I think it’s really important for human beings—not just songwriters—to be as honest with themselves as possible about everything, but especially their own motives for doing things. It’s difficult to do at the best of times, but it’s worth shooting for, and doing it might change your life.
Being brutally honest with yourself can hurt, as long-held dreams and assumptions (maybe instilled by other people and not even your own) are let go, but the clarity you enjoy once you recognize and accept your true motives can be intoxicating and inspiring.
Why do you write songs? Why do you think you write songs?
Once you strip everything else away, I’ll bet that the most basic reason is to communicate with others. Communicating your feelings, your thoughts, your story: this is an important function of songwriting, maybe the most important.
But are you also writing songs to get attention, to make friends, to make money, to build a career? These are all good reasons to write songs, and there are others, too, of course: to have something meaningful to perform, to live the life of an artist, to have a creative outlet, for example.
In today’s world, except maybe if you’re making Top 40 pop or rapping about bling, it’s supposedly somehow uncool if a singer/songwriter admits they want success. But what is commercial success except proof that you’ve reached lots of people’s hearts with your music? There’s nothing uncool about emotionally connecting with other humans; it’s the reason we write songs, right?
I’ve met too many songwriters who claim to want to write songs for other artists to cover, when all the evidence points to them writing songs for themselves. They play me their demos, wondering if their songs could get played on the radio (if only some pop star would agree to record them). Meanwhile, their songs sound nothing like what’s on the radio! This doesn’t mean they’re not fine songs—most of my favourite music these days isn’t played on the radio—but it means the songwriter isn’t being honest with themselves. If you are writing for the radio, you have to listen to the radio. You have to learn and incorporate the conventions of that sound. Pop music is all about being simultaneously familiar yet fresh. If you’re writing for the marketplace (pop songs for the likes of Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Rhianna, etc.), then admit it! Study what sells. Analyze the songs that are connecting with other humans and see if you can apply what you observe to your own writing. This is a fine and honorable way of approaching the music business. There is no formula for pop songwriting but there are common forms, structural elements that come up again and again. Taking these forms and somehow making it all sound fresh—that’s the secret!
Or…you could admit that writing for the marketplace is not for you, that what you write is too personal, and while you wish and hope that it would somehow connect with millions, your efforts at self-expression are too important to you to have to bend and shape for radio and pop fans. And maybe you do want to be the singer of your songs, believing you are best interpreter of your words and melodies. There’s no shame in that, either. Not at all; indeed, it too is a rather noble pursuit. Your expectations of success might have to be scaled back (depending on the realities of your situation: your age, or location, etc.) but that could mean that every positive interaction with a listener, every time a person tells you “that song really made me feel something” is a victory, and a deeply meaningful one.
It takes courage to be honest with yourself, about your motives and goals, but doing so can help you move forward decisively.