There’s a great article released recently from Shelly Peiken, songwriter of Top 40 hits like Bitch and What A Girl Wants. She’s also recently written a book on her perspectives in songwriting called Confessions of a Serial Songwriter. The article (found at Huffington Post) tells of her perspective on the dramatic change in how music works since the File-Sharing era of the early 2000s, when Napster reshaped our cultural attitude towards acquiring music.
Prior to this free-download craze, music fans shopped for new albums at stores like Blockbuster Music (anyone remember this place?) for albums that they had heard on the radio. Radio was still the primary place where we went to hear music that we didn’t own on CDs. We’d discover new music and underground artists by attending gigs at small venues, bars, and coffee shops. We might make or receive a mixtape (if you had a tape player for your car or home like I did) or mix-CD with music that wasn’t heard on the radio. This was music discovery, but radio airplay and literal record sales were two of the driving forces behind the potential income a songwriter could achieve.
Peiken has traveled the gambit from unknown to world-renowned in music and seen many sides of the coin that most of us don’t, even industry folks. She is one of many successful acts who is speaking up about the current state of decline for mainstream songwriters in finding the financial freedom they once dreamed of. This change from how mainstream artists once were uber-successful is something to take note of, especially for aspiring musicians and songwriters who share that same dream. Add to it that media makes it difficult to really accept that fame and fortune in music cannot be had when pop stars flaunt their vast wealth (or the impression of it). Perception is reality, but often perception is skewed.
The truth is hope is not completely lost for anyone in the music industry, but the requirements for success have changed. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Gone, perhaps, are the days when writing the one-hit-wonder will set you up to never have to work again. Where one successful hit song can put you on a train of financial freedom that everyone covets and you get to enjoy the benefits of the 1%. But maybe real success in music has always been about crafting excellence. Isn’t this what we are truly connected to anyways?
Johnny Cash is still incredibly popular decades after his death. Fans (both die-hard and nominal) share a love of many of his songs from the different eras of his songwriting. The same is true for other incredible songwriters like Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, BB King, Willie Nelson and others. These are songwriters who continue to write and perform. That itself should be an indication of what it takes for prolonged success. Despite the wealth achieved, there’s an undying passion for music and artistic connection that makes them keep going. Therein lies the key for established and emerging songwriters to have what they dream. The passion has to live on, and you have to continue working.
In indie radio there are countless new acts that emerge each moment, and surprisingly most of them have a great sound. The successful indie acts do a lot of touring and play a lot of venues. They’re not trying to write the hit song to make them millionaires, but they do enjoy writing music that connects with people in a live setting. Though writing the song that makes you set for life (financially) might not be the same as in the past, there is still a financial future for songwriters. The path is just a little more organic than it used to be.