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Songwriter For Recording Artists: Composer • Lyricist • Songwriter • Writer


Songwriters compose music, write lyrics, or both. Individual songwriters approach the business of writing in many different ways. Some schedule daily time to write alone or with a co-writer. Others wait until inspiration strikes and then they write until that song is finished. Most are comfortable writing both words and melody, but some may only compose music or write the lyrics. Artist/writers and producer/writers generally focus on writing songs for their upcoming album, while many songwriters compose their best song, and then choose which artists to submit it to.


While playing an instrument is not a requirement, it is an asset. Most songwriters can play guitar or piano. “Having an ear for harmonies and the basic knowledge of chords,” adds Jennifer Kimball. “Having an ear for the cadence of words.”


Many publishers provide a writing room for their staff songwriters. This is particularly true in Nashville, where most writers keep regimented schedules, booking co-writing appointments at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Other writers, particularly those with home recording studios or music rooms, will begin work on an idea and continue until they have completed the song, or reached total exhaustion. Often, they will lay down tracks or record work in process.


If a writer is signed to a publishing company, he turns in work tapes and lyric sheets for his publisher to approve a demo recording session. Very successful writers may skip the approval process and schedule a session whenever they feel they have enough songs to record. Writers who own their own studios may complete the demo before playing it for their publisher. Typically, once the demo is complete, it becomes the publisher's job to get the song recorded. Many writers have their own connections and will also pitch the song. The ultimate goals of songwriters are to have their songs recorded and have them become hits or standards.


Keep a notebook with hook lines and ideas for songs jotted inside. This may be the same book used to record lyrics and music notes as you write. It is a good idea to carry pen and paper or a portable cassette player with you at all times so you can write down or record ideas as they come.

Always carry a portable cassette recorder to writing sessions so you have a record of the work in progress and to ensure ideas are not forgotten. At the end of the session, record a rough copy of the completed work.

“Songwriting is mind discipline. Always be working on something.”WJ

“The best songwriters have good people skills. Other people want to write with them and they can present themselves well when they're pitching songs.”JK


In most cases, if you are just beginning and want to become a successful songwriter (one whose songs are recorded and earn money) you need to live where the core of the business is—Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. Once you become an established writer, or have a publisher pitching your songs, you can live virtually anywhere you want. Until you have established a track record, you must be where you can network with other songwriters, publishers, artists, producers, and people in the business who can help you. Many writers begin by making regular trips to one or all of these cities to develop contacts before making a permanent move.

Before making the trip to one of these cities, contact a writer relations representative at one of the performing rights societies: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (see Appendix). Explain that you are a songwriter who is planning an eventual move and that you are coming to check out the area first. Inquire about upcoming writer showcases, workshops, or other events that might be of interest to you and plan your trip around them. Ask about clubs in the city that feature writers and consider their suggestions for networking opportunities with other writers.

Make a friend with someone at one of the societies and this person might be the very one who will champion your cause to become a successful songwriter. Never underestimate the power of relationships. Next, ask this person to spare a few minutes to meet with you, listen to a couple of your songs, and give you feedback. Try to meet with a representative from each of the societies, but do not sign with one until you feel you have made a connection with a representative who will be there for moral support. Since the society is there to collect your performance money, you do not need to sign with one until you actually have a song cut and there is money to collect.


Select two to three of your very best songs and make a guitar or piano and vocal demo of them. If you have access to a studio, you may want to do a more elaborate demo, particularly if you are a programmer or you need it to display the particular sound of the song. Do not spend money you don't have. Most publishers are able to hear the song from a simple guitar or piano and vocal demo, and many prefer it. Print lyric sheets for each of the song samples you plan to take. You should have several copies of the songs with lyrics that you can give to people without expecting them to be returned to you. Make sure your name, address, and telephone number, as well as the title of each song and writer credit (your name and all co-writers) are on the cassette and the lyric sheets.


Without being overly pushy, try to get your songs heard by other writers and publishers. Remember though, while you might have great potential, it is more likely you still need to hone your craft. There are many writers who have success in getting songs recorded who are without publishing deals. Signing an unproven writer is a big risk. Be humble and grateful for any meeting, criticism, or help you receive. These are people you potentially want to work with. Ask writers you admire if they would like to co-write with you. This is a great way to get to know people in the business and improve your writing skills. Do not be discouraged if you are turned down, because it may simply mean the writer has his schedule filled, or that he doesn't want to start with a new writer. Find someone else to ask until you get a “yes.”



“You never know what's going to happen.”WJ

“Rejectionwe get many more songs not cut, than cut. Many of them are as dear to us as the ones that do get cut, so it's hard to stay positive and excited. The gap between the creation and your reward; you have to take your pleasure in the creation because it may be years and years and years before the song gets recordedit may never get recorded.”JK


“You never know what's going to happen.”WJ

“The joy of creation is definitely the best part of this job. It's a great job that allows you an incredible lifestyle to work when you want to.”—JK

East Texas native Will Jennings' lifelong love of music began in his childhood through the traditional musical forms of the South: blues, country, and gospel. His first instrument was the trombone, but after being exposed to jazz in his teen years, he switched to the guitar. The guitar meshed naturally with Jennings' gift for writing poetry, forming the beginning of his songwriting career. Eventually, he earned a Masters degree in music, teaching for three years at a junior college in Tyler, Texas, and three years at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire.

In 1971, Jennings made a leap into the unknown, moving to Nashville to try his hand as a professional songwriter. “I became a songwriter because I couldn't make a living as a teacher. It was something that I had to do for self-preservation. I had to give it a shot.” Arriving in town with a tiny bankroll, he began making the rounds of local clubs, where he met fellow songwriter, Troy Seals. They wrote together without pay for a fledgling publishing company, scraping by for several months until some of their songs were recorded. The break came when Dobie Gray (“Drift Away”) recorded several of Jennings' tunes on his Shift to White album. Following that, Jennings' work began to attract attention.

After signing with Almo Irving Music Publishing in 1974 and moving to Los Angeles, Jennings commuted between the West Coast and Nashville for several years. His first sound track writing was in the film Casey's Shadow, but it was two more years before he got another chance. While sound track work eventually brought him the greatest publicity, Jennings views it as being a separate, but parallel, career to his songwriting. Signed to Warner Chappell Music in 1981, his second film was An Officer and A Gentleman, for which he co-wrote the theme “Up Where We Belong,” and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

More film work followed, and in between, Jennings wrote such hits as “Didn't We Almost Have It All” (Whitney Houston); “Looks Like We Made It” and “Somewhere In The Night” (Barry Manilow); “Finer Things,” “Higher Love,” and “Roll With It” (Steve Winwood); and “Tears in Heaven” (Eric Clapton). He won a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and a Grammy Award for “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion), the theme from the film Titanic. His songs continue to provide the perfect mood for film and television, including Moulin Rouge!, A Beautiful Mind; How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; Yours, Mine and Ours; and Freedom Writers.


“I didn't really think I would be in the music business. I thought I was going to be an actress when I was in high school,” says Jennifer Kimball, who grew up all over the world, wherever the Army stationed her father. At the University of Alabama, Kimball focused on a career as a college professor, but in her senior year she met a budding singer/songwriter named Tom Kimmel and her path was changed forever. She became a background singer for Tom and an editor of his songs. Along the way they fell in love—“that's how I got in the music business.” A year later they married and moved to New England, “where we thought we'd make our fame and fortune.” Notoriety and wealth eluded them and after a year, they moved back to Alabama to regroup. Tom had jobs at two different factories while Jennifer worked in an office. After a year, Jennifer yearned to give music another shot and drove to Nashville one weekend with demo tapes in hand.

“People saw me,” she muses, “God knows why they did.” Troy Seals was one who liked what he heard and arranged for Almo Irving Publishing to fly the Kimmels back to Nashville to work with him. “He did it on my voice. He was producing me as a singer.” Seals also signed a deal to acquire some of Tom's songs and co-wrote with him. Later that year, they moved to Nashville and Tom took a job cleaning studios “as a janitor, like Kris Kristofferson.” Through a relative they got a meeting with producer/songwriter Alan Reynolds.

Reynolds recommended them to Roger Cook and Charles Cochran, who hired Jennifer as a demo singer. “Charles got me an audition with Crystal Gayle and within six months I was singing backgrounds on the road with her.” Not long after, the couple separated and divorced. In the wake, Jennifer took up songwriting. Building on what she had learned about the craft from Tom, she experienced quick success. “One of my first songs, ‘Fool, Fool Heart,’ was cut by Don Williams.”

Gayle band mate, saxophonist Jay Patton, introduced Jennifer to his publisher at Sony Tree (now Sony/ATV Music). “They published my first songs for 100 percent of the publishing and no draw,” Kimball laughs. “But I still love those people, especially Donna Hilley. It was a family atmosphere and very inspirational to be around all those greats—Sunny Throckmorton, Bobby Braddock, Curly Putman. It was an incredible place, as a beginning songwriter, to be a small part of it. They gave me free studio time in those days—24 track and great players.”

Kimball built on the Williams success with smaller cuts and eventually landed a publishing deal with an advance. Her first pop hit came in 1984. Co-written with fellow background singer Cindy Walker, “Almost Over You” was a smash for Sheena Easton. (“We wrote it in the dressing room at Caesar's Palace, between shows.”) The following year, Kimball was awarded Country Music Association's 1985 Single of the Year for her song “Bop,” recorded by Dan Seals.

Kimball has gone on to score several number ones including the mega-hit “I Can Love You Like That,” which All-4-One took to the top of the Billboard AC single charts for three weeks, and hit number three on Billboard Hot 100. Their version of the song was nominated for two Grammys and won ASCAP Pop Awards in 1996, 1997, and 1998, BMI Pop Awards in 1996 and 1997, and was featured in the Disney film First Kid. John Michael Montgomery's recording of the song landed the number one slot on the country charts for three weeks and was also nominated for two Grammy Awards. It was named 1996 ASCAP Country Song of the Year and received BMI's 1996 Most Performed Country Song Award. Her co-written Brooks & Dunn/Reba duet “If You See Him/If You See Her” earned another Grammy nomination. Others who have recorded songs penned by Kimball include America, Johnny Cash, Faith Hill, Bette Midler, and The Trio: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in the Music BusinessCOMPOSING—SONGWRITING - Songwriter For Recording Artists: Composer • Lyricist • Songwriter • Writer, Composer/songwriter For Film And Television: Composer • Lyricist • Songwriter • Writer (film And Television)