4 Critical Mistakes Songwriters Make — and How to Learn from ThemJan 09, 2022
SUMMARY: If you write songs, you’ve probably fallen into these 4 common traps that’ll hold you back from songwriting success. Let’s get clear on what those errors are — and how to avoid them next time you sit down to write.
1. Having Unrealistic Expectations
I’ve heard it said that your best song should be the one you are working on. I think there is some truth to that... every new song you write is an opportunity to write your best one yet.
But not every song is going to be a hit, go viral, or land a TV or film sync.
Out of the 9 million songs added to streaming services every year, only a small fraction of them will gain traction and rise to the top. (And with over 1 trillion songs streamed annually, it’s unlikely any given song being written will.)
This is true for the individual songwriter, as well. You shouldn’t expect that every song you finish is ‘the one.’
Now there may be ‘one’ in the folder that turns out to be pretty great — but you have to write in a way where you can fill up a folder. And you won’t get there by having unrealistic expectations, convincing yourself that everything depends on this latest track taking the world by storm.
Setting better expectations for songwriting
Not all songs serve the same purpose.
Some songs are great album tracks. Some hold up best in a live setting. In any case, placing too much emphasis on what a song can accomplish is setting yourself up for heartache.
So how can you adjust your expectations so that each song becomes what it should be?
I’m not saying to stop aiming high with your songwriting — it’s a good thing. But once you've put forth your best effort, it's out of your hands. It's better to be happy with what it becomes than to be disappointed by what it isn't.
That way, you can:
- Complete the song in progress as best you can
- Add it to your growing folder of demos that showcase your range
- Move on to the next song with confidence
2. Oversaturating Your Channels with Hype
As songwriters and artists, we all want people to be interested in our music, especially if our name isn’t ‘out there.’ So that’s why it's understandable when artists exaggerate what they're doing — the old "fake it 'til you make it," adage.
However, projecting an inflated picture of yourself and what you're doing could have the opposite effect of what you intend.
Reaching for importance can look desperate, and when you have real news to share, people will be less likely to believe or want to hear it.
Here are a few marketing efforts to avoid that might make you look unprofessional:
- Anything subtly stating how busy you are. If you're plenty busy, you don't need to stop and tell everyone about it.
- Sharing too much of your future plans. It's great you have goals, but the world doesn't need to know you're working on 10 albums worth of material this year. Instead, after you've completed an achievement, make a post sharing gratitude for the help you've received from your collaborators. It's good practice celebrating small victories but it's tacky celebrating things that haven't yet been done.
- Too much name-dropping. We've all done it, and it can be acceptable to an extent. If you write a song with a Grammy winning songwriter, it's cool to tell people about it — but maybe steer clear of talking too much about their accomplishments.
How and when to share your songwriting wins
In short, stay focused on your work, not on reminding people how much work you do. (Some of us will be surprised at how much time this saves!)
Stay focused on your work, not on reminding people how much work you do.
Then, when you’ve completed a project or reached some kind of milestone — even a small one — it’s a great idea to dedicate a post to it, and even mention the people you’re proud to have worked with, all in a genuine note that showcases the product of your hard work — and that lets the work speak for itself!
3. Not Collaborating
Many songwriters start off learning how to write as a solo. If they stick with it, soon enough they’ll have a method they follow when it’s time to write: pick up a guitar, sit down at the piano, flip open a notebook — and see if there’s something to say.
Sometimes a song might start to emerge. But other times (maybe a majority of them), you’re at a standstill.
Opening your process up to collaboration is an excellent way to find a path forward when doing it on your own stalls out: two heads are better than one, right?
But songwriting is a vulnerable process, so it’s understandable if the thought of bringing other people into those frustrating, challenging moments is a little stomach-churning.
Collaborating with other songwriters, producers, or studio engineers can feel down-right uncomfortable — especially when you've spent time crafting your idea, only for someone to make changes to it.
But here’s the thing: vulnerability is a songwriter’s superpower. When you combine your openness to creative unknowns with somebody else’s, possibilities open up that neither of you could’ve found on your own.
By collaborating, you are opening new avenues of potential for your songs. Suddenly you’re not the only one working to make your songs succeed. As the saying goes, "teamwork makes the dream work."
Here are 3 tips to make collaborating more productive:
- Try collaborating often. The more you do the familiar it will feel and thus, more comfortable.
- Work on material you're not as close to so it's a little easier to let go of the reins.
- Start writing with collaboration in mind, knowing that things will change — and more than likely, for the better.
4. Listening to the Wrong Feedback
An audience is an essential part of your art — especially true even before your song is released.
So when a song is in development, you should share what you’ve got with people whose feedback you trust.
Don’t take advice from someone whose perspective you don’t find trustworthy.
Being selective with who you listen to is the key to getting the kind of feedback that’ll make your songs better.
Important reminder: not everyone is going to have the kind of feedback that helps. Some feedback does more harm than good.
And getting the wrong feedback — the kind that doesn’t serve your song — can be confusing. Anyone can throw their two cents into things, even when they may not know anything about the subject, so have a short list of peers and mentors whose thoughts will give you additional, thoughtful perspective.
Is it okay to share your song ideas with friends and family? How about with people on the internet?
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to get a sense of what people close to you think about your new ideas — but trying to get approval from people you barely know online is a big killer of time and inspiration.
Set your sights on professional feedback instead. Why?
Too much positive feedback from non-pros doesn’t accomplish much.
Asking your mom or dad, girlfriend or boyfriend, best friend or co-worker what they think of your song idea will get you a response most likely biased in your favor — which will feel good in the moment, but won’t help you get an objective sense of the song’s potential.
You’ll probably be disappointed when a producer or collaborator isn't as excited about an idea as the people who are supportive of you because they want you to succeed.
A professional opinion, on the other hand — from any songwriter or producer further along than you — is going to be fairer and more accurate.
So you can still share with friends and family. But just know how to take their thoughts with a grain of salt, and make sure you’re also sharing with songwriters or producers whose ear and experience you trust.
Too much negative feedback from questionable sources doesn’t help either.
Relying on what people from the internet think takes you away from the goal you should have when sharing your idea with someone: to get a perspective on how to make the song the best it can be.
The reason why you shouldn’t put a lot of stock in the opinion of people you don’t know?
They don’t know what’s right for you! It’s easier for people to hate on things they’re not attached to or invested in. So if you’re putting out incomplete ideas and listening to thoughts of strangers, you could be thinking your ideas aren't any good when the opposite could be the case.
Don’t waste your time looking for feedback in the wrong places. Find people you trust who can provide constructive feedback, the kind you can do something with to make the song what it should be.
What makes a great songwriter? There are no easy answers, but to become a more confident, consistent songwriter, you can:
- Set better expectations for each song.
- Document your successes on social without wasting time on hype.
- Working with music professionals and songwriters on the same journey.
- Incorporating the right kind of feedback to make a good song great.
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