When I think about how I became a professional songwriter, I don't recall a certain day or moment. It's usually just me thinking back to a handful of random instances that have led me to become what most people would consider a “professional," and the lessons that I've learned along the way. In fact, I became a professional songwriter almost by accident—wait, wait wait—*rewinds tape*.
Before I get into the five most invaluable lessons I've learned while becoming a professional songwriter, I'd like to take you back to the beginning of my journey in order for you to see how I ended up in this very place. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, a city most songwriters would consider “Songwriter Heaven,” hearing stories about the famous RCA Studio B, the home of what many would refer to as the “Nashville Sound.” I remember taking trips to downtown Nashville with my mother, hearing the words and sounds of songwriters like The Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride. Even as a 7-year-old black kid growing up on the east side of the city, the sound of those records fascinated me. I wanted to create something similar that I could call my own, something with a little bit more soul, something that I could be proud of.
Except I didn’t know how.
The very first original song I ever performed was written by my mom—I guess you could say she was my ghostwriter—for a church talent show. To prepare for the show, my mother took me to the local Sam Goody and bought MC Hammer’s “Pray” on cassette, which had the radio version on side A and the instrumental on side B. Once we got home, I remember my mom pulling out a handful of index cards and a boombox and placing them on the table. Now, my mother didn’t grow up in the hip-hop era, but she was hip and young enough to still have a knowledge of the craft. I popped the tape into my tiny RadioShack boombox and immediately, she got to work. Line by line, I watched as my mom crafted a kid-friendly rap song, all while unknowingly teaching me my first lesson in the basic fundamentals of songwriting. I was in awe that someone with no aspirations of becoming a songwriter was fueling my fire to learn the craft.
I took pride in performing that song, which at the time felt so perfectly fit for me. Only someone as loving as a mother could have penned that record for their child. That, in turn, taught me my very first lesson about songwriting:
Lesson 1: Never forget who and what you are writing for. Write from your heart and soul, but always remember who the target audience is.
I took that early lesson with me throughout my adolescent years, all the way up until I started working as an intern for songwriter and record producer Dallas Austin, who has worked with Babyface, TLC, Monica and Boyz II Men, among countless others. That is where I met longtime DJBooth favorite Novel, who would not only become one of my best friends but also my mentor and the person who gave me a real shot at becoming a professional songwriter. Before I met Dallas or Novel, I’d never been around real deal professional songwriters. Up until that point, it was just me in my room, listening to The Beatles, Green Day, Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest, trying to emulate how John, Billie, Kurt and Tip crafted their songs.
I never went to school for songwriting—at least not an official one. Instead, D.A.R.P. (Dallas Austin’s Studio) was my school. It was where I would learn to take the skills my mom taught me early on and all the lessons I learned by listening to my favorite songwriters and apply them in a way that would take me from being an amateur to a professional.
Sidebar: If you think that becoming a professional songwriter in 2018 is about getting signed or having a No. 1 hit, it's not. More than ever before, technology has blurred the lines between what is considered professional and amateur. Almost anyone now has a chance to land a song on the charts or to have a top-tier artist cut a record for one of their songs.
Lesson 2: Relationships are everything. Be relentless in building your network.
Every single song placement I’ve ever earned—Afrojack, Kanye, Jidenna, etc.—didn’t come from a publisher or a record label. They came from me building relationships and continuously cold playing my songs for A&Rs and artists until they had no choice but to take them or set me up with a writing session. I was relentless in that pursuit. I had to be.
Lesson 3: Surround yourself with people who are better than you at what you hope to accomplish.
Professionalism in songwriting isn’t made up of accolades and accomplishments. In fact, most professional songwriters will never have a hit record, never receive a plaque, and never sign with a publishing company. Instead, what sets these individuals, as well as more accomplished writers like Dallas and Novel, apart from amateurs is knowledge. I learned while working at D.A.R.P. that being around people who are better than you at what you hope to accomplish is vital. This will help you gain knowledge much faster than trying to figure it out yourself. While I was learning all I could from Novel about how to structure a song, the environment taught me how to work with other artists, how to tailor lyrics and ideas to others and the art of writing and REWRITING a song until it's perfect.
In the words of Hemingway, “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Lesson 4: Write. Every. Single. Day.
The next lesson I learned is the art of repetition. Quickly, I noticed that what separated amateurs from the likes of Dallas and Novel was that they were ALWAYS writing new records. EVERY SINGLE DAY. Music wasn’t just a hobby; it was a way of life. And not only did they show up every day, figurately and quite literally, they challenged themselves beyond their limits.
Professionalism in songwriting is about growth. It’s about knowing where you are in your skill set and pushing beyond that. Getting to the edge of that cliff and not being afraid to jump.
Lesson 5: Learn how to fail.
The most important lesson, however, is learning how to fail. Not every song you write will become a hit. And what I mean by that is, almost every song you write won't become a hit. Sometimes you’ll deliver a record for an artist that goes nowhere. Artists will turn your songs down more times than they’ll take them. But that's just part of the business. You just have to keep going, keep writing.
A song you write in 2018 may not become a hit until 2020. Trust me, I know. In 2011, I wrote a song entitled "The Spark," which I ended up giving to Afrojack after countless artists turned me down. Two years later, the record was released and turned into a smash, becoming a top 10 hit in 13 countries.
Professionalism in songwriting doesn’t come with a stamp or certificate telling you that you’ve made it from amateur to pro. It’s about understanding your audience, continuously and seriously working on your craft, learning from your mistakes, building a network in which to pitch your songs, finding mentors who are better than you, learning to fail and just having an overwhelming faith in what you’re writing. Once you’ve done all that, you and only you will be able to know if you have what it takes to play in the big leagues.
After that, it’s only a matter of time until the world finds out too.