Learn the Craft of Songwriting (Part 2)

I’d like to begin this column with a Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of one of the most misused words in our business, and that word is “art.” As in “your art,” “his/her art,” and “their art,” etc. So, here’s the dictionary definition: Art, noun. 1. Skill acquired by experience or study, 2. A branch of learning, esp.: one of the humanities, 3. An occupation requiring knowledge or skill, 4. The use of skill and imagination in the production of things of beauty: also: works so produced.
What the people who label themselves as singers or songwriters, or both, and put their CD’s up on the Internet are creating, sad to say, is not “art.” I know that sounds harsh, but if you look at the Merriam-Webster definition again you will have to agree that 97% of the hundreds of thousands of CD’s on the net were neither created with “the use of skill or imagination,” nor with “skill acquired by experience or study,” which is why most sell less than 1,000 copies. The Internet, in essence, has become the cyber refrigerator door that when they were in the 2nd grade, mom used to put their stick figure drawings on with a Snoopy magnet. So, because one’s stick-figured crayon drawings were on display on the family refrigerator for all to see, does that mean it qualifies to be in the Louvre next to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? I think not. Whenever I hear someone refer to what they do musically as “art,” I cringe. It’s such a pretentious, self-indulgent use of a word that tarnishes its true meaning. I consider what I create as a work, as in “work in progress,” a “work for hire,” a song, an arrangement or a production. And, so does the U.S. Copyright Office (see their form SR for a Sound Recording). What do they call it? Perhaps 100 years from now some graduate student will find my body of work an interesting study that’s good enough to define as “art” but for now I wouldn’t characterize it as such. A “work,“ as in-progress or for hire, is just fine. “Genius” is the other overused word, but that’s for another column.
Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a book called Outliers: The Story of Success. In it he says that: “(what) the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, (was that) each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers.” He also points out that what they (along with other successful individuals from Bill Gates to Fleetwood Mac) have is, “a willingness to put in the 10,000 hours of practice required to reach mastery (in their) field.” He goes on to say that he doubts if the majority of present day aspiring bands, singers or songwriters have put in even 1,200 hours of practice. Another book that basically came to that same conclusion is Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin (“New evidence that top performers in any field—from Tiger Woods and Winston Churchill to Warren Buffett and Jack Welch— are not determined by their inborn talents. Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades”).
For years, I’ve been asked, whenever I’ve mentioned the Beatles (more specifically Lennon and McCartney) regarding their songwriting skills and prowess, what it was that made them so great? The answer — always clear to me — was that the Beatles learned to play over 500 classic cover and popular bar songs in 3 languages (English, French and German – “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”), over a period of 6 years before they had their first hit. Did the Beatles put in their 10,000 hours? Yes, they did! Have you?

Next Time: Start with a Great Title: Learning the Craft of Songwriting (Part 3)

Samm Brown III is a Record Industry Executive who is an RIAA award-winning record producer, songwriter, arranger, orchestrator and conductor, who has had 9 number 1 records (Michael Jackson, Maxine Nightingale, New Edition). He is currently a film/TV composer, artist manager and hosts a weekly radio show on KPFK (90.7 fm) on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. called “Samm Brown’s for the Record,” a one-hour talk show exclusively focusing on the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry. He can be reached at: sbrownKPFK@aol.com.