How do I make it as a songwriter in Los Angeles?

Songwriting_1_CST Published 12/10/2014

By Chad Richardson

There are few questions that I’m more prepared to answer than this one. Having worn various hats throughout my career – as a songwriter, artist, publisher, manager and now performing rights organization representative – I’ve entertained this question more often than any other.

In 99 percent of industry meetings the person in front of you is not at the same level in their own mind as they are in yours. The industry expects you to be farther along in your career, on your own merits, than ever before. There’s no clear road to your success as a songwriter, of course, but I do believe that there are some things that greatly improve your chances. Nothing can replace talent, but talent alone doesn’t get you noticed in a sea of MP3 files floating around in the ether of music industry in-boxes.

So… in no particular order, here are my Top Five things you need to be doing to help you make it as a songwriter in L.A.

1) Write with published writers
This can be a game-changer. For the most part, writers looking for a publishing deal are not yet ready for one, suffer from a small catalog, have no money in the pipeline, are under-developed, etc. So how do you get a publisher to hustle your songs without being signed? Write with their writers. I recommend going through the rosters of publishers and at first, look for the names you do not recognize. Don’t shoot for the Max Martins. Think of writers that are probably on their way up and have landed a new deal. Reach out to them personally, or to the publisher, and be educated. Reference a song the writer has written, and why you think you would be a good fit. Once you have co-written a song with a published writer, not only are you now on the radar of this writer and publisher, but you also have the publisher shopping the song on behalf of their client, bringing you along for the ride. If good things happen in this case, they happen to you as well.

2) Collaborate
To do No. 1 above, you have to start by doing No. 2. So many writers (myself included, for years!) write their songs alone, or perhaps with one collaborator. I won’t muse on why this is the case, but for the most part (whispering) it’s because of insecurities. Working with other writers will make you a better writer 100% of the time. So why would you not do it? Less than 1 percent of 1 percent of all No. 1 hit songs were written by one person. Think about that for a moment. Collaborating is a great means to self-brand and get your name out there. Each session is like a ripple in the water of the lake of songwriters. If you show up on time, act professional, and try (all qualities of No. 4 below) people will take notice. Trust me!

3) Box or Mansion?
Ever think about what you want to live in? If you want to be a professional songwriter then you will definitely live in the box, and – if you’re lucky – eventually the mansion. The key is that either has to make you happy. In the arts, I believe that if there’s 10 percent of you that could do something else… you will. It’s the natural selection of the industry. You can’t do it for the money. It sounds so basic, simple and possibly unreasonable, but those who are the 100 percenters don’t read this statement as unreasonable, they read it as gospel, or just the reality of their life. What was your reaction?

4) It’s your job, it’s your gym
Every day, billions of people get up and go to work. Songwriting has to be treated the same way. It’s your job, and you go to work every day, come hell or high water. Like any other muscle your “writing” brain needs to be worked. You need to go to the song gym every day. In Nashville, they’ve mastered this to a level that’s almost uncanny. Most successful songwriters in Nashville don’t talk like their job is any more special than anyone else’s. They get up, do their two sessions, get home by six and spend weekends with the kids. Years ago, in a session I was in, I co-wrote a song called “No Words” with Julie Frost and Craig McConnell. Julie was very tired after a week of sessions, and felt she had no words left. We joked that that should be the inspiration for our song: a couple that had no words left. It was both our problem and our solution. We had a job to do that day, and did it.

5) Push for two-day sessions
This is a real pet peeve for me. L.A. has become a sea of one-day sessions, half-finished songs, un-developed relationships and missed opportunities. It takes time to make a song great and to feel out a new collaborator. Most hits on pop/urban radio do not happen in an eight-hour session. They happen over time, with multiple people coming on board to make the song great. Whenever possible, book a two-day session. You don’t want to lose out on the magic that can happen with someone on day two because you had bolted after day one, when you just “weren’t feeling each other.” You might have missed out on the biggest hit that you’ll never write.

These are just a few of the many different tools you can use to up your chances at making songwriting your career. In the end, you must treat it with the same professionalism and education as you would any job. As NBC says… “The more you know…”

Bonus
Things you should never say when discussing your songwriting with a music industry professional:

  • “I write in every single style.”
  • “I have written over 1,000 songs.”
  • “I write nothing but hits.”
  • “I have a number one smash that you have to hear.”

About Chad Richardson

As a native of Newfoundland and accomplished songwriter and composer himself, Richardson joined SOCAN in 2014 as General Manager, Los Angeles Division, bringing more than 20 years of progressive experience in the television, stage and music industries. Most recently, he was Creative Director with ole, Los Angeles, where he played an instrumental role in signing Steven Tyler, Timbaland and Clare Reynolds (a.k.a. Lollies). Over the years he's worked closely with SOCAN members Jim Vallance, Alan Frew, Dean Brody, Shiloh, The Novaks, film and TV composer Craig McConnell, and others. He has a wealth of experience introducing songs to music supervisors, placement in television and video, song critiquing and guidance, organizing song camps, and sourcing co-writing and industry opportunities.

Comments

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  1. John Johnson

    I dunno – sounds like you’re advising songwriters to perpetuate the churning out of soulless formulaic tripe forced into people’s ears these days.

    Reply
  2. chad richardson

    John. While it seems like working in the field of commercial pop is something that does not interest you it is a very real ambition for many SOCAN songwriters and that was the purpose of this blog. Personally I don’t hate on any music style or outlet. I don’t see the point. Pop radio still makes the kids happy. Just like it made the kids happy when I (or we..I don’t know your age) were young. Kids party, sing in the shower, dance, fall in love and RELATE to the radio now the same as they always have. I would think it patronizing of me to lament that my Steely Dan is better than today’s Rihanna, although I love both I certainly don’t think that music is any more important to me as Taylor Swift is to today’s generation. I would assume by the way you phase your statement that you too write and perform music which I would also assume you believe is “better” than what’s on the radio. I would love to hear what you do and hope of course that you are a proud SOCAN member. Get in touch and send me what you have.
    Happy Holidays
    c

    Reply
  3. Van Clayton Powel

    Actually, I didn’t read the article in a negative light at all. More like a healthy dose of today’s reality. Naw, I might not like it either, but pushing on a string never got me where I was trying to go. And although it’s not my usual genre, one CAN write pop without losing your soul. Well, I think so. For example, I just finished a little pop tune that’s light years away from the social commentary that gets me cranked up. But I LOVED writing and producing it. (Link here in case that’s allowed: http://youtu.be/2akYwH8OL4c ) It’s all music, it’s all good. (Jeez, aren’t I sappy today.)

    Reply
  4. Todd Clark

    Nice one Chad. I think this is all true.

    Reply
  5. Butch Warner

    Unfortunately, established songwriters and performers don’t have to abide by these rules. Adam Levine does a drive-by, jams a few lyrics and a half assed hook and the producers do the rest. Too bad, he really honed the art of writing pop songs with hooks and timely beats for the first two M5 albums.

    Beyonce and Gaga get publishing for showing up.

    Reply
  6. jaylene Johnson

    Great post, Chad, and thanks for it…I love that you are with SOCAN, but I’m sad to no longer have such a great champion for “Winter Wish” in the publishing world! (I think you were more excited about it than I was/am… :) )

    Be well,

    Jaylene

    Reply
    1. chad

      Jaylene!

      I assure you. That song is still in my back pocket and I bring it up often. I still believe in my soul it’s a future classic. And by the way.. now I am not 1 degree away from you team wise.. I AM part of your team.
      c

      Reply
  7. Laurell Barker

    Great points and yes, this is definitely geared towards pop writers. Thanks Chad!

    Reply
  8. Jason@VanEman

    Give yourself a deadline. Set a time frame for when a song should be finished. It helps to motivate you and keeps the song feeling fresh.

    Reply

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