These days everyone is an expert. Just slap something up on the internet, and if it looks good, everyone will trust that you know what you’re talking about. Right? Well, if that’s the case, how do you know that the “expert” advice on your songwriting and songwriting career is really going to help?
The answer is to find someone who’s been around, and who moves with the times. Someone like Cliff Goldmacher – a Nashville industry insider with a 1000 + song catalog who’s collaborated with the likes of Keb’ Mo’, Ke$ha, Lisa Loeb, and Mickey Hart.
Last time we spoke, Cliff offered a fascinating view into his professional songwriting and collaboration process. Then – since Cliff has thrived through 25 + years of extraordinarily rapid change in the industry – we wanted to know more about what it takes to be in the music business today.
I initially found you and started learning about you was from a blog that you wrote talking about how talent, raw talent, is not enough to make it in this industry. So many of us look at the Kurt Cobain’s of the world and the Lady Gaga’s and just these incredibly talented artists, and we think, “We can never do that.” But you’ve talked about the necessity of hard work and just how much is required to make it happen.
I look at this like a sliding scale: there’s talent and there’s work ethic.
Where it’s all talent and no work, you have to be at the super-duper genius level. This rarely works. Where it’s all work and no talent – this rarely works either. But anything in between starts to work pretty well.
If your work ethic at least matches your talent level, you’ve given yourself an opportunity.
Now, you don’t have to be Kurt Cobain, you don’t have to be Lady Gaga – you have to have talent. At some point talent becomes the least common denominator.
Last time we talked about that second-year hump in Nashville. One of the things that made that second-year mark in Nashville so daunting, for me, was the realization of how many people had talent. Like, all of a sudden I realized, “Oh. Oh wow. All right. If talent becomes the least common denominator, how am I going to set myself apart now?” Like, if I don’t have the kind of talent that just makes people say “Well, it’s a no brainer.”
And by the way, for every Kurt Cobain, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of artists who don’t have that kind of talent, but with the right amount of effort can have a career. Whether it’s at his level, that only has partly to do with your talent and your work ethic. That’s also the planets lining up.
Q: All that being considered, what would you recommend some of the top skills that musicians need to develop to succeed in this industry?
As far as skill set, it starts with this mindset: if you want people to pay for it, you have to think of it as a job. It’s not just, “I’m really good at this thing so the world is going come find me.” You have to work for this.
I saw a quote the other day that I absolutely loved: “A lot of people don’t recognize opportunity because it comes disguised as hard work.” And it’s a lot of work. It’s not romantic work. There is nothing romantic about figuring out people to send your songs to. Nothing romantic about that. Romantic is writing the song, and that’s a great motivator. That’s the part that gets you up out of bed in the morning, but the other stuff is what keeps the lights on. You’ve got to do both.
Q: Yes. Definitely. Being in Nashville when you first started out – an incredibly dense environment full of incredible musicians – but now with the digital age, social media, all sorts of different ways to reach people, some would argue that the music industry has become flatter, more accessible to everyday musicians. Are there any hidden opportunities within this ecosphere that people just don’t know about yet that you see coming?
An attorney friend of mine used this big fancy term and I love it: disintermediation. In other words, it went from the record labels as the ones that made all the decisions about what the public at large heard. Then all of a sudden, with the advent of social media and the internet, the playing field became completely leveled.
Anybody, now, can write a song and the next day have it available for worldwide distribution. That’s a miracle, but the noise level has gone up infinitely.
The opportunities utilize the same sort of old fashioned skill sets like marketing, like hard work – the opportunities are there for the people who aren’t just throwing their music out there and hoping it will stick.
Like, figuring out some sort of an angle and doing a video. I’m thinking of an example that comes to mind immediately: OK Go became famous not because their songs are good, which they are, but because their videos are these miraculously elaborate things where they’re on and off treadmills or doing human size Rube Goldberg machines and things like that.
They found a way to rise above the noise not just with their music, but with their marketing.
In a large part that is what has to happen now since everybody has the opportunity to get their music out to a wider audience.
Cutting through the noise. Definitely an end result of the democratization of media. It’s been an amazing journey. I feel like we’re just at the beginning of it still. That being in mind, you talk about how much it’s changed since you first got into this industry.
Q: Outside of the marketing side and the digital side, what else have you noticed that’s changed in the music industry and how can a songwriter take advantage of these changes?
Well, you’re reminding me of something – now, it’s not enough to try and get a song on an artist’s album, right? Because albums are starting to almost fade into obscurity. Now, you have to have the song that they release as a single or nothing – no one will ever hear it…
Those other songs don’t go along for the ride anymore because people can download or stream individual songs, right? Do you know what that’s like? That’s like the 45s from the 1950s.
On one level, brand new model. On another level, there’s nothing new under the sun.
I bring that up because it’s extremely important to remember at the end of the day there are certain things that will always apply. What will always apply is hard work. What will always apply is figuring out a way to market or find an angle for your style of music, what it is you’re doing.
The way that things have probably most obviously changed is that the income streams have broadened and lowered. There are many more ways that you can make money for your songs now. If you get a song on YouTube and it has a million views and there are advertisers, you’re getting paid a piece of that action. Or that you get an album of yours on Pandora and it starts to get some spins. With SoundExchange, which is the company that monitors that and pays out songwriters, all of a sudden you’re making income there too. That’s great.
The problem is mechanicals, meaning the actual physical sales of CDs or cassettes or vinyls – all of that has dropped dramatically. So there are many, many more opportunities to sell your music and all of them pay much, much less. That’s probably the biggest change that I see at this point.
But I’m pretty much an inveterate optimist. I feel like this stuff is gonna shake itself out. Right now, you hear a lot of people screaming, there’s a lot of wringing of hands about the fact a song is played a million times on Spotify the guy gets eight cents or whatever the case may be. I’m not saying this is a problem, but this is also not set in stone.
I work on the board of an organization called NARAS, which is the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences, and they are the ones who are in D.C. lobbying for improved copyright law and for better rates for streaming. They’re also the folks that do the Grammys. This is a big organization. In the same way that movie people thank “The Academy”, this is “The Academy” for music. I can tell you that there are a lot of very committed people doing a lot of hard work to improve this scenario, but it’s slow going and people need to be educated.
For young songwriters thinking about doing this, still first and foremost, do it because you love it. Do it because you love it, and, second of all, don’t despair. There are good people working hard to make sure that this resolves itself in a reasonable way.
Q: That’s hopeful news and great advice for the up and coming songwriter. So many people see “the industry” as the enemy, and it’s cool to hear from an insider like yourself that the music industry is adapting, changing, and trying to help the artists earn more money for their efforts.
But before even considering a music career, how do songwriters know if they have “what it takes”?
If you are moved to write songs if you are moved to do what you are doing, I don’t care who tells you they don’t like it, I don’t care whether you hear that more than you hear anything else. If you love what you’re doing and feel like you’re improving and you’re being true to your vision, then what it really takes is willing to continue to do this in the face of all that (at the worst) criticism – but more commonly, apathy.
I wrote songs for 15 years before a major label artist recorded one of my songs. That’s a really, really, really long time to wait before the industry says to me, “Hey, we think you’re ready.” Now, I knew personally how much I had improved from the time I moved to Nashville or wrote my first song, to the time that I got that song recorded by an artist on a major label.
I knew in my heart that I was improving, but it’s really hard to tell someone at a cocktail party what that means when you’ve got nothing to show for it, in the eyes of the larger world. Really, what it takes, if you want to know the truth – and this is where I’m going to sound like a broken record – you just have to keep working. If you are willing to work in the face of that kind of slow process or downright discouragement, then you have what it takes.
Q: That’s very inspiring. Thank you. Do have any final thoughts for our audience? Anything you’d like to share?
I keep coming back to this too, but it’s just so important. And I’ve mentioned this in some talks that I’ve done, and it’s a little bit crass. But I think it really drives the point home: writing songs only for the money is like getting married only for the sex.
What I mean by that is, essentially, “Look. If you do make money, that’s great.” And we all have that as a goal. I’m not going to lie to you – I have to make a living at this too. But the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning and the thing that makes me so excited when I’ve written new songs is that I love writing songs.
It’s not that I wrote something and I think, “Oh good, there’s my rent for next month.” I don’t look at it that way, and maybe I should, but I don’t think like that.
So if there’s any piece of advice I would leave your listeners with is you better be doing this because you love it.
Q: Great. Yes. Love what you do and do what you love.
Great advice! And that love is what propels so much of us in the music industry to not only pick up that instrument in the first place, but to dedicate all those hours in the practice room learning theory and everything else.
That’s exactly it.
Wonderful, Cliff. It’s good to know that the fundamental wisdom of doing what you love still reigns, even in though the music industry keeps changing. Thank you so much for bringing aspiring musicians the view from “the other side”.
The more things change…
The music business continues in its current state of rapid change and innovation. But the commitment to doing what you love, hard work in both the music and business sides of the equation, and old-fashioned marketing savvy remain the core of a successful musician’s skill set – putting the opportunity – and responsibility – squarely in your court.
Are you ready to take charge of your songwriting career? Whether it is songwriting tips and in-depth learning, music business insider instruction, or state of the art streaming online recording studio services, let Cliff Goldmacher help you move forward in your passion.
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