Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters

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How Do You Measure Songwriting Success?

Guest post by Mitch Townley

Picture: Karen and Mitch Townley with Sara Light in Nashville

We write songs for a variety of reasons. It could be to share a story or relate an emotion. Sometimes it’s to honor someone, describe a relationship, or bring an issue to light. We could be testifying to God’s work in our life through a worship song or a song designed to encourage someone else. But what does it mean to be “successful” with the songs we write?

Our motivation to express ourselves is primarily our purpose for writing a song. So, we are successful when what we desire to communicate in our song is what the listener feels or experiences when they hear it. In simple terms, the listener “gets it.”  This accomplishment is what I like to call “expressive success.”  Expressive success is rooted in understanding the fundamental concepts of songwriting. It takes practice and work at the craft to get there and should be enjoyed and celebrated when achieved. Any other success we experience with a song is icing on the cake and essentially out of our control.

Some of us may experience an additional “layer” of success that I refer to as “complimentary success.” Examples of this type of success are when a song is recorded by an artist, placed in a movie or TV show, or performed in a venue. It may win a contest, be used as a theme song for an organization, or perhaps even win an award. These examples are remarkable moments of encouragement for a songwriter but don’t have to be what defines us as “successful” in our writing. For me, complimentary success is undoubtedly a blessing to enjoy, but not the reason why I write. It is not an expectation I have for every song. While we can certainly aspire to write quality songs that contend for complimentary success, I don’t think it is reasonable to expect something that is so far out of our control. There is no shortcut to the destination of this type of success. It takes practice, patience, and perseverance even to consider it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention an even more elusive form of measuring songwriting success: commercial success. Typically, it means a famous or emerging artist has recorded your song, sold many CDs or downloads, done well on major music industry charts, and generated revenue. Most songwriters who enjoy a viable professional income from their songwriting are staff songwriters at music publishing companies. However, the percentage of songwriters who earn a living as a songwriter is extremely low. Does that fact make you want to stop songwriting immediately? I certainly hope not! It is just the nature of the music industry. It’s essential to understand your motivation for writing songs. A person whose aspiration is to be a professional, commercially successful songwriter has restrictions. They can’t always choose what, why, and when they write.

“The percentage of songwriters who earn a living as a songwriter is extremely low. Does that fact make you want to stop songwriting immediately? I certainly hope not!”

I write songs because I “cannot not” write them (pardon the grammar). It is something I love to do. I get so excited when I have written a song that emotionally affects someone in the way I intended. When a listener “gets it,” I am a successful songwriter. I suspect that many of you can become or already are successful too.

Mitch Townley is from Knoxville, TN, where he has served as a Children’s Pastor since 1996. He has over 40 independent artist cuts, including a song featured in a documentary about the Vietnam Memorial and a song placement in the TV show “Nashville.” His song, “This Side Of Sunday” (co-written with Scott Parker), was recorded by Brent Harrison and spent eight weeks in the Number 1 spot on the Christian Country Countdown in April/May of 2018. In April of 2019, it received the 2018 Inspirational Country Song Of the Year award from the Inspirational Country Music Association at a ceremony held at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN. Mitch is the Knoxville Chapter coordinator for the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). He performs his songs regularly in songwriter rounds in the greater Knoxville area as a solo artist and with the acoustic duo “The Back Pew Poets.” Mitch has been a member of since 2006 and hosts the regular SongU Open-Mic Experiment, virtual writers’ nights.