SONGWRITING AND BEYOND by CLAUDE DIAMOND
Does this world really need another article about songwriting? Lord knows there’s already enough
songwriting stuff out there to dam up the Mississippi River. So what would motivate anyone to throw another
screed on the pile? I suppose, like most songwriters, I’m convinced that my opining will shine a light on new
and exciting revelations heretofore undisclosed. In any case, my good buddy spell check helped me write
this document in a succinct “cut the crap” literary style.
PLEASE PASS THE PIE: The Holy Grail for most country music songwriters is having a song cut by a major
label artist. Unfortunately, those cuts, tossed up for grabs, are almost as rare as Bigfoot sightings. Many, but
not all, usually go to the artist or someone inside a circle of friends and associates. Any slack is often taken
up with songs published by the record label or publishers the label and/or artist look to for new material.
Many independent label and self-released artists are singer/songwriters and their main claim to fame is
the songs they write. The difficulty in getting a cut here is very much the same as getting a cut with major
There are many good reasons why established publishers prefer socilicited material rather than
unsolicited material. Not the least of which are legal issues (You stole my sooooong!) and the ongoing
challenge of providing cash flow for their current roster of writers. Gaining approval, before sending
material, helps avoid the landfill express.
The three-chord truth is that the money pie is rather thin when compared to the long line of songwriters
vying to sit at the table. But, if you find joy in the quest, have a penchant for long shots and embrace the
concept of avocation, it is worth a roll of the dice.
ANCIENT SONGWRITER PROVERB: Be skeptical of those who claim to have the wherewithal to instill, in
others, the ability to write a hit song. Spoken and printed words are limited in that they merely assist in
developing a better-informed songwriter by providing ideas with the potential of enhancing ones natural
ability to create a quality song.
HELPING HANDS: The Internet is awash in free and readily accessible information on every conceivable
aspect of songwriting and all things music. In addition, many songwriting gurus market and sell mind-
boggling arrays of products and services aimed at teaching the craft of songwriting.
If your purpose in buying products and services is to learn the craft, pay for it and go for it. Most of what
you purchase will be of some value in improving your skills as a songwriter. On the other hand, don’t expect
anyone, with whom you do business, to provide anything beyond that which is purchased. It’s a rare and
happy occasion to find a mover and shaker who is on the hunt for a protégé.
There are song-pluggers out there who are willing to represent unknown writers. Many of them pitch no-
hitters and don’t possess the muscle to open important doors. Prior to signing up you may want to talk with a
few writers who have used their services. Also, request information regarding the cuts they’ve secured for
The main beneficiaries of “pitch sheets” (aka: tip sheets) are unlikely to be unknown writers. A tip sheet
does not entitle its subscribers to special privileges such as sending “unsolicited material”. Check with a few
unknowns who have signed up before making this check writing decision.
Paying to have a song included on a compilation disk with other unknown writers is a dubious use of
financial resources. While these “vanity disks” may include some good tracks, they are not a favorite
resource for radio stations and music professionals on the hunt for songs and/or new artists.
Songwriting contests have proliferated and become reliable cash cows for those who sponsor the
contests. There appears to be very few winners who, as a result of winning a contest, experience
“meaningful career advancement”.
Do not interpret my cautionary tone as suggesting that everyone should avoid the above-mentioned
activities; there are success stories attributable to them all. What I am suggesting is that everyone practice
due diligence and make carefully considered decisions.
POINTS OF LIGHT: Every songwriter should get involved with and become part of the songwriting
community. If you haven’t done so, you might consider joining an organization such as: Nashville
Songwriters Association International. Local chapters hold meetings throughout the country and you may
find one near you.
At these meetings you will meet like-minded individuals with a keen interest in writing songs and
performing. The meetings provide a nurturing/social environment in which to perform songs, receive
feedback from your peers, find co-writers, perform in showcases, pitch songs, and, on occasion, network
with professional inside the music community. Sign up. It’s worth the cost of a membership!
If you can find the courage to perform - Do it! Participate in open-mike opportunities and other situations
where you can get an audience reaction. You never know who may be listening. Get out there and make
TO TWANG OR NOT TO TWANG: I didn’t realize it at the time but my learning to play a guitar was an
important step towards becoming a songwriter. Friends and relatives using the “play by ear” method got me
started. None were professional pickers, but I learned chord structure, how to hear a chord change and how
to play and sing in different keys. I also bought a book by Mel Bay with chord diagrams and a few simple
tunes. I soon discovered that learning to play a guitar, with a reasonable degree of proficiency, requires
industrial strength determination.
There are many accomplished musicians who play a multitude of instruments and fall into the category of
self-taught. Think Jerry Lee Lewis. Don’t be intimidated by those who are extremely talented. Press on with
your instrument of choice. Without question, playing an instrument will enhance your song writing skills.
Besides, it’s a lot of fun.
Get off to a fast start by finding someone who will help teach you to play by ear. A formal music-reading
approach is not suited to everyone.
Early on I performed with a country/blues band and would also play my guitar along with songs on the
radio. Those experiences taught me a great deal about combining lyrics with music.
Some folks suggest playing with a pick while some choose to finger pick. Try both techniques and decide
which works best for you. Don’t forget the bottleneck option.
Finally, buy an inexpensive acoustic guitar with a low action. Many a guitar player wannabe has given up
because of a torturous high action that is hell on the fingers! At some point you may opt out of the music
game, if that should happen, it’s best not to have a lot of money tied up in a wall hanger.
SUIT ON A HOG: If you listen to mainstream country radio I’m sure you’re aware that many top ten hits are
good songs. I’m also sure that you have noticed songs, in the top ten, that have the shelf life of milk. Here’s
one explanation as to how that little miracle works. Mix one household name star with a big record label,
excellent production, wide distribution, big bucks promotion, a gushy press, major radio airplay and you
have a contender.
The hit making process has the power to take an average quality song and turn it into a Billboard hit. It’s
akin to putting a suit on a hog. But once the suit is on the hog - it’s still a hog.
There are many great songs written and recorded by artists on self-released or independent labels that fly
around below mainstream radar. As a result, a majority of radio listeners, as well as budding songwriters,
wrongly believes that what they hear on mainstream radio constitutes the crème de la crème of country
music in its entirety.
SOMETHING SHINY: The first thing publishers and artists do when they eyeball a demo CD is read the song
title. An eye-catching hooky title can make the difference between getting a listen or ending up on the landfill
express. It has been estimated that it will take one million years for a CD to decompose in a landfill. Let’s do
our part to save the planet by coming up with great song titles!
But, great song titles do not always appeared in the lyrics of a song. Two good examples are: Mystery
Train and Folsom Prison Blues.
It’s a good idea to have a decent looking label on a demo CD with basic contact information and the song
title. Don’t blow your chances, for a listen, by scribbling stuff on the disc with a black felt tip pin. Also, don’t
send a Readers Digest style epistle pontificating on the muse that guided you while writing the song. Also,
when possible, avoid the word “muse”.
TINY TOWN: A key skill for songwriters is the ability to simplify and compress stories into very small spaces.
Every phrase should add something of value to the song. Of equal importance is to know when a song is
done - Don’t gild the lily.
The ability to miniaturize is crucial if you’re aiming for the radio airplay gold standard of three minutes.
Performing artists sometimes have a stage version that is longer that the radio version. The stage version
allows more time for cavorting.
Keep your musical introductions relatively short! If you wait too long to start telling the story, you will lose
some listeners. Besides, publishers aren’t going to be dazzled by your guitar wizardry. That is unless you’re
another Django Reinhardt.
Reveal the story line and use your best lyrics early in the song. Publishers rarely listen to an entire song
unless they are hearing something mighty damn compelling.
Publishers put on a different set of ears when listening to unknown writers. They cut a little slack for writers
they know or those who have achieved some measure of success.
CHICKENS OR EGGS: I usually write lyrics on guitar. If my guitar and I are not occupying the same space, I
write the lyrics and develop the music later. Guitar players who don’t write lyrics develop the music
Which comes first, words or music is a personal thing with no same answer for everyone. Just do what
works best for you.
John Prine: “Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time.”
EMOTE: Lyrics should evoke some emotion from the listener. A song devoid of emotion is as drab as a life
without emotion and who wants to hear that? Decide upon the emotion you want to elicit and construct a
story toward that end. If you have the ability to write lyrics with the power to make the listener laugh or cry,
you have a rare talent indeed.
Paul Simon: “If you can get humor and seriousness at the same time, you’ve created a special little thing.”
Sad songs may not be as desirable as up-tempo, happy face songs but don’t hesitate to write them. You
will develop faster as a writer if you explore a broad range of subjects and emotions beyond the always-
popular boy/girl song. One suggestion: Include hope in your sad songs. Despair is not a very good subject
By the way, funny songs are perhaps the most difficult to write. If you don’t believe it, try writing one
without being risqué or sounding amateurishly corny.
SAY WHAT: Be aware that the average reading level of Americans is around 8th or 9th grade. Keep your
lyrics conversational and use proper English, or a close facsimile thereof. If you’re writing for country boys
singing about ragged trucks, blues singers down to their last inch of wine or Cajuns singing about lagniappe.
Use the proper dialect.
In the final analysis, all songwriters use, basically, the same set of words to describe universal
experiences. The talent is in how those words are creatively woven together and combined with music. It’s
important to know which words to use and which words not to use.
When writing for others, always tailor lyrics to the character and gender of the person for whom you are
writing and portray them in a positive light. They’ll like that.
WHERE, WHEN AND HOW OFTEN: Some writers profess to find inspiration in mountain cabins, beachfront
property or other exotic locals. Other writers claim to have done their best work in the back of a tour bus or
in a ratty motel room. Kris Kristofferson wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down” while living in a $25 a month
slum tenement building. Apparently, where you are located has little to do with crafting great songs. On the
other hand, solitude and silence is good!
The best time of day for creative writing is not the same for everyone. Creativity lives on the loose and is
not very dependable. Trying to force lyrics doesn’t produce very good results.
How often to write depends, in large part, on your lifestyle and personality. Some people welcome
structure and routine into their lives while others prefer random spontaneity. In any case, frequent writing is
important, especially for beginners on the front end of the learning curve.
Paul Simon: “You want to be a writer, don’t know how or when? Find a quiet place use a humble pen.”
Willie Nelson: “Some days I write…most days I don’t”.
CREATIVITY: Some writers claim to possess an ability to shift their mind into a creative mood. Wow! I wonder
if they also have the ability to shift into a non-creative mood? Perhaps what they are actually referring to is
the ability to clear one’s mind and concentrate on a task.
When writing country music and developing chord progressions, don’t go overboard by composing too
many chords into a song. Country music ain’t jazz.
I am of the opinion that creative people see and hear things differently than most folks: A private vision if
you will. This ability to think “off-center” is a crucial part of creativity. Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons are
prime examples of how off-center thinking can manifest itself. The songs of Roger Miller also come to mind.
THEFT BY TAKING: Aspiring songwriters sometimes harbor an unreasonable fear that someone is going to
steal their songs. Actually, the theft of a song is highly unlikely. Why? Legitimate publishers, record labels
and other professionals in the music business aren’t prone to risking their good reputation by stealing a
On the other hand, there are songwriters who will pirate a title, phrase or concept and write a completely
different song. Copyright laws do not protect against those tactics.
Copyrighting several songs as a body of work is far easier and less expensive that copyrighting one song
at a time. If you still fell nervous, you might want to consider a Copyright Infringement insurance policy.
DEMO THIS: Some folks advise a very simple production while others suggest a wall of sound. I’m
somewhere in between: In most cases, but not all, have more than a guitar and a vocal, but leave out the
brass band. Keep in mind that you may eventually include your demos as cuts on a self-released album.
There are numerous small studios scattered around the country that turn out great demos at a very
reasonable cost. To locate one near you, check with songwriting organizations and the music community in
your area for their recommendations. Keep the money local and save gas in the process!
SLICING UP THE PIE: The team approach to songwriting, commonly referred to as co-writing, has become
firmly embedded in the commercial songwriting community. This is a workable situation because many
commercial songwriters use the most current songwriting template to craft a song.
In any business environment, be it music or otherwise, the willingness to conform and work within a system
is paramount for success. While all commercial writers may not view co-writing as the most desirable thing to
do, it is, currently, the smart thing to do.
There are some young recording artists with limited song-writing skills who co-write with older songwriters
who still have the right stuff. I have also noticed that some older artists, who seem to have lost their song-
writing edge, co-write with talented young writers. These co-writing arrangements seem to work well for both
the artist and the songwriter. The artist gets a good song and the songwriter gets ½ of a cut. The school of
no-brainer math has concluded that ½ of something is better than all of nothing.
When first learning to write lyrics, let your unique style of writing evolve before you consider co-writing. A
more experienced songwriter might, unintentionally, stifle your originality by guiding you towards a style of
writing similar to theirs. And too, there are some songs you must write alone.
Actually, I have many co-writers. The music I have listened to throughout my lifetime still rolls around in my
mind. It would be virtually impossible for me to write a song that wasn’t influenced by those artists and their
Bill Anderson: “In the days I came along, the style was the thing…if you weren’t much different, you didn’t
stand much of a chance. Now if you’re very different at all, you don’t stand much of a chance.”
Kris Kristofferson: “I’ve never really felt comfortable co-writing.”
MUSIC PUBLISHERS: There is a glut of music publishers on this planet. That’s not totally unexpected since
almost anyone on this planet can become a music publisher. Want to go into the song publishing business
and publish your songs? Apply to one of the Performing Rights Organizations: BMI, ASCAP or SECAC and
they will gladly guide you thru the process. The cost is minimal!
If offered a single-song contract for a self-published song, you will have to release all or part of the
publishing. There’s also the possibility that one or more co-writers may join you as composer when and if the
song is cut. I know what you’re thinking, but remember the school of no-brainer math I mentioned earlier.
Let’s assume you are offered a single song contract for your pride and joy. What do you gain and lose by
signing? First, you give control of your song to someone who may or may not get it cut. Second, you receive
no money; at this point, it’s a gift to the publisher. Third, a published song can serve as a ray of hope and
inspiration. Fourth, it’s a better proposition, hopefully, than keeping the song tucked away in a sock drawer.
One caution, before you sign a single song contract you may want to talk with someone knowledgeable in
such matters. Be sure to check out the publisher’s credentials and make certain the contract includes a
reversion clause. Above all don’t pay to have your song published.
Also, be aware that some publishers may ask that you allow them to produce, for their pitching purposes,
a new demo of your song. This demo may require upfront money (Yikes!) from you (Cha-ching!).
If you sign a writing deal with a publisher you may get a money advance. This “draw” will / must be paid
back from your anticipated royalties. The cost of producing a “professional” demo may also come out of
your royalties. This “line of credit” arrangement is reminiscent of how coalmines operated company stores.
MAKE OR BREAK: At some point, along the learning curve, a songwriter must establish song quality
standards for themselves. Additionally, each writer must create, within themselves, the self-confidence,
ability and objectivity to know when self-imposed quality standards are met. The ability to self-evaluate is
among the most important abilities a songwriter can possess.
ANCIENT SONGWRITER PROVERB: Important people will sally forth and throw open the door to the
kingdom - Once they have ciphered how to benefit from what comes wandering in. Almost every success
story hath one thing in common – A facilitator on the inside that opened a door. That’s not surprising since
there are very few doorknobs on the outside.
PLAN B FROM OUTER SPACE
Enough with the songwriting stuff; now let’s focus our attention beyond the world of songwriting, pitching
songs and publishing to the larger more glamorous universe of performing, recording, marketing, touring,
releasing an album and airplay.
Are you tired of spending money while waiting for a gatekeeper to let you inside the music business? Do
you believe your original songs and performing skills are competitive? Do you have extra cash to put with
the money you’re currently plowing into music related activities with minimal or no results? If you answered
yes to those questions, perhaps it’s time for you to release an album of your original songs.
I can remember when that kind of thinking was laughable, but with current recording options and the
Internet, it can become a reality for songwriters with a do-it-yourself attitude and a little cash. Convenient
and affordable recording studios, album manufacturing options and the Internet do not level the playing field
but they have enlarged it.
UP FRONT STUFF: The biggest hurdle for any new artist is the lack of name recognition. You will be a tiny
duck quacking in a huge pond filled with similar sounding ducks. To draw attention to your songs, you must
have a unique quack. It can be a great singing voice, great musical arrangements or great
lyrics…something that will distinguish your music from the deluge of audible wallpaper.
Before releasing an album, consideration should be given to creating a website. It doesn’t have to be
fancy with videos and downloads; a simple website with information about yourself and the soon to be
released album will work just fine.
Start a music publishing company and publish all of the songs you plan to include on your debut album.
Publishing is necessary in order for Performing Rights Organizations to collect airplay royalties. Also, many
radio stations do not include un-published material on their playlist.
It’s important to start out developing an identity for both you and your record label. You may want to use
the name you selected for your publishing company as the name for your record label. This is a better
approach than putting your album on the market as “self released”. Also, rent a P.O. Box. A box number
sounds more professional than: “Cactus Bob” in Apartment 6-B.
Incorporating a record label creates a plethora of complications. You may want to consider operating as a
sole-proprietor doing business as (dba) whatever record label name you have chosen. When business
begins to turn a profit you should re-visit this decision and talk with a tax attorney.
THE BIRTHING PROCESS: Try to find a local recording studio owned and operated by a multi-talented
individual with great production skills. Usually these folks play several instruments. This will help control
costs. If they have a degree in music, great!
Don’t fall for the expensive proposition of recording in studios frequented by known artists, hiring
expensive musicians and a high profile producer. Be aware, many professionals in the music business
actually live on dreams - yours!
If demos exist with you singing the vocal, you could use them as cuts on the album. If you didn’t sing the
vocal, go back into the studio and substitute your voice. This is a good time to enhance the music. If
everything sounds crappy, trash em’ and start over!
Record your ten best songs (minimum) and have the studio where you recorded the songs create a
master recording to send to the record manufacturer.
Position your top quality song, the one that best defines you and your music, as track #1. Most radio
station Music Directors don’t listen to an entire album, only snippets of the first few songs. If they are not
impressed by track #1 they probably won’t listen to track #2.
If you plan to pitch your album to a record label, now is a good time to do it. Be forewarned; unless you are
a touring artist/band generating a profit, your chances of getting a record deal is slim to none. If perchance
you do get an offer make certain it doesn’t fall under the category of sharecropping.
Signing with a record label is varied, complex and tricky. Should the opportunity arise, get sound expert
advice. Hire a lawyer who is knowledgably in such matters.
THE BAMBINO: Now that you have a master recording, and no record deal, the next step is to select a
company to manufacture and package the album. While your options are endless, you may want to consider
using one of the better known such as Disc Makers or Oasis.
Your final cost will depend on the packaging you select, artwork and how many albums you purchase. Don’
t forget to include a barcode on the packaging: It adds a professional touch. The number of albums to
purchase depends on how much long-term storage space is available in your closet - just kidding.
Approximately 115,000 albums were released in the United States in 2008. Of those fewer than 6,000 sold
more than 1,000 copies. It has been estimated that by the year 2012 the majority of music sold will be digital
downloads. The practice of releasing a CD has already started to circle the drain.
SELL THEM SUCKERS: Now back to Plan B. The UPS truck has pulled away and you’re busily stacking box
after box of your pride and joy in the closet. Now what?
If you’re a performing artist you have a definite advantage in that you can sell albums at gigs. Your next
best option is online distributors who sell albums and downloads. CD Baby, the largest online distributor of
independent music, is a good choice. Potential buyers from around the world go to their site in search of
music by independent artists like you.
Unknown artists selling albums in bricks and mortar record shops and/or buying expensive advertising
space does not produce results of any significance. Unless you have deep pockets you are in this on your
own, hiring a publicist, for example, is out of the question.
REVIEWS: Print magazines are not prone to reviewing albums from unknown artists. Your best option is to
contact Internet music sites regarding a review. If they don’t respond to your inquiry move on and keep
There’s a possibility that some Internet radio stations and/or online music magazines may contact you.
Check out their website and once you are convinced the request is legitimate don’t hesitate to send a copy
of your album for airplay and/or review. Post portions of their reviews on your website and the website of
your online distributor.
ONE-SHEET: Develop some information about the album to send along with the disks you mail out for
airplay and/or reviews. This 8x10 document is called a one-sheet and it’s purpose it to provide information
about you and the album. If you have positive feedback from your album reviews include it on the one-sheet.
Music Directors receive an avalanche of albums each week. They don’t have a lot of time to spend reading
one-sheets so keep em’ brief.
RADIO AIRPLAY: Mainstream radio airplay is responsible for more album sales and #1 hits than any other
single factor. Big radio maintains a very short playlist dominated by artists from the larger record labels. Don’
t waste your albums by sending them to those stations.
Using the “shotgun approach” is foolish. Use a focused approach by sending albums to stations that
report spins to an airplay chart. The Americana Music Association chart and the Roots Music Association
chart are two worthy of consideration. Some of these stations report spins to both charts. Check out their
websites for more information.
Chart reporting stations have Music Directors who screen incoming albums, separates them into play and
no-play stacks, compiles playlists, and report spins to the charts. Package your album in a case that has a
spine. This allows Music Directors to quickly find it in the “play stack”. Before mailing your album to radio
stations, remove the cellophane wrapper and put a black mark across the barcode. Don’t be surprised if
some of your albums mysteriously appear for sale on the Internet.
The two above-mentioned charts are the playground of former Billboard artists and artists from well-known
independent labels. The scuffle for spins is competitive. For that reason, you may want to consider hiring an
Airplay Promoter. Be aware that hiring a promoter is expensive and unlikely to significantly increase album
sales. However, it may help get your album a listen, position you higher up the chart, and gain you some
End of the line! I hope this writing will assist you in making better-informed and thoughtful decisions about
your music. Thanks for reading, and have fun on your musical journey. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rolez!
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