When Should I Give Up My Songwriting Dream?

give up songwriting

About two years after I started trying to write professionally, a friend of mine staged an intervention of sorts. He approached me very kindly and asked me how my writing was going.  I told him my frustrations and I told him the truth – I didn’t have much of anything going on.  He asked me how I was supporting my family and I admitted that I wasn’t doing a good job of that.

Then, he gave me one of the hardest choices of my life. He offered me a job.  A career really. A choice to give up songwriting.

The job involved writing.  I would be writing instruction manuals for small appliances.  The little inserts that come with your toaster and you throw away without reading, because you know how to use a toaster.

I would be making more money than I had ever made before.

At the time of this offer, my biggest yearly salary ever was $30,000 per year as a youth minister.  He offered me $42,000.  He also offered benefits, stability, and the possibility to provide for my family long-term.  I asked him if I could think about it overnight.  He said that was fine.

So I wrestled all night with my options.

My question was this:  “Should I give up on my dream in exchange for stability, or stay the course and continue chasing what I really wanted?”  I imagined myself writing things like “Put bread in open slot on toaster, push handle down until it locks, REMEMBER – toast will be hot when fully cooked.  Do NOT put more than one slice of bread in each open slot.”  I quickly realized that taking that job would be the death of me creatively.  I could have suffered through it, but life is too short to just suffer through.

I thanked him and turned him down.  He thought I was crazy.  Everyone thought I was crazy.

Maybe I was.  I’m not suggesting that everyone quit their job.  But I am suggesting that the temptation to settle is large and that chasing stability is not always the path to happiness. I see so many people settling for an unfulfilling career and giving up on their dreams simply because settling is the safer choice. 

I’m a huge believer in the idea that great rewards usually follow great risks.  To succeed at something in a BIG way, you almost always have to take a big risk.  That’s just the nature of the game. 

So, I kept chasing.  I refused to give up songwriting. And I caught my dream many times over.

There were days when I wondered if I had made the wrong choice.  Many days.  But, my dream is alive.  I love what I do each day.  And therefore, it’s worth every bit of sacrifice it took to get her.

So, I ask you:

How bad do you want it?

Are you willing to sacrifice for your dream? If so, how far will you go?  I encourage writers to ask themselves these questions and to wrestle with them honestly.

  1. Why do I write songs? (Is it just for a potential big payday, or is it because writing feeds my soul?)
  2. How do I define success as a songwriter? (Do I have to win a Grammy to feel successful or does simply connecting with people through my music make me feel fulfilled?)
  3. What am I willing to do to succeed?  (Will I work harder than everyone I know or do I want an easy path to success)
  4. How do I feel if I don’t write songs?  (Does NOT writing make me feel incomplete and frustrated?  Or is it no big deal – I can write or not write without feeling much difference.)

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question “When should I give up songwriting?”  But my suggestion would be the following:

  1. If songwriting is your therapy or it feeds your soul, never give up.
  2. If you feel like you have something to say to the world, never give up.
  3. If you feel the need to connect with other humans through your music, never give up.
  4. If writing makes you happy, never give up. You can’t put a price on happiness.
  5. If you simply love to write songs, never give up.

None of those things are dependent on commercial success. Someone liking or NOT liking your song doesn’t change any of those factors.

So, what am I suggesting?  I’m suggesting that you let your motivation for writing come from within yourself. Write because it does something for you – it makes you happy, it helps you feel connected to other people, it fills you up, it helps you process life.

If you learn to write from an internal place, your chances of success skyrocket.  You are much more likely to succeed if you are writing things that impact YOU positively than you are if you are simply chasing a dollar.  

I have made quite a few dollars from my music, but the biggest blessing by far has been the creative people I’ve been able to work with.

It’s the pride I feel over having created something I love, the joy that writing brings me and the way music has allowed me to express myself and let my voice be heard.  I’m a happier, more healthy human because I write songs – not because I’ve had success with my songs.  

So, when people ask me “When do you give up writing and your songwriting dream?”, my answer is “When giving up the dream feels better than chasing it.”

The joy really is in the journey.  If writing feeds your soul and makes you feel whole, never give up on your dream.  You will lose many precious memories and experiences if you let dollars dictate whether or not you continue to create music.  

It breaks my heart every time someone asks me “Am I good enough to make it as a songwriter?”  Commercial success does not define your (or my) value as a writer.  So much of that depends on timing, connections, etc.  All of those things are out of my control.

So, I focus on the things I can control and I let myself simply enjoy the journey every day.  Each day that I get to wake up and write a song is a great day.

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 and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

56 thoughts on “When Should I Give Up My Songwriting Dream?

  1. I recently learned that Tal Farlow, the famous jazz guitarist and teacher, actually made his living as a sign painter. (Although there is creativity in that, as well.) He honestly felt he had a well-balanced life; although he never got rich, he found satisfaction in his “day job,” great respect from his peers, and was able to hit the bandstand whenever he wanted. – A lucky guy.

  2. I think it’s like being a performing musician… If you CAN stop, you should. If you can’t, rock on at whatever level you’re happy with while feeding the family. YOLO

  3. Marty,
    This was beautiful.
    Succinct.
    Powerful.

    “When do you give up writing and your songwriting dream?”, my answer is “When giving up the dream feels better than chasing it.”

    Thank you.

  4. I am really grateful for everyone’s posts on here..both positive, negative, and anywhere in between. They are all very inspirational.

  5. Thank you Marty for this. Its very timely. I have had a marketing and events career for most of my life and like others here managed to have a band make music and write as well. But the last few years music got the back seat to business. I was making good money but sacrificed what I love. With Covid I am out of work and most of my time is filled with co-writing and working on music…I call it my new job, except I actually love it and don’t dread it…now I am trying to figure out how I can live this lifestyle and make a living…I have walked away from 6 figures before to follow dreams and ended up barely making ends meet, so its scary…but I have my thinking cap on and I am not giving up songwriting – no way!

  6. I think this is great dialogue. It goes to show that as human beings we were not created in a cookie cutter factory. What works for one may not work for all, and what works for all may not work for one. I tell my grown kids that failure isn’t trying and not succeeding, failure is not trying at all. Let’s all find our own path and follow it. Keep on writing guys.

    1. Great thoughts, Tommy. Some would have been happier with the steady job. That’s just not a path that would have made me happy.

  7. Always remember the line from the movie Flashdance: “Don’t you know when you give up your dream you die?” My own saying is that I’d rather die pursuing a dream than live without one 😉🎶

  8. Writing gives me such pleasure. Hearing a finished song is like nothing else, and playing it live. The best of all. But because of my age and situation none of it is done for money, only pure pleasure. If a person is single do what you want however you want, but if you have a family, you owe it to them to look out for their welfare. Pursuing a dream and turning down solid, stable income, healthcare is irresponsible to that family. Why can’t a person do both. They certainly should.

    1. I still took care of my family, Mike. I found ways to do both instead of having to choose one over the other.

  9. Good timing to be reading this. Because of the pandemic, the pressure is on to find a new job. I need to find a balance, in order to provide for my family, while pursuing my goal. It wouldn’t be honest to myself to put my dream aside. Nothing makes me happier than songwriting and playing music. So, I’ll keep dreaming! Thanks for sharing!

    1. I believe you can find a way to do both – keep the dream alive AND care for your family. Plus, happy people are better for their family.

  10. I find myself in a sort of split world dividing myself between work I am fed by and work that feeds my soul. It’s hard to turn on and off but I treasure the song crafting and what it brings out in me enough to tolerate the work that keeps a roof over my head so I can write. It’s the only way I can do it right now but thankful I can juggle. I wouldn’t want to know me if I wasn’t able to write my songs!

    1. That’s what I had to do in the beginning as well. It’s a struggle, but worth the fight!

  11. At 28, I quit a steady management job with the Employment Development Department in Indiana to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in songwriting. I had songs picked up by publishers and wrote with people who were working with artists like Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and Toto. Met a ton of celebrities. It was much easier back then to get your foot in the door. Yet nothing really happened. After two years I practically stopped writing. Eventually I quit and started a successful business, eventually sold it and went into teaching. The reality is that not everyone who attempts a career at songwriting is going to make it. The point is I gave it a shot. But I wish I had tried harder, listened to the advice people were giving me, taken better advantage of the myriad opportunities I had at the time, and had the single- mindedness of purpose that successful writers, like Clay and Marty, have.

    1. In my experience, people who gave the dream a shot and failed are happier than people who never tried. I’m glad you gave it a chance!

  12. I read Marty’s post and James’ reply and had to respond, as I’ve considered this subject as long as I’ve been writing. I agree with Clay that it is a matter of balance and hard work. I might also add that it is a matter of the heart. I believe that God often instills in us desires that exceed merely relinquishing to the daily grind of “getting by.” He has given us gifts that sometimes direct us toward unconventional and “risky” paths. I think that most of us writers with families do not consider our pursuit of songwriting success as conflicting with our desire to take care of our families…actually, the opposite. We see it as a potential means. As Clay suggested, it is not black and white. Yes, like anything else, playing too much golf, watching too much football or staying at the office too late, we can lose our perspective on priorities. But that’s life…and we have to be continually woken up to re-prioritize. But if a God-given dream can be pursued while the basics of life are attended to, it can prove to be an admirable and worthwhile investment. As we all know, to touch someone’s heart with a song is priceless.

    1. Phil, what a great song/poem title you gave in your last sentence! (To Touch Someone’s Heart”) How many of us picked up on that? Write on!

    2. Your last sentence says it all. It’s what I want to do with every song I write and I’m sure you as well. Thank you 💗

  13. Hi James- And how do you know that pursuing songwriting wouldn’t have been an even better choice? There’s no way to know. You chose to do what you thought would be best, but you cannot be sure you wouldn’t have been directed into just the right job as a songwriter, or whatever else that may have led to. I love following my heart in whatever I do. Life seems to take care of me (And my 3 kids!) without stressing about it all and making some things wrong and others right. It’s all a flow in my experience.
    Cheers!
    Magi

  14. As a early 20s year old manager I signed a band to a major label and wrote the lyrics back in the 70’s. Had on song on the top 40 charts. MGM records went out of business the band broke up and I took the opposite path of Clay. I wrote at least one song with some good songwriters like Janie Street, Sam Tate, Al Capps and had some other really good writers ask me for lyrics. I went the safer route and started a manufacturing company and did really well, but my heart was never in it.

    I had fun writing some lines for at least 3 Hookist Songs and got some really good feedback from some other writers, but not one line chosen for the songs. Maybe, I’m not as good as I thought.

    1. Rick, I wouldn’t judge my ability by whether or not my lines were chosen on Hookist. That’s a fun exercise, but it’s not exactly real world songwriting. If you love to write, I’d encourage you to write and not compare your writing to anyone else. As long as you keep writing and getting better compared to your older work, you’re making progress.

  15. nothing more in this life I’d rather be doing than writing every day and collaborating and growing with a wonderful creative songwriting community.. it just doesn’t get any better than this for me ( well, a couple major artist cuts would be nice…), and I’m grateful for songwriters like you Marty, and Clay, who continue to share your joy and truth to encourage and inspire guys like me. The present is all we have; yesterday is history, tomorrow is an exciting mystery, and today is truly a gift.
    Write on.

    1. That sums it up! I was lucky. I had a creative career and write throughout and now am free to write full time. However, while working full time I write but really couldn’t pitch so friends of friends of friends listen to my songs on road trips!
      Keep inspiring us Marty!

  16. I thought the most important line you’ve written here is “The joy really is in the journey”. For me, understanding the truth in this might be a sign of realizing it won’t get any easier once you’ve turned your attention to a career outside of music. Even without major success, I still look back on my trips from New Jersey to Nashville, writing lyrics in the car for 15 hours and finally getting off the highway 900 miles later at the Demonbreun Street exit. The next day I’d record demos, meet with publishers then at night go to places like the Bluebird or even Third Coast Café in the beginning. Your persistence is extraordinary and your success well-earned but I have a feeling that chasing the dream might have been the best part of it all. Maybe guys like me will always be on the journey, but realizing that journey is just as big a part of things as actually reaching your destination is why none of us should ever give up on writing songs.

    1. Joe I love your comment on this as much as I love Marty’s message… “Success is a journey not a destination” Replace Success with Songwriting – so true! 🎶

    2. Wise words, Joe! And you are correct. The creative people I’ve been able to work with and all of the little steps along the way have been as satisfying, or even more so, than the plaques on the wall.

  17. Thanks for the encouragement Marty.
    When I have any doubts, I refer to this quote:
    The moment you’re ready to quit is usually the moment right before a miracle happens. Don’t give up.

  18. I’ve had the same dream of being a songwriter now for over 20 years. I started writing when I was only 22 years old. In order to do this I’ve filled shelves in supermarkets, driven delivery vans, load and unloaded containers, had a few office jobs and just on writing all the time and all the time filled in my airport arrival form with ‘Songwriter’.

    About 15 years ago I realised that most songwriters are writing for a very very competitive market and while I’m considered a pretty good songwriter, so are many others. At time I was travelling on South East Asia and I saw so many people suffering because of a lack of some very basic hygiene knowledgeike washing hands and boiling water so I teamed up with a small development agency and started doing what I loved to do and that was to write songs.

    Since that time I’ve written songs for Doctors without borders, International organization for migration, Save the children and I’m currently working on one for a large U.N. sponsored conference for the whole of Africa.

    What amazes me is that for such a creative group of people (songwriters) we kinda lack imagination. I now have 2 other songwriters who are helping me but I want my organization to grow and for that I need good songwriters who are willing to learn and willing to get their hands dirty and willing to dream.

    Rob
    rob@healthsongs.org

  19. I gave up my dream.. and as much as I would like to , can and have blamed just about everyone and every circumstance.. my truth is fear held me back.. in the mean time I had a family and my sons are all just about grown and on their own and I have begun to witness how God is unearthing those dreams. I am writing and playing guitar again after 30 years of idleness… but guess what? That old fear was waiting underneath as well. As the dreams resurfaced feat from the pit of he’ll made its presence known.
    It feels like an almost constant struggle to trust my dreams and ignore the feat. I read the “War of Art” and realized I am exactly on the right.path with this much resistance.
    “I am pushing thru,
    til all my dreams come true.
    It’s no longer about fortune and fame,
    Or neon lights with my name..
    It’s what I’m called to do…
    I know its true,
    I’m breaking thru!”

    Pam Cruz

  20. I am 54 and want very badly to be in the writing the writing circle. How does one go about contacts or a publisher. My wife and currently drive a truck so we are constantly on the move. She recently recorded a CD and worked with some of the best musicians in Nashville and that is something else I would like to know. How do I get that to someone to listen to? Thanks for your time!

    Mark

  21. Well if you are alone, with no family and that’s what you want to do…that’s fine. In this case having a family, it’s WRONG! Your dream, no matter what it is, if it’s not supporting your family very well…should be put on hold, or done part time.(like me, I continued off and on for decades part-time, but the care of my family came FIRST…it was not their dream…it was mine…so a supporting paying job is what I did first) I have no regrets, but have 2 great grown up kids and 2 great Grand kids 6 and 4 and a very good relationship with all of them. Though I haven’t had much success in my dream of songwriting, I can’t believe being my age and not having these beautiful angels IN MY LIFE…and not just a Biological contributor. I don’t mean to make you feel bad or guilty, but that’s not good advice at all. If I was to “Make it” without having children etc. and was 50 years old and that was it, I think I would have felt a little cheated on this dream of mine. To sacrifice what I have today for a hit song?…Would be a very shallow victory, if you ask me.It’s kind of funny, how your last line makes sense, but your first few don’t….:)..Oh well, maybe it needs a little polishing…as they say…:)

    1. James, I agree. Family first! Marty and myself took care our family’s AND followed our dreams to become full-time songwriters. But both can be done well with hard work!Life doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Children seeing role models pursue careers that make them happy can be a great thing too.

      Clay Mills

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