"Songwriting's a weird game. I never intended to become one - I fell into this by mistake, and I can't get out of it.” ~ Keith Richards
Songs are the truth. Artistry is built on songs. Everything else is either non-creative work, noise, or distraction.
Being an artist in 2015 is a full-time endeavor. Writing songs. Recording. Booking shows. Managing social media. Maintaining electronic press kits. Submitting music for a seemingly endless parade of opportunities. Pursuing licensing for TV, film, commercials. Pitching festival promoters and venue promoters. Seeking publicity and radio play consideration. Looking for management, labels, publishers, booking agencies. If you already have a professional team, that team is working to help you achieve all of these goals and more.
It’s a lot of work, and for most artists, it is not terribly productive work. Much of the time, this effort does not seem to resonate loudly enough and artists often times find themselves frustrated or disenfranchised with music.
I hear this story time and time again in meetings and at music conferences across the United States, from hard-working artists making a real effort to run down the lanes articulated by industry professionals:
“well, you need to work with a producer! The path to greatness is paved by quality production!”
“well, you need active socials! The path to greatness can only be pursued by an artist who has a dialogue with their fans!"
“well, you need licensing! The path to greatness lies beyond a placement on Grey’s Anatomy!”
“well, you need radio play! The path to greatness can be found on the airwaves!”
“well, you need to play festivals! The path to greatness can be found on a urine-soaked former military base!”
“well, you need to build a team! The path to greatness cannot be achieved alone!”
And so on. These are all great outlets – production, social media, licensing, radio, festival plays, working with professionals. And they are effective, if the songs are good.
It’s about songs. Gotta have ‘em.
Without songs, you’re simply weaving the Emperor’s new clothes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor%27s_New_Clothes#Plot
“Bullshit!” you cry. And then you start telling what I call The Industry Lies: “My songs are great, they must be great, they were produced by So-and-So, and have received airplay on 46 college radio stations and I have 20K likes on Faceblast and have been synched to a Russian dog food commercial!… Plus my Mom played them for everyone at Thanksgiving last year!”
The Industry Lies are what we tell ourselves to avoid doing the actual hard work of digging in on songwriting. The ugly truth behind The Industry Lies is simple – no matter how successful an artist is, they will always have to write more songs. New songs. “Better” songs. Every relevant artist career is built around songs. Hell, relevant careers have been built around one song. All you need is one. Well, to start anyway.
The Industry Lies prevent artists from being honest with themselves. And that is tragic, because sometimes great artists become stuck with bad material – material that isn’t exciting the audience they actually seek. Fans. Real fans who are singing their jams back to them at a show. Loudly. Often times The Industry Lies prevent an artist from examining their material.
IMPORTANT: there is another set of The Industry Lies that suggest to artists that they have to sell a million records in order to be viewed as successful. Sometimes when you strip away that set of The Industry Lies, an artist can find happiness and satisfaction within what they’ve created for themselves. Most artists don’t sell a million copies of anything. Ever. Are they all miserable?
The Industry Lies exist to protect the ego, which is always searching for sources of doubt and blame, and then ways to pacify and rationalize that doubt and blame. The doubt and blame can persist even when success has been found.
The Industry Lies become easier to ignore if an artist is willing to be honest with themselves, and possibly let go of their blame and doubt. But then what?
Then, you have to write. Always.
In 2011 I had the good fortune of sitting on a songwriting panel with Eddie Brigati of The Rascals, and he likened songwriting to pizza making. Every day, you gotta make pizzas. You have to do it daily in order to have a chance to become great at it. Eddie’s been writing songs since The Rascals had a hit in the late 60s. He didn’t stop when the band found success. He didn’t stop when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997. Every day, another pizza.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book). So, then shouldn’t artists spend a great many hours writing an album that they’ll in the end, spend a great many hours trying to promote?
Frank Harte said “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.” That may be true, and I would add that if a songwriter doesn’t spend enough time writing the songs then it may be the songwriter who suffers alone.
It’s about songs. Great songs. Hit songs. Without songs, an artist finds themselves in the parade, flapping in the breeze in a coat made of The Industry Lies.