Stairway To Your First Cut, Part 1

by Jerry Vandiver and Gracie Hollombe

part one  |  part two

We've had the good fortune to personally experience, witness and celebrate the successes of many songwriters from the first day they got off the bus to their recent #1 party. (It seems there's one almost every week here in Nashville!). While each writer's success story is unique, we've found there are several common denominators that contributed to their successes. As we looked them over, we discovered five different levels, one building upon the other, with each level having its own "subset" of factors that serve as the bricks and mortar.

We'd like to pass those bricks on to you. We know how much you want that first cut, how you can taste it and how sometimes it feels insurmountable and out of reach. But we can tell you first hand that it isn't. No, we can't guarantee that you'll get your first cut by putting the bricks into place, but we can pretty much guarantee that if you don't start building, you won't see your name in tiny letters in parentheses under your song title anytime soon. So get out your trowel and let's go to work.

Think of the process as building (and then climbing) a staircase — a songwriting staircase — with each level supporting the one above it. It might look a little like this:

Your First Cut!

Level Five - Professional Relationships Working for You

Level Four - Solidifying Professional Relationships

Level Three - Developing Professional Relationships

Level Two - Connecting to the Music Business

Level One - Your Commitment to Songwriting

By the way, we found one more common denominator not listed above: writing a great song. Don't forget you have to do that too.

There are 4 "bricks" that make up Level One:


As you look them over, check off the ones you have put into place and work on creating the ones you haven't.

  1. You Play Guitar Or Piano. A song consists of lyric and melody. While there are successful lyrics-only writers, playing an instrument enhances your creativity in melody, rhythm, meter and timing.

  2. You Set Aside At Least A Three-Hour Block Once A Week To Write And Co-Write. Productivity equals quantity and quality. The more you write, the better your songs will be. Having a disciplined time to write demonstrates to you and the world that you're serious. Co-writing is another way to give and receive ideas in lyric, melody, song development and every other creative aspect to your songs. It helps you maintain discipline, makes you a teacher, student and a better writer.

  3. You Are Involved In A Local Songwriting Organization. A songwriting organization in your area is the best place to connect for information, ideas, networking and your passion for songs and songwriting. Get involved!

  4. You Do At Least One Thing Each Day, No Matter How Large Or Small, To Further Your Songwriting Career. These are small, do-able tasks. Write down a song idea, call a co-writer, study songs on a new CD. Every day. When you act like a songwriter, you think like a songwriter. This may be your most important brick and will last you your whole career.

If these first 4 bricks are in place, you've created your foundation for your success. Now let's go to the 3 bricks in Level Two:


  1. You Visit A Major Music Center To Attend And Play Writer's Nights, Co-Write, And Network At Least Three Times A Year. The music business is a contest in which you need to be present to win. You're increasing your chances for success when the powers that be can hear your masterpiece. The music business is a business of relationships. Start visiting and start connecting.

  2. You Drop Off Your Songs or Play Them in Person (on CD or tape) To A Music Center Publisher Who Has Agreed To Listen To Them. The music publisher is your agent and you need an agent to get your songs heard. Because you've been disciplining yourself to write and co-write, you now have songs that deserve to be listened to. Make some calls, get permission, and get them out there. Somehow your songs sound better in person. Once you've had some success with dropping off your songs, ask for an appointment. Strengthen that connection.

  3. You Perform You Songs Regularly In A Major Music Center. You never know who's in the audience.

How are you doing so far? If you've made your commitment to writing and becoming involved, and have begun to network by visiting a music center and pitching your songs, your first two levels are firmly in place. If there are some bricks missing, work on putting them in. No matter where you are on your journey, acknowledge how far you've come and keep going.

In Part II, "Developing and Solidifying Professional Relationships and Making them Work for You", we'll climb even higher. Keep writing!

See you on the charts!
Jerry & Gracie

2002 Jerry Vandiver and Gracie Hollombe
Jerry Vandiver is a staff writer for Talbot Music in Nashville with songs recorded by Gene Watson, Barbara Mandrell, Phil Vassar, and Tim McGraw, totaling over 12 million records. Gracie Hollombe, former Regional Workshops Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), is a full-time songwriter living in Nashville. Their book, "Your First Cut, A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting There" (11/22 Publishing, ISBN 0-9717745-0-1), is a 224-page hands-on, goal-oriented workbook designed to put you and keep you on the path to your songwriting dreams. The authors can be reached by visiting www.yourfirstcut.com.


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