Reflections on How I Got Started as a Songwriter

Recently, a student of mine at Berkleemusic.com asked if I’d answer some questions about my day to day and past experience working in the music industry.  I thought it would make a good topic for discussion in a blog, and perhaps illuminate some ways you might find your own industry doors opening.

 

Q: What is your name?

A:  Andrea Stolpe
Q: What is your job and how long have you been doing it?
A: My job is diverse.  Sometimes I am a writer, sometimes a producer, sometimes a recording artist, sometimes a publisher, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a clinician, and sometimes a song coach.  I began my career in the music industry 15 years ago.

 

Q: How would you describe the main features of this position?

A: I am first and foremost an entrepreneur.  I am responsible for deciding which projects to take, what performance opportunities to go after, where to put my time and who to spend it with.  Even as I worked as a staff writer for various publishing companies, the direction of my career was my responsibility.  I had to pitch my songs, network heavily, and stay creative all at the same time.  This has been incredibly difficult at times, and I have relied on the expertise of others such as publishers and producers and engineers and other writers to refine the goals I have for my career.  I also believe that luck plays an important role in this business, and so I’ve done a good job if I do the best I can to clarify what I want and then design a plan that puts those goals within reasonable reach.
Q: How many hours per week do you work?
A: I’d estimate I work 60-80 hours a week.  That includes going out to shows and networking, lunches with co-writers, traveling to and from teaching seminars, etc.  More of these hours are spent listening, networking and planning and marketing than are spent creatively writing.

 

 

Q: How flexible are the hours?

A:  Extremely, and also not at all.  Much of the time I make my own schedule.  However, sometimes an artist comes into town and has 4 days to write the record.  I get called in to write to the tracks, and I’m tied up in the studio writing until we get it right.  Many times when it rains it pours.  Other times there are droughts, and I’ll shift gears to writing for myself, going out to shows, etc, which is entirely flexible.

 

Q: How would you rate job satisfaction?
A: I am satisfied with how my job has grown over the years.  As solely a writer for a publishing company, I had a difficult time finding the ability to be creative on a constant basis.  I had trouble letting the music go, just letting it be and going on vacation or just taking a break for a cup of coffee.  Writing all the time was such an inward experience, almost maddening at times.  Conflicted with trying to write good songs and yet trying to be prolific for a publisher, I felt I rarely found the balance between those two seemingly opposing forces.  Now, teaching and being a part of performances that are not my own, as well as writing books and conducting clinics gives my mind outlets.  I enjoy the conversation about songwriting that others bring, and I enjoy music as a contributor of happiness to my life.

 

 

Q: How did you get started?

A: I got started as a staff writer with EMI Music Publishing in Nashville, TN.  After moving to Nashville just out of college, I got a job working through a staffing agency in a small non-profit.  I worked as fast as I could, so that I could leave the office early in the afternoon to attend any industry get-togethers or co-writing appointments, or simply to go home and write.  I visited my contacts as ASCAP and BMI monthly with new song material, and went regularly to NSAI until I built up my network of contacts.  I went out to shows and selected writers whose songs I enjoyed, meeting them after the show to find out where they were playing next and if they had any advice for me.  After awhile, my network grew to an extent that I was writing with other signed writers, and therefore gaining access to publishers.
Q: Can you point to the previous jobs in the career path?
A: I was advised early on in my writing career to work a day job outside the industry.  This was a hard decision back then, since my intent was to get involved any way I could with anyone involved in music.  It turned out to be great advice, however, since when I did interact with musicians, it was purely as a songwriter and musician rather than as a paper shuffler or coffee runner.

 

Q: What jobs would typically be next for some one in your Position?

A: There isn’t a typical, and there isn’t a hierarchy.  Moving up may always be the opportunity to work on the projects of my choice, the projects that involve the music and message I’d like to be part of.  Every day I make choices to create the music I want to create, or to make the bank I need to make.  Sometimes both are satisfied in the same project, sometimes not.  Constantly assessing where I’m at and my needs and interests helps to determine which opportunities are right at different times.
Q: How important have the people you know in the industry been to advancing your career path? Can you give an example?
A:  I am nowhere if not for the people I have known in the industry.  Networking has been the single most important job of my career, and is more important today than it has ever been.  Constantly staying in the minds of others takes a lot of dedication in the form of emailing, calling, and physically appearing in places music is made and performed.  Much more of my job is spent with these activities than creating music.

 

 

Q: Can you make a full time living from this job?
A:  Yes, as long as I am willing to do a variety of jobs.  As I stated earlier, I am a teacher, a performer, a songwriter, and author.  All these work together to generate income and to generate more opportunity.

 

Q: What is the best aspect of the job you do?

A:  I enjoy the flexibility of my job.  I enjoy being my own boss, and the fact that if I want to see a new project happen, I can create the platform to see it through.  If I see the need for a new book, I can carve out time to fulfill that need, for example.  Family has become more important to me in recent years, and so I’ve been able to adapt my schedule and my goals to those personal changes.

 
Q: What is the worst aspect of the job you do?

A: Honestly, the worst aspect is getting used to the idea that most of the songs I write will never go anywhere.  It’s natural to disengage from the songs I write with the attitude that they won’t be heard, and this then completely stifles creativity and makes me lose sight of why I write in the first place.  The challenge risking enough emotionally to connect with and care about each song I write, while weathering the disappointment of each song not being recorded.  This has become easier as the years have gone on.  I’m more settled in my spirit, more clear as to why I write and how it feeds my soul.
Q: How much do new and emerging technologies affect your Work?

A: As a teacher, new technologies such as conferencing and its various applications enable new learning strategies.  As a writer, I am privy to many conversations between engineers and producers, as well as studio players, and my experience in the studio helps me to connect with people doing these technology dependent jobs.  Technology allows me to become more structured and organized, particularly when it comes to mailing lists and sending emails.  Sometimes I think that technology has complicated my life as much as it has streamlined it, adding the work of internet marketing.
Q: Are there any current issues that concern you in this? Industry?

A: The internet offers so many opportunities to market oneself, that it’s very difficult to know where to start and where to focus available time.  Home-based studios has made recording affordable, so affordable that the average musician can now produce and mix his own project, narrowing the market for professional recording.  The market is over-saturated with mediocre music, which makes high quality music more difficult to find.  The independent artist has never had more control and more potential, however, and that freedom from the limits of record labels allows artists who never would have seen the light of day to emerge.  The question I ponder often is whether the average listener is attuned to the difference between mediocre quality producing and writing, and higher quality producing and writing.  At the point where art is refined to the degree of professionalism musicians who have been in the industry for decades strive for, the average listener may be lost.  In other words, at that point, perhaps musicians are making music for other musicians.
Q: Do any Laws or Regulations affect the way you work? How do you find out about them?

A: As a member of the Association of Independent Music Publishers, AIMP, I find out about regulations that are important to songwriters and publishers and labels.  Conversations with other co-writers is also how I stay current.  I am not involved in being a voice for legislation changes.
Q: Did you undertake any training or courses for your job and can you recommend any for people starting in this business?

A: I went to Berklee College for music, and majored in songwriting.  Then I went to Nashville for what I call my ‘graduate work’ in songwriting.  I am constantly training as I write with other writers.  At this stage, staying active in the industry is my training, and performing and writing are my daily practice.  I wish I had more time to practice my instrument, and play with others who are more accomplished on their instrument.  That, for me, would be the next step of training I’d like to have.
Q: what advice would you give someone looking to become a lyricist

only?

A: Network.  Go out to shows and connect with other writers whose music you love.  Introduce yourself as a lyric writer, and continue to attend their shows until you build a relationship in which you can ask to work together with them.  Get some simple demos done with a singer you think expresses your songs well.  Don’t wait until you get perfect songs written, but start with what you have and record.  Record simple demos, cheaply, so that you can keep recording new songs on a regular basis.  Networking is everything, and for the lyricist, you’ve got a special and much needed skill.  Begin to view yourself as an asset to other musicians, since lyric is often a weak area that other musicians feel uncomfortable or uncertain about.

Choosing A Theme

One of the hardest questions we writers can ask each time we sit down to write a song is, “what should I write about?”  It seems almost ridiculous, with there being so many experiences, events, ideas, beliefs, values, hopes, discouragements, struggles, etc. to write about.  After all, no-one is more equipped to write about our own experiences than us, and no-one else can give the song the personal perspective we can.

 

I think the real question lying behind the question ‘How do I come up with themes to write a song?’ is ‘How do I narrow down my ideas to write one, singular and strong theme?’

 

When I’m staring at an empty page and coming up blank, it is not usually a lack of ideas that prevents me from putting pen to paper.  It’s that I am grazing the surface of so many choices that no one choice seems worthy enough to follow.  To combat this problem, there are a few things we can do.

 

First, we can start a daily journal using Object Writing and Destination Writing.  With this kind of writing, we’re coming in through the back door of an idea.  We’re letting our journaling lead our creative minds to ideas that are worthy of songs, instead of starting with the idea and trying to conjure up angles that make that idea really shine.  By choosing an object at random as we do with Object Writing, the pressure is off to start with anything remarkable.  The same is true for Destination Writing, where we start with a person or a place as our topic.  Then, we just write for a few minutes using sensory language, letting the ideas flow where they will.  For more detail on Object Writing and Destination Writing, see Writing Better Lyrics and Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling.  These types of journaling are the currents running through the two songwriting courses, Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies andCommercial Songwriting Techniques.

 

Other ways we can hone in on a song theme is by starting with a title.  Instead of choosing such a broad theme like ‘love’, or ‘letting go’ or ‘schooldays’, we can make a quick list of words associated with a broad theme and let it take us to title phrases.  For instance, with ‘schooldays’ I might list the first nouns, verbs, and adjectives that come to mind:

 

Tardy

bell

bus

note from the doctor

homeroom

homework

empty locker

gossip

bag lunch

milk money

ring

teenager

golden days

naive

having fun

football games

 

 

As I’m making this list, experiences I had come to mind.  I remember what it was like to walk into a classroom of faces I don’t know.  I remember eating the same bag lunch 5 days a week, sitting with a group of friends, counting down the 30 minute break like waiting for execution.  I remember some things vividly, and they all paint a picture of how I perceived that time in my life.  Now, if I step back and sum up how I think and feel about that experience in just one statement, it might be:

 

Though my schooldays were doused with excitement and spiked with horror, I will always keep them close to my heart, as the time I was learning to be me.

 

Looking back over that list of words and my simple statement here, there are more specific song directions emerging.  If this tune were uptempo, it might be a light and fond look at those schooldays now that I’m an adult.  If it’s a slow, melancholy tempo, it might be a look at how I’ve changed since those days, learned hard lessons from those days, or perhaps need to recapture something I’ve lost since those days.  As a country tune for a male vocalist, maybe the idea is about my rebellion during that time of my life and the feeling I could carry on like that forever.  As a female country vocal, perhaps the tune is a bittersweet remembrance of a coming of age.

 

Setting the theme in context of a specific genre can help to narrow the idea.  With this process, we’re going with what our gut knows is typical of that genre, and what fans of that genre are accustomed to.  Of course, we can certainly push the limits of a genre, providing we’re still relevant to the fans who listen.

 

As I hoped to clearly express in my book, Popular Lyric Writing: 10 Steps to Effective Storytelling, what makes our songs unique is our perspective.  In songs in which the lyric takes a major role, ‘what’ we write about isn’t nearly as important as ‘how’ we write it.  We can all write a love song, but what makes that love song believable and heartfelt are the details each of us brings based on our personal perspectives.  So write your next song boldly, and infuse it with experiences that matter to you.  And when you don’t know what to write about, ask yourself if you’re getting specific enough.  Choose a major theme, and think of a time in your life when that theme became real for you.

 

 

Happy writing,

Andrea Stolpe

Breaking Old Habits of Harmony

If you’re writing a few times a week, you’re speeding down the path to better songs that more clearly express who you are as an artist.  Along the path are inevitable pit-stops where strings of songs reflect the same stage in your musical and lyrical development and writing process.  Sometimes we get stalled in these stages and find ourselves unable to move past them.  When this happens to me, I go back to my toolbox, the big box of songwriting techniques that enable me to throw my song against the wall and see if it sticks.  I’ll critique my own song, taking a look at the lyric content, rhyme, conversational quality, title placement, overall structure, the melodic shape, phrasing, note lengths, the harmonic progression and frequency of chords, etc.  As I break the tune down into these elements, I often start to see similarities.

 

Perhaps I notice that several of my latest tunes use the same melodic shape, or the phrasing of the verses are all 4 lines followed by 4 more lines.  Maybe I’m stuck on starting on the root chord or using the same melodic intervals.  The antidote is to start implementing the opposite tools.  Instead of starting on the root chord, I try starting on the 4th or 5th.  Instead of large melodic intervals, I try small intervals or just staying on 1 note.

 

Recently a student asked for some ideas for getting out of harmonic ruts.  Below are some of my tools, but add your own as you confront pit-stops in your own writing.

 

1.  As I described above, notice how often you start your verse or chorus on the root chord.  If this is typical of your harmonic movement, try starting on the ii-, iii-, IV, V, or vi- instead.  Listen carefully to how your instincts tell you to alter your melody based on those changes.

 

2.  Notice how many times you change chords in each section.  Is it once per measure, twice, or every two measures?  Change up the harmonic rhythm by changing chords more or less frequently than you typically do.

 

3.  Simplify.  Movement in both the melody and harmony all the time doesn’t automatically make a song better or more interesting.  Try writing a verse over a 1 chord groove.

 

4.  Avoid the root until the chorus.  This technique not only changes your starting point, but helps to keep the tension taught until releasing it in the chorus when you do play the root.  The root chord offers that great feeling of ‘coming home’, returning to the tonal center of the song.

 

5.  Change the bass shape.  Try descending or ascending the scale, moving up or down by whole steps or half steps.  Notice how often you change chords, and then increase or decrease that frequency for more ideas.

 

6.  Change the tempo and the time signature.  If you consistently write in 4/4, try 6/8 or ¾.  Notice your typical tempos, and significantly slow down or speed up for new ideas.

 

7.  Learn a new rhythm on your instrument.  If you’re a piano player, try playing quarter notes in the bass, or half notes, or arpeggios.  If you’re a guitar player, try a new groove and write the whole first verse or chorus over that single 1 or 2 bar groove.

 

8.  If you play an instrument, put it down or switch to an instrument you’re not familiar with.  Try a drop D guitar tuning, try a capo on the 6th or 7th fret and turn your guitar into a mandolin.  If you don’t play an instrument, pick one up and sing a melody over a 1 or 2 note bass-line in your left hand.

 

9.  Pick up a CD you haven’t listened to in awhile.  Pick a tune at random and play the intro and stop just before the verse starts.  Try writing the rest of the song using the intro as a guide for tempo, rhythm, and chord progression.  You can always go back later and substitute a chord or two of your own to bring the harmonic progression further away from the original.

 

10.  Go out and buy 5 new records.  Sometimes just funneling new music into our heads inspires the growth we need to move on from a plateau.