The Truth About “Turning Pro” as a Songwriter

turning pro as a songwriter

When my son was going through his freshman orientation at Belmont University’s School of Music Business, many there were hopeful of turning pro one day as a songwriter. Another parent raised their hand and asked “So, if my daughter gets her degree in songwriting from Belmont, she’s pretty much guaranteed a “slot” in the Music Business, right?”  There are so many things wrong with that statement that it’s hard to know where to begin.  Let me take a run at it though.

Here are the big issues:

The truth about “slots” in the Music Business

There aren’t a prescribed number of openings for pro staff writers.  Publishers come and go.  Rosters go up and down.  But as long as there is money to be made in the music business (there still is, FYI), there WILL be opportunities for great songwriters.  Unless a publisher has NO money left and has maxed out their roster, they are always open to meeting with writers who show promise.  A “slot” will magically open up if you have “the goods”.  “The goods” are hit songs.  There’s no substitute for them.

“Turning pro”  as a songwriting  doesn’t happen by getting a diploma or unlocking some secret code

It’s not like turning a corner. You don’t wake up one day and “turn pro”.  I would suggest that you BECOME a pro by learning from people who ARE pros. Spend your time emulating them and working at your craft daily.  Always bust your butt to take advantage of every opportunity you are given.  The pros I know became pros by following an unrelenting dedication to quality and improvement.  They are never satisfied with the quality of their work today, so they push for tomorrow’s song to be even better.  If you are familiar with the story of the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s like becoming real.   Here’s a quote from the book to describe what I mean.

“It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

-Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

Writing better songs is your best chance of “turning pro”

Spending your time worrying about how to “turn pro” is focusing on the wrong thing.  You will BECOME a pro if you learn how to write better songs that are competitive with the best writers in the world.  It will happen to you if you keep improving your writing until you are world class.  Until then, worry about writing better songs and the “pro” part will come to you when you’re ready.

Write On! MD

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting.

37 thoughts on “The Truth About “Turning Pro” as a Songwriter

  1. It’s fun to write, so hope of selling some songs keeps us going! Thanks for keeping us real without destroying our hope, Marty.

    Been listening to you and Clay for years. Always useful real life info.


  2. Well written Clay,

    I’ve often wondered about college degrees in songwriting. I wonder how many hit songwriters actually have a college degree in songwriting. I understand coursework in music business, even music engineering. I suppose college level coursework in the craft of songwriting is a good, albeit expensive, thing. But to each his own.

    Funny, I don’t remember hearing about college degrees in Football. Maybe there are some. I’ve heard of football players getting degrees in sports management, communications, business, education, and etc. But not a degree in Football. Yes, the best football players go to college and learn football while they’re earning their degrees.

    It seems to me, songwriters might best do the same thing. Study and earn a degree, while being coached in songwriting from the best coaches in the business. Places like Songtown, and NSAI, and others offer an amazing opportunity at a remarkably low price to learn from the best. Add that coaching to college coursework in music business, education, or engineering and the outcome will be a well rounded person who can leverage all that knowledge into life. The songs will come out of that.

  3. I just had a sobering thought.

    What if all the folks lamenting the loss of ‘real’ country music had to revive everything else that was current in the 1970s. Guys would have to wear high waisted bell bottoms, giant sideburns, blow dried hair, and flower print shirts made of some highly flammable synthetic material. Ladies could have big hair, hot pants, midriff shirts and rhinestone studded sunglasses. They’d drive boxy, fugly, 12 mpg gigantic cars, to their faux Wood paneled ranch houses, and eat Swanson TV dinners and drink Tang!

  4. Hey, I just started songwriting. It’s something I’ve always been interested in but never thought I could do. So far it’s a lot easier than I thought to come up with melody, lyrics and chords. As for rn my top choice for college is Belmont. As you said a degree doesn’t guarantee you a “slot” but is Belmont’s songwriting program a good way to prepare for a career in songwriting? Would it make it easier to “make it” in the songwriting world?

    1. Olivia, Belmonts a great school. Many of our SongTown members go their and they take courses from SongTown to help give them a “real songwriter” edge.


  5. I’m probably not the kind of songwriter suitable for this excellent site, even though I have to agree with the Puritan work ethic and being patient. I’m an old “ been there and done it, got the shirt” writer but from quite an early age I realised that I wanted to dig out what was inside me and turn it into a song….kind of therapy….and as time went on I got opportunities to “ inflict” my evil on audiences through bands and solo projects.
    A few years ago I met a prominent and successful writer and spent a day talking, checking out his studio and having lunch. He was able to write with a commercial mindset ( which I believe is espoused here – correct me if I’m wrong) and after hearing some of my work he turned to me and said, “ you know, the difference between us is that I can write to order and technically produce a children’s song, a theatre chorus, an album track in any style required but you are an artist….your music comes from a deep place within you and demands its existence. Yours is a difficult path while mine already has an audience and an industry to receive it.” I thought, yes, we are on different paths, and although we both aim to master certain skills, our purposes are different. We both concluded that neither of us could do or be what the other was….we could only be authentic and true to ourselves. Blessings to all…

    1. Glyn, we have all kinds of songwriters in SongTown who all write for different reasons. The common thread is that we all support each other’s journeys!

      Cheers, Clay

  6. What we need to do is get back to country music being “3 chords and the truth”. Get back to the originality but unfortunately ‘tastes’ have changed and this ain’t your Momma’s country music which is sad because Momma’s country music was really good! There’s always room on the charts and room in the heart for a good ol’ cheatin’ and drinkin’ song…..and if someone wants to use that phrase on your next cut, remember I get a co-write credit!!!! See that, that’s how you turn a phrase!! I’m someone who keeps to the tradition of country music.

  7. Hi Robert Lloyd: A week or so ago I broached a similar subject in the songwriters-talking-to-songwriters segment of this site, worded mostly as follows: “If any of the songs I listed [ten of probably the most popular Garth Brooks classics], or any other truly classic song produced fairly recently {five or ten years old} were first-time-properly-submitted to today’s country music market, would a single one of them be sent on for publication and production or would they be simply rejected because they didn’t conform to the latest style, thereby ensuring that particular naturally-born classic song would ingloriously die even before birth and we would never know that it should have existed.” Later in the discussion I agreed that probably the best approach is to immerse oneself in the current and best products available for consumption {Country top-forty if that’s your bag, etc.} popular in your own current era and style, study them until you reek of their exclusivity and target audience, ply your goods on SONGTOWN {I worked hard with the other major site for a year and wasn’t nearly so impressed} until they are groomed to a fare-thee-well and only then submit your quasi-pro demo to carefully-researched and previously-contacted A&R departments. All of this is particularly assuming, of course, that you want an near-even-chance of competing against the best songwriters in the world {yup, the only ones who get published and produced}. I’m working on the same process. If you’re a member on this site Robert, I’d like to talk more with you along these lines or just songwriting in general and certainly would like to hear your original stuff.

  8. Ok here’s my take on it and by the way I totally agree whole heartedly with Marty’s blog, complete and utter truth in what he has said. From my own experience I studied and graduated in a BA (Hons) degree in music at Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts back in 2003. I was lucky enough to study and work with some of the finest musicians and songwriters many of whom have gone on to have significant success commercially. I was fortunate to meet Paul McCartney on several occasions and even had a one on one songwriting masterclass with him in my final year as well as receive my degree off him at graduation BUT…. never were we taught, told, assumed, that going or studying there was a ticket to success. You have to make your own success and career. What LIPA did was teach me some valuable skills and also allowed me to meet some friends and contacts for life. And to think it is only now I’m starting to get cuts and find my way in this crazy world…that’s how long it has took me for ME to put in the work, for ME to make the connections, for ME to work at being a better producer and songwriter. And the journey is ongoing. I don’t mean this to sound daunting to anyone BUT if you want to find your way in this business, first realise the reason you’re doing this is because it’s your passion, be prepared and open to working to make the best of that passion and never stop believing and working, striving, working and oh did I say working…
    If it’s really want you want to do, it won’t feel like work, it’ll feel like you have no choice other than to just do it!!! So do it!

  9. this may be the most concisely beautiful blog ever written about songwriting. i will need to re-read the velveteen rabbit. i always remember it being a sad story but probably because of the truth it tells.

  10. It’s a battle, and a passion. The competition between me and myself, and even beating my best song, is so fierce, and then, with those that are my heros and mentors, the giant talents that I must try to be able to stand toe to toe with, well, sometimes it seems unsermountable, but thanks to Songtown I keep growing and finding new sides to my abilities and the encouragement to embrace the challenge and surrender my ego.

  11. Interesting comment here by the father, but I could see any uniformed parent saying that to someone and this happening in any profession. Ignorance isn’t only in the music business but inherent in us humans. All of us.

    I do believe however, Marty, that those like yourself that do have relationships in your profession look at other writers outside the invisible fences of the business as though the fences don’t exist. And for the importance of songwriters to self-promote and/or become some sort of salesman of their art is offensive to the spirit of a writer. Many of us, and I would certainly believe the best writers, are introverted to a large degree and are the last people who would want to make “cold calls” and then try and discuss their art. For this very reason I believe the best work is suppressed, maybe not intentionally, but nevertheless. Along this line I also believe the finest songs ever written may have never been heard and has died along with the writer.

    You can lambaste me (though I know you will not be mean-spirited) and maybe twist and turn what I am saying, but I believe it to be the truth and people need to understand this is what they are up against. It’s why people stay away from the business. It is survival.

    1. I agree with you on many points, Robert and would never lambaste you or anyone just for disagreeing with me or for bringing up alternative viewpoints. I will say that many times, writers on the “other” side of the invisible fences perceive that those of us who have had some success were born with golden connections and it was easy for us to succeed. Speaking for myself and Clay, we were where you are looking across the fences at those succeeding at one time. We didn’t have any family in the business or any connection to help us get started. We just figured out how things worked and worked our way around or over the fences. That opportunity exists for everyone. You are correct that many writers are introverted and not “salesmen” enough to promote themselves or their work, but they are holding themselves back, not the fences. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    2. Robert, Marty and I started with Zero connections and got around the fences. We also spend 10’s of hours every week helping new writers get started and pursue their dreams.


  12. How do you explain to the one you love that your next song will be better than your last? I’ve been doing it for years and it’s a very slippery slope. The most common response I get is “That’s really good. When are you going to do something with it.”

    1. I’d suggest getting involved and trying to do something with them or at least find out if they are good enough to get recorded.

  13. gave me goosebumps! gotta stop that 😉

    I must be getting close as I am definitely loose in the joints and very shabby!!

    Really enjoyed the Lyrics Masterclass. Hopefully another step forward on the journey.


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