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« It's all who you know? | Main | MusicThinkTank.com Weekly Recap: Music Industry Email Etiquette & More »
Monday
Feb112013

Songwriting 101: Why Originality Matters

cover songsIf you’re a musician, you probably get asked whether you do original songs or covers. And as unassuming as that question sounds, it’s actually a hornet’s nest buzzing with speculation on your intent, ambition, and talent. Do you have your own thoughts? Do you have something engaging and identifiable to say? Or do you just echo the ideas of other writers?

Are you an artist or a mimic?

Originality — the quality of being new, fresh, innovative, or novel — is the difference between a piano player and a player piano. It is the distinction between a painting on canvas and a print from the museum gift shop.

It is the thing that can’t be copied.

No doubt there are more covers of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” than there are ukulele bands in the world to attempt them. Yet it’s the original version of the song people love most.

Granted, most artists begin their careers by emulating others. But then they grow beyond those constraints. In time they render their work as distinctively as Nature renders a strand of DNA.

Originality and identity

original songsArtists often believe their work is original because of something they do. Or because of the way they do it. But nothing an artist does is as distinctive as who they are. Originality isn’t developed as much as it is discovered. Like any coming of age, the process of finding one’s creative voice is a journey.

The novelist Joseph Heller glimpsed the insanity of war in a way that was all his own. William Faulkner drew a map in his mind that only he could navigate. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a voice that was recognizable without attribution. These writers were being who they were — and “bottling” that originality in their work.

The ancient Greeks said, “know thyself.” When you do, you know what makes your work unique. And your originality shows.

Blending in vs. standing out

You might think, “Nothing I hear on the radio is original. Why would I want to write anything that is?” And if your goal is to blend in with the crowd, then you might have a point. Your chances of writing accessible songs are greater if you keep your ideas “universal” (songwriting code for “clichéd”) than if you set them apart. But cloning the work of other songwriters will also make you easy to forget. Unless you’re ready and willing to do battle with an army of soundalikes — and it’s a big army — you’re better off sticking to your own territory, with your own original style and point of view.

The world doesn’t need you to be a second-rate somebody else.

It needs you to be the writer no one else can be.

Mark Doyon is principal and creative director of Wampus Multimedia, a record label, publishing imprint, and creative branding agency based in the Washington, D.C. area.

Reader Comments (33)

Originality is everything, if you clone, hang up your guitar.

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Christopher

Making a cover your own "original" song is also possible with a bit of imagination. Some covers can be much better than the original, but in the end nothing beats a fresh new sound.

February 11 | Unregistered CommenterPuiu

Great read. "The world doesn't need a 2nd rate somebody else" brilliant!
(::)PEACE(::)

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterMike V

MOZART's dead -
play MÖZARTHEAD!

The only way to beat the original is being an original.

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterElvis Presto

Absolutely! The music world has become far too stereotypical. Lets not emulate and simulate , but CREATE!
Listen to David Easthouse for hundreds of truly original songs.

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Easthouse

"...... to swim in a school of sardines so aligned
a shark only smiles as his teeth cut spines......"

from the poem Master Poet Mark Knopfler by Bob Atkinson

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterBob Atkinson

There is, of course, another side to this coin of originality. The Teen Spirit example is a good one, but where does Cream's version of Charlie Patton's 'Spoonful', or Aerosmith's cover of Robert Johnson's 'Milk Cow Blues fit this model? Some artists manage to reinvent the work of others into even more 'original' versions of the originals. What remains true is 'know thyself' and be true to your own vision, whether you're writing your own songs, or covering the work of others.

February 13 | Unregistered Commentersfunk

I always do originals. It wasn't until recently I started doing covers so I could do something for the crowds at open mic nights. Of course the originals I chose are often so obscure people aren't even sure they are covers or not. I wish there were more venues for original artists. as it stands it's a lost cause and all you can do it sit in the studio and try to make a tune that might get picked up on a miracle.

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterJamie Keefer

Very inspiring article..very true indeed... :)

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterAnkur Mohan

WELL IF THAT WAS THE CASE, then why are record producers not pounding on my door? Going with the crowd seems to be the thing. My songs are ahead of my time I guess like record producer Bruce Botnick told me. Well that was a while ago so maybe the times have caught up with me. If so then go to http://www.myspace.com/rocketstarandhisboysinabox and give me a jingle. Let's talk.

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterRock Star

If people didn't continually write new songs the music industry would soon be reduced to a boring app on your phone

That was a great article i feel my emotions and understanding and songwriting has just shot up ten fold. thanks Tom.

February 13 | Unregistered Commentertomas

Nobody gives a crap about your 'original' music unless it's on the radio.

If you wanna be in a band and travel the world because you love music,that's a different story.
It's a struggle but rewarding if you love entertaining people and are good enough with social media to build an audience that will show up to your gig that seats 500 people.

But the guys and girls buying mansions in the Hollywood Hills have songs on the radio.

You need to be signed to a MAJOR label to get on the radio.
Good Luck with that.

February 13 | Unregistered CommenterMusic manager

But the guys and girls buying mansions in the Hollywood Hills have spent themselves; and what have they to offer the rest of us?

February 14 | Unregistered Commenternedped

Not true. It's getting easier to be 'discovered' without major label support with YouTube, Social Media, etc. The #1 song in the country is "Thriftshop" by Macklemore. Independently released. No major label.

February 14 | Unregistered CommenterDaff

Absolutely fantastic post :) Thanks :)

February 15 | Unregistered CommenterLee Rice

"It's getting easier to be 'discovered' without major label support with YouTube, Social Media, etc. The #1 song in the country is "Thriftshop" by Macklemore. Independently released. No major label."
And thanks to youtube social media "tastes" it sounds NO different from ANY of the obscenity-laced, sample-reliant, verbose rap being spewed by the major label music industry that has essentially destroyed any need for songwriting by promulgating such repulsive dreck!

February 16 | Unregistered CommenterDeeVeeAnt

Hi! Thank You for this article, because its about what i m suffering from about 5 years . my problem is that i cant find the musical style for which i could tell "yes, this is really me! i can show this proudly to anyone!" . i keep making music, for one day i love it, but the next day i throw it out . i tried myself in various styles, punk, rock, industrial kinda, chiptune, slower gloomier experimental songs, brighter fun poprock songs, faster more rocking poprock songs... but i really cant settle myself... i just dont like them the next day . i was in 3 bands in my 8 years of "music making", but i was never satisfied, never felt determined or sure that what i m doing is the good way . i steped out from my last band because they didnt liked the songs which i wrote, they said they are too light . that was around 3 years ago . since than i tried many styles alone . i even started to take singing lessons, that maybe if i learn about my range i will find my style in music, or at least it will help find my music . didnt really helped... i dont know what to do... its pretty depressing, it feels like i m running out of time... i showed some of my very raw demos to my vocal teacher and she said they are pretty good, and i m lucky that i can express myself in lyrics cause not all people can . well i dont know... now i dont like those songs either... these days i m working on a new song too, its kinda post-rock like . at the moment i like it... but who knows what will happen in few days... dont know what to do... what does ME mean? who the f. is ME???... sorry that i wrote this much + excuse me for my weak english

February 17 | Unregistered Commenterfoolmoon

Even If the only people who like my music are my family and me, that's enough! But I'm blessed to have fans from my RadioAirplay station from many parts of the world, possibly because my songwriting may resonate with their own personal/universal experience. Authenticity is what I strive for, and a desire that my songs will bring some beautiful images and hopeful feelings to mind...
And my "style" varies depending on the theme of the song; I write in a folky/country way for the most part, but my rhythm and tempo shift according to what I'm singing about. I think if we all write/sing from our hearts and about the things we care about, the music will be original....

February 20 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Lovell

I'm not using my real name, it doesn't matter. I can tell you this. I started off playing covers. At some point I realized this isn't why I started playing in the first place. It was scary to just stop cold turkey, and rely on yourself, and your own material. But since the night I made the decision...stop taking gigs where I had to play covers...almost overnight, I felt the difference...and it was't long before I started getting recognition for my own material. As time went by, I couldn't even comprehend why on earth I would have ever done anything else. It's what we are supposed to do. Each musician should be taking it somewheres new, not just preserving what is already there. I have not signed with any labels...unless you are a Mega Star...it is useless...giving someone else money for things you could do yourself...and do it better!
I'll never be on MTV...but it doesn't matter...it's not the be all end all. There is plenty of ways to measure success. I think the best is, when you go to bed at night...are you happy with the way your life, and of course your music career is going? Since then, I've seen my studio work increase exponentially (let's get that guy that does that thing no one else does) my own music has appeared in movies and TV series...I've played all over the world...all on my terms. This would never have happened if I stuck with the soul sucking, easy road of playing the hits of the day.

February 20 | Unregistered CommenterAnother musican

I agree with everything that is said here: i have been a musician and lyricist for 49 years I believe in the original process of writing because simply put bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd have made their millions and they have a bunch of great songs I believe in playing my own original music and lyrics you can hear what I do at www.youtube.com/authorjdc every song on there is my original work, I play copy music but only for fun but if you are a musician that is not wanting to make it in original music then by all means keep playing the copies I want people to hear my songs and say that is all his so go check me out.

February 20 | Unregistered CommenterJD Couch

I am assembling some good interviews with proven songwriters. I think when you understand the processes that work for some songwriters it may trigger a process that works for you. Please check out www.songandsongwriting.com

February 21 | Unregistered Commenterjohn warren

YES..YES..YES...I think that "originality" is being misrepresented here. Why does most
Popular music sound the same or Derivative. The pattern seems to be that yes, an original sounding, song is released to the public and then a river of mimic music follows that trend.
INTERESTING STORY..I had a WORLD WIDE NUMBER 1 HIT once. It was a COMEDY MONOLOGUE..it actually knocked STEVIE WONDER's worst song ever ( I just called to say I love you) from the number one spot on the top 40 playlist. YES you heard right, it was a comedy monologue. It was original, it stuck out like dog's balls on the music charts because it wasn't music. ..it was mainly luck and timing and connections and luck and the fact that this kind of thing had NEVER been done on radio. Also ..it was funny. All these aspects conspired towards it's success.
A few years ago I took my brother ALEXANDER SIMA's original compilation of what I considered, hit making material to an A & R guy at one of the big companies. His response was...the material is "too personal"... I was gob smacked. I could imagine my brother's songs on high rotation, they had that certain thing...but they were missing something....LUCK., TIMING, and obviously, an empathetic ear!!! Most A&R guys are sheep. And MOST of the time originality has little to do with success.

February 21 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Smilovici

I've been writing original material for years. Not really got anywhere yet, but at least it's mine. in general I hate covers. There are maybe the odd exceptions but I'd say the original is the best. I've noticed a lot of covers being used on ads these days also older songs rather than original material. it was a potential market for new music, but thanks to the recession it seems to have dried up. if you are writing and playing original music, I'd say these days you've got your work cut out. another point lots of older "Bands" reforming isn't helping or tribute bands or Fishermen and Servicemens wives and so on. hey ho. Don't give up!

February 24 | Unregistered CommenterJo Keers

This message is directed toward the comments made above by the person called "Rock Star". I went to the web address you listed {Myspace} in your comment above about "originality in songwriting". I have to say in my opinion you "are" Original. I can't think of any other band or artist I can compare you with. My favorite song of yours is a toss-up between "Break Away" and "Billy Boy Blue". One thing I denoted in your music is there appears to be a "down in the islands" sound. So perhaps you live where there are sandy beaches and waving palms?

As a songwriter myself for most of my life {and I'm no spring chicken} I find there is a "contradiction" between what some more famous writers say. One opinion is to "listen to as much music as you can" and then go write a song. But I feel if you do this that "subconciously" you can't help but COPY a "lyric phrase", "mood", or "tune" from something you've heard, which would make your writing yet another CLONE. The other opinion is to "not listen to much music at all"...in which case you would be MORE LIKELY to write something 'original'. {I tend to do the latter.} I listed a band website here in my Author URL { http://www.timberwolf-band.com }, and i wrote all the songs at that website. Feel free to go check those songs out if you are so inclined? I will though tell you that the last song on the list has yet to be replaced by another of mine we are still working on, as that specific one has some "errors" in the beginning. -- I never "intentionally" copy someone else's songs...yet being "human" we ALL tend to "identify with" or "emmulate" something or someone else we find amazing! Given that I am sure that "I too" have unknowingly written a few clone songs. There are only I think 88 keys on a standard piano {?}, and a certain amount of frets on a guitar; six strings, etc. And with thousands of bands and individuals writing songs daily, for the past hundreds of years...it "is" or "was" only a matter of TIME..before someone reached the end, and "started over". But then came "electronic sounds" for synths, and pedals for guitars/amps..which opened a whole OTHER way of appearing to create NEW SOUNDS with the "same old notes and chords". I "am" now an individual licensed Music Publisher via B.M.I. But so far have only published my own music via my band TIMBERWOLF. Other than that I have 'no' claim to fame! But music is my First Love, and songwriting is my LIFE. Thanks for reading this.

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterJoe C. Weidner

Very true read.....it annoys me a tad, then, that so often music executives go hunting for a sound like..."named artist", or a band/group like "named famous one". It's as if they want more plastic reproductions that somehow fit their genre! Wasn't the other one good enough? Okay, so it's meant to be just a guide to satisfy consumers....but how easily is originality classed as being too avante garde or inaccessible on the first listen?

February 27 | Unregistered CommenterNigel Pearson

easy to say but in the end the sound alikes do win. If you want to be original don't plan on getting any $. It's sort of like performance enhancing drugs i.e Lance & co, no dope, no hope (referring to the clone thing)...

February 27 | Unregistered Commentermediacop

There's also the third way: doing original interpretations of covers. I know literally hundreds of bands who earn six figures doing their own original takes on the hits of the day. Two of the most popular bands in the country I live in got there by doing rockabilly and country/ska versions of pop / dance songs from the 90s.

February 28 | Unregistered CommenterChuck E. Cheez

It angers me to no limit that on the radio all I hear is regurgitated "original" matter.
How many times have you heard a dj say "Here's a new one from..." and it's a 12 bar blues?
Originality is important for your own personal artistic growth, but all the music industry cares about at the end of the day is how much money you can bring to them. Nobody is willing to take any risks, so nobody invests in original material. Your best bet as a musician is to build your own niche and when you start making money off of it, the "Industry" will come to you.

I never really considered my songs originals though of course they are. I think when you use stereotypical terms you are still utilizing the side of your brain that says you are not an artist. I just write songs and when I play for an audience I do it as a songwriter. I have found that if you believe that you are a songwriter, everyone else will believe it too.

March 6 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Falzone

MY TIME IS LIKE MONEY AND I'M GON SPEND IT WISELY;
NO WRITER'S BLOCK, MY MIND KEEPS UNWINDING!!!
CONTINUOUSLY THINKING, SONG AFTER SONG;
I HAVE A LYRICAL LIFESTYLE SO I FLOW LONG!!!
I BREATHE DEEP AND I THINK DEEPER;
YOU DREAM WHEN YOU SLEEP AND YOU LIE WHEN YOU WAKE UP!!!
THIS LIFE WE LIVE IS A GIFT FROM GOD;
YOU SOLD YOUR SOUL NOW D.EVIL IS YOUR BOSS!!!
YOU BIG DUMMY, ALL FOR THE MONEY;
YOU WOULD HAVE GOT THAT ANYWAY, IF YOU HAD DONE IT GOD'S WAY!!!
NOW YOU HAVE NO SPIRIT, A DEAD MAN WALKING;
ALL OF Y'ALL ILLUMINATI, SOULLESS EVIL DARKNESS!!!
YOU LOSE, BECAUSE OF WHO YOU CHOOSE;
GOING AGAINST GOD, AGAINST ALL ODDS!!!
NOT SMART; AND YOU SWEAR THAT YOU HARD;
YOU'LL KILL ANYBODY, LYRICAL SUICIDE!!!

March 10 | Registered Commenterglenn rush

Inspiring! thanks, I actually wrote my thesis (as a design student from The Netherlands) about similar subjects.

I called the chapter "Entertainment vs. Long lasting art"
http://www.letters-from-abroad.com/thesis.html#entertainmentvslonglastingart

So rare to see original ideas, but so fucking great to stumble upon one.

April 4 | Unregistered CommenterRoey Tsemah

The point is well taken yet also to be remembered that not every gifted artist is a gifted writer.You may have a very good band on it's way up yet only one or two members do the writing.Way back in the old day when an artist signed a label contract they were not expected to do the writing,nor in most cases did they expect too.The A&R Department decided what material the artist would do.Publishers pitched tunes done by their writers.How many original tunes did Elvis do in his incredible career?Does it really matter that he did not write them?The ability to write is both a gift and a craft.if you don't have the gift to write yet have the gift to perform then you want to find the best tune for you to perform.and so now,not to just be a copycat a really cool thing to do is find a songwriter,preferably unknown and starving just like you who writes great tunes and you do their tune and sound unique and original doing it and then you have a brand new thing going...did you write it?No..who cares?don't rip your great writer off,credit them and pay them their royalties.Now if you can perform and you also can write,you have got the gift boy!Then you MUST write.Because you will get very lazy if you don't,a huge sign of a dying act is when they hit it with origiballls and then turned to covers of other known artists.If their pen was getting a bit dry and new material was due why didn't they look for a gifted songwriter to write something new for them?I can tell you,you put out the vibe you are looking for material to do,new material,your desk will be covered with demos and dubs.Fresh new ideas.You just go to music row in Nashville and see the songwriters.Begging you to just listen.It gets kind of snobby to just think "if i don't write it it is no good.and if you just only can cover stuff you know your destination.You are starving as an artist,a great writer is starving as a writer.Both of you are working day job just to make ends meet but you hit it off.The great writer studies what they think is your style and a hit song is born.A brand new song done for the first time.Your audience,the most important thing, will assume you wrote it.Your great songwriter will invite you over for a spag dinner you never will forget and your audience,the people that pay your bills ...love you!! And that's showbiz folks!

April 4 | Unregistered Commenterrene labre

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