On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

Derek Sivers, Part II

Derek Sivers, Part II

Here is Part 2 of my recent interview with Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby:


In your experience marketing songs and listening to songs marketed by others, is it better to introduce a new song in the form of a rough recording (where the listener has room to imagine how they might arrange and interpret the song themselves) or a highly-polished CD track that demonstrates a well-produced expression of the song’s potential?


Arranged and produced, definitely.  You definitely do not need the million-dollar Neve console and Neumann mic, but you do need the bass, drums, background vocals, or whatever else you imagine is really part of the song.

Never think “polished.”  Very few people like polished.  Go for cheap and rough, but do the arrangement your mind really hears.  People can’t read your mind.


Since selling your business to Disc Makers last year, what’s ahead for you?


I’m always thinking about how I can best help musicians.  Lately it felt like distribution is something that’s already “done” for them.  They don’t need my help with that anymore.

But the actual hands-on labor help: help booking, help promoting, help with the boring uncreative work around being an independent musician — that really interests me.  That’s what MuckWork is all about.  It’s not ready yet, but that’s what I’m working on now and really excited about.



What’s the most important question I could ask you that it didn’t occur to me to ask?


My two biggest bits of advice to writers are to be prolific and to improve every song.

Did you know the Beatles wrote 100 songs before “Love Me Do” – their first release?  They wrote, improved, performed, and then basically threw away those first 100 songs.  Some people at clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg heard them, but that’s it.  Because of this, by the time we heard the first note from them, they were already very seasoned experienced writers.

If the Beatles were coming out today, they would have spent far too much time, emotion, and expectations on uploading their first three songs to their website, MySpace, and iTunes.  They would have emailed everyone saying, “Let us know what you think!”  They would have gotten incredibly discouraged with the lukewarm response.

Luckily for them (and us!), the Beatles were in an age where they just kept writing and writing and writing.  Constantly improving every song, trying it out on crowds, improving it again, then writing more and moving on.

I strongly recommend throwing away your first 100 songs.  Get into that mindset and it changes everything.  Instead of trying to promote every song, you just keep writing.  You stop worrying about piracy, because you know you have 100 more songs coming.  Each time you record an album, it’ll be your 10 favorite songs from the last 100 you wrote.  You focus on building and building your career instead of trying to force everyone on earth to love your first three songs.

As for improving, I was blown away by the responses I got recently, asking writers What do you do for feedback on a new song you’re writing? Apparently most people just treat the first thing out of their mouth as if it’s the unchangeable stone tablets handed to Moses!

I have always been a relentless song-improver.  I would write 25 verses to come up with two good ones.  I’d ask all my friends, “What don’t you like about this? Where do you lose interest? What line do you not love?”   Some of their feedback would resonate with me, and make me realize some great ways to make the song even better.

I’d constantly learn new techniques in melody-writing, arranging, chord progressions, lyric-writing, and song structure.  I’d aim to write at least one or two new songs for every new technique I learned, just to try it out for myself, and really internalize it.

To me, this is where all my growth and improvement came as a writer.  I can hear a clear progression and improvement in my writing that never would have happened if I had just strummed and sang whatever I felt and left it at that.

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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