tuning a guitar

How to start a songwriting career

By BBC Maestro

So, you want to be a songwriter. Maybe you’ve written a couple of songs and want to know how to take your songwriting career to the next level. Or maybe you’re starting at the very beginning and are wondering how to get started in the music business.

Wherever you are on your songwriting journey, here’s your guide to kickstarting a music career.

How can songwriters make money?

Firstly, can you make a career from songwriting? Of course, you can – but you shouldn’t expect it to be easy. Building a career in the music industry takes a lot of hard work, determination, thick skin and talent. But it is achievable.

There are several ways that you can turn songwriting into a career. The main avenues are:

  • Writing songs as a ‘work for hire songwriter’. This is when songwriters are paid a flat fee to write a song for another artist. That artist then receives the credit and royalties for the song every time it’s played.
  • Getting a publishing deal, where you’re contracted by a publishing company to write songs. You’ll usually be paid an advance and will get royalties when the songs are played.
  • Retaining ownership of your own songs. That means a songwriter gets the credit and the royalty payments.

All is not lost for those songwriters who choose to keep the ownership of their own songs, they too can still make a living. Here are some of the routes they can take:

  • Streaming royalties or digital mechanical royalties, where there’s a (small) pay-out when your songs are streamed on services like Spotify.
  • Album and song sales, both for physical and digital copies.
  • Performance royalties, when your song is played in public, for example in cafes, restaurants, on the radio or even at a karaoke night.
  • Sync licensing, which is when a fee is agreed for your song to be used in TV shows, films, adverts or video games.
  • Print royalties: if you’ve written sheet music that’s available to buy, you can get royalties on each purchase.
  • Playing live music and going on tour.
man writing a song

Do you need a record label as a songwriter?

In the past, it was necessary to get a record deal with a record label to get your music out there and become well-known as a songwriter. Today, though, there are so many ways to go down the DIY route so many people are choosing to be independent songwriters instead.

Many songwriters have found success by setting up their own label and going it alone, rather than enlisting the help of a big-name label. Ed Sheeran released nine EPs independently before he was signed by Atlantic Records, and Stormzy’s debut album was released without the backing of a major label.

There are benefits of signing to a label, though. They can help you to:

  • Reach a wider audience
  • Get TV and radio appearances
  • Land sync licensing deals
  • Ensure you get paid the royalties you’re due
  • Understand the international market
  • Develop your image

As a beginner songwriter, it might be hard to get the attention of a record label without any prior output. But you can easily put your music on platforms like Spotify without the backing of a label. And doing it independently may help you get noticed by record labels.

How to become a professional songwriter

 There’s no one set path for making a music career, but there are some key things you should do to increase your chances of success.

1. Train your ears

Good songwriters have good ears. They know how songs work, what notes and chords sound good together, and how they all fit together to make an amazing piece of music.

Gary Barlow explains in his BBC Maestro songwriting course, “there are two ways to train your ears. The first is to listen. The second is to get going. Get in there. Get that laptop open. Start making music. Start doing drum patterns. Start with keyboards. You’ve just got to get out there and just get on with it.”

Listen to songs and try to work out the chord progression. Play around with different notes and remember that you can find nuggets of gold even when you make mistakes. So don’t be afraid to just get stuck in there. The more you listen and experiment with music, the better trained your ears will become.

gary barlow at a piano

2. Write songs

This one goes hand-in-hand with training your ears. It might sound obvious, but it’s absolutely crucial that you practice, practice, practice.

Will you sit down and write a hit pop song straight away? In an ideal world maybe, but it’s more likely that it’s going to take you a long time to get to that place – and the only way to get there is by writing lots of songs and perfecting your art.

As Gary Barlow says, “anybody you’ve seen on your screen or in the charts, I can pretty much guarantee you that the fundamental thing, the key to how they’ve got to be there, is hard work. Simple hard work. Putting in the hours.”

It’s worth it though, he promises – “it’s a long road. It’s a long climb. But it’s great on those days when you feel like you’re starting to get somewhere.”

3. Get good recordings

Once you’ve got some solid songs under your belt, you’ll need to record them so you can get them out there in the world.

You can record an individual single, a mini-album (also known as an EP), or an album (also known as an LP). You can, of course, hire a recording studio but these can be quite expensive.

A cheaper option is to simply record your music at home using digital recording equipment. As Mark Ronson explains in BBC Maestro music production course, you don’t need much to get started – but there are a few key must-haves.

“If you want to produce your own music there are a few essential tools that would be needed in order to start; a computer, a digital audio workstation (DAW), and a set of speakers or headphones,” he says.

And, of course, if you plan to record music at home, it’s a good idea to know how to use this equipment. In his course, you’ll find out all the basics of song production from one of the very best in the business, so it may be worth a look.

jazz band and sax player

4. Enhance your skillset

Even once you’ve written and recorded a couple of songs, don’t rest on your laurels. Like training your ears, you should always aim to build your skillset to make you a stronger songwriter.

You could look into:

  • Learning music theory: This isn’t essential for becoming a songwriter, but it can help you to better understand the language of music and how to better communicate your ideas through song.
  • Co-writing songs: You may have to do this at some point in your career, and it can be quite a different process to doing it all yourself. It’s a good idea to find some other songwriters and buddy up to learn from each other as you both develop this skill.
  • Demoing: Demos help to showcase your song, without you having to record and produce a full song which may not have any interest from producers and labels. Learning how to demo songs can save you time and money.
  • Music production: If you’re interested in learning how to produce your own songs, it’s essential to get to grips with all the ins and outs of the making process.
  • Try writing in different genres: Don’t just stick to what you know. Experiment with different genres and types of songs. You never know, you might just discover a new direction in which to take your work…

5. Find people to collaborate with

Unless you’re a great writer, singer, instrumentalist and producer, you may have to find people to collaborate with at some point. And even if you do want to do it all by yourself, it can help to have a fresh perspective and other people to bounce ideas off.

“When it comes to developing ideas further, it can often be useful to bring in another party to continue to a fresh perspective,” says Mark Ronson. “There may be an artist or performer that you trust the skills of or who has what you need to bring in for a particular part in a song, whether that’s a synth solo, rhythm guitarist who has great chops, or particularly skilful vocalist who can spark an idea and take the collaboration to the next level.”

You could join online forums for people in the music industry to find collaborators, ask around at local music events, or message musicians on open platforms like SoundCloud to ask if they’d be interested in teaming up.

6. Share your songs

As an artist, this is one of the scariest parts of making music – putting your songs out there for the world to hear. But it’s absolutely essential if you want a career in music.

Recording your songs and putting them live on platforms like Spotify, SoundCloud and YouTube is one way to share them. Another is to play them live at a gig. You could play a show in a local venue or even get a busking license and play them on the street.

However you choose to do it, the most important thing is putting yourself – and your songs – out there in the real world.

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7. Learn how to handle rejection

Unfortunately, when you release your songs into the world, not everyone is going to love them. As a songwriter, it’s important to build a thick skin and be able to deal with criticism, whether it’s someone posting a negative comment on your YouTube video, or a record label who says your EP isn’t quite what they’re looking for.

Even hugely successful musicians like Gary Barlow have had to deal with negativity. He believes that, in this industry, confidence is everything – it’s what will help you to keep going when times are tough.

“In this industry confidence is the start and end of it all,” says Gary Barlow. “I say that, because I’ve been there, I have lost my confidence, so I know what it’s like. You’re coming up with entertainment for people’s approval, so you need that armour.”

However, he goes on to say that you can also learn from the naysayers too. “You can also learn from criticism, when it’s constructive, and think that there could be something in what they’re saying. Don’t be hurt by it, but use it to your advantage,” he says.

So, even if you get some negative reviews, keep going. Think about whether there’s anything you can take from their feedback and use it to make your songwriting even more powerful.

8. Find the people who can help you

Once you’ve made and released some music, you need to help it find an audience.

“If you’ve been passionate enough to make this music and put the effort and the hours in, why stop there?” says Gary Barlow. “Go and find people now, they’re not going to come and find you. You’ve got to be out there. If you just want to do it for fun at home, that’s great, but if you want to get out there, then get out there. It’s as simple as that.”

You don’t have to do it all alone, though. “Find the people who can help you: managers, writers, producers, PRs, radio pluggers, journalists… Have the hustle to match your ambition,” he says.

Make lists of people who could help your music to reach a wider audience. This includes:

  • A&R (artists and repertoire) people
  • Music producers
  • Other songwriters
  • Bloggers
  • Magazines
  • Radio pluggers

Choose the ones you think are the best fit for your music, and get in touch with them. Look at their social media profiles or find their email address on their website and contact them with a link to your best demos.

Becoming a professional songwriter can be a long, hard path – but if you have the passion, ambition and drive, it’s an incredibly rewarding and satisfying career choice. If you’re ready to kickstart your songwriting career, find out more hints and tips from Gary Barlow and Mark Ronson in their online courses.

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FREE video lesson: the songwriting process

with Gary Barlow