Interview With Founders of www.SongU.com
Hit Songwriters Sara Light and Danny Arena Put Songwriting Workshops Online
Danny Arena is a Tony Award nominated composer and maintains a position as an Associate Professor at Volunteer State Community College in Nashville, Tennessee. He has been a staff songwriter for Curb Magnatone Music Publishing, as well as a guest lecturer at the Berklee School of Music, Belmont University, the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) Spring and Summer Symposiums and has given songwriting seminars throughout the U.S. and Canada. Each spring he conducts his popular six-week courses on Music Theory, Composing and the Nashville Number System and is the co-author of the audio songwriters reference series entitled "The Songwriters Survival Kit." He currently has songs in the musical "Urban Cowboy" which opened on Broadway in March 2003 and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a Tony Award for Best Original Score. He is also the co-founder, CEO and one of the main site developers of www.SongU.com, songwriting courses online
Sara Light is a professional songwriter who holds a Master's degree from Rutgers University in English Education. She has given songwriting seminars throughout the U.S. and Canada and her lessons and articles have reached over 20,000 songwriters worldwide. She is the co-author of the audio songwriters reference series entitled "The Songwriters Survival Kit." Among her many songwriting credits is the John Michael Montgomery title track and hit single “Home To You,” which received an ASCAP airplay award and was named 2000 SESAC Country Song of the Year for having garnered over 2 million spins on radio. She also wrote songs for the musical "Urban Cowboy," which opened on Broadway in March 2003 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Original Score." She is the co-founder and president of www.SongU.com, songwriting courses online.
[Doak Turner] Where did you get the idea for SongU.com?
Danny Arena Sara actually dreamed the name for SongU.com during a time when we were planning on developing a website with online courses for songwriters.
Sara Light Yeah, I actually dreamed the domain name www.songu.com. We had been doing so many songwriting seminars in Nashville, and people who lived outside of Nashville and all over the world were visiting our other website and asking us how they could take our classes even though they didn’t live near Nashville. Danny is also a computer guy, working for the state of Tennessee. He has won several awards for developing distance education courses on the Internet. And both of our backgrounds are in teaching. I have a Masters in Education and I’ve taught at the college level and Danny has a Masters in Computer Science and has taught at the college level too. Initially, we were just going to put up a website that would just have our songwriting courses. But then, I had this dream that we should call it SongU.com. So Danny said that we should involve our friends that teach songwriting and set up a virtual campus. That was three or four years ago. One of the problems was that we could implement the site … boy that was a lot of work (laughter).
Danny Arena We have several friends that teach songwriting. We run in the same circles and know each other. They thought it was a great idea, so we spent a lot of time developing and working with other songwriting instructors, helping them develop their courses and converting them into web ready courses for distance learning on the Internet.
Sara Light Danny would covert them into web-ready courses by adding audio and animation. And because Danny and I have been teaching songwriters for ten years, we had an idea of what songwriters want to learn. So we tried to build all of those things into SongU.com. Once we got it underway, we asked some of the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) workshop coordinators to help us beta test as we developed each segment to make sure it worked. That was a big help, as they gave us some great input.
Danny Arena Basically, SongU.com is a site that offers on-line courses that you can take twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year. You don’t have to be somewhere at a certain time to take a course. It’s like a year round songwriting seminar! Since you pay a one-time yearly fee and can take all the courses that you want, SongU.com is kind of like a buffet style of learning. In addition to our self-paced courses that are always available, there are also what we call instructor led courses. That’s where several students start the course on the same week, and work through the course weekly as a group.
Sara Light We also tried to keep it personalized. So when someone signs up for SongU.com, they are assigned a guidance counselor and fill out an admissions profile. The guidance counselor can then make recommendations to the member about which courses to take and the coaches can use the admissions profile information to tailor their feedback on song evaluations for the member. What has been great is we can still give that personal feel for the students even though it’s over the Internet.
Danny Arena Yeah, that was one of our biggest concerns. Even though it’s on the web, we really wanted to give our members real personal attention. On our most recent survey, we were really happy to discover that our members really feel like they are getting a lot of personal attention.
Sara Light Danny and I are on the site every day posting answers to assignments as well as other questions. We get to see and share in the progress of our members. We have members in the UK interacting with other members in the US. We have members from the US interacting and co-writing with members from Norway. It’s really pretty cool. We can wake up in the morning and answer questions that were posted overnight to us from a member in Germany. Plus, we have goal-setting groups, co-writer meet and greets, song challenges and a student lounge where members can interact with each other.
Danny Arena We really try to communicate that community vibe. Every member gets a yearbook page, where they can upload MP3s, along with their bio information, influences and whatever else they want to include in their yearbook page. We also run a lot of community events to keep everyone involved and participating as much as they’d like.
Sara Light We have a pretty diverse group of songwriters representing all genres of music from around the world. And everyone is always willing to help each other out on the site.
Danny Arena Because we have such a diverse group of songwriters, another cool feature is that all our courses incorporate hit song examples from different genres of music. We definitely wanted to put up a site where we could use hit songs as examples to illustrate the concepts that we’re covering in the courses. So part of our operating cost is a monthly fee to have access to a library of seven million licensed songs with samples. Amazon.com and AOL use the same provider for their song samples. We were the first website to use Loudeye.com as a provider of song examples for learning purposes. It’s great because it allows us to have samples from artists like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to Matchbox 20 and from everyone from Alicia Keys to Nirvana to The Dave Matthews Band.
[Doak Turner] I was looking at the site and noticed you have a lesson for a list song. How does that work?
Sara Light We used some of our hit songwriter friends and some of our own songs in that particular sample lesson. We even used “We Didn’t Start The Fire” written and performed by Billy Joel as well as some other examples in different genres. That’s just a sample lesson from one of our lyric courses. A typical SongU.com course will usually consist of three to six lessons. Most of our members are taking about one course a month and really letting it sink in before moving onto another course, which we encourage.
[Doak Turner] How did you two start teaching songwriting?
Sara Light We really relate the teaching of songwriters. Danny got a scholarship to a song camp fourteen years ago. It was not NSAI’s song camp. This was before they were doing their song camps. In fact, the NSAI song camp is based on the one that we attended called The Great Smokies Song Chase.
Danny Arena Billy Edd Wheeler (Coward of the County) called me after I had applied for an ASCAP scholarship and told me he really love my music, and they gave me the scholarship to attend the camp. Me, David Wilcox and Donna Michael were the scholarship winners that particular year.
Sara Light Danny and I got engaged that year and I encouraged him to go to the event. He came back and was transformed because the faculty consisted of Debbie Hupp, who wrote “You Decorated My Life,” Lisa Palas, Billy Edd Wheeler, and Niles Borup. Chuck Neese was the publisher representing Warner/Chappell music. They are all our dear friends even today. Anyway, Billy Edd asked Danny to come back the next year and teach music and melody writing at the camp. So the next year we came straight off our honeymoon and went to the camp with Danny as faculty. Chet Atkins was there, sitting in the back listening during Danny’s first lecture.
[Doak Turner] So YOU are the one behind Chet’s success (laughter)!
Sara Light Danny was so nervous when he found out that Chet was going to be there that he dropped his lunch plate of food on his lap because his hands were shaking so much (laughter)! Chet was so amazing; he came up to Danny and told him how much he enjoyed it.
Danny Arena That year, Lisa Palas told Pat Rogers, who was president of NSAI at the time, that she had to come and see this song camp. Pat Rogers saw me do my seminar and invited me to present at the NSAI symposium event the following year as a keynote speaker.
Sara Light When Pat invited Danny and I to come to Nashville, we were still living in New Jersey at the time.
Danny Arena That year at the symposium, it was Hugh Prestwood and me as the keynote speakers (laughter) – and of course he had all of these incredible hit songs!
Sara Light The reason that we bring this up is because earlier you were talking about how NSAI transformed your life (Note: I had told Danny and Sara what a huge difference NSAI made in my songwriting journey.) Well, we are recipients of that too, so we promised ourselves that if we became successful we would give back.
[Doak Turner] So, that is how the very successful NSAI Song camps started?
Danny Arena Yes. John Ims (She’s in love with the Boy), Rick Beresford (If the Drinkin’ Don’t Lill Me) and I sat down and planned the entire curriculum for the first NSAI song camp in 1992. It was my idea to add the audition process (submissions) for the song camps.
Sara Light We have our back-story on our website to give people information about us, and how we ended up teaching songwriting for years.
[Doak Turner] You studied with Sheila Davis, didn’t you?
Sara Light Yes I did.
Danny Arena Sheila even has it in her will that Sara will be the one to take over editing her books. It’s quite an honor. She’s been a friend and a mentor to us over the years.
[Doak Turner] Please tell me more about SongU.com and why it is successful
Danny Arena Being a teacher, I’ve learned the different modalities people use to learn. People learn either by visual, audio (listening) or application. So in every lesson at SongU.com, all three of those are addressed. We have pictures and animation, audio clips and practice exercises.
Sara Light For one of my lyric assignments, students had to come up with a chorus to a verse lyric I’d written. I was able to look on the discussion board and see all the different posts and how differently everyone approached that assignment. It is great to see how different people’s minds work to write a chorus. One of our students recently went to a seminar and played a new song for songwriters Kim Copeland and Marc-Alan Barnette, and all three agreed it was the best song he’s ever written. It’s because he’s been honing his craft by taking the courses at SongU.com and he was able to apply the techniques to his songwriting. It’s really improved his writing tremendously.
Danny Arena When someone doesn’t quite understand the lesson based on the answer they post to an exercise, Sara and I can go back explain to him or her where they could improve. Then they can revisit the lesson again and post a better answer to show us they really understand the lesson.
Sara Light Also, each month we highlight a different instructor’s course and have that pro writer “in office.” That means the instructor gets involved with the students and monitors the discussion boards for their particular course.
[Doak Turner] Is there something from a lesson that you have seen a student do that really stands out at SongU.com?
Sara Light One particular student took Fett’s course on setting up a home studio for different budget levels. She went ahead and made an actual budget. She only had like fifty dollars but she did indeed set up a studio for the budget just like the lesson instructed! She already had a Sony microphone along with a set of wireless headphones that her husband used when running on the treadmill. So, she went out and bought a boom mic stand for $27.00, downloaded Pro Tools for free and she was all set. She recorded her first song in her home studio and posted it on her yearbook page.
Danny Arena She even took my course of how to get your song on the yearbook page so she could post her song in MP3 format! We went, “Oh my gosh, this really works!” (Laughter) It is really fun for us to see it really work. We had another student who wanted to record their band’s performance at a graduation party. He wanted to know how to set the microphones, gain levels and some other details. I asked Fett and Jack Sundrud, who are both SongU.com faculty, to pass along some advice. Well, Jack asked Bill Halverson, who’s previously recorded live albums for groups like Cream and CSNY. That was definitely some professional advice! Jack and Fett posted their thoughts and advice. A few days later, we heard back from that member who said the recording turned out great thanks to all the excellent advice!
Sara Light SongU.com allows us to reach people that can’t visit Nashville to learn songwriting. Eventually, we’d like to have a homecoming event for our members, maybe a formal (laughter). We know our members want to do something like that, so somewhere down the road, we hope that will be a great event.
Danny Arena I forgot to mention that SongU.com also has a song evaluation service and each member has their own personal “coach.” Someone is assigned to them to evaluate their songs and respond with personal feedback. The great thing about it is that there’s no long turnaround. You upload your song; your coach is notified immediately and you get your evaluation within a few days.
[Doak Turner] Please define Phase one and Phase two.
Sara Light Phase one was testing and our initial launch. We didn’t advertise much at all except to our priority list of people who had expressed interest while the site was being developed.
Danny Arena Phase Two will bring in the on-line library with articles containing sound clips, interviews and other items. We’ll have interviews with songwriters where you’ll be able to hear them singing some of their hit songs. For example, we have an interview with Don Henry singing that great song that was recorded by Kathy Matea, “Where have you Been.” In phase two, we’ll also add the bookstore, some more upper level courses, as well as international faculty from the UK and Scotland. We also want to broaden our scope to cover other areas like jingle writing, and film and TV.
Sara Light We already have two Canadian instructors and as our European market grows, we will make other changes. We want to have pitching outlets for our advanced songwriters or those that obtain the SongU Certification. We want to provide songwriters who are at the appropriate level the ability to have their songs heard by professionals.
Danny Arena But at SongU.com, we want to make sure our members are ready before pitching songs to a publisher. We want to know our members have the right education and the right songs to be presented to professionals. Otherwise, it’s like performing surgery without going to med school and we know songwriting is like brain surgery (Laughter).
Sara Light The songs that we would be bringing to the publishers and industry people would be valid songs that will create a respect for our members. One of the worst things you can do is bring in a publisher to a meeting and have them listen to 20 or 30 songs when the songs are not ready. You would have a heck of a time setting anther meeting with that publisher.
[Doak Turner] Your faculty has so many excellent counselors and coaches. How are those people selected?
Sara Light They are people that we have known for several years who are beginning to have success in the industry. For example, we have a former student that came through our songwriting class in Nashville. Well, when Sara was getting her ASCAP Award for the song “Home To You” (recorded by John Michael Montgomery), we saw her at the awards dinner. When we asked her what she was doing there (since she didn’t mention it in class), she replied shyly that she had won the Lilith Fair songwriting contest with a song that had come through our class! We were more proud of her than when Sara got her award! It was great to see that education thing working.
[Doak Turner] That is a success story of one of your student’s success in the first phase of your start of SongU.com.
Danny Arena Another one of our students, Steve Christopher, had a single that recently went to #7 on the Contemporary Christian charts. He is also one of our counselors. It’s great that our counselors and coaches are proof that the learning aspect of songwriting does really work!
[Doak Turner] Steve Christopher was one of the first members of the NSAI workshop that I was the coordinator for six years – he is a poster child for both of us!
Sara Light It is good to see those people succeed. Everyone is following a certain path and we hope they reach their dreams.
[Doak Turner] It helps keep people on their journey that may have given up. Wouldn’t SongU.com be that workshop that not only meets once a month, but anytime songwriter wants to learn about the craft and business?
Sara Light Yes, it compliments the live instruction that you can get in a NSAI workshop or other workshop. It can keep you motivated and help you get feedback from other professionals and members all year round.
Danny Arena The SongU.com yearbook pages have information on each of our members like where they are from, whether they are looking for co-writers, their influences. And members can upload their songs as MP3 files to be streamed off their yearbook page.
Sara Light We set up the yearbook so that our members can log in anytime and change their information on that page whenever they want.
Danny Arena The cool thing about MP3’s and how we do it on the site is that even people with 56K modems can listen in real time to the songs. There’s no wait or download time. And since we use streaming MP3’s, it’s also safer since you can’t download the files. We also use streaming MP3’s on our virtual SongU.com jukebox, where a person can search by title or by songwriter and listen to one of their songs.
[Doak Turner] Tell me the best things about www.songu.com that really make you stand out and a great value to songwriters.
Danny Arena We are affordable compared to any other distance education website on the Internet. SongU.com membership is about $26.00 per month, less than a dollar a day, which is less than what you would pay for a single guitar lesson. But you have unlimited access to all our courses all the time all year round.
Sara Light Plus, we have faculty that are actually doing what they are teaching every day –they are professional hit songwriters. One of our faculty members, Pamela Philips Oland, recently had a song in the movie “102 Dalmatians” and on TV in “The Sopranos,” not to mention having written hits in country, R&B and hip-hop.
Danny Arena SongU.com draws students that are positive and want to learn songwriting. It is really a supportive and encouraging group of songwriters. And it inspires us when we observe our members and their enthusiasm and watch their success.
[Doak Turner] One of your faculty members is the legendary Ralph Murphy, a great songwriter and one of the big people at ASCAP. His motto is “Knowledge is Power,” and how appropriate that he is part of SongU.com. What are your ultimate goals of SongU.com?
Danny Arena To reach songwriters around the world so that they can learn to become better songwriters no matter what genre of music they write.
Sara Light To watch our members have success and evolve as music evolves, staying current with the songwriting.
Danny Arena That is one great thing about SongU.com, as opposed to books. Since it’s a website, we can easily adapt to changes or trends by adding new courses or revising course content. Plus, we can stay current with our hit song examples.
Sara Light Yes, we can look at what is currently happening in the industry and how songs are being marketed and help our members to explore those new options.
Danny Arena Our faculty have written over 500 songwriting articles, taught at close to 100 song camps, have numerous hit songs and most importantly, love to teach songwriting!
[Doak Turner] Danny and Sara, it has been pleasure learning about www.songu.com and all the great things that you are doing for songwriters around the world. Thanks for your time and continued success to you!