From The Desk…Expansions on Co-writing



Augmenting a partner’s strengths and shoring up their weak spots may seem like an obvious notion, and so it should be, but artists have egos, and sometimes an individual’s understanding of their scope may not agree with yours. If the division of labor is demarcated- as with the lyricist/ melodist model, it’s clear cut. But often the lines are more difficult to draw. If writing partners are bringing a complete skill set to the table (good lyrical ability, adept musicality, melodic strength that can be vocally realized on the spot) it can all seem like a walk in the park, euphoric even. But that kind of synchronicity is rare, and those lucky enough to find it often spend their careers together. However, life has a way of intervening, and sometimes even long-standing partners feel the need to move on.

Many writers began writing solo and got into co-writing because that’s the prevalent model in their corner of the industry, with Nashville being a prime modern example, as are EDM, and hip-hop, where the list of songwriter credits can be longer than the lyric….to be deprived of a long standing writing partner can be devastating, and often neither can ever again match the achievements they attained together. Maintaining one’s individual identity can be a balancing act, because the very act of co-writing involves sharing, and baring elements of one’s inner self. Some people are less able to do that than others, but it usually becomes obvious rather quickly, at which point it’s better to cut and run. As a rule of thumb, if the process feels forced, then it probably is.

My longest partnership was about ten years. We each had the aforementioned skill-set, plus a shared ability to see our subject matter in a theatrical, almost cinematic way, so that the musical and lyrical aspects tended to be apropos to the characters and situations to which we were trying to give flesh. We wrote three to four days a week religiously, and during that time seldom wrote outside the partnership.  We meshed well and the result was a solid catalog. But life intervened. I’ve always considered myself a solo writer who enjoys co-writing if the stars are aligned, so I was able to be philosophical- grateful for the experience, but just as ready to move forward to the next table as my former partner was. No bad feelings, no cross words, simply dealing with the reality.

There is also no guarantee that putting established writers in the same room will produce great songs. Some years ago, I was managing the publishing operation of a highly successful, award-winning writer when I came upon a tape box of titles which bore not only my boss’s name, but also the name of an even more famous writer. I wondered why this cache was collecting dust in the vault, but when I brought the subject up my employer said “Didn’t work” I listened to the tapes anyway, but he was right. On paper, this should have been a world-beating collaboration, but in reality it was flat as a pancake, and obviously they both knew it.


Notwithstanding any advice you may get from me or anyone else, there are no hard and fast rules. The whole endeavor is so subjective that the wild whimsy of a John Lennon or Roger Miller, and the studied thoughtfulness of a Hal David can each result in wonderful, memorable song craft….for every uber sophisticated Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb there is a raw-boned counterpart who can touch the listener just as deeply, and touching the listener deeply is the main object.

From The Desk…Songwriting: An Industry Overview

Michael Snow and Brian WIlloughby  in the Studio (photo by JOtwell)
Michael Snow and Brian WIlloughby in the Studio (photo by JOtwell)

The landscape has changed radically in the music industry over the past thirty years, and songwriters have taken a particularly hard hit as the newer technological innovations have turned the old business models on their heads.

The days of signing bonuses from performance rights agencies such as B.M.I., and ASCAP  are long gone. The days of publishing company draws ( basically, indentured servitude to a company in return for a weekly stipend) are also mainly a memory, as operations become leaner and much  meaner, so a modern start-up songwriter has to be considered as an independent operative for hire, and, as such, needs to take care of  the early preparations independently. The days of walking into a publishing office with a battered guitar and a bag of songs are over, and have been for a long time. So, in the here and now, an aspiring writer has to be prepared in many areas.


If you don’t live in one of the major music centers, that have multiple open-mic opportunities to try out your stuff, find a local bar or venue where you can have a go. Sometimes that’s enough to make a person realize they ain’t got it. Sometimes it gives you confidence to go on.


Songs are not made in a vacuum;

Whether you are primarily a lyricist, a music person, or one who is inclined to bring the whole package, READ! Read books, histories, newspapers, magazines and on and on. Read all you can about the history of music in as many forms as you can absorb. LISTEN to as many musical genres as possible. You may not dig everything you hear, but you can learn from everything you hear! The planet is alive with musical styles, performers and artists…we are lucky that sound recording was invented long enough ago that the works of master songwriters of the early 20th century are preserved not only on paper, but in audio form. At the very least, go as far back as Cole Porter and the great writers of the 1930’s….you won’t regret it.

If you still feel up to the task, then it gets tough! Songwriting is a serious endeavor, not to be approached lightly, because your competitors are not approaching it lightly. You must be your own harshest critic, and also the hardest critic of your songwriting partners.


When you first start showing your wares, don’t display every song you ever wrote. Select three to five pieces only, and prepare neatly typed lyric sheets…..a hand-written lyric by John Lennon may be money in the bank, but your indecipherable scrawl will most likely be consigned to the waste basket.

A simple demo is still the preferred form of presentation, whichever format is acceptable to your target. If your own playing and/or singing skills are not up to par, there are professionals who can provide such services.

Very few reputable publishing houses still maintain an open door policy, and the designated gate keepers can now include music industry attorneys and managers, plus the various performing rights organizations, such as BMI, ASCAP & SESAC.

Unsolicited demos, lyrics etc. are almost universally discarded unopened. Don’t waste time and money on that approach.

Unless you have a strong support network with finances and faith in your talents (i.e. Taylor Swift, whose family came to Nashville with the express intent of launching their prodigy), or family connections in the industry (i.e. Key$ha, or any other of the offspring around the big music centers) your only realistic option is to get in the trenches with all the other hopefuls, network like crazy and work your butt off.

It’s unquestionably a mountainous endeavor, so be prepared for a ton of negatives along the way and have a bottomless supply of true grit.