For any aspiring songwriter, the road to success is one that is often uncertain. Two challenges face those wishing to take their songwriting abilities and career to the next level. The first is how to develop and enhance your own songwriting skills. The second centers on the need to build connections to the web of publishers, film and TV music supervisors, producers, artists, and others in the business that can use your song in a commercial venue. To offer some insights into the strategies that have proven successful in helping up-and-coming songwriters achieve these twin goals, I spoke with Ian Crombie, Director of West Coast Songwriters (WCS), one of the most active grass-roots organizations that helps writers expand their career opportunities.
Crombie, himself, is a successful songwriter, musician, producer and entrepreneur. He’s helmed WCS (formerly known as the Northern California Songwriters Association) since 1988, shifting smoothly from his earlier role as a volunteer, to leading the organization, which is now in its thirty-second year of operations. He fell in love with music as a young boy and had written his first song by the age of fourteen. “I didn’t know that I couldn’t be a songwriter, so I just went for it,” he said. Soon after writing his first song, the UK native began performing and by the late 1967 he was touring in a band called Sticky Fingers. After making a short tour to the U.S. with the band, he returned to the U.S. and settled in Northern California. He was drawn to WCS as the organization afforded him a means to meet other writers and refine his craft. Crombie’s songs have been placed in TV and film, including Touched by an Angel, Promised Land, Interface, General Hospital, Powder Park, Access Hollywood and Another World. In addition, Ian produced and licensed music for the Oscar winning film As Good As It Gets, and has a forthcoming placement in the new Adam Sandler-produced film, Born to Be a Star.
Building a Library of Resources
During the past twenty-three years spent directing WCS, Crombie has seen his share of successful writers build their skills by using the resources that the WCS helps to identify. Crombie cites a number of books as useful reference works for the aspiring songwriter. “John Braheny’s Craft and Business of Songwriting is essential,” he stated. And I often recommend Sheila Davis’ Successful Lyric Writing, as it presents a detailed look at how one goes about crafting a memorable lyric for a song. The third would be Jai Josef’s excellent book, Writing Music for Hit Songs, which provides a thorough and engaging look at the musical aspects of songwriting,” he offered. The final book in this group would be WCS member Lisa Aschmann’s very helpful 1000 Songwriting Ideas which provides a number of song starting ideas.”
There are other books that have provided inspiration of a different sort for Crombie, and others, especially with regard to the creative process. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is a quirky, first person account that can help budding writers to find the muse in their own experiences. Goldberg provides simple, yet practical tips, to get newbies started on the writer’s path. Ian’s final book recommendation, Writing From Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing, takes a slightly different approach. In this easy to digest book, author Bernard Selling shares his techniques for unlocking personal memories and often forgotten experiences that can then be tapped to provide a wellspring for new writing.
Open Your Ears to the Possibilities
I asked Ian if he also felt it was essential for an aspiring songwriter to listen to and study a wide variety of musical styles. He agreed definitively, saying, “Growing up in England, I had the luxury of listening to all sorts of different music side-by-side. I’d be listening to opera, then rock, then punk and a moment later, a country song. Here in the U.S., we tend to put music in boxes (genres) which tends to limit what some people listen to.” So having a wide range of musical styles to study and learn from is another important factor for the aspiring writer. Keep your ears open and your creative ideas will follow.
Invest in Yourself
From Ian’s perspective, while landing a record deal or a movie placement represents a good long term goal, “that’s not really the point of it all. Instead, I would advise that one simply focus on your own development as a writer, learning to put together the best songs possible over time. That way as you study, grow and make more connections, I think you will be developing what it takes to have an actual career as a songwriter. Anyone can take a mediocre song, polish it up and give it the gloss of good studio production,” he argued. “But for me, when I hear a really moving song, it may be just one voice backed with a single guitar,” Crombie said.
Get Involved with the Songwriting Community
Under Ian’s guidance, WCS offers aspiring writers a range of opportunities to learn and grow in their craft. WCS presents twenty events a month. The first and most localized are the organization’s ten events per month that they host from Portland to Hollywood, called the Songwriter’s Competition. At these evening events, member songwriters usually perform two songs for their peers and the public. Writers receive an on-the-spot evaluation from other members and each night a winner is chosen, allowing writers to get instant feedback on their songs in development. “Just by networking at these events, songs get better and connections to other writers and industry people get stronger,” Ian added. “Your mother is always going to love whatever song you are working on, but you need honest feedback to see what needs improvement in your songs.” WCS also routinely invites industry people such as producers, publishers, and record label execs to help provide experienced commentary and tips to members at these competitions.
Next up are the monthly Works in Progress sessions, at which a small number of members preview works in progress, some of which they may be struggling with to complete. While it takes a little courage to present a new song or an unfinished work, these intensive peer sessions with other writers often yield dramatic improvements or help a writer overcome an obstacle to finishing a song. “If one person hears your song and doesn’t like a line in it, they may be right or wrong, but if everyone at the Works in Progress session makes a similar suggestion, you can rest assured you have a problem with it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s something that a writer might not see, for instance, maybe hearing that the first verse should really be the second verse, or another structural change that can help to clarify the song’s intent.” Crombie also points out the value in a real-time performance to connect the writers to one another’s music and ideas. “I’m not a fan of playing your work from a CD at such events,” he said, mostly because then you can’t instantly try out a suggestion to see how it works. WCS does allow non-members to participate in Works in Progress workshops, when space is available. WCS is also adding more opportunities to network and share song ideas including posting videos of the best performances from the Songwriter Competition sessions online, out-of-area song screenings, and encouraging Skype-use to help connect more writers with one another.
Finally, each year WCS hosts their annual two-day fall conference, at which writers, publishers, film and TV music executives and established songwriters all come together to celebrate songwriting, share their music and ideas, and come away energized and renewed to continue the work of songwriting. “Ours is very much a conference geared toward providing aspiring writers with access and information exchange with a high level of industry personnel from various aspects of the business. We don’t separate the guest speakers and performers from the attendees. The 2010 conference featured Smashmouth songwriter Greg Camp, Santana vocalist and songwriter Tony Lindsay, multi-platinum producer Louis Biancaniello (Jordin Sparks, Natasha Bedingfield, Kelly Clarkson), and personal manager Eliot Cahn (Green Day, The Offspring, Papa Roach, Primus, Goapele, Justin King), among many others. One of the highlights of the conference, and what helps make it the culminating event of each year’s WCS activities, are that the top three songwriters, chosen from a short list comprised of the ten best songs presented at WCS events over the previous year, will perform their winning song, plus an additional song live at the conference’s premiere event, the Saturday evening Sunset Concert for industry VIPs and fellow writers. Best of all, it’s one of the most affordable conferences anywhere, with member registration for last year’s conference at $200 which includes all meals and two song screenings each day with conference panelists. (Further discounts are available for members that volunteer or those under 21 years of age.)
The bottom line is that WCS members that have taken advantage of the varied resources available, along with serious study of the art and craft of writing, have been able to land song placements on records, TV, film and commercials by leveraging the connections they’ve made and getting involved in the myriad opportunities available. Summing up his advice for aspiring writers, Ian argued, “You can’t make it as a songwriter sitting home alone trying to figure out how to write the perfect song. Collaboration and learning by hearing the works of other aspiring writers is a proven path to building your songwriting success.” With dedicated regional grass-roots organizations like West Coast Songwriters helping to open doors, tomorrow’s hit songwriters have plenty of tools to help them achieve their goals.