12 July 2012

Songwriters create their own original material for themselves or for other performers. They may specialise in a particular style of music including pop, rock, indie, jazz, RnB soul, blues and folk.

You could start by writing material for yourself, or for your friends to perform.
You could start by writing material for yourself, or for your friends to perform.

What is the job like?

Most songwriters play an instrument and the common ones are piano and guitar. Songwriters may work individually or collaborate with others.

The work includes:

  • Developing ideas for original material, often using a piano, synthesiser or guitar
  • Writing the lyrics for the song
  • Structuring the song with different sections such as choruses and verses
  • Promoting your own work and possibly making downloads to use on social networking sites and or sell on iTunes or Amazon.

Songwriters often use audio recording software to record and edit the music during composition. They may also make use of notation software whilst composing. If you are writing for someone else, you need to consider the extent of their vocal range.

Singer-Songwriters compose and perform their own music. Lyricists write the words for songs, and may work as part of a team with a composer or songwriter. Some songwriters may write arrangements of other composers’ music to generate additional income.

How do I get into songwriting?

Becoming a successful songwriter takes determination, talent and sheer hard work. Songwriting is a craft that often takes years to perfect. Creativity and originality are vital.

Many songwriters have other jobs, either within the music business or outside, in order to help earn a living.

The ability to read music, with an understanding of music theory, including orchestration and harmony, is a big advantage. A wide knowledge of different kinds of music is important, which will help to influence your own individual style. The ability to play an instrument, especially the piano is a distinct advantage.

Songwriting takes lots of practice, and it is never too early to start. You could start by writing material for yourself, or for your friends to perform. There are various books available to help you with this. Find out if there any songwriting competitions you could enter.

It is also important to register your songs with PRS for Music. This ensures that you will receive royalties for the music you have composed.

At an appropriate point in your career you may benefit from the help of a music publisher who can help to promote your songs. You may need to produce a demo CD or score to send to music publishers.

  • The demo needs to be well-recorded with clear vocals, and have no more than two or three songs.
  • The CD must be clearly labelled with the lyrics typed on a separate sheet.
  • If you want your demo returned then you need to include the necessary posting and packaging.
  • Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a swift reply – most publishers are inundated with demo CDs. Some publishers will prefer files to be sent via email or a link to a webpage. 

The Music Publishers Association (MPA) can provide more information on publishing your music, and they also run an induction course for newcomers to music publishing.

Some, but not all, music publishers are looking for new talent and you can find a list of members on the MPA website and search for publishers that are looking for newcomers and want to receive demos. It is also important to send your music to companies that deal with your genre of music. Again, the members list on the MPA website can help.

If you want to write for a certain artist then it is advisable to find out the name of their publisher and then send your demo CD to them. You can often find the name on the artist’s album cover.

When you sign a publishing contract you assign your copyright to the publisher. They agree to promote the music to performers and record companies, and you can then potentially earn money through royalties.

A publisher can also help to get your songs used in films, TV shows, video games and adverts. Always consult a legal adviser before signing a contract.

What training and qualifications should I take?

Graded examination theory or instrumental examinations can help you. These are available through the following organisations:

Not all songwriters have qualifications in music. However, there are many courses available which are of benefit if you want to learn more about songwriting and composition:

  • BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Music/Music Technology
    Entry with two GCSEs (A-D)
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Music Technology/Popular Music
    Entry with four GCSEs (A-C)
  • HND Courses in Music Technology or Popular Music
    Entry with at least one A level plus three GCSE (A-C) passes
  • Degree courses
    This can be in a wide range of subjects: Music Performance and Composition, Music Technology with Composition, Music Composition and Popular Music. Entry with a minimum of 2 A levels (or equivalent) and five GCSE (A-C) passes. Music A level may be essential. Some courses request 3 A levels. Look at the UCAS website for more information.

Various private courses are available at all levels, including online courses and degrees. Research these courses carefully before spending any money. Courses are listed in the Musicians and Songwriters Yearbook.

The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors is the professional body for the industry.

What can I earn?

It is impossible to quantify the earnings of a songwriter. When starting out you will be writing songs for love rather than money. As you become established you can start to get your music published and earn money via royalties.

Very few songwriters make a living out of writing songs, although there are exceptions, in which case earnings can be high. Songwriters are freelance and self-employed.

If you join PRS for music then you may be eligible to receive royalty payments for live performances of your music, once your music has been registered. Look at the website for more information about the Gigs and Club Scheme, and the scheme for large concert venues.

Royalties for large concert venues are calculated according to box office takings. Royalties for small venues are approximately £6 per event.

Also of interest

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