Do It Yourself Music Publishing Part 1by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, April 1999
Developing Yourself as a Songwriter Even if You Don't Have A Publisher
So, you say you are a songwriter and you have written some pretty good songs, but you live in Boondocks, Montana -- nowhere near a major music city like Nashville, New York or L.A. You don't even know a music publisher. Are you doomed to obscurity or is there a way you can actually "get somewhere" as a songwriter?
The answer to these questions largely depends on how willing you are to stretch and to grow in this craft and business of songwriting. With hard work it is certainly possible to develop and to succeed without the help of a music publisher. In fact, you can become your own publisher. To find out how, read on.
What exactly does a music publisher do? Perhaps the simplest definition is that a music publisher seeks to maximize the circulation, the impact and the financial profitability of songs and to coach and mentor promising writers.
In other words, a music publisher brings two basic ingredients to the table which should aid the individual songwriter to further his/her career potential. The first "hat" the music publisher wears is that of song promoter. Since the publisher's entire business is music, the publishing company will have a wealth of contacts and experience that should expand the possibilities for song through media such as print, recording, video, radio and television airplay and even foreign subpublishing. A knowledgeable and energetic music publisher who "believes in a song" can be of invaluable help in getting it to the world.
The other "hat" the music publisher wears is that of coach and mentor. Songwriters who write exclusively for a certain music publishing company (staff songwriters) have a great advantage in that they have personal access to the expertise of the publisher for feedback on the songs they are creating. The publisher may also arrange for a writer to collaborate with other writers who are stronger in certain aspects of the craft, thereby offering a "cross-training" advantage in the development of the writer's talent. Good publishers -- like good coaches -- can pull the maximum from those they mentor.
So, back to Boondocks, Montana. You still don't have a publisher. What do you do? In a nutshell you have to wear both hats of the publisher yourself. The first hat -- that of promoting your material -- is a long and slow process that will require lots of trial and error and learning from others. Perhaps in later articles we can address some of the ingredients that go into that function of the publisher. The second hat, however -- the hat of the coach/mentor -- can begin today. You, the songwriter, can actually become your own coach and learn how to pull out of yourself your maximum writing potential. What are some down-to-earth steps that you can implement immediately?
The first thing any serious songwriter can begin to do is READ. Some Saturday afternoon take a leisurely trip to your local book seller, grab yourself a cappucino and browse through the many wonderful books on songwriting in the music section.
Develop a Reading Program. For instance, you may set as your objective for the year to read twelve books -- one a month. Now, if even half of those books are on the subject of songwriting, you will have digested six books in a year on a topic that is very important to you....and you can get a pretty good entry level education in the course of six books!
You may design your reading program around writing skills or information that you particularly want to develop or polish, but here are a few standards I would suggest to get you started:
This Business of Music -- Shemel and Krasilovsky (Billboard Books)
The Craft of Lyric Writing -- Sheila Davis (Writer's Digest Books)
If They Ask You, You Can Write a Song -- Kasha & Hirschhorn (Fireside.Simon & Shuster)
Writing Music For Hit Songs -- Jai Josefs (Schirmer Books)
The Synonym Finder -- J.I. Rodale (Rodale Press)
The Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary -- Jane Shaw Whitfield (Wilshire Book Company)
No matter how gifted you may be as a musician or lyricist, you can ALWAYS improve if you are willing to stretch yourself by reading!
Exercise for Excellence
As mentioned above, publishers often set songwriters up to collaborate with other more experienced writers to help them learn and develop their gifts. You can do virtually the same thing for yourself -- here's how.
Compile a list of 8-10 classic "hit songs" such as those written by Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, the Beatles etc. Then start "collaborating" with these great writers by using the following method.
First throw out the lyrics of one of these songs, and write your own to the existing great music. Then reverse the process -- keep the lyrics and write your own music. Force yourself not to take any liberties with either the music or lyric counterpart, but rather adhere to the guidelines and techniques your "collaborator" used.
Of course, you are aware that you cannot legally replace either the words or music of any song that has been copyrighted. But once you have written a new set of words or music to the "template" that exists in the song, you may fill in the other part, and you will have your own complete new song. You will also have learned volumes.
Learn to Listen to the Radio
Every songwriter has at his fingertips a literal University of Songwriting in the simple electronic device known as the radio. Songs of every style float through the airways and are accessible to every writer who wants to learn -- even to those on the backside of Nowhere. Grammy Award winning songwriter, Diane Warren, says that her greatest teacher in the craft of songwriting was -- and is -- the radio.
But there is a catch! You can't just "veg out" and listen for sheer enjoyment. Train yourself to listen critically. What kind of song is this? Does it have a chorus? How do the music and lyric writers "set up" the chorus to make it pay off? What musical sequences, modulations and techniques are used?
After you have heard a hit on the radio, try picking it out on your instrument. Find the chords. Try writing a new melody to that song's basic chord progression. You are now in Songwriting University!
Push yourself a little! Don't just listen to songs in genres you naturally enjoy. I recommend that every button on your car radio be set to a different style of music -- Country, R&B, Pop, Alternative, Rock, Jazz, Classical, Christian Contemporary etc. As you "station surf" in your car, listen and learn from the greats in every genre. Some songs will be in genres you don't naturally care for, but if they have sold tens of thousands of copies, there is probably something you can learn from them!
So, there you are, still in Boondocks, but you are now starting to "get somewhere," even if you don't have a publiisher. There is no way that you can follow the above suggestions and NOT improve as a songwriter. And the more you improve, the more difficult it will be to "hide your light under a bushel." Eventually...somehow...some way...excellence finds a way of rising to the surface.
The ball is really in your court. How hungry are you to be a great songwriter?
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.