On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Derek Sivers On Songwriting

Derek Sivers On Songwriting

Derek Sivers founded CD Baby in 1998.

Before that, he graduated from the Berklee school of music in 1990 and toured with a circus for ten years as ringleader/musician (1988-1998). Derek quit his last “job” at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing in New York City in 1992 to be a full-time musician.

Ten years after he started CD Baby (and HostBaby), Derek sold the companies to Disc Makers. Since 1998, over 250,000 artists have sold their music through CD Baby (including me) – they have sold over 5 million CDs online to customers and paid over $100 million directly to the artists. What a cool business to start.


In a recent interview, you suggested that a songwriter should “decide BEFORE you make the music: What could we create that would be SO noteworthy, SO remarkable, that there’s no way it could be ignored?” I’ve heard other voices advocate “Be authentic. Be true to yourself.”

Or as Kathy Kallick said in a recent interview “I have to sing it from the heart, or it will fall flat. I’m always writing songs for me to sing; if somebody else wants to sing it, that’s great, but I first have to be able to sing it myself.” Both pieces of advice ring true, but how does one reconcile those two points of view?


Combined, it becomes, “Be the most remarkable version of yourself.”

You can be yourself and be entertaining – or be yourself and be striking.

Not just in music, but even socially.  If your spouse says, “When you meet my co-workers from the office, please be charming!” – then you’re still yourself, but the best version of yourself.

Specific to songwriting, though, it’s as simple as the occasional choice of words or notes.  You can go for the ordinary way to say something (”People in New York are strange”) or fascinating (”Plucked her eyebrows on the way. Shaved her legs then he was a she.” from Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side.)

In an interview with Eminem, he said his goal when writing is to make a noisy room of people not-listening stop talking, look at the speakers and say, “He didn’t just say what I think he said, did he?”

When writing melodies, you can just stream-of-consciousness sing what comes naturally out of your throat, or you can go to an instrument and come up with an interesting series of notes that fit beautifully with your chords but maybe take a little work to sing.  Now when someone hears that song, your melody will really call attention to itself, for its striking originality.

All of this is still being true to yourself.  Just challenging yourself to come up with something more remarkable than the first thing that comes out of your mouth.


For many creative people, writing songs is the easy part. Getting the songs out there, not so easy. You’ve written an awesome guide titled How to Call Attention to Your Music (download the PDF at http://sivers.org/pdf) that covers just about every important aspect of marketing original music, except one: how do successful songwriters keep motivated to stay in the game when the going gets toughest?


You have to love the process.  You can’t just be in it for the goal.  Luckily, writers can always write, anytime and anywhere.  Performers have it tougher.  If you love performing for a crowd and there’s no crowd that wants to hear you, it’s tougher to say, “Enjoy the process.”

The same way that you sometimes approach songwriting saying, “Let’s see what happens if I take this ballad and make it uptempo,” you can say, “Let’s see what happens if I contact this website (or venue or magazine) and ask them how to get featured.”

Detach yourself from the results and make it all a fun ongoing experiment.  Persistently try little things every week, and after a few months, you’ll find out your so much further along than you expected.


On a similar note, you’ve written “Music is like perfume. You have to convince and persuade people, with your words and images, to take that initiative, to make an effort, to hear your music. If you try to just ‘let the music speak for itself’ most people will never hear you.”

For those songwriters who have more humility than self-promotional genes in their DNA, is it time for a cold, hard reality check?


No! That’s a horrible way to think about it. Instead just make it a continuation of your creative writing. Instead of stopping at the last line of the song, have fun creatively describing your music.

If you’re writing a song for someone you love, and you want them to understand how much you love them, you choose words that they can relate to – words that they will love, not just words that you’ll self-indulgently enjoy writing.

So when describing your music, make it a writing challenge to come up with some enticing words that are not so esoteric or alien that people tune out — but not so boring that they tune out either.  A few succinct and intriguing words can go a long way…  just like lyrics!

Continue reading… Derek Sivers Interview: Part 2


Buy Derek’s Book:

In his book “Anything You Want,” Derek Sivers chronicles his “accidental” success and failures into a concise and inspiring book on how to create a multi-million dollar company by following your passion.

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