Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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Pitching: It’s All About the Right Fit

Recently, we received an insightful observation in an email from SongU member, Bob Otting from Illinois, who wrote:

“I have a very, very limited number of songs that are pitch worthy – 6 max. Thus, I am sending the same songs out over and over to the same [pitch guests] on SongU and thinking, ‘These folks must hear that first note and scream ‘NOT AGAIN! WHY DO THEY KEEP SENDING ME THIS?!??” But then every once in a while I get a response: ‘Yes, Selected for this Meeting’, or a ‘Maybe’. It tells me I should keep pitching – its all about the right fit. Thanks for all you fine folks do at SongU!”

Bob’s insight is right on target. Industry pros like publishers, A&R reps, licensing agents, and recording artists listen to a lot of songs, and when listening, they often have a very narrow scope. So, they can frequently tell right away whether a given song may or may not work for a particular pitch. When you cast your song and pitch it again for a completely different project, the same set of ears listens differently. I’ve had songs turned down by an A&R person who two or three months later put the song on hold for another artist.

What does “pitch-worthy” mean? Bob adds an additional insight when he mentions his songs are “pitch-worthy,” meaning that he can objectively deem them competitive for the market place. How does he know this? He has taken the time to get feedback on his songs from mentors (that include hit songwriters, publishers, producers, and licensing agents) who have given him the thumbs-up. He probably has had to do some re-writing and tweaking to get them there, but once he got an okay, he knew his songs would be on a level playing field with the other songs being pitched in a professional arena.

Photo by Paulo Victor on Pexels.com

This Month’s Featured Pitches

Christmas/Holiday Songs. Pitch For Licensing Agent. Americana/Folk, Indie Pop, Jazz, Pop, Singer-Songwriter. Extended through August! Keep them coming! Holiday-themed songs needed now for film and advertising. Street Pitch guest, N.P., says productions are starting up for the holidays. Here’s what we need:
a. Cover songs of popular holiday songs and Christmas carols.
b. Original songs with great hooks, fun, upbeat, warm and positive…

Rose Falcon / Rodney Atkins. Pitch For Song PluggerAlternative, Americana, Singer Songwriter.  Street Pitch guest, J.N., veteran independent songplugger who has generated income for SongU members is looking for songs for Curb artists Rose Falcon and Rodney Atkins. Seeking solo songs for each as well as duets as per the following:
–Solo songs for Rose Falcon ala American singer-songwriter, Caitlyn Smith.
–Solo songs for Rodney Atkins with a Jason Isbell…

SongU.com: Online songwriting courses, co-writing, pitching, connections

Learn More About Pitching at SongU.com

Pitching at SongU is all online. Your songs go directly to our pitch guests. We’ve designed our Street pitch opportunities to connect members with several dedicated music publishers, song pluggers, and licensing agents looking for specific projects in order to mimic how almost every publishing company works. The truth is, unless you’re writing with the artist or producer, this is still a primary mode for “outside” songwriters to get a cut. It’s certainly better to have a plugger who can play the song for the A&R team, the producer, the manager and/or the artist rather than strictly have an A&R rep on who might not hear the song or have the final say in the decision making process. We also make direct connections to independent artists who are listening for their own projects. We’re really proud of our members when they have success with their writing, much like any teacher would be who sees their students successes.


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The Open-Mic Experiment

A couple of years after we got married, Danny and I packed up our hand-me-down couch, dinette set and mattress, and moved from Edison, NJ to Nashville, TN with a notion to eventually make our living as songwriters. We had at least thought ahead enough to have saved some extra money to open a savings account, and had acquired employment to give ourselves a steady income in case the “songwriting thing” didn’t happen right away. Big dreams can take awhile, as you might imagine.

Most nights we’d head out to “writer’s nights”, often to the infamous Bluebird Cafe, to listen to songwriters sing their original songs and tell the stories behind them: “Well, about a year ago my co-writer and I got together and he was telling me about his wife’s grandma and grandpa and how after 60 years of marriage, they’d been separated in a nursing home on different floors. She’d stopped talking until one day they wheeled him into the room and she asked, ‘where have you been’, and we just started writing a song about it.”

Night after night the writers would start strumming their guitars and singing a few bars until the audience realized they were listening to one of their favorite songs recorded by Kathy Mattea or Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire or Tim McGraw or Bonnie Raitt and so on. There would be an audible sigh and an eruption of appreciative applause. There’s really nothing more breathtaking then hearing a hit song sung in its simplest form by the person who wrote it.

It didn’t take long to realize that singing one’s original songs at open-mics and writer’s nights was a right of passage in Nashville…whether or not you were a performer. There were opportunities to “play out” for every level of writer from those who were fresh-off-the-turnip-truck to those who were polished and perfected. As newbies, we’d go out to listen and support the other newcomers, our incoming class, as it were.

The first time some friends asked us to perform at a writer’s night they were hosting, I was TERRIFIED. It took some serious self-talk to step up on that stage. But when it was all over, after I had heard my shaky voice coming back through the monitor and I kept going, after Danny played the last chord on his keyboard and I heard some clapping, after I had not spontaneously imploded, I had my “aha” moment. Great songwriting requires you to be at your most vulnerable and your most courageous at the same time.

Those writer’s nights were a big part of my songwriting education. They forced me to face my fears and time and again push beyond my comfort zone. They allowed me to test out new material and get better at what I was trying to do. Most importantly, playing out gave me the opportunity to interact with my peers in a supportive and constructive way, as well as to meet co-writers and friends who have lasted a life time (Shout out to Carol & Dale, and Nancy & Fett).

On August 14th, we’re inviting our SongU members to take part in this same kind of educational experience with a virtual open-mic experiment, hosted by long-time member, Mitch Townley. Whether we’re experienced or aspiring, whether we’re singers or vocally “challenged”, ready or not, here we come!


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Getting the Demo You Want: A Conversation with Producer, Justin Morgan

My guest today to talk about demo production is the owner of Pearl Snap Studios in Nashville, TN, Justin Morgan. As a singer-songwriter and producer, Justin is a sought-after mentor, teaching his monthly small-group live session: “FDBK 160 Song and Production Feedback.”

Justin, tell me how is your personal journey going in this time of Corona?

Thankfully, my immediate family has been able to avoid getting COVID but we have definitely had close friends and extended family get it which hits close to home. Industry wise, a lot of co-writes got cancelled when COVID entered the scene, which gave me space to slow down and really focus on writing for projects that I had put on the back burner. Now, my co-writes have moved to Zoom, which can be challenging, but it also opens up new opportunities to write with people who can’t be in the same room.  

Songwriting is such a personal and community driven industry and experience that this has definitely been a challenge. BUT it has a silver lining. I think difficult times breed some of the best art. It’s always been this way. I’m trying to use this time to be focused on creating great music! Luckily, technology has made that possible.

How has the pandemic affected your ability to produce demos?

We’re super thankful that our process isn’t terribly interrupted by the pandemic. Myself and my little team of players and producers are able to work remotely and still get great sounding recordings to our clients. We’ve seen an increase in songs being submitted, which I think is largely in part to writers having things they need to say about everything going on in our world.

Speaking of recordings, can you tell us what exactly is a “demo”?

When I was just starting out as an artist and writer, the word “demo” was thrown around a lot, mostly to describe rough recordings that my band would make and try to sell for $5 at our merchandise table. Now, years later I realize that the word “demo” is still a puzzling thing for a lot of writers. It’s actually an abbreviation for the word “demonstration.” A demo is a recording of a song used to demonstrate what the song might sound like if recorded by an artist. Think of it as a prototype. Car companies use prototypes to show off a car before it goes to market. They then take any feedback from trusted sources and various testing to perfect it before it takes its final form (ready to sell). A demo acts in the same capacity. A writer finishes a great song and needs to be able to show it to publishers, A&R executives, artists, or producers, hoping that ultimately an artist will fall in love with the song and record it on their album. In the songwriting world, we call it “getting a cut” when an artist chooses to record your song and put it out on an album.

Can a demo help you get a cut?

Demos can be pivotal in helping land a cut with an artist. I have personally seen songs not get cut because the demo wasn’t right, and then later, the song gets cut after the artist or A&R person hears a new demo of the same song.

Is there a difference between a demo and a master? Can you explain those terms a little bit?

It’s important to note that the artist does not typically use the demo track to record their vocals over.  The record label will use their own musicians, producer, and vocalist to create the final recording. Since demos are not intended to be used as the final recording, they will usually have restrictions from the producer or studio stating that they cannot be released commercially. A recording that is commercially released is considered a “master” and generally will cost quite a bit more to create than a demo. Sometimes a writer will negotiate a fee with the studio or producer in order to release the demo as a master, however permission will need to be granted from the producer, any players, and the vocalist who performed on the recording. 

How much does a demo cost?

Demos vary greatly in price from $150-$2,000 or even more depending on who is creating the demo and how it is being recorded. Sometimes just having an acoustic guitar or a piano along with a killer vocal is all a song needs to shine. Other times, a full production with a string quartet can be needed. It just depends on the song. Talking with your producer and mentors about what the song needs is always a good place to start.

What part does a producer like you play in the demo creation process?

Personally as a producer, I appreciate when a writer lets me have some creative leeway in the production process. I always welcome notes and reference tracks, however, being right in the middle of Music City and creating demos on a daily basis gives me a leg up on knowing what is and what is not working currently. It’s our job as producers to stay current and help your song shine like it should. This is why finding a producer you trust is very important to the process. A demo is an investment in your song and should be treated as such. 

What makes a successful demo?

A demo recording should be interesting and engaging, but should have room in the production to leave the song open to interpretation. I like to caution writers about wanting too much unique character in a demo. Some is needed and can be a great way to catch ears, but too much can pigeon hole a song and make it less recordable by a broad spectrum of artists. Here are some things to consider when you are looking to have a demo made:

  • Does this producer specialize in this style of music? 
  • Does this producer create current sounding recordings that sound similar to what I hear from current artists? 
  • Do I trust this producer’s work?
  • Is my song ready to be demo’ed?
  • Are all the lyrics how I want them?
  • Are all of the melodies dialed in? 
  • Am I financially able to make the investment in this song right now? 

Answering these questions will help you decide if it’s time to look for a great demo for your song!  

Thanks for taking the time to talk about the process of demoing songs, Justin, and for your great work mentoring the songwriters at SongU.com! I should mention that you also graciously offer a special discount to SongU members when they request a demo from Pearl Snap Studios directly from the SongU website portal.


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The Big Reveal! Staff Writer for a Day with WinSongs Music.

Recently, we invited Kirby Smith, Creative Director of WinSongs Music to the SongU virtual campus to get to know our writers. She listened to over 200 songs submitted throughout May and June and chose what she felt were the strongest of the bunch. That group of 22 songs became the list RISING STAR CONTENDERS. One final song rose to the top as the winner of “Staff Writer for the Day”. Congratulations to Kelly McKay with her brilliant song “Kiss the Hell Out of Me.” Kelly will be set up through WinSongs for a co-write session with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos.

Because the primary goal of SongU is always to inform and educate, this week we had Kirby visit our e-classroom to find out about her work as a Creative Director (particularly in the time of Corona), as well as her listening process and what pros and cons factored into her choices for choosing the contenders, and finally to reveal her choice for Staff Writer for a Day! Thanks to Kirby for being so generous with her time, information and insights into the song selection and pitching process! Without further ado…

CONGRATULATIONS to the Top Contenders who all received the SongU “Rising Star Award”!

*Wes Bullock (4 songs)
*Elvira Cawthon (3 songs)
*Bill Gue (2 songs)
*Brenda Kornblum (2 songs)
*Brad McKinney
*David Nicastro (2 songs)
*Kenneth Riggins
*Becky Smith (2 songs)
*Dempsey Watson
*Rita Weyls

And to Kelly McKay (2 songs) from TN, SongU member since 2013, for winning the top spot of “Staff Writer for a Day” with WinSongs Music.

A round of applause to every one who submitted their songs to this challenge. As the maxim says, you can’t win the game if you’re sitting on the bench. Keep up the great work, everyone!


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Featured Coach: A Conversation with Michele Vice-Maslin

Today, I have the pleasure of talking with one of SongU’s long-time mentors and coaches, two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer, Michele Vice-Maslin.

Michele Vice-Maslin

Michele, I’ve got to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Well I am a complete hermit so besides my lack of a hot tub to slip into I’m doing just fine and feel blessed! Also I really aspire to be a “Happy Girl” as one of my songs is called. That always helps one c ope, finding and holding on to their “happy”. A little “hippy dippy” I know but it’s true!

…But first off what helps me cope are my amazing Students at SongU and in my FROM SONG TO SYNC course! I am so busy coaching, mentoring, teaching, guiding, hand holding and seeing “light bulb moments” go off!… It is beyond rewarding and fulfilling!

I’ve actually never been busier so I think I am too tired to have to cope. LOL. In addition I’ve been writing with my favorite artist smooth jazz R&B legend Jonathan Butler for his new album and writing /producing songs for my own little pet artist project (2 of the songs appear on the Mpath PHENOMENAL WOMEN album series), plus other productions so I’m busy with that. I’m busy guiding my new intern Jeremiah. I’m busy pitching. I’m busy participating in tons of webinars mostly about all things music biz like Neighboring Rights, The MLC, Music Licensing, and so forth. I’ve been speaking on a bunch of webinars too… and so on and so on. All a great distraction from the difficult “mess” at hand that we all share.

And to top it off, as you and I discussed a little while back Sara…all the cooking. OH MY! Right now it’s after midnight I’ve been up working since 7am and I still have dinner to cook. Hahaha No time to think of coping

How has the current state of the world affected your writing, production, and pitching?

It hasn’t much affected the producing and pitching and solo writing. I am still doing that. Yes there are much less specific projects in production but still I always have backlogs of new songs that need to be pitched and brought to the attention of the “powers that be”. It has however very much affected the co-writing for me. I don’t like to collaborate virtually at all!  In fact I usually have a strict policy of “in the same physical room at the same time from complete scratch”. The only person I write virtually with is my main collaborator Larry Treadwell whom I’ve worked with for 39 years and know so well. I’ve also made an exception with Jonathan whom I’ve worked with for 20 years.  

Actually I’m always impressed by the Songu members I coach and their ability to co-write virtually even before the pandemic.

What qualities do you look for in a co-writer?

Of course if they are what I consider a good writer, which is subjective any way but after that mostly I look for someone I like, who is a nice human, a good human, an honest human. 

As a coach and mentor, you inspire so many songwriters. What inspires you?

The songwriters I coach and mentor! They inspire me everyday!  Some of them are soooo talented they could be teaching the class!  In the last 2 weeks alone I have heard some really amazing songs from them!  Life itself as well has always inspired me! Paying attention to all that is going on. Listening, watching, participating.

Do you have a favorite story you can tell us about one of your song placements? 

I have so so many but probably it’s my first one. That is what is coming to mind. It was 1987 and I was the songwriter, producer, arranger, creator of a “performance art project”. I had films and slide shows and actors doing skits accompanying the songs. The songs themselves and the whole project made Bjork look “normal”. 🙂 The whole thing was beyond alternative and avant-garde. I had a friend who was directing his first feature film TAPEHEADS. It stars Tim Robbins, John Cusack and the R&B/Soul legends Sam Moore (Of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker (Of Junior Walker And The All Stars) Sam & Junior were playing the fictitious duo “The Swanky Modes” in the film. The director(my friend) asked me if I had any friends that created R&B/Soul music and if so could they submit some tunes for the film. So I grabbed my writing partner Larry, whom I previously mentioned, and we wrote and produced up (after much careful research and listening) a song to submit. Now remember I am a weird “Performance Artist”  who writes very odd songs, so what to do what to do… how to submit…? The director (who actually directed the films and slide shows in my performance art project) would never have considered any R&B/Soul song I might come up with so…I submitted it under a pseudonym… and voila!! In the movie. With the legendary Sam Moore and Jr. Walker recording it. My first cut and placement at the same time. In a major big budget film…and then haha I became knows as an R&B writer. Crazy stuff! I think the moral of that story is just go for it!!! Give it a try! Ya never know…

What music have you been listening to lately?

I listen to so much music. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop as I am producing a really cool hip hop/rapper artist. Khalid, Kanye, Money Can’t Buy, A.J. Tracey, Troye Sivan, and others. Also a lot of pop music. Katy Perry, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Sean Mendez, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Kim Petrus, Tov Lo, Hayley Williams, Ellie Goulding… so so many and the songs of my friends, colleagues and students. Every day I listen to new music. I subscribe to some online newsletters that are always introducing me to new music.

Thank you, Michele, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to our SongU writers ! You rock!

Thank you for these really great questions Sara and thank you so much to you for having me. It’s really an honor. This is my 14th at Songu and it has enriched my life beyond measure. I’m so proud to be a part of the Songu family! I love my students!

I can’t believe it’s been 14 years already! Time flies when you’re having fun (and learning new things all the time). Thanks again for your time, Michele!

ABOUT COACHING AT SONGU.COM

In addition to our 20+ live audio/video small-group song feedback courses each month, our members have the opportunity to forge creative relationships with any of award-winning coaches in the form of individual written feedback with detailed song (or lyric-only) evaluations and constructive suggestions emphasizing lyrics, music/production, originality, commercial potential, and even a chance to be awarded “Best of SongU!”

HERE’S WHAT OUR MEMBERS ARE SAYING ABOUT COACH #2245 (aka Michele Vice-Maslin)!

“I am really thrilled with your Best of SongU recognition – you had awarded that for [my other song] ‘Marisol’ as well – and it means a lot. Both were probably more work than I would care to admit so it feels great to be recognized. I’m so happy that you liked it and found it relatable – THANKS!” -J.M., CT

“Thank you for the feedback. Once again you’ve opened my eyes through your insight. I definitely want to get away from cliche writing and hope to look get better at recognizing it when I write. Thx again!”D. Brown, GA

About Michele

About Michele: This coach is a two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer who has written hit songs in multiple genres for artists all over the world, as well as having several thousand film/TV placements. This coach is also a music producer and music publisher who is well versed in song pitching and placing, and business issues pertaining to the music industry. Specializes in evaluating Pop, R&B, Hot AC, Top 40, Dance, Alternative, Urban, Country, Singer-Songwriter, Film/TV/Songs for Sync Licensing.

Michele’s Coaching Philosophy: “My coaching philosophy is one of empowerment and inspiration along with some real and straightforward honesty about what I believe is important in the way of crafting a great song – for personal satisfaction of course – but also for commercial success.”


Write Your Truth

Last week I watched an email exchange between Danny ArenaCo-Founder of SongU.com, and a fellow songwriter. The focus was not just about writing songs but about how we can listen to each other and have honest conversations about difficult subjects. I asked him if he could take a portion of that email and modify it into an article that might be of interest to our readers. Here it is:

One only needs to glance at any news organization’s social media page to see the current state of divisiveness in the world. We choose our sides. We engage in hostile micro-tweets. We post snarky memes and comebacks. As quickly as our fingers can type, we rattle off hurtful labels and insults like “libtard” and “trumptard,” “commie” and “nazi.” We cease listening to each other and stop talking to each other. We use our words as weapons to further drive a wedge between “us” and “them.”

While our choice of words can be used to divide us, they can also unite. As songwriters, this notion of unity should align with us. After all, at the very core of the craft of songwriting lies the principle of universality. Even the words unify, unity, universal all originate from the same Latin word, “uni,” meaning oneness. Who hasn’t been to a music industry seminar and heard some publisher or executive recite the mantra — a successful song must strike a universal chord? Part of our creative job is to find a way to express a single idea that resonates with an audience. This sounds much simpler to do in practice. Song after song by aspiring writers gets passed over because it fails to “ring true” to a broader audience.

At SongU.com, one of our courses teaches us that the most effective way to reach the universal is through the specific – a story that you can tell using your own truth. What does this mean? I know that I can never fully comprehend what it’s like to walk through this world as an African American male. No matter how “woke” I become, I will never know the enormous weight someone carries throughout life simply because of the color of their skin. This does not mean that I do not understand prejudice or hate. It means that for me to write about the subject in an honest way that resonates with others, I must find my own truth and then tell that story.

So what is my truth? I understand religious hate — my wife is Jewish, and I have lived with antisemitism and watched it through her eyes. This past weekend, the Holocaust Memorial at our local JCC was vandalized with nazi symbols and white supremacist threats. I also understand homophobia and hate — my sister is gay, and I have lived through times where “neighbors” put letters in her mailbox, telling her to move out of the neighborhood simply because of who she chooses to love. While I am not Black or Hispanic, I understand what it means to judge someone by the color of their skin. Sara and I adopted our daughter at birth from Guatemala. Every day, I see the world through her eyes. I know the pain it caused when her history teacher walked up to her desk while conducting a lesson on citizenship, asking her if she was born in the United States. Upon answering no, her teacher proceeded to tell her in front of the entire class that she better have a conversation with her parents that evening because she might be in this country illegally. I know the truth of what it feels like to have the police called on my daughter’s boyfriend for playing soccer at dusk with a few of his Latino friends because someone thought they “looked suspicious.”

How can I channel my truth into my creative process? If I’m inspired to write a song about Black Lives Matter because I am outraged by the injustice I see, I cannot write the same song as LL Cool J or Trey Songz. There is no possible way I can approach the topic of injustice from the same honest perspective they did because that is not my truth. No matter how much I admire or attempt to emulate their approach, it will not ring true or have the universal appeal of their messages.

I need to write my own truth. I can write an honest song about having a daughter who’s judged every day because of her skin color or how we worry she and her boyfriend could get pulled over at night when he’s driving. Or I can change direction and write an honest song about what it’s like to love someone who is hated simply because of which religion they follow or gender of who they choose to love. The point is that if I do my job well as a songwriter using my truth as a vehicle, I will wind up with a song that makes an impact and resonates. That means more listeners are likely to hear my song and identify with its core message.

Recognizing your truth and being able to tap into it creatively, in an honest way, will make your songs more universal. And it seems to me, the world could use a little more “uni” right now. So use your voice and speak your truth. Your songs and this world will be a much better place for it.

Stay the course and keep the faith.

-Danny


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Why Should I Get Feedback Before Pitching My Songs to Film and TV?

At SongU.com, we offer a variety of of small group feedback sessions that focus on different aspects of songwriting and the music business. Writing songs for synchronization with film, TV, and other media takes unique skills beyond crafting a great song. For example, do your vocals and instrumentation work to the benefit of your production? Is your hook relatable for certain situations? Do you know the specifics of the sync licensing market in order to submit your songs appropriately to music supervisors?

Today we’re shining the spotlight on “FDBK 330 – Song Feedback for Film-TV-Media.” Join us to learn from the pros and your peers.

About: This 1-hour advanced feedback session is geared toward analysis of how your demo recording will compete in Film, TV, and other media-related pitches. Focus is given to your songs’ production as it pertains to pitching successfully for sync licensing opportunities in TV, Film, and Media. Limit 5 participants.

Our Facilitators: Nancy Peacock, CEO and Owner of Washington Street Publishing which focuses on securing placements in Film, TV, and Media; and Creative Director for Washington Street Publishing, Queenie Mullinex.

“Queenie and Nancy are soooo good. They are encouraging and yet candid when they hear things that need improvement. I learn a lot from their feedback on my song and the feedback that they give others. Always very, very helpful.” -Becca B. , SC

Always a joy to learn from them.” –Ricki B. , WI

“Great insight for tailoring your songs for music supervisor pitches.” Shawn F. , NJ


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Special Event Pitch: Staff Writer for a Day!

Between May 1st and June 30th 2020, SongU.com is running a special event: Staff Writer for a Day.  This is an opportunity to pitch your songs for a chance to see what it would be like to be a staff songwriter which includes getting set up by our guest publisher for a CO-WRITE SESSION with a hit songwriter! 

If you aren’t sure what the term Staff Writer means, you’re not aloneWhen I moved to Nashville in the early 1990’s and got serious about my songwriting, many of my peers were hoping to become a full-time paid songwriter for a music publishing company (aka a staff writer). The concept was so strange to me that I had to wonder if I ever had the chance to be a staff writer, would I even like it? At the time, I questioned whether I would really enjoy writing songs on demand, on a timetable, with a quota, being “set up” on blind co-writing dates, writing to make the creative director at my publishing company happy, and asking their permission to demo songs.

After about four years of engrossing myself in the Music Row experience of constant writing, re-writing, networking, co-writing, over-coming performance fears, sheepishly meeting with ASCAP reps and music publishers who would listen to my songs, and politely or not-so-politely tell me that I wasn’t quite “there” yet, I built a strong catalog of songs. By then, the idea of being a professional songwriter had grown on me. One day, miraculously, I was hired by a little music publishing company called Zamalama Music as their first staff writer (cue the Rocky theme song).

It turned out that this job gave me valuable lessons in how to prepare myself mentally every morning to “show up and write” whether I was feeling creative or not. I made sure to arrive at those blind date co-writes with lots of potential titles and ideas to jump start our meetings. I learned to leave my ego at the door and do what was best for the song. Most importantly, I found an inner confidence that only comes when your songs have been rejected so many times, you can laugh and moooove on! Here’s a picture of the bay window of the Zamalama writers room on Music Row where I eventually co-penned a hit song!

Check out the staff writer experience for yourself:

A SPECIAL EVENT PITCH – STAFF WRITER FOR A DAY! This is your opportunity to be selected by Kirby Smith, Creative Director of WinSongs Music Publishing, for a chance to find out what it’s like to be a professional staff songwriter for a day, including a meeting with Kirby and a CO-WRITING SESSION with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos! Read about our guests.

For details about how to submit your songs between May 1st – June 30th 2020 for a chance to win STAFF WRITER FOR A DAY! Go to the Pitching area of SongU.com.

2000 ASCAP Awards. Connie Bradley, Kacey Jones, Sharon Lane, me, 


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The Two Biggest Songwriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them

The first lyric I wrote was critiqued by master songwriter educator, Sheila Davis, in 1990 at the Songwriters Guild in NYC. From that moment on, I have enjoyed digging into the nitty-gritty how to make a song “work” and connect to the listener. As a songwriting mentor myself for the last twenty-plus years, I’ve critiqued several hundred original songs-in-progress in multiple styles and genres by songwriters from all over the world. I have even had the privilege of training other music industry professionals on how to successfully offer song feedback. I’ve observed that there are certain craft points that, if not executed correctly, get flagged over and over again by song coaches and mentors.  Here are the two most common:

Big Mistake #1: Trying to put too many ideas into one song.

In order connect emotionally to your audience, it is important for your song to have a “universal idea” such as falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love, or just about any love-adjacent subject including family life, loss, escape and so on. But here’s the trick – you get to the universal through the SPECIFIC. In other words, the more you can whittle down your big idea into a concise moment or feeling in time or a very specific story that illustrates that idea, the more you will keep your listener engaged, and the more your own personality and “voice” as a writer will come through.

Your Fix

Make sure you can sum up your entire song in ONE simple sentence that starts with “This is a song about…”. If you cannot complete this in a sentence, you probably have too many ideas. It helps to know your title before you write the song. Then, make sure every line in that song leads the listener to the title in some way specifically and emotionally.

Hit Song Examples:

  • I Will Always Love You written by Dolly Parton
    • This is a song about a woman who is telling a man that although she knows they aren’t meant to stay together, she will always love him anyway.
Example of a single idea about the universal theme of love.
  • Blank Space written by Taylor Swift.
    • This is a song about a woman who thinks of love as a game and is seducing a new lover to play with her.
  • Love written by Kendrick Lamar.
    • This is a song about a man who is finally ready to commit to the woman he loves and is asking her if she loves him too.

Big Mistake #2: Not enough musical, lyrical, and/or production contrast.

Contrast is another way of saying “change it up.” While it’s true that you need a certain amount of repetition in a song to give the listener something to sing along with or dance to, too much repetition becomes boring and the listener will tune out. If the entire three-and-a-half-minute track basically sounds the same – boring. If the melody sits in the same pocket the entire time – boring. If the lyric says the same thing over and over without any new information along the way – what do you think? I know this seems obvious, but it’s very common for the first draft of a song to be a real snooze fest.

Your Fix

Shoot for having three distinct parts to your song for the listener to latch on to. Musically, the tools at your disposal are the melody, the chords, and the rhythm. Make sure at least one of those things changes between each distinct section such as the verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrically, you can contrast the rhyme sounds, the rhyme scheme, the pronoun emphasis (I/You), the rhythm (e.g. long lines vs. short lines), and general or detailed images. In the production, you can create subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in the track with the instruments, the rhythms, the vocals, and so on.

Hit Song Examples:

  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg is one of the most covered songs of all time. Notice in particular the rhythmic contrast of the long lines in the verses that contrasts with the staccato rhythm of the bridge section.
  • Chandelier by Sia. Chandelier has it all when it comes to contrast. Notice in particular, the clear rhythmic changes between the verse, pre-chorus, chorus. Also, note the huge soaring melodic contrast in the chorus, as well as the harmonic (chord) contrast in the bridge. And of course, the way the production builds and breaks down and builds again throughout.
Example of musical and production contrast.

When you listen to songs from now on, see if you can pick out the universal theme as well as the more specific way that the theme is addressed by the songwriter. Ask yourself if the title or hook is clearly explained. Also, listen for musical, lyrical and production contrast throughout the song. Will every song you hear be a perfect example of all of these techniques? Definitely not. But my guess is you will hear them a lot more when you know what you are listening for.


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