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Sunday, March 31, 2013

How much is your songwriting linked to performance?

By Ted Slowik

Here's a question that might change the way you think about songwriting: How much is your writing tied to your performance?

This question assumes that the writer and performer are one and the same. That the person writing the songs is doing so with the intention of performing them. And in most cases, that person will probably be the only person to ever perform his own songs.

But as a songwriter, have you ever thought about trying to write a song that somebody else might actually perform? Would you ever try writing a tune that you yourself might never consider playing, but some other artist would?

This is important to recognize, if it isn't already obvious, because the key to songwriting success is in publishing, not performance. Why, the world's richest musician, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has never topped the charts as a performer (No. 2 is Paul McCartney).

As apparent as this might seem to most songwriters, I'm ashamed to admit I've only recently come to this realization. I happily toiled away writing songs for nearly 30 years. I'd typically finish a song, record a demo of it, and that was it. When enough demos accumulated I'd assemble them into a collection, or "album," and even choose cover photography and titles and credits and make it look like the real thing. Then I'd make 20 or 30 copies and give them to friends. The sound quality was always far less than professional but the idea was to have my songs heard by someone other than me.

For me, a light bulb went on sometime in late 2010 or early 2011. I thought, what if I played my songs on guitar in front of other people? Now as a bassist for many years, I had tried to write songs specifically for certain bands, to varying success. Some bands I was in played my songs. Sometimes I didn't have to sing my own song, I never had to play drums on them, and as a bassist I didn't have to worry about playing guitar leads or solos, my weakness.

Then I discovered this entire world of acoustic performers, for the most part entirely separate from the electric realm. I started learning to actually PLAY the songs I'd written, well enough so that audiences wouldn't laugh. After a couple years now I think people actually like listening to some of my songs.

Now that I'm performing tunes solo I've discovered I'm writing differently. Until two years ago, I was a straight six-string standard tuning kind of guy. Now I'm writing and playing some stuff in open tunings, with a slide, with a capo, with a loop pedal to solo over and with a harmonica. Not to mention if anyone ever wants to sit in with me, I'm all for it!

I've found this has expanded my writing range and that I'm now writing certain songs a.) just to make use of different sounds and b.) to showcase my performance strengths (which aren't many!). I also find that I'll write a song because my live set needs a new uptempo number, or slow tune, or song in a different key to switch things up, that sort of thing.

How about you, songwriters? How much of your songs' writing is influenced by performance?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What comes first: Words or music?

By Ted Slowik

Songwriters often are asked what comes first, words of music? This raises a broader question about the songwriting process.

The question may be easy for some to answer, but for most it's probably complicated. That's because the songwriting process varies greatly. Typically an individual will experience several different styles or processes when writing songs. There's no right or wrong answer, no style is better than the other. Songs just come about in different ways.

First, there's the noodling approach. A lot of musicians, especially guitarists who aspire to be songwriters, experience this. You're playing your instrument, messing around with scales and such, and you come up with a neat little hook. It's nice. It sounds cool. It's original. You want to make something of it so you build a song around it. This approach more or less uses original songs as a vehicle to showcase a musician's talents and abilities.

Then there's the throwaway. All songwriters have experienced this. It's a simple song, with easy chords and a basic progression (12-bar blues is common) and words that may range from personal to silly to everyday. The thing just sort of writes itself. It just comes to you, maybe after you've been working hard on something completely different. It's usually fun to play and can be a favorite of fans. Ironically, throwaway songs are sometimes a writer's biggest successes.

But most good writing isn't stumbled upon. It's arrived at after much hard work and careful deliberation. The challenge for writers is to take a finite number of musical notes and words and sounds and assemble them into a melody and lyrics that haven't yet been arranged that way. Writers want their new material to be different not only from all of recorded and composed music created before them, but also distinct enough from their own previous body of work.

Professional songwriters commissioned to write a piece might start with research, like a term paper. Reading, in general, is a great way to get inspiration for lyrics. If Robert Plant hadn't been reading "Lord of the Rings" we might not have ended up with "Led Zeppelin IV." Travel also is good inspiration. Anything that takes you out of the routine and shakes things up can be good.

A song can start as a idea: you want to write about a subject, so you start thinking about it. A lot. Maybe constantly. Eventually, you might get ideas for a line or two or start humming a melody. Maybe words and music come to you simultaneously. If you're lucky enough to get started that way, you might get a verse down and then a chorus. Then a second verse would be written to fit the music, so in that case the music comes first.

But a poem can be set to music, so the lyrics can come first, too. It all depends. Great writing can take a long time. You might try all kinds of musical arrangements and transitions from one part of a song to the next and reject them until you hit upon the one where you go, "Ah, that's it." It's a eureka moment, when you know you've got something good.

The same is true with words. You might be tempted to take the first words that come to mind and stick them in. Who hasn't gone through the alphabet thinking of a word to end a second stanza to rhyme with the first? It's OK to stick any old words in there as placeholders. But it's good to step back, maybe sleep on it, come back to it and ask, "Can I do better?" The first choice often is too obvious and predictable.

Sometimes great songs come about by sheer will. You imagine the mood your song will create, or the reaction it will get from the listener and you try to achieve that. Sometimes what you end up with is far from what you imagined, but you may still be satisfied with the result.

So, songwriters, what do you think? What's your songwriting process like?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

When should band members share songwriting credit?

By Ted Slowik
When a solo artist writes a song, it's a fairly straightforward process. That person composes music and writes lyrics and is credited as the writer. Maybe he or she collaborates with other writers on some songs and shares the credit accordingly.

A band that writes its own tunes, however, can become complicated. When should band members share writing credit? At what point do another member’s contributions become significant enough to warrant credit? Do drummers ever get writing credit?

First, collaboration among band members who are songwriters usually starts out as a healthy, productive process that is good for the overall quality of the music. Every writer should have an editor, and when that editor is a trusted friend, all the better.

There are many different models for band songwriters. There are bands where one person is the principal songwriter and receives sole credit for most of the compositions. Think Pete Townshend of The Who or John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Then there are groups where a songwriting duo always receives credit, regardless of the actual division of labor: Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards.

Drummers occasionally are credited. For years during its original lineup, the credit for every R.E.M. song was Berry, Buck, Mills, Stipe.

More commonly, though, songwriting credits for bands vary and attempt to acknowledge the actual creators of the material. There may be contributors who aren’t members of the band, or even musicians, who receive credit. (Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, once co-wrote a song with The Eagles.)
To maintain a healthy, collaborative climate, it’s a good idea for bandmates to at least have a conversation about songwriting credits. Publishing royalties are sometimes the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you never know when that one song may strike a chord, pun intended. It’s best to have reached agreement on sharing credit beforehand.

Typically, before band members become songwriting partners, members will bring to the table completed songs for the group’s consideration. If the group ends up playing the song the way the writer intended, it’s a solo credit. Things like solos, backing vocals, breaks and other embellishments that don’t drastically alter the structure of the song don’t rise to the level of songwriting co-credit in my book.

Here’s where it gets tricky. What of those contributions that DO significantly change a tune? Those must be acknowledged and the credit should be shared, methinks. I’m talking things like substantial contributions (more than a couple words) to lyrics, or a musical bridge, or chord changes that really improve a song. The lead writer has to realize when contributions have made the difference between a good song and a great song and give props.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Open mics are great opportunities for songwriters

By Ted Slowik

I've written songs for 30 years, but for about 28 years I never thought to perform them as a soloist. I wrote some songs that bands performed, but could count on one hand the number of times over three decades that I performed originals on an acoustic guitar in front of an audience.

All that changed in late 2011. I realized if I was ever going to get any mileage out of any of my original compositions, I'd have to be the one playing them. I spent two to five hours every day for the better part of a year practicing my guitar playing and singing, and have been pleased with the progress. (I've played bass most my life.)

I'm no virtuoso, nor am I incredibly talented vocally. But I work hard, have good rhythm, can write lyrics well and can carry a tune--especially rockers--with the best of them. I enjoy performing covers as much as originals, and have a great time when audiences show appreciation.

Still, I haven't recorded anything professionally in a long time, and while I certainly have enough material (closing in on 100 songs) to choose from to fill an evening, so far the gig offers have been manageable. I like to keep up my performance chops between gigs by playing at open mics.

Open mics don't pay, not even free drinks. Depending on the venue and the number of performers signed up that evening, you might play from two to maybe six songs, or more sometimes. I like to arrive early and sign up ahead of time, to get an early slot, so I can get out at a reasonable hour and get my beauty sleep for the day job.

It's great hanging out, meeting and getting to know other musicians while waiting to play. Open mics are communities--typically most performers know each other, and if there's a new face the group or at least the majority of individuals are generally very welcoming. If you're an introverted songwriter you might have trouble adjusting to this at first, but it's really helpful if you're comfortable talking to and performing for strangers or new friends.

When I began solo performing I checked out a few open mic-type settings I'd heard about. One was a folk song circle at a coffee house. I was the youngest person there and didn't feel like the music was a good fit. Another was at a bar in Naperville. The people were friendly, the music was good, but it was nearly all covers, and too far of a drive from home to make it a regular thing.

Then in late 2011 I found Niall Freyne's Tribes Alehouse in Mokena, where John Condron hosts acoustic open mic every Wednesday. I'm a regular--nearly every week. It's about a 20-minute drive for me, the sound is good, the company is great and originals are encouraged though not required.

In addition to John, I've gotten to know a great many talented songwriters and performers through Tribes: Tom Maslowski and Becky Smentak, Pat Otto, John Green, Bill Ryan, Ryan Olsson, Greg Woods, Greg Toombs, Joel Ahrweiler, Charlie Champene, Chris and Allison Flood, Karl Maurer, Matt Biskie, Scott McNeil, Spetrus, Eddie Bartley, Nick Domberg, Tristan Charles, Patrick and more.

I think it's the premier acoustic showcase for songwriters and performers in the towns southwest of Chicago. The experience of playing there regularly has really helped my comfort level, performance and even writing.

A few times I've trekked to Abbey Pub's Green Room in Chicago, or FitzGerald's Sidebar in Berwyn. They have great open mics on Tuesdays, but they're a long ways from home and it's tough to do back-to-back weeknights out. There's also a great room in Willow Springs called the Ashbary, but it's a younger crowd that makes me feel more like a geezer than I already am. But they have great audiences who listen in silence while you're playing and go nuts with appreciation when you're done. The William Alexander Wine Bar in Lockport also welcomes acoustic solo players on Sunday nights, though it's a hybrid acoustic showcase/electric jam with bass, drums and keys.

Open mics are a great way to test out new material. For songwriters who can perform, open mics can help you gain experience, hone your craft and pick up valuable feedback from audiences.

There's also a good selection of electric blues/rock jams in the southwest 'burbs, but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

But wait, there's more!

By Ted Slowik


That's how much a couple guys are charging to critique your songs during a three-day "songwriting camp" in Indiana. A couple guys from Nashville, who have impressive creds, have organized this camp. You get a demo of your song, backed by pro musicians, and you get to perform it Saturday night during a shindig at the end of camp.

When I heard this I thought, what a brilliant idea for a revenue stream!

Because, essentially, that's what a group of friends and like-minded musicians are doing for free on Monday nights during Songwriter Circle at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet. Alex Hoffer hosts, and joining him for the second weekly circle March 4 were Steve, Mary Beth, Eddie and me.

We sat around for a couple hours, talking and playing. Alex offers very insightful feedback about chords, arrangements, structure--you name it. We played three of our own songs each. The feedback was very valuable. I mean, maybe not worth $1,000, but if you had to put a price on it I'd say it could run into the hundreds. Like a lawyer or doctor charging for professional advice.

I was able to pick up some guitar-playing tips. I had a couple lessons when I was a kid getting started, but I really only know basic chords. I don't know all my sevenths and ninths and minor diminished (or is it diminished minor?) chords. But I know if I keep hanging around this group I'm bound to absorb some good stuff through osmosis.

Anyway, Alex plans to continue hosting these on Monday nights at Chicago Street. They get started sometime after 8 p.m. If you're a songwriter looking for free advice, check it out.

Friday, March 1, 2013

9 golden rules for musicians and artists

By Ted Slowik

Musicians, writers and other artists—or anyone for that matter—can really piss off other people or hurt their feelings, intentionally or unintentionally, through what they say or write and how they behave toward others.

I spend a lot of time in bars where live music is played. When I’m out, I genuinely enjoy sharing the company of other writers and musicians, meeting new people and getting to know new friends better. When hanging out with other musicians, or writing a blog, or engaging with others on social media channels, I try to adhere to a few golden rules:

·         Treat others the way you would like to be treated
·         If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
·         Be honest. Don't heap false praise if you don't mean it. Don't say you know someone or are familiar with his work unless you do.
·         You learn more by listening than by talking
·         Try to think of others more than yourself
·         You can have a lot of fun being close to the action without having to be the center of attention
·         If you can’t resist constructively criticizing someone, say something positive first
·         Don’t say anything about people who are not present that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in their presence
·         Don’t exaggerate or brag about your accomplishments

We’ve all had to deal with awkward and embarrassing situations because of what we’ve said and done. We all have faults. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re fatally flawed. If you want to develop true friendships, pursue real happiness and have a good time instead of constantly dealing with regrets, trying to follow these tips might save you a bunch of grief.