On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Dan Miller On Songwriting, Part II

Dan Miller On Songwriting, Part II

Dan Miller is the founder and publisher of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, a bi-monthly print and online-based periodical (and companion audio CD) dedicated to presenting all aspects of the art of flatpicking the acoustic guitar. The following conversation concludes my interview with Dan that began with the previous post on March 22.


Excellent insights, Dan. I totally resemble the part about getting excited about writing a new song only to do next to nothing to promote it beyond the people who already enjoy listening to my music. So what are some of the other changes you’re seeing in the music industry as the digital age continues to unfold — and what is staying the same?


What is constantly changing and evolving are all of the new ways listeners are getting their music and all of the new avenues for promotion and sales. On the down side of this is that there is a lot of competition and there are so many artists out there trying to sell their music and capture the interest of music listeners. Add to that the fact that there are so many artists willing to give their songs away for free and it is so easy for the consumer to copy songs from their friends, most people, especially the younger demographic, don’t really spend any money for the music that is on their computer or in their iPod. Not many people are buying CDs these days, and huge numbers of people are getting downloads for free. That is not good for the artist who is trying to make a living at this.


What is staying the same is that it takes a lot of hard work and investment in time and money to make it. This has not changed. In the old days, a band had to work really hard to get picked up by a label. There was a lot of competition to get on a label. So the competition part is the same. Once a band or artist got picked up by a label and had the label’s support, they could get somewhere. However, if they didn’t get picked up by a label, it was really hard to get anywhere because studio costs were high, record duplication and distribution was expensive and difficult, and avenues of promotion were nearly closed off if you didn’t have the support of a label.

Today, in the digital age, recording is affordable, and distribution, promotion, and marketing online are easy if you put the time in and know what you are doing. So, in today’s digital world, it is possible for a band or artist to make it on their own without the support of a label or a lot of money. The downside is because it is all so affordable and accessible, hundreds of thousands of artists are doing it and so it is very difficult for the consumer to sort through it all. So the competition is still there and the hard work is still there, the success factor has just been taken out of the hands of the labels and put more into the hands of the artists and consumers.


Do believe it’s possible for a songwriter to be successful without touring – or at least committing to an ongoing public performance schedule?


I’ll assume that you are talking just about someone who is a songwriter trying to pitch and sell their songs, not someone who is also working to be a performing or recording artist (because the answer would be different for each). If we are strictly talking about a songwriter, yes, it certainly is possible. There are songwriters who are doing it. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot songwriters who have never toured or even performed in front of people and they are making a good living, they are simply good songwriters and write songs for other people to record and perform.
What those songwriters who are successful have is either one, or a combination of:

  1. A foot in the door at a record label, television studio, movie production studio, video gaming company, advertising agency, or the like
  2. A good song plugger that is working hard for them
  3. They work very hard to promote their own songs. They are consistent, they think outside of the box, and they are out there “selling” themselves and their songs

I set up as a vendor at a lot of music festivals, guitar shows, and conventions and there are some songwriters that I’ve met at those events who are their handing out demos to anyone and everyone. These writers will always give me a demo CD of their newest songs and say, “If you know anyone who is looking for a song, pass this along.” Then they follow up with phone calls or emails. You don’t have to be “over-the-top” or obnoxious about it. There is a tactful way of promoting yourself and your songs that doesn’t turn people off by being in their face all of the time.

I’ve owned my own business for a long time now and during the early years I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the promotion and marketing aspects because I was “in it for the music.” I figured that if I put out a good product people would hear about it and they would buy it. I wasn’t going to push it in their face and try to convince them that they needed it. I have always been really turned off by the stereotypical idea of the “salesman” or “advertiser.” So I know how some artists feel when it comes to self promotion. However, this is something else that the internet has changed. Today there is so much that people can find online that is free, that it is really hard to get them to spend money on anything. So you really have to work hard just to capture their attention and let them know that you even exist. At first, I went into the whole internet marketing thing kicking and screaming, but once I started doing it, I saw the value in the results that I was getting.

All that to say, that yes, there is a way to get your songs recorded by other people, you just have to know how to market and promote your songs and you have to be diligent and consistent about it. Be tactful, courteous, and polite and people will respond. A lot of it has to do with making connections and networking, and there are some good tools on the internet for doing that.


Finally, Dan, what’s ahead for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine as well as your record label and instructional DVD business?


Like everyone else, we are trying to keep our head above water in this economy by providing quality products at affordable prices, and we are continually working to keep up with all of the technological changes and advances. Last year we launched a digital download site (www.flatpickdigital.com) that allows our customers to download a PDF version of the magazine, plus any of our 13 years worth of back issues. They can also download a number of PDF copies of other instructional books and audio files that we have in our catalog. We also have some special issues of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine coming out in the near future that I think subscribers will enjoy. For instance our May/June 2009 issue is a special “fiddle tune” issue that features two arrangements each of 22 of the most popular jam session fiddle tune favorites, as arranged by 22 different flatpicking gutiar artists.

We continue to put out instructional material for guitar. Tim May and I are working on an eight-volume guitar instructional course called “Flatpicking Essentials.” The first two volumes have been released and the third volume will be out by the end of April 2009. The course teaches the flatpicking guitar method step-by-step as it developed chronologically in history. The first volume covers rhythm styles of the early pioneers of acoustic guitar in roots and country music (those who played in the 20s, 30s, and 40s). The second volume then moves on to teach how to arrange solos to vocal tunes in the styles that were common during the 1940s through the 1960s. The third volume then teaches how to arrange solos for instrumental numbers using some of the techniques that folks like Doc Watson, Clarence White, and Norman Blake made popular in the 1960s and 70s. Volume 4 teaches how to understand the fingerboard, teaches how music theory can be useful, and applies that to playing up-the-neck. Then in the remaining four volumes we teach more advanced concepts and styles, again in a step-by-step, easy to understand presentation. The plan is to release a new volume every-other-month.

We also continue to produce DVD concert performance projects. We just recently released our 5th concert DVD in the concert serie. The new one features Robin Kessinger, Robert Shafer, and Mark Cosgrove. Artists we have featured in the past include David Grier, Kenny Smith, Wyatt Rice, Tim Stafford, Bryan Sutton, Jim Hurst, Tim May, Brad Davis, Cody Kilby, Josh Williams, Andy Falco, and Chris Eldridge. We will be filming a new one in May 2009 featuring Jack Lawrence, Scott Nygaard, and Robert Bowlin.

Our record label is getting ready to release a great new various artist project called “Flatpicking Bluegrass.” This will be our 28th CD release. This CD highlights lead guitar work on standard bluegrass vocal tunes. Each song on the CD features a full bluegrass band. While the band remains the same for each tune, the guitar player/lead singer changes. The guitar players/lead singers who are featured on this CD include some of the finest in bluegrass: Josh Williams, Tim Stafford, Kenny Smith, John Chapman, Brad Davis, Tim May, Richard Bennett, Jim Hurst, Chris Jones, Jeff White, Stephen Mougin, and Jim Nunally. The back up band includes Shad Cobb on fiddle, Charlie Chadwick on bass, Chris Joslin on Dobro and banjo, and Dave Harvey on mandolin. Tim May and Brad Davis provide harmony vocals on most tunes, although others also sing harmony on select tunes. If you love traditional bluegrass and flatpicking, you will love this CD!


Check out these DVDs Dan mentions in the interview:


[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B005HQBOHK” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51-aVKBHjjL.jpg” width=”356″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B005HQBOHK” locale=”us”]Pickin’ at Peaceful Bend[/easyazon-link]
[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B005BR1G2I” locale=”us” height=”500″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51iPP8d84EL.jpg” width=”356″]
[easyazon-link asin=”B005BR1G2I” locale=”us”]Picking at Peaceful Bend II[/easyazon-link]

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