Nashville-based songwriting coach Mark Cawley provides some vital co-writing advice, with an extended extract from his best-selling book ‘Song Journey’
For many, songwriting is seen as a solitary journey. But what if you had help? What if instead of looking for that muse, you had one in the room with you? Flesh and blood, living, breathing – a like-minded fellow traveller? In other words, a co-writer.
Co-writing is such a part of the new normal for songwriters that if you’re serious about making this your profession, you need to be ready to work with a co-writer.
I’ve been there, so I understand the apprehension and fear this idea conjures up. Truth is, great co-writing should be unselfish, open, fun, and uninhibited.
If you want that kind of experience, here are eight things to know about co-writing.
1. MEET YOUR CO-WRITER
Before you start to work, meet your potential co-writer. Have a cup of coffee or a drink. It’s a lot like dating – see if you have anything in common before you spend a long day in a room together. It’s not foolproof.
I’ve made some great friends this way who didn’t turn out to be great co-writers, and I’ve also written some of my favourite songs with writers who didn’t seem like a match.
You want to be compatible, but you don’t want someone who only does what you do. With co-writing, you’re each looking for the other to bring something to the table.
2. KNOW THE CREDIT WILL BE SPLIT
This is important: know going in that the credit will be split evenly between the people in the room, no matter who does what in the end. That’s a hard one for new writers to swallow, but hey, do it long enough and it evens out, I promise.
Some days, you feel like you wrote a song on your own and the other writers watched. Other days, you’re buying lunch and encouraging them to “keep at it; you’re on fire!”
If no publishers are involved, it’s best to work it out in that conversation before you write. You can also use a simple split agreement the day of your
3. BRING AN OPEN MIND, NOT AN AGENDA
On the day of the co-write, it never hurts to come prepared with a couple of titles, concepts, or a bit of a melody, but make sure you also bring an open mind.
Co-writing is really about listening to each other and creating something new and exciting together. A big no-no for me would be the co-writer who comes in intent on working on their idea right from the start or, even worse, wants me to help them finish something they already had started. That’s not what co-writing is about.
4. YOU CAN’T REWRITE WITH SOMEONE ELSE
What happens if you throw out that million-dollar title or melody you’ve been saving, and your co-writer turns it into small change? Can you go rewrite it with someone else?
No. I know it hurts but…NO!
You could call them and ask, but the reality is, your reputation is built around your integrity and creativity. If your co-writer thinks you’re going to write the same idea with three other writers, it won’t be long before you’re one lonely writer. This is why you have a coffee meeting; you try your best to put your ideas in the right hands.
5. GET TO KNOW YOUR CO-WRITER
Do your homework on co-writers, don’t be too precious, trust your gut, and hope for a little magic. Learn how your co-writer tends to process information. Just ask them.
Do they need quiet periods to gather their thoughts, or are they the kind of writer who needs constant stimulus? You can set yourself up for an awkward co-writing experience by not being in tune with your new friend. Make sure you can laugh with them.
Pick up the tab once in a while and show up on time. Writers like that.
6. BE PREPARED FOR BAD SESSIONS
If you write long enough, you’re going to have a co-writing session where you both give an honest effort… and nothing happens. I’ve had plenty of days like that.
The co-writes that have been magic for me have always been with someone with a different approach, and we end up complementing each other. We come up with some magic that neither of us could have done on our own. It will happen.
Find more great ideas, book more co-writes, and one of these sessions will be magic.
7. YOU’RE BOTH BRINGING FEARS TO THE TABLE
When I coach songwriters about co-writing, I hear these fears all the time: “My idea is crap!” “They’ll take my idea and turn it into something I’ll hate.” “They’ll laugh at me.” “No one else could possibly understand me.” “No one will ever want to co-write with me again!” When I started writing with writers I admired, I discovered they suffered from these co-writing from time to time, which helped me see I wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
8. TRUST THE PROCESS
How do you up the odds of a great song coming out of your co-write? First and foremost, seek out good people to work with. Find ones who are on the same level, same path. Joining songwriting groups is a great way to lose your fear of sharing. By hearing other writers talk about their process, you gain insight into yourself.
Sharing your song ideas might still be a leap of faith, but try it. If you stay open and give your best every time, you’ll have more great days co-writing than bad ones. I promise.