Songwriting – Turning a Hobby into a Livelihood

Recently a few individuals have contacted me about the art of songwriting and how one can turn a songwriting hobby into a livelihood. Although I briefly touched on this topic in my previous article on “Breaking Down the Barriers to a Successful Songwriting Career,” I think it is imperative that we revisit the fundamental principles of successful songwriting.

First, and in my opinion, most important, is honing in on your craft. Just like any other profession, become an expert in your field and commit to keeping abreast of industry standards and not just meeting expectations, but exceeding them. This requires more than just a catalog of mediocre songs. The industry is already over saturated with less-than-magical songs and because of that, the diamond in the rough is getting buried deeper and deeper by the day. Rise above the nonsense and focus on crafting exceptional songs that consistently exceed the boundaries of typical staff-writing (although, see my comment below about staff-writing positions). Define your audience and create music that appeals to particular emotions, life events or the like. Your listeners should feel what you feel, think what you think and relate on some level. Music breathes life into us all, it communicates during our inability to do so, it comforts in the weakest of our moments, it enhances the thrill of a win and it sings the sorrow silenced by our pride. Feel your music and love it so others may share in those experiences. Granted, some songwriters have the sole desire to create hit songs especially for the commercial market. If this is you, then maybe you have less of a personal attachment to the lyrics and music, but rather, one that addresses the demand of the listeners.

Second, although not required, learning to play an instrument (i.e. piano, guitar) certainly cannot hurt. Also, we all have weaknesses – identify yours and address them head-on. Think about the type of songwriter you strive to be and what has worked for those who came before you. Analyze those elements and make them flawless. And of course, write, write some more and then write again. Albeit cliché, practice really does make perfect.

Third, chose carefully and wisely when selecting songs to submit for placement and (preferably) create a demo that stands toe-to-toe with the beautifully recorded music that is competing with you for the publishers’ and A&R representatives’ attention, every moment of every day. First impressions can also be last impressions. Make it count. Success generally does not happen overnight and to persevere in this business, you must exhibit patience. Invest in creating something that makes you proud and stand strong in the face of rejection. Push the envelope while always keeping in mind that the end product must fit somewhere in the commercial space. This is a business of many “no’s” before someone graces us with a “yes”. Prepare for the inevitable and do not be discouraged by disappointment. Constructive criticism just reminds us that we have yet to peak and have much room to grow.

Fourth, it is always helpful to be active with a songwriting organization and to affiliate and network with the performing rights societies. Music conferences are a wonderful tool as well. These organizations and the events they hold offer a plethora of opportunities, not only to get noticed, but to learn and develop your craft. They also provide a great platform to building relationships with industry personnel who may one day have the final say in whether your song gets picked up. Many of the songwriting organizations have chapters in several states and often times the events are geared toward particular markets. The Chicago Songwriters Collective Meetup Group (“Song Sharing”), Songsalive! Chicago, and the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) (Chicago chapter) are just a few of the organizations that may prove helpful in mastering a songwriter’s craft and establishing his or her career. Another positive aspect of becoming involved with songwriting organizations is that they often provide feedback to ensure your songs reach their maximum potential.

As a side note, many songwriters set the goal of becoming a staff-writer whereby they sign an exclusive song publishing agreement with a music publishing company and deliver a quota of songs yearly (among other terms that vary from publishing agreement to publishing agreement!). Generally, the pros of staff-writing agreements include advances (against future royalties) and having the opportunity to work with a publisher who is promoting your songs in a manner that is often difficult for independent songwriters to accomplish alone. In other words, when signed to a music publishing company, a songwriter has a much greater shot at getting his or her songs in front of producers, recording artists, managers and record labels.

Okay, okay, so how do you actually get paid?? Glad you asked. With a few incredibly rare exceptions, nearly all (if not all) of songwriter income derives from royalties you will earn as listeners stream and purchase recordings of your songs (i.e. digital and physical), as well as the performance royalties you earn by virtue of radio play and broadcasts on various mediums and in various types of establishments (i.e. television, restaurants, music venues, etc.). In other words, paid songwriters derive income from three major royalty streams: mechanical royalties (royalties received from the sale of a song on an album or digital download – currently set at 9.1 cents (typically split with the songwriter’s publishers and any co-writers to the song), performance royalties (when the song is performed on terrestrial broadcast radio, live performance venues or streaming services – typically paid through Performing Rights Societies (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC)) and synchronization fees (fees paid when a songwriter’s song is licensed for use to synchronize with television, movies, videos, etc. (freely negotiated and generally split between the songwriters and the performing artist/record label).

Finally, when submitting songs for placement, always do your research and follow submission requirements. Before submitting, ensure that your music provides the sound and feel the music supervisor, manager, etc., is seeking. Even if you do not make the cut in that particular instance, if you followed the rules and at least submitted material that fit the genre, lyrical content and overall vibe (especially if the demo sounds professional), the individual/entity seeking the music might shelf it for future consideration. Again, this is an example where a first impression should make a lasting impression.

Songwriters can and do make substantial income, but it definitely requires commitment, patience and excellence in your trade. Invest in your songs to ensure that your end product is up to par and has commercial appeal and utilize the countless resources available to you that may provide the network and relationships that afford you education and opportunity. Good luck!

By: Michelle M. Wahl, Esq.

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Michelle is a Partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP and is licensed in Illinois and Indiana state and federal courts. With a Masters of Law in Intellectual Property, Michelle is the Vice Chair of the firm’s Entertainment and Media Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation and Transactional Services Practice Group. Her copyright and trademark practice focuses on intellectual property prosecution and related transactions, including performing trademark availability searches and providing advisory opinions, as well as preparing and filing trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyright registrations with the United States Copyright Office. Michelle also assists with the oversight of the firm’s extensive trademark docket and conducts required monitoring and maintenance of clients’ trademark portfolios, as well as provides clients with corporate counseling and innovative corporate solutions to address their respective needs.

Michelle further provides comprehensive representation in the drafting, negotiating and executing of various entertainment-related contracts and licenses, including but not limited to band member agreements, artist management agreements, session player agreements, performance agreements, sound engineer agreements, recording and personal services agreements, publishing agreements and licensing agreements. As a former artist manager, she has implemented many facets of national and regional tours, assembled benefit and charity concerts, communicated with various industry personnel, facilitated radio and internet publicity campaigns, arranged radio, print and internet interviews, and assisted in the development of press kits and websites promoting local talent. Michelle has also guest lectured on entertainment and intellectual property-related topics at The John Marshall Law School, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Azusa Pacific University (CA), as well as served as a panelist on various other entertainment-related continuing legal education courses. Michelle is an author and editor of the Litigation and Industry Updates Column of the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Journal and has also had numerous articles published by the Chicago Music Guide.

In addition, Michelle serves as Chair of Swanson Martin & Bell, LLP’s Community Service/Pro Bono Committee and proudly volunteers her time as President of the Associate Board and as a pro bono attorney to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to eligible clients in all areas of the arts. She also currently serves as Events Chair for the Chicago Chapter of Women in Music, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. She recently served as Chair of the Young Lawyers Division for the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, where she was recognized as the Rising Star recipient and received a Meritorious Service Award and President’s Commendation.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in these articles constitutes general information and guidance and shall not be construed as legal advice applicable to or provided for any particular person or entity, and shall not be deemed to create an attorney-client relationship between Ms. Wahl and anyone who elects to read and/or rely, to any extent, on the material provided herein. In that respect, Ms. Wahl hereby expressly and specifically disclaims any such legal relationship, but encourages any person or entity seeking a legal advocate pertaining to the issues addressed and discussed herein to contact her directly for further information. Ms. Wahl may be reached at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP (330 N. Wabash, Suite 3300, Chicago, IL 60611 or via telephone at her direct line: (312) 222-8585 or e-mail at: