The term one hit wonder doesn't only apply to recording artists. If I were to name my songwriter friends and acquaintances whose careers have scored them exactly one charting single or album cut, the list would be very long indeed. So why is it that some songwriters seem to have the ability to keep reinventing themselves? What is the secret to making one's songwriting career enduring?
Obviously there is no magic formula or I would have guzzled down a fifth of it by now. Nevertheless, a songwriter is far from helpless in trying to achieve longevity. Here are a few suggestions towards that goal:
Everyone of us has an era preference when it comes to our favorite music. For me that preference would revolve around folky rock bands such as The Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Poco, and America. This is the genre I adore right down to my core. My kids respect this music, but it is not part of their makeup like it is mine.
Learning to respect other genres of music catapults a writer a giant step forward toward having a long, successful career. This does not mean that one should trade in his or her unique style, perspective, and values. Rather we need to embrace this ever-changing world's taste and add our individual spark to it. We need to open ourselves to tempos, instruments, song structures, and styles that we might otherwise dismiss.
I have judged countless songwriting competitions and would bet my bottom dollar that many of the entries were written twenty years prior. Stubbornly clinging to a musical pocket in time is like trying to bring back the leisure suit! It's probably not gonna happen without a providing a new and interesting take on it. Been there done that. People tend to crave newness no matter how nostalgic they feel about the past. Refuse to evolve and you get left behind.
Jump the Market
Some stock market investors have an uncanny gift for putting their money into a dark horse and watching it bring in huge returns. It is no different with songwriting.
Note current hits that really grab you and analyze what is fresh about them. Family-of-man songs like He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother were all over the airwaves in the 1970s. You would be hard pressed to find any new ones now no matter how far you scan your dial. Does that mean it's time for more? Maybe. I believe that people crave what is missing but not unless it wears a fresh face.
By anticipating the trends before they happen, a songwriter becomes known for being at the forefront of change. When the topic of spousal abuse was first addressed in songs, the message was jarring and hard to ignore. We all knew it was out there but nobody had picked up the gauntlet and sung about it. Being the first to tackle a subject set to music and doing it well is one of the bet ways to jump the market.
Widen Your Circle
Just as a couple of blond, blue-eyed parents will most likely keep producing blond, blue-eyed children, a pair of constant co-writers will generate a lot of sameness.
The new, talented kid in town is bound to have a fresh perspective. Your more-seasoned influence might pair very well with him or her. If that person has artist potential, better still.
The older, highly skilled craftsman, on the other hand, might view you as a less polished diamond-in-the-rough, and just the shot in the arms he needs. The co-write becomes a win-win situation.
Definitely try some collaborations that are outside of your comfort zone. A friend of mine wrote several songs with an artist blessed with an extremely bassy voice. The songs were tailored to that ability and really paved some new ground. If you always write with guitar players, try a keyboardist, or any instrument for that matter. Ravi Shankar certainly gave the Beatles a new sound. Mix it up.
Find the Fountain of Youth
When I first moved to Nashville and was much younger and greener, I definitely had not mastered the Nashville sound. This actually was in my favor because I was bringing a taste of elsewhere to the hallowed streets of Music Row. Unfortunately, my immediate goal was to blend in and write the kinds of songs I was hearing on the radio. Suddenly my songs were not getting the attention that my first ones had, even though my skills as a craftsman had grown. I was in fact, growing musically older and doing the exact opposite of what I should have been doing.
The real challenge is to keep your wide-eyed musical innocence. Lose it and you run the risk of becoming a tired, old hack who no longer enjoys the process. Very quickly, this becomes apparent in your songwriting.
My husband, also a songwriter, occasionally goes back to the first hotel he stayed in when he arrived In Nashville. He sits down in a chair by the pool and tries to refeel that exhilarating newness where everything seems possible.
As for me, listening to really excellent current music, always gets me excited and revitalized. I love that Wow, why didn't I think of that feeling.
Take a Break
Since absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, we can certainly apply that old adage to our creative endeavors. Everybody hits a wall occasionally. The feeling that we've lost our abilities or just plain loathe the process is a sure sign that we need a break. The creative muse needs nourishment, rest, and relaxation in order to remain strong, happy, and healthy.
Anything from a week hiatus to a full year, or more), even in a new location may be what is needed. Instead of trying to coax the muse back into your soul, step away and let it find you again. Your relationship with it may change, but that's okay. Welcome the new terms.
There is a beautiful lake in Nashville called Radnor Lake. I thought of it as my church during my many years in Music City. A long hike there never failed to bring back my temporary loss of enthusiasm. I obviously wasn't the only one who required its scenic succor because I ran into solitary songwriters on Radnor's many trails all the time!
Discover New Frontiers
Once a songwriter, always a songwriter. Having been one since childhood, I firmly believe that. No matter how much I throw myself into other creative endeavors, the curse or blessing of the tunesmith remains firmly planted in my heart. I do, however, believe that one can become burned out on a town or one aspect of the business.
Trying a new songwriting arena seems like a natural evolution but more typically songwriters get stuck. I have watched bitterness develop in colleagues when success became elusive. Still, they continue to grind away, repeating the process that they no longer enjoy. They have changed but will not allow their pursuits to change out of some misguided loyalty to the trade.
Several friends of mine have moved onto different, less commercial genres. A few have tackled musicals. Others have found joy in writing for advertising or for the children's market. Whatever excites a songwriter is bound to invigorate and restore. With enough distance the original pursuit might re-merge one day, looking as promising as ever.
To sum things up, it's really fairly simple. Professional songwriting is a discipline, a passion, a joy, and a business. When any one of these facets is absent, so will your songwriting career.