Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Articles → Songwriters who don’t perform

Someone asked my advice for songwriters who are not performers.

First, you have to be where everything is happening. That’s Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Atlanta, or the biggest city in your country.

I used to work at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing in New York City. One of our most successful writers was only a lyrics-and-melody guy. He got successful by hanging out at studios where successful producers were working. Most producers, especially in dance and R&B, have leftover grooves and tracks that they had never turned into songs. So he’d say, “Toss me your leftovers. Let me see if I can turn it into something even more valuable for you. If you don’t like my ideas, no problem, it’s still your track.” He’d just take home a copy of their track for the night and sing to it, seeing if he could turn into into a cool song. About one out of every five songs he co-wrote like this was impressive enough that the producer liked it, and would often get it cut by whatever artist he was working with.

This could have only happened in a major music hub. So you have to be in the big city, in the middle of everything.

If you’re more of a music-only person, not so into writing lyrics or melodies, co-write with recording artists, letting them come up with the words and melody to your tracks. They’ll be happier with that because they can sing words they wrote, and the song is almost sure to be cut that way.

Get specific about who could record your songs. Never aim to “get it out there”. Do your research to come up with specific artists, and who is helping them choose their songs.

Commit to constantly improving.

Don’t think your songs are etched in stone. Every song can be improved. Changing a single note or word can make or break a song.

Read all songwriting books. Read every interview with songwriters. Paul Zollo’s book “Songwriters on Songwriting” is priceless. Read every book or take every course on the craft of songwriting. Read slowly, thinking how these ideas can not only inspire new songs, but improve your existing songs.

Never underestimate the power of an arrangement. Prince’s song “Kiss” is loved by millions because it had such a unique arrangement. The chords are just a I-IV-V blues, but if it had been a typical bar-band blues arrangement, it would have been unimpressive.

Maybe you’ve got great songs that aren’t getting the attention they deserve because you didn’t continue your creativity into the arrangement and instrumentation. People think they can hear though things like that, but they usually can’t, so it’s up to the writer. Maybe try never calling a song done until you’ve recorded it in five radically different arrangements.

Which comes to the last point: Have a home studio. If you need to spend money at someone else’s studio every time you want to record your songs, it’ll hold you back. Spending a little up-front money on some basic equipment will pay off immensely.