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Songwriting; Commerce vs. Art:


Songwriting: Commerce vs. Art:  By Michael Anderson    

As a writer and teacher I am often asked the same questions concerning songwriting – the first one being “What comes first, the music or the lyric”? My favorite answer to that question is: “Yes”.  But the second most common question I get from writers and students is some variation of: “Why should I write songs in a structured pop form”?    

I am then usually confronted with: “If Bob Dylan, or Pink Floyd, or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” or (fill in your own example) can be a commercial success, why can’t my long, vague, unstructured, non-melodic, incoherent song?”

They usually don’t add that last part, I just hear that in my mind.  

Occasionally I will reference outside material in this column for relevant points of consideration and I am going to recommend a book here to all writers – it is called “Story” by Robert McKee.    

It is more specifically a book for screenwriters, but the principles of story are remarkably similar between movies, books, and songs.   

 I am going to touch on that only peripherally – the main point I want to look at is something he mentions about commercial writing and art that is entirely relevant to songwriters.    

He mentions that there is a classic story form – and there are variations of that form through various structure devices. In other words – you can get “out there” in terms of how you tell your story. But the further you get away from the classic form, the more your potential audience shrinks.    

His point being – if you can subsidize your writing with income outside your art, you can write whatever you want without regard to the size of your audience.     

But in order to be a good writer, writing needs to be your main occupation – it takes a lot of time.    
And if you are going to make money writing you need to write things that sell.

The further away you get from the main pop audience, the fewer potential buyers there are for your work.   

Now, that pop audience changes through styles, fads, and time. There have been points in time where Bob Dylan sold a lot of records no matter what he put out – he had built credibility.     

Pink Floyd did what they wanted because they toured and a lot of people went to their concerts – when their audience bought a record, they wanted that live experience.     

There actually was a time when radio would play a 10 minute song and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was there to satisfy a demand.    

But those realities are not necessarily factors in the contemporary market.    

Robert McKee’s point seems to be that if you want a major company to back your art it must make sense to them from a commercial point of view.     

Now the market is always changing – but economics stay pretty consistent – business people want to make money – you want to create art – how can you make it work?    

McKee’s point is that in order to survive commercially you have to master the classic form. In the case of the music business, it could be argued that the classic pop song form is the classic form.   

 He tells writers not to kid themselves into thinking they understand the classic form because they have heard it – you understand a form when you can do it.    

He says Stanislavski asked his actors: “Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art?”    

His point is that for most writers the decision not to write in a classic form is mainly political in this sense – they believe that since a form is commercial it must be antithetical. They look down on it as un-artistic.    

As a result, pretentiousness poisons their work. When you work with one eye on avoiding commercialism it is the literary equivalent of a temper tantrum – like a child living in the shadow of a powerful father you break rules to “feel free”.    

But, he says, contradiction is not creativity – difference for the sake of difference is as empty as slavishly following a commercial imperative.    

It goes back to: “Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art?”    

I recommend learning that classic pop form for songwriters – learn from others who have mastered the form, and then look at how the form has been played with by people who understand it.    

A child at play rarely creates anything artistic that would be of interest beyond refrigerator display – but a real artist must in many ways become like a child in the act of creation to make something original, lasting, and meaningful to someone beyond mom.     

The big difference is the mature artist knows what is being accomplished – and understands that to be able to live the charmed life of the artist / child there needs to be an awareness of commercial realities.    

That’s not to say you have to live by them.You can contact Michael through michaelanderson.com.            


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