Rules and songwriting don’t go together, in my opinion. I like to think in terms of guidelines and principles, because those don’t insist so strongly on being followed, at least not as much as rules do.
And if we wrote everything to accommodate a rule, where would we find the possibility for creativity?
People say that “rules are meant to be broken,” but that’s not true. The point is that rules are not meant to be broken, and that’s a problem in the creative arts.
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But there is indeed a rule that all songwriters should be following, and I suppose we could and should call it the songwriter’s golden rule, if by “golden” we mean vital, and intersecting all genres. And here it is, in its stark simplicity:
Write songs that honestly represent your own musical voice.
But of course, you say, why wouldn’t I? Are there any songwriters out there putting other people’s musical desires and expectations ahead of their own? I’d say that yes, there are, and unfortunately we see it all the time.
Musical honesty is hard to establish and maintain, particularly in pop genres. If you find that statement to be true for yourself, there’s a good reason: pop genres all have audiences that expect certain things from the music they like.
And in order to please that audience and to build your own personal fanbase, you’re willing to change your musical approach in such a way that more and more people accept what you’re writing for them.
Your Reasons For Writing
It really comes down to why you became a songwriter in the first place. If it was to see who can build the biggest fanbase, then I suggest you find out your target audience wants, and give it to them.
But I doubt that you wrote your first songs simply to please others. I believe that you had self-expression in mind.
And if you did become a songwriter to express who you are, and why you think the way you do, you may need to start moving back closer to fulfilling that golden rule of musical honesty.
It’s true that in music-making, we all make compromises. Music history has hundreds of stories of singer-songwriters and bands that have had to compromise with record companies because those companies might have had different objectives than the musicians they represented, and those companies were paying the bills.
Compromising your musical ideals is not a grave sin; you’re not metaphorically killing puppies here. There are many ways to compromise wisely on what you’d normally write, if only because building a fanbase is not a bad thing. And in order to build that base, you need to listen to the industry people who know how to do that.
But all songwriters need to establish their own “line in the sand” – a line they won’t allow to be breached. And when all is said and done, the lyrics you write, the instrumentation you use, and the melody and chords you choose need to ring true on some level.
It’s always going to be about compromising. But as a songwriter, your job is to find your comfort zone that exists between compromising and selling out. It’s tricky, but it’s crucial.
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