The Hardest Question of All

by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2003
Once you figure out that you want to be a songwriter, the hard questions start:
            .....and the list goes on -- ad infinitum.
Most of these questions fill my inbox every day, and I try to give at least somewhat intelligent answers to each of them. But there is one question that very few songwriters ask themselves, and one which -- in my opinion -- may be the most difficult and most important of all. Here it is:
Why would listeners choose to buy my CD or come to my gig over the thousands of other similar CD's and concerts available to them?
On the surface this may appear to be a harsh and almost cynical question. You know you have talent and that your songs and/or performances are as good as -- or better than -- the songs you hear on the radio. But there's the rub! Even if you are equal to the best artists and writers in your style of music, why would consumers choose you, an unknown, over established, major label artists? And remember...it is the all-important consumer who determines which artists and writers will become household names!

Think of it this way: You may have a child who is brilliant in school, beautiful to look at, popular with her peers and talented in sports, music and art. But even though she is certainly way above average and the most special kid in the world to you, think about how many other children there are in cities and towns across the country who have similar skills and talents. Even though your kid may be gifted and wonderful and an all-round great person in many respects, chances are she will never make the evening news or have national name recognition -- unless people begin to associate her with some unique attribute that sets her apart.

The other night on the evening news, there was a story about a brilliant young student at the University of Chicago Medical School. There are, no doubt, many young and brilliant such students in medical schools all around the country. What got this kid on the evening news? The fact that he is not only young -- but very young! He is twelve years old! He began writing his own songs at age three...began scoring them at age four...graduated from college at age nine...and in addition to being a med student, he is now also a virtuoso pianist. Now that's unique!

But uniqueness doesn't necessarily mean genius! It just means different! This morning I saw a story about a man who fell off a ladder while using a drill with an 18-inch bit. The x-rays showed that the drill bit had gone through his right eye, had missed his brain by fractions of millimeters and exited the back of his head with no other damage to his brain or spinal cord. Amazing! Even more amazing to me, however, was the fact that only a couple of days ago, this guy was just another working man on just another building project like tens of thousands of others around the country. He may have been very good at his job -- perhaps even the best in his industry. But today he was on Good Morning America -- why? Because something unique had happened that set him apart. From this point forward -- like it or not -- this man will be known by his unique relationship with an 18-inch drill bit.

The above examples are a bit extreme to say the least, but I hope they illustrate what I am attempting to communicate. In my songwriting seminars I talk about developing your unique shtick! By that I simply mean, capitalizing on the distinct and special qualities that make you, YOU. You are a one-of-a-kind songwriter. No one else has your voice, your appearance or your perspective on life. You are a combination of specific heredity and life experiences that have brought you to this point in time and which shape and color the music you create. You hold within yourself the potential to design your own destiny with your own unique attributes -- attributes which can set you apart from the thousands of other artists in your genre and age group. The key to this destiny, however, is to know yourself and your gifts so well that you can capitalize on your strengths and minimize your limitations.

As a songwriter and music publisher, I subscribe to several industry "tip sheets." These are monthly publications which list producers and artists who are about to record a CD and are looking for original songs. Many of the artists listed in these tip sheets are new and relatively unknown, so the listing may describe the style of music being solicited by saying something like…. "Send ballads à la Celine Dion." Now, I understand that this is meant to be helpful because we all know the kinds of ballads Celine Dion has made famous and the description will help us as songwriters to pitch the required style to the artist. However, I always chuckle to myself when I see the "à la" listings because the reality is that the world already has one very wonderful Celine Dion. Why would anyone want to buy a recording by the "à la" artist when they can have Celine herself?

Now, please understand that I am certainly not trying to encourage you to be so different that you become weird or even eccentric. If you hope to succeed as a commercial songwriter on national level artist, you will have to learn the skill set that every other successful writer or artist has had to learn. As a songwriter you will have to know things like song form, hook placement, lyrical cadence, melody development, and rhyme patterns. As an artist you will have to become expert at breath and pitch control, stage presence, dance moves. These are the essentials -- the prerequisites for anyone who hopes to succeed in music. However, they are not enough! Above and beyond these basic essentials there must be something unique -- something singular and identifiable as your own "claim to fame."

So the next question must be, "How do you find your unique shtick?" The answer is really, "Any way you can!" Remember, it doesn't have to be something as dramatic as a 12-year-old medical student or a construction worker with a drill bit through his head. It could be something very simple... but it must be memorable and striking.

Let me illustrate. For several years I have watched the developing talent of a young pop singer from Houston, TX. I first met her when she was barely thirteen. She is gorgeous...has a wonderful voice... is an emerging songwriter and is poised and personable. Great qualities, but not enough! There are literally thousands of other young artists with relatively the same artistic resume. As I have watched this young lady develop her talents, I have wondered if she would ever really "make it" as an artist in the cutthroat world of music. A couple of weeks ago, however, I attended a showcase in which she was performing. In the middle of one of her numbers, she reached behind her and grabbed something from a stool that was standing at the edge of the stage. And before you knew it, she was playing a chorus of her song on a harmonica! Voilà! This was her unique shtick!

After the performance, I hurried to congratulate her and to encourage her to keep learning to play the harmonica! Why? Because not many (if any) female pop stars today know how to play the harmonica. If played well, this simple little instrument could be just the edge she needs to become unique! If people say, "Hey! That's the chick that plays killer harmonica," she will have given herself an amazing advantage in the race for fame.

No one knows your strengths and weaknesses like you do! If you haven't seriously made a searching inventory of your musical gifts, it's high time that you get busy! Don't overlook anything. Any talent or resource you have -- whether it is related to music or not -- is an asset you cannot afford to discount. If you find it difficult to be objective about your strengths and talents, ask someone more objective to help you. Make a list of all your skills -- musical and non-musical. Then begin to think "outside the box" and create a persona that is distinctly your own. If you are a songwriter, develop a certain sound...or message...or musical identity that will set you apart. If you are an artist, find some unique attribute, skill or quality that will put you in a class by yourself...a shtick that millions of other people will want to know about. Your unique identity may be right under your nose!

Of course, when you develop something new and different, you will have your dues to pay. Firstcomers have to be trailblazers and will always have a difficult time convincing the don't-rock-the-boat mentality of the music industry that "different can be better." But, in the end, firstcomers are the ones who become the household names of the future -- the ones that others will want to clone.

It's time to ask the hardest question of all and to come up with your own, one-of-a-kind answer!

**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 the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®. You can visit her website at: www.cqkmusic.com. You can reach Mary by email.

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