Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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Goals for October 2016

“Starting a new way is never easy so…keep starting until the start sticks.” – Tim Fargo, Author

Jump in! A new month, a new beginovember-3-finalnning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them!

Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 


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Goals for September 2016

 

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“A year from now you may wish you had started today.” –
Karen Lamb

 

A new month, a new beginning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them!

Join us in goal-setting for the month and post yours in the comment area. 

Photo credit: 3D Sand Piano Beach Art by Jamie Harkins #artpeople  @www.artpeople.net

 


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What You Really Need To Know To Be A Professional Songwriter

I’m making a little joke here. I found this in my computer files. I can’t recall how I originally got it and haven’t found the source (if you do, let me know). But it still makes me laugh and there’s definitely a grain of truth – or the entire loaf of bread of truth –  in this list. So without further ado, here’s what songwriters really need to know:

THE PROFESSIONAL SONGWRITER’S ABBREVIATED DICTIONARY

VERBS:
1. to schmooze = befriend scum
2. to pitch = grovel shamelessly
3. to brainstorm = feign preparedness
4. to research = procrastinate indefinitely
5. to network = spread misinformation
6. to collaborate = argue incessantly
7. to freelance = collect unemployment

NOUNS:
1. agent = frustrated lawyer
2. lawyer = frustrated producer
3. producer = frustrated writer
4. writer = frustrated artist
5. artist = frustrated human

COMMON TERMS AND PHRASES:
1. Entry-level = pays nothing
2. You can trust me = you must be new
3. Highly qualified = knows the producer
4. It needs some polishing = Change everything
5. It shows promise = It stinks rotten
6. It needs some fine tuning = Change everything
7. I’d like some input = I want total control
8. It needs some honing = Change everything
9. Call me back next week = Stay out of my life
10. It needs some tightening = Change everything
11. Try and punch it up = I have no idea what I want
12. It needs some streamlining = Change everything
13. It’s very close = You’re not even on the right planet
14. We want something different for this album = The last album didn’t sell
15. We’re looking for a new direction = see previous
16. I know someone at the label = I know the janitor
17. You’ll never work in this town again = I have no power whatsoever


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It’s Never Too Late to Write a Great Song

“I’m still learning.” – Michaelangelo, at age 87

Songwriting is a craft that you can begin working on at any stage in your life. Unlike recording artists, who often have pressure to look and dress a certain way or to be a certain age, songwriters never have to “look the partBluebird cafe.” Even in Nashville where it’s common for a songwriter to become “famous” among the locals, nobody cares how old they are, if their vocals are perfectly pitched, or what size dress they fit in.  They can show up to play a gig at the famous Bluebird Cafe in a t-shirt and old jeans (not even black ones) and their songs speak for themselves.

Great Nashville songwriters like Harlan Howard, Richard Leigh, Bobby Braddock, Tom Shapiro, Jeffrey Steele, Al Anderson and Gretchen Peters were, or still are, cranking out hits for young recording artists in their 50’s and 60’s (and that list is just off the top of my head). Singer songwriters like Elton John, Sting, Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Cyndi Lauper all continue to write new material and reinvent themselves well into their prime. So, if you’re reading this and have a desire to write songs, nothing is stopping you. I would only add as a caveat that you have to be willing to continue to learn, to grow, and to be open to your surroundings…but that’s not rocket science.

For a little more inspiration, here’s a short list of diverse folks who accomplished great things at a more “mature” age. I culled this list from Goodreads.com and a couple of Google searches and admittedly haven’t fact-checked it, but it seems right to me!

  • J.K. Rowling was 30 years old when she finished the first manuscript of Harry Potter.
  • Mark Twain was 40 when he wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, and 49 years old when he wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
  • Rosa Parks was 42 when she refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger.
  • Suzanne Collins was 46 when she wrote “The Hunger Games.”
  • Charles Darwin was 50 years old when his book On the Origin of Species came out.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci was 51 years old when he painted the Mona Lisa.
  • Ray Kroc Was 53 when he bought the McDonalds franchise and took it to unprecedented levels.
  • Dr. Seuss was 54 when he wrote “The Cat in the Hat.”
  • Colonel Harland Sanders was 61 when he started the KFC Franchise.
  • Ronald Regan entered politics at age 55 and eventually became the oldest person to ever become President, at the age of 69.
  • Artist Paul Cézanne was 56 years old when he was given his first art exhibition.Grandma Moses
  • J.R.R Tolkien was 62 when the Lord of the Ring books came out.
  • Peter Roget invented the Thesaurus at age 73.
  • George R.R. Martin was 63 when HBO purchased the television rights for his A Song of Ice and Fire series and launched the mega-hit “Game of Thrones” for which Martin actively writes and produces.
  • Grandma Moses started painting at age 76. Three years later her art was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Write on, friends!

-Sara


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What’s Wrong With Being Number Two?

This story begins in Nashville, TN in the spring of 1998 in a little writer’s room with a big window overlooking 18th Avenue on Music Row. That room was one of my only perks of being a staff writer for a small independent publishing company. I had arrived there to meet my co-writer Arlos Smith for our weekly Tuesday morning writing session, a tradition we started after reading a best-selling book at the time called TuesMyFirstWritersRoomdays With Morrie, a true story about a teacher with Lou Gehrigs disease and his weekly Tuesday meetings with an old student. The life lessons in the book had made an impact on both of us, so we thought it would be a good tribute to Morrie to write on Tuesdays.

 

That particular Tuesday, I learned that my awesome writer’s room was going to be rented out as office space which meant that after that day I would no longer be able to write in that room. I had already been living in Nashville for six years and had been a full-time staff writer for over a year. Normally, I tried to keep a positive attitude amidst all the inevitable disappointments and setbacks of a tough industry. And even though I was reaching a lot of little songwriting goals, I often felt like I was simply treading water, not really getting anywhere, certainly not getting cuts! Losing my writers room left me feeling powerless and defeated. Admittedly, I was allowing myself a moment of self-pity.

By the time Arlos got there, I had worked myself up into a little tizzy. He let me vent about the loss of my room and about all the difficulties of breaking into the music business. Finally, I said, “well, if nothing else, at least at the end of the day I get to go home to Danny.” Arlos said, “Sara, that’s our song! Let’s forget about what THEY want and just write one for us today.” Before long we had written a heartfelt song about battling a tough day and going home to the person you love called “Home To You.”

Short-cutting through the next few months, we played the work tape for our publishers, demoed it, Arlos’ publisher played it for Al Cooley in the A&R department of Atlantic Records who sent it directly to John Michael Montgomery with a bunch of other songs (a little miracle in itself). Apparently, at the time, John Michael was out on the road missing his young daughter and pregnant wife, so when he heard “Home To You” he could directly relate to it. In December, we got a call that he was going record it!

Months went by as we sweated out the details: Recorded, yes – but would it make the album? If it makes the album, would it become a single? Sure enough, it became the title cut and the second single from the album. In the summer of 1999, over a year after we had written it, we heard it on the radio for the first time.

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We made a point of tipping our hat to Morrie for being instrumental in our writing on that Tuesday. As we watched the song go up the charts we were excited and nervous. Suddenly, our thoughts were not simply about writing a heartfelt song, or getting our first major cut, but about how high the song would climb and how much money that would translate into.

Several more months went by as we eagerly watched the song’s progress. Finally, it broke into the top ten. Slowly but surely each week it moved up one or two spots until it arrived at number two. Then one Thursday, we got the call we had been waiting for. As long as the promotion team at Atlantic Records could hold the position through Saturday, “Home To You” would be the number one song on the Billboard Country Charts for the following week!

But alas, it was not meant to be. Our “competition,” the RCA promotion team who had the number three song, Clint Black’s “When I Said I Do” were able to finish at the very last minute in the number one spot. So weImage-2-2015-BillboardChart got the call, instead, telling us that “Home To You” lost its bullet and would peak in Billboard at number two. It was hard not to feel disappointed. We lost the coveted number one spot, the ASCAP number one party and gifts, the fancy number one plaques, awards and number one banners hanging on Music Row.

 

In a strange twist of timing, that very same week a made-for-TV movie was airing based on the book “Tuesdays With Morrie”. Obviously, Danny and I sat down at home to watch it, as did Arlos and his wife. The movie’s opening scene is of Morrie and his student in the stands of a college basketball game. The crowd is in a frenzy screaming, “we’re number one, we’re number one…!” Morrie turns to his student and quietly asks, “what’s wrong with being number two?”

There it was – fate, timing, life, a higher power, good ole Morrie – stepping in to remind us what was really important. It is not getting to number one that makes us great or successful. It is not about standing on the top of the mountain, but the willingness to climb it. What makes any of us successful is to engage fully in life and in the things that we love.  As long as we are being true to ourselves and doing the best we can along the way –what’s wrong with being number two?


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What Was That Idea Again?

The ability to convert ideas to things is the secret of outward success.”  -Henry Ward Beecher

lightbulbIdeas come from all sorts of places. My old “idea books” are filled with song titles, random thoughts and bits of conversations scribbled on napkins, placemats, and sticky notes, along with torn out newspaper and magazine articles. The current version of my idea book is stored on my computer: various emails to myself, screen shots, quotes, mp3’s, links to articles and websites. A necessity of the business of creativity is to grab that idea and keep it or it will elude you in minutes. However, once you’ve captured it, let it simmer in your mind and spirit until you find the perfect opportunity to use it. I can go back twenty years, look at any of my notes on napkins and tell you where I was, who I was with, how I was feeling, and why I was inspired at that moment to write it down.

Take SongU.com, for example. Back in 2000, my husband Danny Arena and I, who had the combined skills of being teachers, computer programmers, and professional songwriters had, in the immortal words of Oprah, an “aha moment!” We asked ourselves, “Why not combine our particular skill set and create a school online for songwriters providing everything we wished we had access to back in the days when we had to walk barefoot in the snow from Newark to Nashville with no clue? Why not give back to up-and-coming songwriters in the same way that our mentors guided us? Why don’t we provide songwriters around the world with easy access to the same songwriting classes and song coaching that we offer in our on-ground seminar? Why not ask our pro songwriter friends to contribute their skills? Why not call it SongU (as in Song University)?” It was idea whose time had come.

Here’s one of the earliest website headers we sketched out when we were first noodling around with the idea in 2001:

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Finally, in July of 2003, in the dark ages before Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube graced the world wide web, we launched http://www.SongU.com, the first online education program for songwriters. Over thirteen years later it’s still humming along.

Image-1-2015-SongUScreenshot

I know I’m not alone in trying to keep up with the rapid fire growth of technology (can we say iPhone 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…?). By necessity, SongU.com, has continued to evolve every single year since its launch. We’ve persevered through dial-up to high-speed, through text-based chat rooms to audio/video-enabled meeting rooms, from desktops to tablets, and on and on. Being able to stay current for an international online school with instructor-led web-based classes, song feedback, and community shared over many internet platforms, computers, and browsers has been no small feat. During it all our members stayed true, many of them sticking with us year after year, exceeding our expectations as they achieved their goals, giving us the props and encouragement to carry on. Admittedly, we’re proud of this accomplishment.

Recently we launched the newest iteration of the site yet, completely mobile and tablet-friendly. We’re offering some new membership options to keep up with the Joneses. And we have more ideas on napkins that are turning into realities as we speak. This blog is one of them.

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As Danny and I discovered a long time ago, it’s the ability to create –  to turn a random idea into a working reality – that makes all else pale by comparison. I know that any of you who have written your ideas on napkins, that have turned some words into a lyric and some notes into a melody, can most certainly relate.