Why Write?

(originally published in the Nashville Songwriters Association  newsletter)

It’s so hard to write a song. To come up with that great idea and a clever hook that sums it up. To find just the right words and just the right melody and make them fit perfectly together. But as a dedicated songwriter, you work and work at it, and finally you’ve done it. There’s your wonderful song, so full of life and ready to dazzle the world. And then, if you’re like me, you start to imagine it beautifully produced and being sung by whichever hot recording artist is lucky enough to find it first.

So being smart enough to be a member of NSAI, you know just what to do. You send it off to the Song Evaluation Service so that they can discover it and pass it on to a publisher who will jump at the chance to pitch it to all the biggest stars. Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. I know most people want to hear the good news first, but I’m gonna start with the bad news because I want to end on a positive note.

The bad news is, that it’s probably not gonna impress the pro-writer who evaluates it. And if it does, it’s probably not gonna get the majority vote from the whole group of evaluators that it needs in order to be passed on to “Pitch-to-a-Publisher” night. And if it does, the chance of the publisher taking it is slim. And if he does, the chance of it getting cut is minuscule.

Why is that? You know the song is great. It’s the sixth re-write and you’ve faithfully taken every suggestion from the evaluations you got on each version. Everyone that you’ve played it for thinks it’s better than half of what you hear on the radio. You’ve performed it live and people were in tears they were so moved by it.

To answer that, I’d like to use a sports analogy. Imagine it’s the play-off game of the season and the two best high-school teams in the state are vying for the championship The quarter back for your team is brilliant and he’s playing the game of his life. In one spectacular play after another he leads his team to victory. The crowd goes wild. The local sports writers all rave about him the next day and every college scout in the country makes plans to check him out. There is no doubt in your mind that he’s a superb athlete and you know he is destined for greatness. But now ask yourself, what would happen if you put him out on the field in a NFL game? And then ask yourself, how many brilliant players around the country dazzled their hometown crowds that year, and how many of them will ever make it to the NFL?

Nashville is the NFL for songwriters. The ratio of songs written to songs recorded is mind boggling. Even the best of the best hit writers with songs on the charts every week are lucky to get one out of ten of their songs recorded. I have hosted the Open Mic at the Bluebird Café for over thirteen years and have heard twenty or more writers every week. I can’t think of more than ten or fifteen in all those years who have actually had any significant success. This town is so flooded with creativity that it takes something extraordinary to break through and stand out in the crowd. That hook that you thought was so original may have been written hundreds of times. Those lines that sound so fresh to you and your local audience may sound trite and cliché to the producers and A&R people who listen to songs all day long. Unless you have spent some time immersing yourself in the scene here in Nashville, it’s hard to get a real sense of what is ordinary and what is special and unique. And believe me, ordinary doesn’t stand a chance unless the artist wrote it or the producer has the publishing.

So if it’s that bad, then what’s the good news? Having worked for so many years with writers most of whom have never had a cut, and being a writer who has had only one major cut in sixteen years, I have found my own personal answer to that question and that’s what I’d like to share with you now.

To me the good news is that being a songwriter isn’t just about getting cuts. It’s about expressing yourself. It’s about understanding yourself better through the process of putting your observations of life into words. It’s about dealing with difficult emotions by putting them into a melody. It’s about the confidence you gain any time you finish a song and accomplish what you set out to do. And the fun you have doing it.

It’s about communicating with other people, revealing something about yourself that someone else can identify with and bridging the gap that separates us from each other. You don’t have to be Paul McCartney or Gary Burr to do that. There are times I have sat behind the soundboard and heard a song that had just the message I needed to hear to cheer me up or help me deal with something I was going through, even though the melody was awkward and the lyrics were trite. And there are many times that I have been amazed and delighted by someone’s unique, creative way of expressing themselves even though their songs would never fit another artist.  Going back to my sports analogy, I don’t think the fans in the bleachers had any less fun watching their quarterback make his spectacular plays because it wasn’t an NFL game. And if he never even makes it onto the college team, I don’t think he wasted the time he spent playing.

So if you’re out there writing songs, doing your best to grow and improve, I say bravo! And if visions of hearing your song on the radio and getting big fat royalty checks help motivate you to do that, I say go for it! But don’t forget to notice all the other rewards that you are reaping along the way, because those you can count on, unlike the rewards of commercial success.