The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #4

by Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, May 2002
QUESTION 4: Will I Ever Be Able to Give Up My Day-Gig?

They have hundreds of daytime disguises! You can run into them anywhere and never even know you've met one. They masquerade as plumbers, lawyers, doctors, housewives and mechanics -- and while they seem to actually enjoy their daytime professions -- they really go to work each day to support a secret habit. Are they drug dealers? Aliens from another planet? Close...but not quite! They are SONGWRITERS! And their dream is to one day be able to do music full-time and still be able to do other things...like eat!

How realistic is the dream to become a full-time musician or songwriter? Is it possible only for the fortunate few who land a big publishing or recording contract? What does it take to do the music that burns in your heart and still survive financially?

It is my opinion that if your passion is to take your music beyond the hobby level into a full-blown, self-supporting career, it is entirely possible to do so, but it will require more than just dreaming about it. You will need a well-thought-out plan of action, a willingness to work hard and LOTS of creativity. In fact, you will need as much creativity to make a living with your music as it took to write your songs in the first place. Let's take a look at some bottom-line considerations that can bring your dream into the realm of possibility.

First of all, every aspiring singer, songwriter or musician must ask him/herself a tough bottom-line question:
Why would a listener choose to buy my CD or come to my concert over the thousands of other similar CD's and concerts available to them?

Most artistic types never even think about things like this. They become so absorbed in the creative aspects of songwriting and performing that their only goal is to finish the next CD or book the next engagement. When sales and concert attendance do not measure up to their expectations, they become discouraged and feel as if they have failed as an artist...so they drudgingly go back to their day gig.

But let's just think about the question realistically. Whatever genre of music you specialize in, there are literally thousands of other artists -- both established and aspiring -- who are recording and performing a similar style of music. Every genre also has its corresponding population of hard-core fans who love that kind of music and are very knowledgeable about the latest and best artists in the style. Since most people have limited funds to spend on buying music products or attending performances, they are usually quite selective in their choices. There has to be something that causes these all-important music consumers to select your performances and products over the many other possibilities in order for you to realistically sell enough tickets and CD's to do your music as a full-time career.

Let me suggest three things that can help to set you and your music apart:
  1. Excellence - Every day I receive emails from songwriters and artists all around the world who mistakenly think that the Music and Entertainment Industries offer a fast track to fame and fortune. Perhaps its because, in our minds, we associate the word entertainment with relaxation and recreation rather than with hard work. But as in many other similar skills, a lot of blood, sweat and tears lie behind what seems to be effortless artistry.

    Consider figure skaters who dazzle us on TV with their fluid and romantic choreography on ice -- twists, turns and jumps that seem to be completely spontaneous. And yet, we all know that if we were to glimpse behind-the-scenes, we would see athletes in strict and disciplined training -- enduring years of practice and many injuries to arrive at the liquid and natural movements we see when they compete. It takes determined effort and lots of training to make any skill seem easy!

    There is absolutely no substitute for excellence! Just as the cream always rises to the top of the milk, artists and writers who have worked hard to perfect and polish their talent will inevitably rise above the rest! It's not a matter of natural talent only because there are many very musically gifted people who never take the time or make the effort to turn their talent into a real skill! The difference between talent and skill is discipline -- discipline to learn and to practice your craft until you are as good as or better than the best. You can take it to the bank that music consumers are savvy enough to know a skilled craftsman from a wanna-be and they will purchase accordingly.

  2. Developing Your Unique "Schtick" -- Now I'm sure you are asking yourself, "What the heck kind of word is "schtick?" It simply means your total package -- all the unique attributes that make you, YOU!

    Every artist has a completely individual identity and style which have evolved out of his/her life history and musical background. You are as unique and one-of-a-kind as your fingerprint. No one has your exact voice, or appearance, or perspective on life. You are a composite of the specific and varied influences that have brought you to this point in your journey. You are a whole package of potential, but you have to know yourself and develop yourself accordingly.

    Too often I find that aspiring songwriters and artists are trying so hard to be like others in the industry, that they fail to develop the unique attributes that could set them apart. For example, I recently consulted with the father of a very talented fifteen-year-old artist who is attempting to break into Country Music. This young lady is a drop-dead gorgeous, 5' 10" knockout that has also won all kinds of awards as a jazz dancer. In consulting with a potential manager for his daughter, the father was told that if his daughter wanted to "make it" in Country Music, she would have to forget about her jazz dancing because the two art forms "just don't mix." My response is just the opposite! I say...what a package! A Country artist who can also wow her audiences with a phenomenal jazz dance! In fact, it just might be her ability to dance that will set this girl apart from the "mooing herd."

    And it's not other talents and skills that are part of the package! Your specific life experiences are also in the mix...difficult ones as well as the more pleasant ones. I frequently encounter songwriters who are running from painful memories rather than using them to write more universal and meaningful songs. Remember: the most common human emotion is NOT Love, but Pain. Use yours to reach out to others through your music.

  3. Develop Fresh Approaches to Marketing -- One of the greatest shockers for me as I entered the Music Industry was to realize that it is one of the LEAST creative industries in the world. I thought going into it that I would find innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers; but quite to the contrary, I discovered that most music execs are watching their competitors to see what is earning them money. Then, their strategy is to "do likewise." That's why when one label finally signs a child artist (as Curb Music did with LeAnn Rimes), you then have a whole series of younger and younger artists being signed by labels which -- pre-LeAnn -- were dead-set against the legal risks involved in signing kids!

    If you hope to make your living as an independent musician or songwriter, however, you will find it absolutely mandatory to be an out-of-the-box thinker when it comes to finding ways to finance your projects and distribute your CD's. If you are strictly a musician with no ideas about marketing, then find a friend who can think creatively and help you find the many resources that exist -- usually right under our noses!

    Consider the case of David Cline. David is a cowboy with a wonderful baritone voice. He's also a darn good songwriter. But David is 50+ -- well over the age limit for most record labels who are looking for new artists. He also lives in Texas where some of the greatest music in all genres originates, but a place that is not known to be a "music capitol." David wanted to record a CD, but he didn't have the money or the connections to finance it.

    But David is definitely an out-of-the-box thinker. He also made use of his unique schtick as a rancher and cowboy -- as well as a singer-songwriter. He went to all the retailers who sold him equipment and supplies for his ranch -- saddle manufacturers, feedstores, cowboy hat manufacturers etc. -- and asked them how they would like to sponsor his recording. In exchange for their donation, he would list them in the credits of the CD insert.

    The businessmen were thrilled! David was not only able to fund his recording, but after it was completed, all the sponsor businesses were delighted to sell his CD's in their stores. Because of the exposure he received from the sponsor companies, he began receiving radioplay and his songs charted in several Texas cities. He now has a killer website and is distributing recordings to retailers overseas. Creative marketing at its best!


I could tell you many more stories of creative, enterprising artists who are actually making so much money as independents that they prefer not to sign with a major label. Recording and manufacturing costs are much quicker and easier to recoup without the many "middlemen" at a record company that need to receive a salary from the sales of CD's. It truly is possible to make a very good living doing music full time. The key is in your creativity and willingness to work!

Perhaps one of the few "perks" that come with getting older than dirt is the fact that I can remember some pretty amazing products that have made millions for their creators. I always take courage in the fact that if it is possible to make a fortune marketing hula hoops...or the Pet Rock...or Chia Pets (for crying out loud), it has to be possible for a great songwriter or musician to make a living by creating great music! I don't recommend that you give up your day gig tomorrow, but I do give you permission to start thinking seriously about it!

**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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