How to Make Money as a Songwriter

Dan McGowan, professionally published songwriter

Chances are, if you think you can write a song, then you CAN! But there's a difference between writing a marketable song - and SELLING it! This article will show you both sides of the coin and help you become the songwriter you already know you are!

Create Your Song's HOOK. The "hook" is the most memoralbe aspect of the song - typically it is the "chorus" of the song. It's that part of the song that you can't wait to get back to. Think, "It's Been A Hard Day's Night" or "And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind." These are the parts of the song you remember and what makes you want to hear the song over and over again.

The HOOK of the song will usually have a clever word twist or repeating sounds, etc. It will also have a very singable and easy-to-remember musical line. The song, "Yellow Submarine" has a very singable phrase as the chorus using only 4 notes in the musical scale. A good rule of thumb: "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (KISS).

ON YOUR OWN - take a few minutes and jot down three (3) totally different ideas for your song's "hook." For example, "She doesn't dance that dance anymore" or "You knock me out when you wear that dress." As a side note - it's interesting how letting your mind wander and land on a "hook" can actually help you compose the rest of the song, building the lyric off of the hook line. WHY doesn't she dance that dance anymore? Does it remind her of her first love? Does she have a physical problem that keeps her from dancing? You fill in the blanks.

SONG STRUCTURE - the structure of a song is very important - especially if you want it to be MARKETABLE. (And you DO, since you want to MAKE MONEY with your creation!) There are a few basic song structures:

ABA - which is verse / chorus / verse > ABCB - which is verse / chorus / bridge / chorus > AAA - which is verse (or chorus) repeating

These are not the only structures but they tend to be the most common. You simply need to decide what works best for your song.

Most folk or story songs fall into the AAA category - think "Edmund Fitzgerald."

Most pop songs fall into the ABA category - sometimes the ABCB category. For example, "Hotel California" (Eagles) is an ABA song (verse, chorus, verse) where as "Eleanor Rigby" (Beatles) is an ABCB song (verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.) Really, it's up to you to decide what form you want and most of the time the form will suddenly appear as you compose your song. When that happens - LET IT! It's quite an amazing journey to watch your song unfold before your eyes.

SIDE NOTE: A "second hook" can often appear in the verses or bridge of a song. This will usually be a less memorable moment from the main hook, but great songs usually have these. For example, in The Beatles song, "Ticket To Ride" we get our main chorus "She's got a ticket to ride / she's got a ticket to ride / she's got a ticket to ride / and she don't care!" A strong, repating, singable hook. But then, in the bride, we hear "I don't know why she's riding so high / she could have looked twice / she could have looked twice by me..." and that repeating phrase gives us our second strong, but less memorable, hook.

ON YOUR OWN - using your HOOK line, let your mind wander and create the "storyline" of your song... answer the questions your hook line raises. If the hook is "I just can't play those games any more" then tell us WHY you can't play those games.

EDIT - when you are done with your lyric/melody you are not done with your song. In fact, you are not finished with your song until you go back through at least 2 or 3 times to EDIT and REFINE your song. Make sure you have exhausted all possible easier or more efficient ways to say what it is you are trying to say. For example, "Cindy runs the water that is hot all night long" is too many words. You can say the same thing as, "Cindy runs hot water all night long" or "All night long, Cindy runs hot water." Obviously, the rhyme scheme will determine some of this - but do not dismiss editing. EDITING IS THE MAIN MISTAKE MOST SONGWRITERS MAKE because they are not patient enough with the process.

RULE OF THUMB - read or sing thru your song. Perhaps invite someone to listen - preferably not a family member or friend because they will usually tell you what you want to hear. Play or sing the song and, if at any time you find yourself "catching" or "stopping" even for a moment, this is an indication that you have a bump in the road that needs fixing. Don't just let it go "for the sake of art." FIX IT! Professional producers and publishers REALLY WILL HEAR those little bumps and figure you as lazy for not fixing the problem. That is really true - trust me.

DEMO PACKAGE - Now it's time to create a demo of your song. There a million ways to do this. I will share a few and then tell you the way I do it - and WHY I do it the way I do.

You can HIRE A PRO to create a demo for you. You might spend $100 - $150 per song - sometimes less, sometimes more. They will probably create a nice recording of your song with a basic track, etc.

If you have the gear, you can create your own demo. Most songwriter with their own gear feel a great need to "over produce" their demo and put all the bells and whistles into it. Though this may be hard to believe, if your song sucks, no amount of fancy synth effects will make it better. Likewise, if your song is strong, it will be JUST as strong using only a guitar and a single voice.

HERE IS WHAT I DO. I opt to make my song demos as simple as possible. I may add a rhythm track to help the producer get an idea of what I am thinking - but usually, it is a simple demo. WHY? Mainly because I remember WHO IT IS I am sending my song to - a MUSIC PRODUCER. Part of my "job" in selling my song is to make sure the producer knows that I am willing to let him do what he does best - produce songs! Even if I think I can do as good a job producing my song, the truth is the producer I am pitching my song to MUST think he can "help" my song get even better. That is part of the process. So, I allow them the freedom to produce the song as they feel best for their project. When you get to a level where you are calling all the shots - including all the payments for studio rental, pro musicians, etc. - THEN you can demand your creative vision for the song. Until then - be a SONGWRITER and let the PRODUCER produce your song.

PITCHING THE SONG - By far the best resource I have found for pitching songs is the Songwriters Market. They sell for around $30 and they are well worth the investment. You will be able to thumb through and locate publishers who publish and record the type of music you write and what they are currently seeking and how they accept submissions, etc. It's not rocket science - it's simple determination and hard work.

SIDE NOTE - get over yourself as fast as you can. Publisher X may hate your song. Fine. That does not mean the song sucks. Send it to Publisher Y. And if he hates it, send it to Mr. Z. Go thru the entire alphabet if need be. The goal is to PITCH and SELL that song! I have actually experienced submitting a song to a publisher - being told it was not at all what they were looking for - submitting it to other publishers - and then, about 8 months later, RE-submit the SAME song to that FIRST publisher - and suddenly it's the best song they've ever heard and they say, "okay, now THIS is what we are looking for!" What happened? Bad pizza? Who knows. Who CARES! Smile, nod, and cash the check! Bottom line here is - you WILL have songs rejected. That is part of the process. I try to make it a habit to totally detach myself from my songs once they are composed and demo'd. At that point they are no longer "my baby." They become "items for sale" and that is how I treat them. That way, I don't take it personally when someone says, "gee, your song sucks." That's where your self-confidence comes into play. Yes, FOR THAT PUBLISHER, the song might suck. But the next guy may love it!


Never rush the creation of a song - even when they are "inspired." Follow that inspiration - and then let the song simmer - revisit it and see if it is still "inspired" or if it needs some refinement. Consider joining or forming a songwriter's workshop where you play songs for each other and offer critiques. At first, it might be tough to get honest feedback, but in the end you'll be glad you did. Set goals for yourself. I try to write one song every day. Sounds impressive, huh? It's not. Most of them are crap. But about every 2 weeks I come up with something that rises to the top - or I take bits and pieces from several day's of work and put them together to form a single creation. You might set a different goal - 3 songs per week, or 1 song per year (just don't expect to make much income that way!) Never send your song to more than one publisher at a time for consideration. This requires tons of patience - but you don't want to tell a publisher that the song you submitted is no longer available. Not good. Make sure you do your homework - WHO is your song going to? Get your song into the right hands. LABEL EVERYTHING!!!!! - put your contact info, song title, copyright emblem - all of it - on EVERY thing - the letter, the lyric sheet you submit with the song, the CD label, the envelope - label EVERYTHING. COPYRIGHT - this is always a point of confusion. The copyright law of 1976 states that a created work in a fixed form is technically copyrighted. According to the law, there is no need to REGISTER your song with the copyright office. However, if you can afford it, that's a great way to protect your songs. Make sure you put (c) YEAR NAME on everything. For example, (c) 2007 Dan McGowan. FOLLOW UP!! - Give your song about 2 weeks to arrive and be heard. Then follow up with a phone call or email (phone call is better - harder to dismiss the persistant songwriter!)


DO NOT BECOME DISCOURAGED when rejection comes. It will come. Let it. And keep on keeping on! PAY ATTENTION - if every person you play or pitch your song for or to tells you it has problems - then it probably does. Rather than tossing the song, see if you can do some more editing. You really have to walk a fine line between self confidence and ego here - but the less ego you have, the better off you will be. DON'T GIVE UP! - let that songwriter inside of you spring forth! It may take a while, but it's worth it in the end!