David La Motte and Michael Alan are performing singer songwriters who share their experiences and insights about the hard work required to earning a livelihood as a solo singer songwriter in the music business. It seems every day is filled with frequent questions and emails from aspiring songwriters from all around the country who want to know how to get started as a singer songwriter. The interest of song writing is on an upsurge of popularity as noticed by book sales and courses offered on the subject.
Clarification: The first question David and Michael would ask when folks approach them with a myriad of questions is, "Do you mean getting started as a songwriter, or getting started as a playing musician for a living?" The two activities are very different from each other and the first should come before the second, both chronologically and in terms of importance. Serious songwriters believe that a well crafted song, a harmonious blend of music and poetic lyrics, can change the world by influencing the way we think about each other. The emotional input involved with delicately crafting words and music together can help heal a wounded heart and may even help in the healing of others who feel sorrow. This could only be considered a sacred thing and worth pursuing.
However; making money with music, especially as a singer of original songs, is altogether another issue which leads us to consider many other important questions. In today's music environment, only a hand full of songwriters earn a steady livelihood as published songwriters. The stream of income - royalties - which a songwriter relies on, is an extremely delicate subject of negotiation and are forever under the scrutiny of the music industry.
The Art of Songwriting: Where do ideas come from? Where does inspiration come from? For time tested songwriters, the hard part isn't having ideas for songs, but keeping track of them long enough to scribble them down into a personal journal and coming back to them later. The process of taking a raw idea which may be a series of words and phrases will require much attention and rewriting to eventually develop the making of a suitable song. There are many ways to approach song writing and just about every songwriter does it a little differently.
Warming Up: Free Writes: In her excellent book "The Artist's Way," Julia Cameron notes that runners warm up every day. No serious runner goes out for a run and blows off the warm up because they warmed up yesterday. Lyric writing and song writing, she argues, is no different.
Julia recommends that every writer fill three blank pages in a notebook every morning. This is not writing, with all the baggage that comes with it. It's just a warm up drill. The warm up writing does not need to be compelling, well-reasoned or insightful. It doesn't even have to be in complete sentences. In fact, Julia specifically forbids us to read any of our "morning pages," as she calls them, for the first few weeks that we're writing them. The only rule with "morning pages" is that you can't let the pen stop moving.
One caution, though; don't be disappointed if you're not swimming in song ideas at the end of this. Most of you will find that for the rest of the day you'll be in the creative side of your head, and this is the whole point of the discipline. Remember this is practice, no different than the piano. Keep the daily activity going and see if the seeds take root.
Music as a vocation: Should I quit my day job? The word "vocation" literally means "calling." In order to play music as your job, I think you have to feel some sense that this is what you are supposed to do with your life. Otherwise it makes no sense. Long hours and hard work and lots of time away from family and friends balance against... well, very little money.
On the other hand, if you stick with it long enough and work hard and things go well, you may get to see a lot of interesting people and visit some amazing places as part of your work. And if you're really lucky, you might get to touch upon people's hearts. It's incredibly rewarding to get a note from someone telling you that your song intersected their lives at a point when they needed it. Some songwriters, published and non-published, who perform on a regular basis have been able to support themselves with their music, which is a privilege, though not without its sacrifices.
An important point about the "day job" question is that there is no superiority implied by not having one. Some of the best songwriters work construction, wait tables, and wash dishes. There's no shame in earning a steady paycheck. One traveling musician has a scissors sharpening business. He contracts with local hairdressers in towns where he is booked and sharpens scissors with fancy laser tools in the daytime and he performs in the evenings. It's been said that Mary Chapin Carpenter didn't quit her secretarial work in DC until after her first Grammy award.
The most foolish thing that someone can do if they're trying to get a music career going is to quit their day job too soon. The time to quit is when you've got no time to do it, and there's enough money coming in from your performances to support yourself.
The simple rule is to consider your music, songwriting, your primary job and work at another one in order to support it until the music is eating all of your time and paying you enough to let your second job go. If you quit your day job so you have time to work on music, you're likely to be short on the money you'll need to get your career started (You'll need to make demos, print press kits, shoot and duplicate photos, send out postcards, etc., but this comes later). Good luck with the journey.
Re-write Editor: Michael Alan.
David LaMotte has released eight albums and performed over sixteen hundred shows in forty-five states and ten countries, sharing stages along the way with artists like Arlo Guthrie, Shawn Mullins, Buddy Miles, Gillian Welch, John Gorka, Jez Lowe and David Wilcox.
LaMotte's current studio record, "Spin", takes his writing and his sound to new levels.
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