Songwriting Business

The Real Deal

Perhaps the best thing about being a teacher is how much you end up learning yourself.

And some of the best lessons are the ones that are un-planned.

I teach a class at Musicians Institute in Hollywood that is based on bringing in guests—successful songwriters, to interview them with the class and then open it up and have the students ask questions.

It has been an amazing learning experience, for me as much as for the students.

But the other day the inevitable happened—the guest for the day was unavoidably late—and I had to wing it.

Something had been on my mind, not only about the class, but about the idea of teaching songwriting in general.

It had become obvious to me that it was possible to divide the guests into two separate, almost even clear categories of style.

The first school I will call, for lack of a better term, the business approach. This method was exemplified by Michael Lloyd and Adam Watts and Andy Dodd—writers who made up their minds going in what kind of song they were going to write, what they wanted it to do, and wrote it to plan. I have known in my life many successful writers who have the talent, the insight, and the craftsmanship to be able to write that way and be very successful in their careers with that approach.

The other approach I will call, again for lack of a better term, the artistic approach. This type of writer approaches writing almost as a ceremony—with a deep respect for the emotional / spiritual aspects of the song—with a more open "follow the song where it leads" attitude rather than "lead the song where I want it to go" vibe.

That type of writer was exemplified most clearly by Jenny Yates and Randy Sharp—two writers who have charted a course through their careers of writing emotional heartfelt songs that may be considered a bit left of center but popular in their own way.

Needless to say, the business approach tends to have more consistent commercial success that is measurable in sales and chart ability. That is not to say there isn't artistic content in the more business approach—and from the interviews I would say that Michael Lloyd and Adam and Andy are every bit as passionate emotionally in what they do as Jenny and Randy—but there is a difference in attitude and approach, and from what we heard in the class—results.

I had been planning a "overview" class toward the end of the semester that would attempt to sum it all up—try and give it a bottom line for the students.

So the day my guest was late, I took an acoustic guitar and played four songs—and I intentionally played them in the same key, very simply, and as much as possible, with the same dynamics and tempo. Each song being structurally more or less an archetype of it's form—each song being immensely successful from a commercial and artistic standpoint—holding up to the test of time.

The four songs were "Baby I Love You" by Phil Spector, "Sitting In Limbo" by Jimmy Cliff, "Help Me Make It Through the Night" by Kris Kristopherson, and "Maybe It Was Memphis" by some guy.

After each song I asked the class one question—"What was that song about?"

In each case the message, the theme, the story was very obvious. You could follow it line by line—and it told a clear emotional story that everyone could relate to.

And every one of them was simple. Every one of them was easy enough, when broken down to its essential elements, to be technically within the grasp of a young writer to understand and do something similar with their writing abilities. Each song was possible.

And that is the real deal. As screeners, and educators, or book writers, or presenters of information we tend to get immersed in the detail of construction and tend to underplay the basic aspect of songwriting—the emotional communication of a relatable idea. What does the song say?

There is a songwriting book out now that breaks down my song "Maybe It Was Memphis" over the course of three chapters. I was very surprised when one of my students brought it to me and I read what another writer said about the song—from a construction point of view. For one thing it felt weird—like an obituary / critique. And I was very flattered—but immediately recognized the reality of the difference between creating and critiquing—(or teaching)—that difference is very important to keep in mind.

I was mainly struck how different the observation of it was from where it actually came from. If I had read the book first, I don't think I could have written the song in the first place. That is not to say the critique is wrong—it is amazingly insightful—but it is a different place entirely from where the song came from and the process it was created in.

The real deal is simple. And once you understand that, you begin to understand how difficult that is.

You can contact Michael Anderson or purchase his Little Black Book of Songwriting at


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