A Few Tough Lessons I Learned As A SongwriterSep 04, 2021
Whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been songwriting for years, there are some tough lessons we all are bound to learn along the way.
I think the best way not to be devastated by discouragements is to know they are coming. It’s also helpful to know that they aren’t as meaningful as you think. In this post, I’m going to share a few tough lessons I learned as a songwriter so, hopefully, you don’t have to learn them the hard way too.
I hope me sharing this will cause them to be less tough for you.
Lesson 1: It’s Almost Impossible To Keep Your Expectations Low Enough When It Comes To Early “Success”
There is a lot within this one. Even assuming that you aren’t delusional enough to think that the world will come for you when you post a great song on Soundcloud, it is so hard to keep expectations low enough.
I was a pessimist when I learned this lesson. And I was still disappointed.
Here’s the first thing to think about:
If you’re just starting or just haven’t taken the time to build a fanbase, the people who will see your music are your friends and family.
Right? No one is randomly searching for your music who doesn’t know you. The people who will see the song you put on Soundcloud will be your Facebook friends who see the link you posted on Facebook.
Your parents will go have a listen, because you told them about it.
And, here’s the thing.
People who know you are almost completely incapable of objectively seeing your art.
If you wrote the greatest song on earth, you’re still just you to them. Your mom still sees the little baby she used to change diapers for.
Your friends can’t see past you to see your art objectively.
People close to you will never admire you. That’s not a bad thing, but I think we sometimes feel like our first fans will be people close to us. For the most part, that’s not true.
Just because someone is your friend or parent doesn’t mean they like your musical style.
It seems obvious, but we like the art we like. If your friend only listens to country and you wrote a hard rock song, they’re probably not going to love it just because you wrote it.
So, at the beginning, you’re in this weird, disappointing place:
The people who like you are often not the same people who will like your art.
But, at first, that’s all you have.
After my friends watched me toil on my first album for over a year and a half, I expected a decent amount of support. I was proud of what I had done- it wasn’t perfect, but we put together a pretty good album for a bunch of college kids recording in our dorms.
I thought that most of my close friends would at least happily buy the album for $8 and share it on social media. Maybe even a few of them would share multiple songs or multiple times.
Nope. I think 2 of my friends ever shared anything about my music online. And I’m pretty sure it was once each. Not only that, basically none of my friends bought the album that they literally saw how much time and work was put into.
I think a few of them eventually did, but most people’s attitudes were more or less like this:
“Well, I’m your friend though, shouldn’t you just give it to me for free?”
Talk about devastating.
The album, yes, the album they saw me giving up my Friday nights and Saturdays to work on almost every week for over a year. They didn’t even want to spend a cheap coffee date’s worth of money on it to support what I poured myself into for so long.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the entire experience of my first album, but the main one here is that almost any expectation is expecting too much.
I’m not saying you will have as devastating an experience with your first released song or album. But you also might.
And, here’s the important thing: It doesn’t mean anything.
It doesn’t reflect on how good you are, because people close to you can’t see past you. You will always just be John Smith to the people close to you. That keeps you grounded when you find success but, before you have any success, it’s honestly pretty disheartening.
I basically had a rut of 2 or more years of little to no songwriting because I was so devastated.
Don’t do that.
Understand that even those close to you may or may not care about your art. You need to find the people your art speaks to. Those people are not the same people that like you.
You and your art are not one and the same.
People can like your art and not you. People can like you and not your art. And people can dislike or like both. They are completely separate things.
Just expect to be underwhelmed by the support of those who are close to you as a person, and be confident enough to keep going.
I’ve had significantly more compliments on my music from someone with gold and platinum records on his wall than I have from the vast majority of my friends.
That’s both the hard and encouraging reality. Don’t measure your artistic worth in either direction by your friends and family.
This may be a shock, but that friend who’s only listened to Nickelback for the last 15 years might not be a great artistic measuring stick.
Lesson 2: You’re Going To Do Stupid, Regrettable, Cringe-Worthy Things In Some Of Your Songs
The older you are when you start songwriting, the less this might be true.
But it’s definitely true when you start songwriting around 12 when I did.
Because, let’s be honest, a 12 year old’s brain is very undeveloped.
My biggest regret for the first album I did? Tempo changes.
It ruined about half the album. Luckily, the best songs on the album didn’t have tempo changes, but the other half of the album I would like a lot more if the tempo changes didn’t ruin otherwise solid songs.
I’m cringing about some of the tempo changes just writing about it.
There are also some lyrics from that album that I cringe just thinking about.
I was a senior in high school when I wrote what I consider my first true love song. So it’s pretty understandable that it gets a bit overly corny, but it still makes me cringe a tad.
Now, most of the song is good enough. I want to re-work it into something I can be proud of again but, as of right now, I cringe thinking about some of the lyrics.
I also can’t believe the first thing I ever recorded and released was an entire album. Not a single. Not an EP.
A full-length album. WHY?
Do yourself a favor. Start with a single song.
Maybe start with a 4 song EP.
But a full-length album? Don’t do that unless a record company is making you.
Why? Because it’s an absolutely massive project that takes forever. And, at the end of it, it’s still just another release. You might as well release twice as often and do EP’s. That way the cycle of writing, releasing, and feedback is tighter.
With how long an album takes, you might end up hating a song on it before you even release the album.
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of stupid things I’ve done, but this is the main point:
As together as you think you have it, you will almost certainly look back on some things you do and cringe.
So worry less about it. Just try to keep getting better. Understand that it’s ok to have songs that aren’t perfect.
And try to fight any artistic shame you might have towards younger-you’s songs.
Lesson 3: It’s Amazing How Much Creative Work You Can Do With Nothing To Show For It
I have to be honest with you.
I still haven’t gotten over how many hours I can spend just trying to get a verse lyric right.
I still sometimes look at a completed song and think “And this took me HOW many hours to finish?”
Because, months of work later, you have a nice 4 minute song.
Your novel-writing friend has written 5 chapters with a massive word count in the time it took you to write a song who’s lyric has 150 words.
Your other friend floored his whole basement in the 10 hours it took you to fix the second verse.
Artistic work in general takes a ton of time. The effort to create something new and good is massive.
But, even if you understand that already, it still can be discouraging.
I’ve had to delay my upcoming EP for months because I just can’t figure out the verses for the last song.
I’ve tried so many different stories to tell and none of them work the way I want them to.
It’s frustrating. I’ve sunk hours into writing down lyrical paths I’ve abandoned.
As inefficient as creative work is for “time vs. something impressive to show for it”, songwriting might be the single worst.
It can take months for something that can be heard in 4 minutes.
Meanwhile a 30 minute podcast takes 30 minutes to make.
Writing this several-page post will take me an hour or so.
But a song with 150 words and music that takes 4 minutes to listen to? Months.
But it’s worth it.
I hope this didn’t discourage you. I hope that, instead, this motivated you to push through these tough lessons and discouragements.
You know they’re coming now. So you can prepare yourself. You can know that your best friend being suspiciously silent on your new song might be expected and is probably meaningless.
Go write. Release music. Have fun. Get better every day.
Understand that it can be a rough journey, but it’s completely worth it.
I believe in you. You can help raise the standard in meaningful songwriting.
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