Who Are You Writing For?
By Gale R. Horst, East Tennessee Songwriter
It seems that in any line of work and any industry there are "the basics" that cover the concepts that everyone who is associated with that line of work easily agree on. The further you progress beyond that, the more the opinions begin to differ. This phenomenon impacts even the more mature and well defined industries where a change in the established "norm" is controversial. There is a time to cross the line and a time to stay in the box. But we all need a box to think out of at times.
In the creative arts there are venues, approaches, and audiences to be targeted. There is the "business" vs the "artist" that can have conflicting approaches. When we have song writing workshops we often learn what the music business is looking for as far as song characteristics with certain requirements. These requirements can seem to be an impairment for the artistic part of a song writer. The length of a song is a requirement. The song must be identifiable as fitting into a certain venue such as country, blues, rock, folk. We are told that if it does not fit one of the main-line genres, the song demo may be placed into the ignore pile.
A while back I attended a songwriting workshop where the presenters seemed to be in a very different mindset than what we teach at the KSA. My initial reaction was that these were experienced but unpublished songwriters (other than on their own self-produced material). They very strongly emphasized the approach of "you gotta do your own thing and nobody else’s" that seemed reminiscent of the early 70s era with their VW campers or converted school bus campers. I would have expected that the presenters selected would promote an approach to songwriting that would be more relevant.
I spoke with one of the presenters later and, while my assumption about their background was true for the most part, it still got me thinking a bit. It is perfectly acceptable to approach songwriting in their way. But I would add, quite emphatically, that you need to know who you are writing for and accept the audience or market for which you are headed. Here are a few examples:
The niche-groupie venue, where it’s all about the groupie ambiance and expressing some feelings in the songs. The music and the lyrical flow do not seem to be a main focus and both take a back seat. For someone who is not really into this style, it almost seems like anti-music. But never the less, this is a valid style. Your audience is small groups of individuals who are of a very similar intellect. If the artist is singing about what is real for themselves, the listener identifies and creates a personal connection to the music and the passion of the performer. The songwriter, who is generally also the performer, needs to understand that this is a special market where the music and performance tends to be with a smaller intimate audience. The chances of successfully building a large following are very slim. But this is a valid choice as a writer or performer and obviously the choice of the workshop presenter in the case I mentioned.
The commercial-writer, on the other hand, is all about selling the song to a music business by fitting into their defined rules for commercializable music. It has a focus on selling the material and getting paid that could at times trump the creative artistic roots of the writer. The business formula contains rules, whether written or unspoken, for song length, the beat, target performer, target audience, that together can result in the narrowly focused style that gains air-play for the masses. While this approach carries potential for above average financial returns, the artist must learn to be creative within these artificial boundaries. Occasionally these rules can be broken. But the songwriter must "break them good", so to speak, and may not want to break more than one rule at a time.
The inspired-writer may or may not make a living at the craft of song writing. But in moments of inspiration may be able to take a personal experience and successfully communicate it in a way that captivates a listening audience. The inspired writer may have only a few tunes to share or many. After a time the writer realizes that some songs may be commercial material. From the stash of songs, perhaps a few gems can be plucked that fit the commercial format and are candidates for financial success. The rest either enjoy limited opportunity or shelf space as the composer adds them to the total experience.
So what is my point? It seems that we need to know who we are writing for. Whether writing a book, a lecture, or a song, you must know your audience. If your audience is yourself then anything beyond self satisfaction may be coincidental. But my claim is that if we can concurrently cross the lines between the inspired, commercial, and nitche you should be able to up our success potential. Is it possible to grab the emotion and feelings of the groupie-nitche while writing from personal inspiration in a commercializable format? What do the rest of the local songwriters think of this format-crossing concept?
Singer / Songwriter
Link to samples
of songs written
by Gale Horst