Things Every Songwriter Should Know
  ...from the Pros Who've Done it.

Craft Will Save Your Ass

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Rand Bishop

A little bit about me

When I published the book BMI VP Jody Williams dubbed my “manifesto” (Makin’ Stuff Up), I have to admit I was overly confident in my assumption that there were tens of thousands of wannabe songwriters eager and waiting to lap up a veteran’s tips on song craft and chuckle over glib real-life tales of self-destruction and ultimate triumph in the music-biz. After all, I am a journeyman with decades in the trenches, a former major-label recording artist, platinum producer, A&R rep, Grammy Nominated, BMI Award-winning, million-play, number-one songwriter. (Sure, I’m tooting my own horn, but every note is right on pitch; and I think I’ve earned the right to strut a little after enduring 41 years in this brutal game — no mean feat, whatever that means.)

Anyway, I’ve had to adjust my expectations regarding books in general (especially books written for the purpose of deconstructing that odd and mysterious creative concoction known as the popular song). And now I await the publication of my second “manifesto” on the subject: The Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success. But, if there’s anything that four decades in the music biz has taught me, it’s how to readjust my expectations. (If you don’t know what I mean by that, just stick around in this biz a little while longer, and I guarantee you will.)

Inspiration alone is usually not enough

So, my fine, furry friends, here’s what I’ve discovered since Makin’ Stuff Up hit the marketplace in December, ’08: The vast majority of songwriters are not the least bit interested in developing their craft. Bold statement, I know. Factual, however, I assure you. While dancers, painters, sculptors, classical singers and musicians, even hard-rock guitarists willingly seek qualified teachers, and pay a good price for their hard-won expertise, far too many songwriters assume their very first inspiration has been beamed from the gods, that the Muse’s initial whisper is sacrosanct, and not to be messed with. (While they are absolutely correct in the assumption that we are divinely inspired, it’s what a writer does with those heavenly inspirations that can make ALL the difference.)

A little wisdom from Janis Ian

So, if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment, I’d like to call my first witness to the stand, one Ms. Janis Ian, undeniably one of the hippest, most respected tunesmiths of the last half-century. “Ahem… Ms. Ian, if I may, I would like to ask your professional opinion.”

“By all means,” the diminutive lady responds.

“Inspiration versus craft,” I propose, “which is of more importance?”

“Inspiration is great,” says the Divine Ms. Ian, “but craft will save your ass.” Hmmm, the woman certainly has a way with words.

Sometimes it pays to listen

Yet, over and over again, I’ve seen the posts on Internet discussion boards: “Why should I pay for a song evaluation? It’s just somebody else’s opinion.” Yes, it is somebody else’s opinion. Somebody else who presumably knows what he or she is talking about. Somebody else who has had songs on the top of the charts, cashed six-figure royalty checks, and accepted real awards. What this industry professional is charging for is constructive feedback that can help a developing writer get a little closer to that same experience. Still, so many writers would rather bitch and moan about how they can’t get arrested and how unfair and cruel the business is, while simultaneously refusing to listen to voices of experience and advice that just might contain the keys to the kingdom.

Up-and-comers are not the only writers who can benefit from qualified, constructive feedback. To this day, after 250 of my songs have been recorded — by some of the most iconic artists in pop, rock, and country — I rely on the ears (and opinions) of other industry pros to help me hone my songs until they are as tight and concise as they can possibly be. Do I willingly accept every comment and apply every single syllable of input? No-sir-ee-bob. But, if I harbor even a milligram of lingering doubt as to whether a specific passage of lyric or melody is as strong as it could be, and that bit’s not quite making hearts go pittapat, I’ll go back to the woodshed and carve away at it with renewed vigor. For most of us, great writing is re-writing. The purpose of a pop song is to communicate emotion. If we’re not getting the response we’re looking for, if anything at all needs to be explained, it’s not the listener’s fault. It means the composer and/or lyricist has more work to do. (That’s not to say that every lyric has to be absolutely literal in every pop genre, but leaving a listener confused can certainly be a liability if you’re trying to achieve your very first success, or even your next one.)

Don’t be afraid of constructive criticism

I remember those long-ago days when I strongly resisted playing a song for a peer or professional, for fear they might not love it as much as I did. I also recall thinking that I knew it all, and that anybody who didn’t fully appreciate my obvious genius must be an idiot. The reluctance to seek out and accept constructive criticism comes from those same two unattractive, counterproductive places: fear, and arrogance. To not avail oneself of every resource there is to improve one’s craft, while complaining that the rest of the world is an ass is a surefire recipe for continued failure. If you’ve tried it that way and the deck still seems stacked against you, maybe it’s time to reshuffle the cards and ask for directions to Hit City.

Sometimes a little MasterWriter helps

Speaking of resources, MasterWriter is one songwriting tool I will never do without. In my process, MasterWriter is equally as important as a guitar or a keyboard. I’ve used MasterWriter on every song I’ve written since 2002, when I first installed this brilliantly conceived software. So, MasterWriter and I have probably collaborated on about 400 songs. The original 1.2 version integrated word processing with a very practical, songwriter-friendly rhyming dictionary (including “sound-alikes,” which I absolutely LOVE), thesaurus, a wonderful innovation called rhyming phrases, and a reliable digital recorder. All the basic tools under one roof. No longer did I have to pack a computer, rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, and portable recorder, and keep track of stacks of work tapes and lyrics. MasterWriter provided all of those tools in my laptop, and my words and music-in-progress were automatically linked and date documented.

For me, this essential, all-in-one program had two drawbacks: it was more than a little bit poky, and the thesaurus was sketchy at best. (I could never figure out why ProTools was able to load up ten times faster than Masterwriter.) But, Masterwriter’s strengths far outweighed its weakness. I quickly became dependent on it, and even after more than 30 years of makin’ stuff up, I became a better writer for it.

The newer 2.0 version is far superior and has overcome the speed issue. Added are pop-culture references, word families, parts of speech, on-board midi drum loops, and lots of other stuff I haven’t even explored yet. The new thesaurus is more comprehensive than any I’ve ever seen. I salute MasterWriter as the most innovative and essential songwriting tool available today, bar none. You bring some talent and inspiration, along with the iron will to hone a tightly constructed pop song, and MasterWriter will be your strongest ally in your quest to make the airwaves and climb the charts.

Rand Bishop
Songwriter, producer, author of Makin’ Stuff Up, secrets of song craft and survival in the music-biz (Weightless Cargo Press, 2008, distributed exclusively by Alfred Publishing), the darkly comic novel/mock-memoir, Grand Pop (Eloquent Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Absolute Essentials of Songwriting Success (Alfred Publishing, 2010). http://www.randbishop.com

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47 Responses to “Craft Will Save Your Ass”

  1. Keiran says:

    After years of trying to write songs I’m finding that it is craft that will (hopefully) save my ass. The inspired bits come pretty quickly but it’s turning that first verse and bit of a chorus into a decent song that’s the hard part. Your new book looks interesting so I’m going check it out.

  2. Thank you for a very inspiring post! I think you are absolutely right in every sense, and will surely continue more inspired and dedicated. Masterwriter is a great tool – I wish we had it in norwegian – but for me writing in my native language I am still able to benefit from the program – being able to collect all my ideas and scetches at one place.

    Thank you also for all the inspiring videos on this site. There is a lot of wisdom here.

    Sincerely

    Jan-Henrik Kulberg

  3. Fun Crafts says:

    You’re a very skilled blogger….

    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks!…

    • Ken Krupnik says:

      Barry,
      I always look forward to your pearls of experienced wisdom. You told last year at ASCAP that I was being a fool to own a copy of MasterWriter and yet not use it. I was concerned I would lose my own creativity using such a tool. Well I took you on your word and made the time to learn and use it. Now I use it as a way to keep my songs ideas & lyrics organized in one spot, and can rapidly double check if I hang up on a word. You were right, again.
      Musically Yours,
      Ken Krupnik Singer/Songwriter

  4. Ruth Greenwood says:

    Yes indeed. It’s like Chutes and Ladders…the business side will throw you down that chute every so often so why wouldn’t someone want to take advantage of the opportunity to climb up a couple of rungs? Insightful critiques help. Not everyone who can write songs can teach well, but I’m indebted to those who can, and who’ve taught me through critique, workshop, or by example. Critiques have helped me become a better writer, although I surprised myself recently by pushing back when a great writer/teacher pointed out a too-general phrase (which, of course, was my favorite part until I got what he meant.) Yikes–over two words, I became one of those knuckleheads fighting the critique they’ve paid for. And I’ve had cuts, have done this for a while. I chilled out and listened.

    Guess we need to really understand that a critique is far less about the song being critiqued then it is to improve the next song and all the songs you’ll write for the rest of your life. And we need to understand that when a great teacher helps you raise the bar for what you’ll accept in your own writing, you might feel lousy, because suddenly you’re even farther from your goal of greatness than before the critique. But don’t turn that sinking feeling back onto the writer-teacher who’s raising your standards, just be grateful, get back to the art and the craft, and write a little more and a bit better.

    (I have to keep reminding myself of this.)

    Thanks for the insights, Rand, and to Masterwriter.

  5. John says:

    Wow, classy title, goes straight to your credibility. REALLY?

  6. Jeff Wilson says:

    Great article,
    I can attest these many facts you have laid down are true. My resume is not as lofty as yours but I did co-write a no. 10 and a no. 27 hit on the top 100 Billboard charts. Even that feat is amazing and in today’s market, almost a miracle. The most telling passage of your article to me is about being able to ask for and get the right feedback from trusted peers and then going back and making it better. One line, one phrase of lyric or melody that is not ok, will sink your ship so fast, you’ll be chatting with Davy Jones before you can reach the ocean floor.
    I am going to pass on this article to a few of my friend’s kids who are budding songwriters.
    Thanks so much for a great story and wonderful information.
    Cheers,
    j. wilson
    P.S.
    I use Masterwriter……….always

  7. Abraham Toledo says:

    Sometimes the brain stops producing, the three same phrases key popping,
    NOW, I have an abundant of new ideas thanks to MasterWriter.
    The Train has more destinations!

  8. Chris says:

    More great contributions from industry pro’s! Keep this up and the business might have a prayer. It’s inspiring to see that these seasoned Luther’s have a lot of passion left for the craft and are happy to share it. Thanks Barry Devorzon for your Master Writer program and for providing a collective place for minds to converge and be expressive.

    While its true that every song a person writes may not be a hit, it can be a Masterpiece.

    • admin says:

      We all have a lot of those songs in the closet, sometimes you just need a little luck to turn a great song into a hit. Glad MasterWriter’s helping, thanks for being a part of the community.

      Barry

  9. George Botly says:

    October 3, Thanks again for passing on your music industry knowledge, much appreciated!

    Sincerely,
    George Botly
    Harris Institute
    Toronto, Canada

  10. Steve Cass says:

    Rand–

    You are so right. Since I don’t make a living writing songs, I can’t say that “I know what you mean”. But I do know from the perspective of many songwriters that write Christian lyrics. They so often believe that their first inpirations are sacred and ignore the craft as if craft isn’t also inspiration! Thanks for a great reminder.

  11. Mex says:

    I`m glad I have come across this blog, I`ve been working on a few songs for a charity album, and I have discovered that it`s something I enjoy doing. So, here goes to my pursuit as a songwriter!!!! and glad to be learning a thing or two from you Barry :)

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