I’m a Gifted Songwriter, But After Thousands of No-Replies, I’ve Given Up Trying To “Make It”
Following your dreams is important, until it begins crushing your soul
I’m not a quitter. I wasn’t raised that way. But there comes a time while following your dreams that soul-crushing defeat after soul-crushing defeat becomes intolerable. You just aren’t happy anymore. I’ve reached that point, at least for now.
The obvious initial response from readers will be: “well your music probably just isn’t good enough”. Trust me, I’ve been aware of that possibility and have looked at it objectively, but the evidence just isn’t there. Last year I won my eighth independent songwriting award. Those are sort of like small film festivals for indie filmmakers. The difference is, and this is where #bigmusic comes in, there is no one, and I mean no one, following the winners of those competitions and bidding for their services. I’ve won an Independent Music Award (with Intervision), three Great American Song Contest awards, a Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest award, and been named a finalist in the USA Songwriting Competition, as well as the John Lennon Songwriting Contest (with Intervision), twice (once with JAKLYN).
Those wins, as well as the discussions and accolades I’ve had and gotten from folks like Jennifer Batten, David Torn, Kevin Killen, Bob Stark, and Marv Ross lead me to believe that yes, my music is good enough, it’s just that the odds of “breaking through” are not much better than winning the lottery, no matter how good your product. Your odds also improve the younger you are, and the more you fit in with current pop culture.
As a 38 year old white male who grew up on 90’s pop music, I’m still somewhat relevant, and there is a market for my style of writing (pop, adult contemporary, Disney), but the odds of success are smaller than if I was a 16 year old blonde that could write, dance, sing, and put on a killer stage show. That’s not meant as a “poor me”… just fact. I mean, sure it sucks that ageism is real, but I understand it’s the world we live in.
A Quick Backstory
As a child I started playing piano at age five, singing and writing at age 12, and got into boy bands around the same time. I learned the art of pop music throughout my teens, and gradually improved my skills. Around 17 I got paid to play piano the first time, and thanks to some connections in my home church, became a professional working musician at 19. Around age 26 I realized I wanted to/could do it full time, so I did.
I built a website in 2010, and have gradually built a solid web presence offering piano and songwriting lessons, consulting, as well as a separate live music business offering live music and DJ services for weddings, memorials and funerals, and corporate events. Business varies between great/good/bad/and terrible.
As my skills improved as a songwriter through my teens and then 20’s, I gradually began crafting my debut album in my head. I had and still have a hard drive of hundreds of songs, and even got to have one of them (“Gravitarium”) performed by my first band, Intervision, of which I was a founding member in 2003. When the band broke up in 2011, I spent a few years in turmoil, but in 2015 I was finally ready to hit the studio to create my passion project.
“Love + Pain”
I had saved and saved, as well as took out loans, and I wanted to spare no expense. I was disillusioned by the amount of mediocre music I heard throughout the city, and that was frequently going “viral”. Now to be clear, this did NOT generally include the top of the charts. I clashed (and still do) frequently with local jazzheads that were convinced we were seeing musical Armageddon. You know the types. The guys that don’t know Christina Aguilera can really, really sing, or that Lady Gaga went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, that Michael Bolton can sing operatic arias, or that Kenny G. played for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra at age 17 and while still in high school.
I was incredibly impressed with much of the songwriting and production quality of the pop music at the top of the charts, and still am. I wanted to create an album that matched that quality, knowing that while people might think it was easy to do, that it really wasn’t.
Over the next three years, a span of time which included the death of my Father, and the very hurtful ending of a friendship/relationship, I created my masterpiece. Though I was still cynical about life (I always have been), I truly believed that creating and pouring my soul into a top-notch piece of art would be enough to have people take notice. In mid-2018, after thousands of hours of work and around $75,000 spent, I released “Love + Pain”. I was and still am incredibly proud of it.
There are songs fit for Disney, songs fit for pop radio, songs fit for EDM artists, even a rock track called “Died of a Broken Heart” that would be perfect for Top Gun 2, and that features Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten. The album features stories of toppled kings, fairy tales about love, loss and heartbreak, references to Greek mythology, masterclasses on friendship, and a gospel ballad that will rip at your heart strings. In short, it is an album truly from my heart and soul, and isn’t that what this whole music thing is supposed to be about?
Immediately upon its release, I hired publicist Debbie Kruger after quite a bit of exhaustive research. $6000 and three months later I had nothing to show for it except for a one paragraph blog post that copied and pasted directly from my bio, a supposed meeting with a Disney executive that I have no proof really happened, and a connection to an old friend of hers, the editor of American Songwriter magazine. That connection is real, but just having it doesn’t mean anything. Yes he has my stuff, but whether or not anything will come from it is up in the air. I would tend to doubt it. The magazine caters to singer/songwriter types, alt-rock, bluegrass, etc. Not always, but 80%.
After my contract with Debbie was up, depressed as I was, I hired Parachute Publicity out of Portland. We are nearly six months into our contract, and nothing, I repeat nothing, has come from it. I paid them $1500.
Throughout all that time I sent thousands of emails. I did exhaustive research on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I made phone calls, subscribed to Rowfax, NSAI, Songlink, and Cuesheet, and was accepted into advanced song camps held by both the Nashville Songwriters Association, and industry exec Judy Stakee. I submitted my music to AWAL (artists without a label) and was rejected. I found this ironic because they seem to have the same standards for signing as major labels do: social media following. Music quality matters, but great music with no following does you no good. So what’s the different between them and a major label? Not sure.
Every day I have to see posts from Downtown Music Publishing, Concord Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and Disney Music Publishing talking about their latest songwriting “signee”. Yet phone calls, tags, and emails submitted to them go completely ignored. Who are they signing? How are they finding them? I have no idea. I have met with and asked mentors of mine… they want to help, but they really don’t know either. And the ones I don’t know too well have rehearsed and canned answers that I’m sure they give to every up and coming artist. “You need to get out there and meet people.” “Your time will come.” “Co-write with as many as people as possible.” Those are all fine answers, but some are flat out not-true, and the rest are just small steps in a long process. I try to co-write with as many people as possible, trust me! It’s not as easy as it sounds. The road from beginning-of-a-song to release by an artist is a long one, and takes commitment from both sides.
One Thing I Haven’t Tried
One thing I have heard from multiple people, but have resisted trying up to this point is moving to a major music hub. Los Angeles, Nashville, or New York. I have heard that it is even more difficult to make it than usual if you are based anywhere outside of these three areas.
I consider myself a man of science, and I think that’s why I’ve resisted these calls. In todays world of technology, 2019, why would location make even the slightest difference? I know the reasons I’ve heard, but I still can’t make sense of it. Why would me being located anywhere in those three cities change the response of any of those companies I listed above? I would still be sending emails, I would still be managing my website. I know for a fact one of the writers that works for both Downtown and Concord Music Publishing is based in the United Kingdom. Her name is Fiona Bevan and she co-wrote “Chances” off of the Backstreet Boys’ first #1 album in twenty years. Oh, and I emailed her and messaged her on FB… I’m sure you can guess what happened lol. No reply. How was she found? Discovered? She does not have a large following of her own, so that one continues to vex me.
I’m willing to admit that until I try it, I don’t know that moving won’t be the answer. Perhaps having a great product, being in the right location, and networking like crazy is the right formula. I guess my point is I never thought that needed to be the formula. I trusted the talent buyers and talent finders… the A&R execs and label reps, to do their jobs and that one of them by now would have discovered me, but that is not that case.
I heard a story from a man named Cliff Goldmacher, a successful songwriter in Nashville, TN, and someone I received a free consultation with as part of my reward package for winning a Great American Song Contest award. He said he remembers when he first hit #1 on the charts. He co-wrote a jazz track that hit #1 years earlier. He thought his phone would start ringing off the hook… but… nothing. Zero connections came from that. That blew my mind. What are these A&R people doing?
That story made me aware that I am not alone. Mr. Goldmacher has achieved much more than I have thus far, but he still struggles with some of the same issues.
Right time, right place, right set of ears, right song… I’m no mathematician, but I know the odds are astronomical. I guess I thought that creating a product in the upper echelon of “undiscovered” products would increase my chances… however I am discovering that may not be true.
In the age of “going viral” there seem to be two ways to “make it”. One is to have a song go viral such as “Old Town Road” or “Baby Shark”. This method is based almost purely on luck and chance. I’ve seen songs blow up on Spotify that were recorded on terrible microphones in garages, many that are objectively bad songs, but that strike the right chord in listeners. Getting picked up by a major Spotify playlist seems to fall into this category. Spotify wants clicks, so if you have a song that is going viral for whatever reason, they will find you, swoop you up, and increase your popularity even more. (For the record, I think “Old Town Road” is well-recorded and very clever. “Baby Shark”, not so much.)
The other way is more in line with what I discussed earlier in the article. Big music will find you if it wants to. American Idol, Songland, The Voice… if you fit the criteria of what they are looking for at that given moment, you might have a shot. What I have discovered it is not solely about though, is music quality. As Mr. Goldmacher put it to me, the quality of your music is <50% of the equation. In some cases it might be 49, in others it might be 1… but it is never more than half. This alone depresses me enough to throw in the towel.
I would urge and beg you to not post stupid comments to this article. Trust me, anything you can think of, I have tried. Vague platitudes such as “trust in yourself and meet as many people as possible” are not helpful. I want to see real, tangible results.
After all of what you read above… my life savings gone, my heart and soul flushed dry, my brain overloaded with jealousy and confusion, and more than anything, an incredible album that has won four songwriting awards for four different songs, I have just over 100 monthly listeners on Spotify, and have spent more on internet service in the last year than I have made from my album.
In short, I’m drained. If this is what it takes… for years on end… I’m not sure I have it. Maybe it’s not meant to be, I don’t know. But for now I will be focusing on getting happy again, and trying to build my personal music businesses.
I wish all of you artists out there the best. I say this from experience… don’t let it drag you down. If you truly believe your music is good enough, then it most likely is. If it’s not, then deep down you know what you need to work on.
Unfortunately though, just having great music is not enough.