Cowrite a Better Song
The landscape of the music industry, though constantly changing, remains steady on several key ingredients that consistently produce the songs we hear every day. Reversing the steps from songwriting to radio-ready, one element we tend to see commonly is the collaboration of several songwriters. While there is no concrete outline to achieve a successful chemistry in this type of writing, there are a number of things a solo writer will want to take into account before setting out to broaden the scope of possibilities as a co-writer. There are also, certainly, some consistent measures that should be adhered to every single time this opportunity presents itself. Hopefully, this article will be of help to the writer seeking to make the move into collaborative songwriting. There are many resources for the business of co-writing available online. I recommend that you research those, specifically with the Performing Rights Organizations (PROs). A future article might deal specifically with some of that, but I just want to help you get your feet wet in the ocean of opportunities that exist in co-writing… if you have not ever taken that plunge.
I have had the pleasure of co-writing with many published, independent, on-the-verge and successful hit-makers since my arrival in Music City in 1997. I was invited to Nashville as an artist, but it was the songwriting community that I fell in love with most. Writing has been my passion since the time I learned to play guitar as a teenager. It was validated by a Gospel song that I wrote solo (four years out of High School) and later recorded by award winning artist, Barbara Fairchild. I later asked my songwriting hero, Paul Overstreet, in a radio interview what he likes about co-writing. He simplified it by saying two people can have the same idea, but the angles in getting to the end result can vary and broaden our own. It is this unified effort that I have found over the years always rewarding, every single time, regardless of the outcome of the collaboration. However, therein lies a trust that solo writers must first be open to. Some collaborations are awkward, yes. Some seem unproductive, yes. Some surprise us, most certainly. But solo writers MUST be open to these ideas when considering a co-write:
- LEAVE YOUR EGO AND EXPECTATIONS AT THE DOOR.
This will be one of the toughest hurdles to navigate since it obviously takes two (or more) to collaborate. I tell people all the time that one of my greatest joys is the honor of co-writing with the writers who had hits on the radio when I was a kid. The industry has changed around them, just like the rest of us, but it’s not like they can no longer think. They often open a treasure chest of expanded ideas that contribute to my knowledge. With that said, there have been some that I did not write with again. It was not because I didn’t like them, or that I did not appreciate the opportunity or glean understanding, or even that I somehow thought we were not on the same page. Sometime we even had a great song in the end.
I believe we can all agree that egos are what make or break relationships. And, you will certainly taint the outcome of a co-write if you feel your ideas or lyrics are so concrete that the tug-of-war starts because you are not open to the basic point of a co-write: Create the best possible compilation of concise ideas in a thread of crafted lyrics WITH another writer.
- ALWAYS BE PROFESSIONAL.
This seems generic, and you would think most people “get it,” but I have seen the fall-out of great song potential due to amateur antics or “rabbit trails” that lead nowhere. The collaborative space should have all the personality and openness conducive to creation. The space should not be limited to a staunch, stoic atmosphere. It should also not be like trying to herd squirrels. The co-writers I work with in an on-going capacity have become friends. Like any healthy relationship, it has grown with time. We have laughed and had fun in the process. We have exposed our emotional vulnerabilities in those moments of deep writing communication. We have also disagreed agreeably, or sometimes not seen eye to eye, but have reached a compromise. Through the process of getting to know each others writing styles, patterns of thought, food/drink preferences, and any other revelation we encounter, we have earned respect because we have given it. (every single time).
- BRING YOUR A-GAME.
There is nothing more disappointing in a co-write session than songwriters who book time and then show up unprepared. At the very least, have several ideas to get the train of thought rolling; conversation starters, brain-storming. Have anything but mute silence or that deer-in-the-headlight look that indicates a train wreck ahead. This collaboration process allows you to revisit old ideas that had potential. Collectively, you can step outside the box of your comfort zone and write new ideas adventurously. This unique opportunity allows you to offer enlightenment and to be enlightened. Do not expect greatness if you are not contributing. If you are an amateur writing with a professional, soak up the knowledge and appreciate their processes. Do not allow a lack of confidence or “stupid ideas”, however, to hinder you from contributing. You will never have an A-Game if you don’t get off the sidelines. You do not try to be a co-writer, you train to be a co-writer. Keep in mind, established writers are not always going to turn over their best ideas for a song in a new collaboration. They have honed time-honored relationships with other great writers as well. This is why you build the relationship over time that produces growing collaborations of that caliber. If you are the one just stepping into co-writing, it is your responsibility to bring your best first. They are writing with you because we are all looking for fresh angles to the same ideas.
- ORGANIZE AND PRIORITIZE YOUR CATALOG.
This may seem like a “business” point, but it is also a creative way to catapult potentially great ideas into even greater outcomes. I continually have to look in the mirror on this bit of advice as well. When I reviewed about a five-year period of co-writes, and realized at that time that I had written with seventy-plus different writers, (not counting the multiple writes with some among those) I began to kick myself. There in the clammed up cluster of collaborations were pearls I had never brought to light; songs I had not finished or followed up on. While it is true that the best advice I ever got on songwriting is to “let it sit for awhile,” - make sure it’s still “great” later - that amount of time untouched revealed I had gotten so caught up in the process and enjoyment of the collaborative creativity that I was actually out-of-touch with my own catalog. Going into a co-write session with writers you are excited to write with (to have your most potentially rewarding ideas brought to life) will also be an opportunity to show where your catalog took root. These new collaborators can get a real taste of your personal style and thought process. Aside from the hit-makers, I have also worked with “newbie” artists/writers who didn’t even have much of a personal catalog and most certainly did not have an established co-writing repertoire. Taking on these opportunities is not at all a step back. I never go into those co-writes with any less hopes or desires to achieve solidarity on a great song, but it helps if they are organized in their thoughts or direction for a desired outcome on any given idea.
Roger Miller, the multi-hit “King of the Road” extraordinaire (from my neck of the woods, in Erick, OK) once quipped, “Did Picasso co-paint?” While there is absolutely some validity in the processes, styles, drives and focus that seemed to be enhanced when writing solo, I believe there is equally as much potential for a successful co-write. Who knows what Picasso could have collaborated on? The networking relationships and pitching possibilities also increase with a successful songwriting collaboration, which is an additional business benefit. Consider ways to broaden your song catalog and the diversity of genre pitches. As far as personal growth as a writer, taking a step in this direction and knowing some basic etiquette will help you with every opportunity. There will be some curved roads ahead, and you will have co-writing sessions that leave you lacking. Your growth as a songwriter is going to be equally and directly proportional to the amount of growth you reciprocate in the process.
Regardless of the many topics the music industry waffles back and forth on, if your passion is for the sake of a song, then building a broad, respected catalog will be one of the most successful and rewarding life statements you make. The greatest songs in this Music City “may not” have come to light yet, but how will we ever know if we don’t train continually to become better?