There’s a big difference between an organized two-day songwriting session and a professional song camp. They’re often expected to be the same thing, and yet they’re vastly different. So what’s a professional songwriting camp? Having been to countless, quote unquote, “song camps,” as both an artist and a songwriter, I’m now fortunate enough to have attended the real deal.

I recently participated in my second professional writing camp at the infamous Black Rock Studios (One Republic, Justin Bieber) in Santorini, Greece – thanks largely to SOCAN. This is an event where 20 songwriters are sequestered to live and create together, with none of the distractions of the outside world, for five days. This creates a unique atmosphere of intense creativity that can’t be duplicated in a makeshift Los Angeles recording studio. If you’re fortunate enough to attend one of these camps you need to know that one of the keys to success is to treat it professionally.

To that end, here are some of the DOs and DON’Ts that I ‘ve learned. Some of these are from my own experience, some from observing others. I’ll let you guess which are which.

DO
Read all the information that you’re sent. Every song camp is different, depending on the organizer and the person running it. There’s information about master ownership, song splits, etiquette, scheduling, other writers’ bios, and protocol that you should always know before you touch down.

DON’T
Go to a camp with a pre-conceived notion that you’re either more OR less important than anyone else attending. Talent is relative, and it’s essential to understand that 90 percent of professional songwriting camps are by invitation only, and everyone’s been asked to be there for a reason.

Maggie Szabo

Maggie Szabo

DO
Bring the gear that makes your talent shine the most. Whether you’re a producer who loves a certain midi keyboard, or a singer with that one mic that makes your vocals sound just right, you never want to sacrifice room in your suitcase for a great piece of gear. It’s not worth exchanging that space for the perfect pair of shoes. (Unless that’s truly what you need to perform at your best.)

DON’T
Over-prepare. Whether you’re a track writer or a top-liner, understand that bringing pre-cooked and fully prepared ideas to the table is not going to be a plus. It diminishes the uniqueness of other peoples’ ideas in the room, and can create an atmosphere of creative animosity.

DO
Realize that one of the skills to great writing and collaboration is vulnerability. This may be a professional environment, but it’s also a social experience/experiment. Be brave enough to allow your walls to come down faster than they might in a normal songwriting situation…. Now see below.

DON’T
Hook up.

DO
Network, make contacts, and build friendships. Understand that most of the connections you make during these camps will be lifelong relationships, leading to many opportunities. At least 50 percent of your success at a songwriting camp will happen after the camp is over. It’s a stone in the lake, a ripple effect. You’ll continue to participate in sessions with people that you connected with – and other attendees that you never even had the chance to work with – after the camp. They’ll be some of the most important relationships in your professional life.

DON’T
Write an article on song camps that ends in a DON’T. It’s too negative.

OK, just kidding. In my experience, there are a lot more DON’T’s than DOs, like arguing song splits at an equal-split camp, but maybe we’ll get to that another time.  Bring your A-game, have fun, and know that some of your favourite songs on the radio were probably written by me at my last song camp. Wink, wink!


  1. Great tips, Maggie… they also apply to co-writing!

    Another….avoid the word “no” when discussing ideas, use them as a springboard to something you like better :)

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Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” And I say, never were truer words written.

Before I begin any projects, my mantra usually goes something like this: “Let’s face it Frew, you’re about to begin the grind and feel the pain and the anguish, put in the hundreds of hours required to make it the best it can possibly be, knowing full well… that nobody could care less or give a damn about it!”

Does that sound a little too gloomy for you? Not to me. On the contrary, I say that mantra is enduring. I say it’s honest, and best of all I say it’s inspiring, because it screams the truth and it begs of me to prove it wrong.

And so, up I get and onward I go to start yet another outrageously difficult and exhaustive project… all the way, loving it. Oh and just for the record, I’ve been doing that for close to 40 years!

“You have to live and breathe, eat and sleep and care uncompromisingly, no matter what the challenges are”

That’s right, get it into your heart and brain that other than your mom and dad, your sister and her new boyfriend, maybe the mailman, some friends and perhaps a few diehard fans from the past, no one really cares whether you or I ever write a book, record a new CD or ever get a hit single on the radio for the first time – or ever again.

Swamped by the need for instant gratification, and having an overwhelming abundance of entertainment outlets available to them, the mass audience we crave is NOT holding its collective breath awaiting our next masterpiece.

Will Jim Carrey make a new movie? Will the Stones tour yet again? Will Sting ever put The Police back together for a final hurrah? “Zzzzzzzzz!” says the planet. So, if no one cares, then why bother?

Well for one thing, the alternative of “doing nothing” is just not an option, at least not to me. Secondly, getting a “real job” as my mother always said, even AFTER my success, doesn’t fly with me either. I’ve done REAL jobs, many of them, and honest and forthright as that is, nothing beats making music and performing. Well, does it?

So what, then, is the answer if no one truly cares? It’s simple. There are two rules of thumb that I live by:

1) YOU HAVE TO CARE. You and only you can make it happen. Read Winston Churchill’s words again. You have to live and breathe, eat and sleep and care uncompromisingly, no matter what the challenges are, no matter what the naysayers around you say, or tell you differently.

2) YOU and only you, have to do something REMARKABLE in order to MAKE THEM CARE, or at the very least “somewhat” remarkable to at least make them sit up and take notice.

Just when you think it might be over for him on the funny side of things, Jim Carrey takes on “serious” roles; WE sit up and take notice and he wins two Golden Globes. Just when we say, “The Stones are too old for this,” they build a bigger stage, plan a bigger tour, play in Cuba, and Jagger covers it like a 25-year-old. WE sit up and take notice. He doesn’t give us The Police, we moan, but then Sting joins forces with Peter Gabriel and tours and WE go “How cool.” Do you get my point? Something out of the ordinary, something a little “remarkable.”

I wrote a song for Glass Tiger as good as any pop song I’ve ever written, yet radio programmers and Top 40 said, “No, it ain’t happening.” Instead, I come back with an album of classic ’80s covers called 80290Rewind and suddenly, it’s a little remarkable. “Hey, have you heard the guy from Glass Tiger singing Madonna? How about John Waite or Simple Minds or Tears for Fears?” Suddenly people go, “Hmmm that’s cool, let me take a look at that.”

I leave you with this: I wear a tattoo on my arm that says NO SURRENDER. Those words mean so very much to me.

On August 20, 2015, after working my ass off for two months of straight singing for that new album, I went to bed and suffered a stroke in my sleep. I was left with total paralysis on my right side afterwards, a broken heart and a crushed soul. As I write this now, I’ve just finished performing for the first time since that stroke, on live TV this morning, and crushed it. Hit it right out of the park, on what is probably THE most unforgiving format you can do. Also, as of this writing, in four days’ time, I perform the first of two sold-out shows in my hometown of Toronto!

I rest my case.

 

 


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If your plan is to become a professional songwriter, Nashville is holy ground. It’s that magical place where old men ride in from the farm on John Deere tractors, head to Music Row, and write the kind of country song only sung by legends. So you chart a course, like legions before you, for Nashville. The truth is, as friendly and laid-back as the South can be, Music City can be incredibly intimidating. One stroll down lower Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon and you’ll find hundreds of artists and bands performing for free in every bar, restaurant, coffee shop and street corner, hoping to catch a break. You’ll also soon learn that everyone, from the bartender to the barista, is a songwriter, singer or musician. So what’s an aspiring songwriter to do? Well, here are a few tips.

Peter Daniel Newman

Peter Daniel Newman

First, I assume that your songs aren’t seven minutes long and have five verses. This might seem a little ridiculous, but I’ve met a lot of artists who can easily write “good” songs, but they head to Nashville prematurely – because those songs don’t fit a conventional song structure. What we hear on the radio now is primarily “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus” format, and transpires within about three minutes and 15 seconds. Most beginners feel that their songwriting is divinely inspired, and therefore not in need of editing. But like many endeavours, songwriting is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. If you’re writing commercial music, it’s absolutely necessary to compare your songs to what’s current and hip on the radio. If your song needs more work, which it probably does, then re-write!

Country music also has its own lyrical standards. In Nashville, there’s a saying that “lyric is king,” meaning that storytelling within the song is paramount. The music is important, but the song has to say something, and it has to be said in a conversational style. That simply means that the lyric should sound as if you were having a conversation with someone. I’ve been in pitch meetings where the publisher would comment on a lyric, and say something to the effect that “you wouldn’t say it that way.”  An example would be “her favourite hat, she always wore.”  Most people wouldn’t say that. In a normal conversation, you’d say, “she always wore her favorite hat.”  This makes the song more immediately accessible to the listener.

As a rule, Nashville usually writes to the “hook” or title. Take a song like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” a hit for Carrie Underwood. The first verse is about a woman who loses control of a car. The first chorus literally asks Jesus to take the wheel and save her. In the second verse we learn that she’s made mistakes in her life, and by the time we reach the second chorus, the words take on a new meaning. She’s now asking Jesus to spiritually take the wheel of her life. This dual meaning technique or “hook” is utilized a lot in country music. “Jesus Take the Wheel” is written so that when you hit the chorus there’s a lyrical as well as musical payoff, and when the listener reaches the second chorus, that lyrical reward is heightened all the more.

In other genres, lyrics can be more stream-of-consciousness than conversational. The lyrics are secondary to the emotion and mood of the song. Artists from Dave Matthews to The Fray use this style of writing. The listener can view the song through their own lens and imprint their own meaning upon the lyrics. Country music doesn’t use this style of writing, and almost exclusively uses a conversational lyrical approach.

Before you go to Nashville, make sure to contact anybody who might be able to open a few doors for you, especially to connect you with other writers interested in co-writing. If your songs are ready, a contact may be able to hook you up a pitch meeting with a publisher. Associations such as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC regularly host Nashville writers’ groups and sessions that are open to the public. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) is another helpful organization based in Music City. There are writers’ groups online, and on Facebook and LinkedIn, and with a little legwork you can meet some fine folks who are more than willing to co-write. It’s all about networking and building your contacts.

When you do get an opportunity to write with a professional songwriter, it’s usually because someone has taken a chance on you. A friend or industry professional made a connection, and convinced another writer to take that chance, too. Now you have an opportunity to make a good impression. Don’t come in unprepared!  Although the publishing is likely to be split equally, don’t view yourself as equals. If you’re a newbie, and you’re writing with an established songwriter, you’re writing up. What does this mean?  It’s an unspoken rule that it’s your responsibility to bring the creative ideas to the session. You need to have several musical and lyrical ideas ready to go. Bring along that list of song titles that you’ve been sitting on, and let the established songwriter pick the direction of the session.

You’ll also need to be comfortable voicing your ideas. If you pitch a line and it doesn’t grab the writers in the room, let it go and move on. Don’t feel bad about it. The best writing sessions in which I’ve participated are those where everyone feels comfortable, and lines are coming quickly. When the golden line enters the room, there’s typically instant agreement on it. Be sure to be polite and courteous, and don’t be a know-it-all. After all, you’re not only trying to write a great song, but you also you want to be invited back. If things go well, your network will have just expanded exponentially. You may be lucky enough that the other writer or writers have a publishing deal. If that’s the case, he or she is likely to play that song for their publisher. If the song is strong enough, the publisher may then pitch it around Nashville. Maybe you’ll win big and land that elusive cut on a record. At the least, your name will now become familiar to Nashville publishers, and that may create opportunities for you.

When I moved to Nashville, I first started writing with a neighbour a few doors down in my apartment complex. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had publishing deal. The songs that we were writing, he was taking back to his publisher, and before I knew it we were in the studio with Clint Black. Sadly, that deal fell through, but that opportunity opened a lot of doors for me. So stay open-minded to anyone you might bump into on your trip.

You never know where your next break might come from.


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