Adapted from the forthcoming book Songwriting Demystified.
by Christopher Kent
1. Get yourself a feedback person and treat their feedback as useful information, even if you don’t agree with it.
This is the single most valuable piece of advice I can give any songwriter. It means finding a person, or a couple of people, who’ll listen to the songs you’re working on and tell you what they think. Note: The idea is not to have them tell you what to write. The idea is to find out whether your song is having the effect you think it’s supposed to have.
Why is this so important? Because sooner or later, you’re going to get feedback (assuming you don’t hide your song in a drawer). If you never show what you’re working on to anyone until you play it in front of a room full of people, you may be in for a rude awakening. If you don’t get the reaction you expected from those people, you have a big problem. You’re unhappy because your new song flopped, and it’s no fun to change something that you’ve already decided is finished. And even if you decide to try and change it to get a better reaction from people, it may be hard to get useful information about why people reacted the way they did.
The bottom line is this: No matter how sure you are that you’ve created a masterpiece, there’s no way to tell how it will affect other people – except to try it out on someone. No amount of genius, experience or mind-reading ability will accurately predict how people will respond to something you create. I’ve seen the best songwriters in the world fall flat on their faces when they took a project to completion without getting any feedback during the writing process.
Don’t wait until your song is finished to get feedback. Go to your feedback person while it’s still a work in progress and see how he or she reacts. If you’ve chosen a person who wants to help, has a good ear and is honest, you’ll save yourself a whole lot of grief and embarrassment later. You’ll find out that your funny song isn’t all that funny (and why), or that your melody sounds an awful lot like a song that’s been on the radio, or that your story is too hard to believe, or that it’s a great song except for one word choice you made that ruins the whole thing….
You never know what you’ll find out. Maybe your feedback person will love it exactly as you wrote it. But if he or she doesn’t, you’ll be really glad you didn’t wait until the song was performed in front of a bunch of people to find out.
Of course, the unspoken assumption here is that if something isn’t working – if your words or music aren’t producing the reaction you want – you’ll change something you’re doing. That’s what I mean by “treating their feedback as useful information.” Don’t waste your time blaming the listener for not “getting it.” It’s your job to write a song that works.
This doesn’t mean you’re trying to write “what other people want to hear,” or “selling out.” If you want to communicate to a Frenchman, it’s not “selling out” to speak in French. Making changes based on feedback is not about changing what you’re trying to do. It’s about changing how you do it, so you end up having the effect on the listener you wanted to have in the first place. A successful songwriter knows that the art of songwriting is capturing an experience in the form of music, in a way that other people “get it.”