takes energy and concentration, especially when we are first learning the craft. The professional songwriters I studied with rightly encouraged me to go wherever the Muse took me, and not to worry about song structure, audience, commercial viability, and the music business in general. Those concerns would only distract me from nurturing my budding creativity. Read any book on learning the craft of songwriting and you will find similar advice. When you are learning, your time should be spent enjoying the wonder of creating for its own sake.
But at some point, those of us who are not performing songwriters turn our attention towards getting our songs recorded, and not just creating them. We want confirmation, an outlet for our creativity, to hear our songs recorded, and naturally so. This article is directed to the non-performing songwriters among us. So, back to the question posed: What kind of songwriter are you?
Writer-centric songwriting, by my definition, is a perspective of songwriting. These writers are driven primarily by a desire to express themselves. Their emotions just spilling over, their point of view must be told, there is something that they must share with the world. Writer-centric songwriters may have very specific opinions regarding genre, instrumentation, and vocalization. They may focus on a mood or a world outlook. These writers have a drive that must be expressed in a particular way. What ever it is that they want to say, writer-centric songwriters are often passionate about it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach to songwriting. But if your particular bent of songwriting is not what artists are looking for right now, you’re going to have trouble convincing them to record your songs. I once heard of a famous, old-time songwriter in Nashville who refused change his songwriting to keep up with the times. He said that he writes what he writes and will wait for the music to come back around to him. That perspective probably pretty well reflects the opinions of many writer-centric songwriters. But, if you don’t want to wait for the changing musical tide, then you will have to be willing to bend and write songs that artists are currently looking for.
Artist-centric songwriting could be viewed as the other side of the coin. These are songwriters whose primary focus is to find expression for the artist. They may be similarly driven and passionate about their songwriting, but they attempt to write songs based upon the expressing artist’s perspectives, rather than expressing themselves. Many professional writers, for example, work with artists directly to help them craft songs created specifically for that artist. Or, they study an artist closely and try to craft songs that might appeal to a particular artist.
There is nothing wrong with this approach to songwriting, either. Many songwriters find success using this approach and enjoy the challenge of “getting into the mind of the artist.” Artist-centric songwriters may be more pragmatic in their approach to songwriting, more willing to be flexible about genre, style, story, instrumentation, and the like. The weakness in this perspective of songwriting is that you may find yourself chasing yesterday’s news. If you copy the styles on the radio, those songs were recorded one, maybe two years ago and those artists are already looking for something new for their next album. Artist-centric songwriters must be diligent not to let their songwriting get stale, and to dig deeper, once in a while, for something unique and “out front.”
Songwriters can and do employ both approaches to songwriting, but there are plenty who do not. What approach most closely fits you? Understanding that you may have certain predilections in your approach to songwriting helps you to work to your strengths as well as strengthen your weaknesses. That self-knowledge can also help you in your dealings with co-writers and others in the music business, and especially with publishers and song pluggers.
If you understand what kind of writer you are and how that colors your songwriting, you are free make songwriting choices as you interact with others. Do you wait until the music scene comes back around to your style? Do you write something that captures "right now"? Do you try to get into the head of the artist? Do you dig in deep and try to write something brand new? Making those kinds of decisions take self-awareness, maturity, and a certain detachment from our emotions, and they can help you become more successful in navigating the songwriting business. Self-awareness can also help make you a songwriting that others will want to work with, and hopefully, record.
A song plugger's job is to place songs with artists, to get songs recorded. Whether the song plugger works for a publishing company or is independent, they work with artists, producers and record labels with the goal of getting songs cut by the artist. The very nature of a song plugger's job makes them primarily artist-centric in perspective. They must present songs during a pitch session that make sense for the artist; that fit what the artist is looking for. Otherwise, the song plugger may not be invited back for another pitch opportunity with that artist or label.
Because of that fact, the other half of the song plugger's job is to find the right songs for the artists. It doesn’t matter to song pluggers what your philosophy or approach to songwriting is; what matters is that you send them songs they believe that they can get cut. It does matter to them that you send them song that are appropriate for the song pitch. So, if the song plugger is looking for upbeat, up-tempo, modern country-rock songs appropriate for a 13-year-old aspiring female Country singer, you are slamming the door on yourself if you send the plugger a knock-off of "Blue" sung by Leann Rhymes a hundred years ago and then argue with the plugger that it would be a great song for the new artist. What I just explained might appear self-evident, but when it comes to your song babies, too often, perspective becomes murky with emotions. This kind of behavior happens more frequently than you would imagine.
Many of us have spent at least a little time (and probably a lot more) in that negative place during our songwriting journey. Think of how many times we criticized "the junk" on the radio. Or harshly condemned artists for recording styles of music that don’t match our own. Or grew frustrated with music business professionals and artists who "sell out" to commercialism. Or fume when other songwriters get recognition when we know we could do better than them, given the chance. We’ve all done a little of it, or maybe a little more than a little, especially when we feel ignored by the music business. But, maturity in our songwriting and understanding of the music business are the keys to recognizing that no one is obligated to share or agree with our songwriting passions and musical perspectives. Not the artist, the record label, the song plugger, or other songwriters. No one. We each are on our own journey and responsible for our own decisions, passions, and visions. So where does that leave us?
Self-awareness. If you are aware of what drives you, then you have the opportunity to steer what is driving you. And if you are primarily a writer-centric songwriter, acknowledging that fact may help you avoid edging to closely to the ego-centric line. If you are primarily an artist-centric songwriter, knowing that may keep your writing from getting stale, and help keep you from chasing yesterday's news and yesterday’s style.
Many successful songwriters employ a combination of both approaches. Sometimes they are personally passionate about expressing themselves through song, and hope that the result will inspire an artist to record that song. And sometimes they focus on getting a song placed with a particular artist by crafting the song around the artist’s personality and talent. Both approaches can work, and the more tools that you have for your songwriting, the more likely you will be to succeed.
Finally, recognizing and honoring the appropriate roles of publishers and song pluggers is to get songs recorded by finding songs that fit what an artist is seeking will do two things for you: (1) It will enable you to make informed and appropriate decisions about what, when and how to pitch your songs to artists, song pluggers and publishers, and (2) It will increase your chances of getting invited to pitch your songs again.
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