Live Performance: a Crucial Step to Songwriting Success

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Darius RuckerI recently read a great article, “9 songwriting tips from Darius Rucker and Cary Ann Hearst“, from the Charleston City Paper online. Rucker, of Hootie & The Blowfish fame and now an award-winning solo country artist, teamed up with Hearst (from folk duo Shovels & Rope) to take part in a songwriters’ forum, answering question from up-&-coming songwriters.

Every point they made was excellent, but the one that in my mind jumped to the top of the list was the 8th tip: Play lots of live shows.

There are so many aspiring songwriters who think that their ticket to success is simply to write great songs, and then you wait until the world realizes how good they are, and then you’ve made it. But it rarely happens that way. In fact, every successful career starts with building a fan base for your music:

“We would never have gotten a record deal if we couldn’t get a following,” Rucker said. “We didn’t get a record deal because somebody heard our music and said, ‘We need to record them.’ We got a record deal because we sold 50,000 CDs out of the back of a car.”

A point I make constantly on this blog is that to be successful, you need to be writing excellent music, and you need to be doing it consistently. But between that step and commercial success, there is another important phase: build a strong base of fans that love what you do, and are willing to prove it with sales.

The best way to do that is to get your music out there, in person, in public, not just streamed from a website. Online presence is important, of course, and musicians without a website or social media connection rarely make it either.

But there is sometimes a tendency to think that online has replaced live. It hasn’t. It’s every bit as important now as it’s ever been to get your music out there, live, in front of an audience. More people will buy what you’re selling because they saw you live than because they heard a sound file or even watched a video streamed from your Facebook page.

And it doesn’t necessarily require that you quit your day job. There are great singer-songwriters out there who do their 9-5 job during the week, and then play a gig or two on weekends. No one will tell you it’s easy, but if you can manage it, you may eventually discover a second possible career.

So as an aspiring songwriter who wants a career in the business, you need to be doing several things, more or less simultaneously:

  1. Write songs that show imagination, creativity, and a strong understanding of musical structure. In other words, write excellent songs, and do that consistently.
  2. Improve your performance abilities. If you’re the singer of your songs, take singing lessons from someone who understands your style and the kind of connection you’re trying to make. If you’re the guitarist, take guitar lessons. The excellence of your songs will be lost on an audience that hears sloppy playing. The same goes for everyone in your band. Don’t use weak players.
  3. Get a professional online presence. If you don’t know how to do this, there are lots of people that do. In fact, don’t assume that since you’re a great musician that you’re also great developing your online sites. Amateur-looking sites will detrimentally affect your potential career.
  4. Perform live. Seek out any and all opportunities. Connect with your audience, sell recordings to them, and treat them with respect.
  5. Learn and adapt. Don’t assume that if someone doesn’t like what you do that you’ve done something wrong. On the other hand, listen to your audience reactions, and be willing to ask for and accept advice from other good songwriters and performers. Learning from others’ experiences is often free advice that can be invaluable to the development of your career.


Written by Gary Ewer
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  1. I wonder if American Idol contestants sign away their rights so they may not be able to effectively pursue a career after the show… After all, American Idol needs to protect their brand… Cheers!

  2. Another brilliant post from Gary Ewer , I would also say the Web is only a small part of finding success, Darius Rucker is a wonderful example of a class Singer/Songwriter
    who found his station in life by getting out there, sounding out live audiences, and improving all the time, from audience feedback.
    Overnight success , re the finalists of American Idol and similar shows would never have discovered the photogenic voice of Paul Mc Cartney, for the simple fact that he did not
    go in for Vocal Gymnastics. Just think where music would have evolved to if George Martin had not signed them to Parlophone in 1962 , And think of the bands that are being passed on, by industry clowns looking for the wrong signs in a band or an act.
    How many of American Idols have lasted a season or two . ? Only one or two.

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