It was once the dirty little secret of the recording industry that many artists did not write their own music, but today consumers understand that behind a teen pop queen or platinum-selling group, there is often an unsung hero who receives only a brief mention in the fine print of the album’s credits.
Songwriters, in the traditional model of the recording industry, are artists for hire who work with producers and record labels to write material for a particular singer, rapper, or band. A single songwriter may work with an artist on a full album, or songs may be collected from a number of writers to fill a record. Perusing a label’s catalogue will usually reveal that a select stable of songwriters are favored and are contracted repeatedly to write for multiple artists signed to the same company. While the songwriting process may be seen as a solitary endeavor, at the professional level, the process is actually one of intense collaboration and constant revision. There are two basic methods of landing a tune on a record; the first is to sell or license a previously written composition for an artist to record. The second is to be hired to work with an artist to write original material.
Permanent and freelance employment opportunities exist with entertainment and media companies ranging from advertising agencies to theme parks, in which the songwriter is tasked with writing original music to fit a specific need. An example would be a jingle writer for radio and television commercials, or an individual who writes new material for stage show attractions. Similarly, lyricists or composers may work with live show producers to write songs for original stage productions, like musicals aimed at securing a run on Broadway or at a regional theater company. Songwriters who gain membership in a performing rights organization or who are represented by an agent can seek to make a living licensing original compositions for a number of additional purposes, like featuring previously unrecorded tunes in films and television shows. To this end, it is important that the songwriter develop strong professional relationships with music supervisors and independent song pluggers.
Skills & Education
A particular degree is not necessary for a successful career as a songwriter, though a formal education in recording arts, composition, or musicianship is beneficial. Since an artist must be capable of managing his or her own freelance career, courses in music business with an emphasis on copyright and licensing are valuable. Many songwriters are self-taught with no professional training, but it is expected that a songwriter be able to read sheet music, play at least one instrument, and have a natural talent for creative writing and artistic expression. College or university creative writing courses can be beneficial to developing your skill. It is of particular importance to gain training on recording equipment and software applications like Pro Tools in the effort to record and distribute demo material.
What to Expect
In any career path, a songwriter will need to seek representation through an agent. Most entertainment and media companies do not accept unsolicited material from individuals without the representation of a reputable agent, and a relationship with an artist agency is the most effective means of landing a paying gig. That being said, some songwriters do find success in sending demo material to advertising agencies that produce creative ads for entertainment and media companies, or in sending CDs to independent music supervisors and song pluggers. Songwriter showcases are one means of being discovered, but they are not a guarantee. Be cautious in entering these contests; not all such events are held by reputable companies. The Songwriters Guild of America supports published and unpublished songwriters with education, advocacy, and copyright administration, among other services. The guild is also a useful source of information concerning a songwriter’s rights to his or her intellectual and written property and for tips on negotiating contracts.
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