Guest Post: Songwriting Politics – when to get personal and when to go public

This post is written by author and songwriter, Joe Hoten from Bands for Hire. Bands For Hire are a UK entertainment agency representing a diverse range of live party bands, jazz bands, classical acts and musicians.

Songwriting Politics – When to Get Personal and When to Go Public

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People become musicians and join bands for a variety of reasons – escapism, curiosity, vanity – but most would agree that the principal motivation is a genuine love and passion for music. Once you’ve got a solid lineup together, it’s probably safe to assume that music is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of each member of your group. This means that everyone will have their own thoughts and feelings about any song you write for your band, and, in a true democracy, each of these thoughts and feelings deserves to be honoured equally, so everyone ought to get their say.

This is all well and good, but it’s not always possible – and, in all honesty, is not even always a good idea. We’re going to take a look at what can go right and what can go wrong when you share your song with your band and when you keep it for yourself.

Public Nuisance

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Imagine that you’ve been sitting in your bedroom toying around with your guitar for a good few hours, absentmindedly trying out little licks and cautious chord progressions, until, all of a sudden, you stumble across the makings of a masterpiece. You’re going to be overwhelmed with excitement, be scrabbling around for a pen and notepad and your phone all at the same time as trying to play your new creation again.

Now imagine that, after you’ve uploaded a sneak preview to your group chat, you get texted a lukewarm reception from your other bandmates – who, granted, could be in the middle of anything else – and you can’t show your song to anyone who’s going to be even half as excited as you are until band practice next week, as much as your long-suffering housemate, partner or parent might try. With your creative mind moving at a million miles per hour, it’s going to take every ounce of willpower you can muster to not continue working on your latest creation until it’s fully fleshed out and ready for its live debut.

It’s tough to know what to do for the best in a situation like this. You can either refrain from working on your song, present it to your band at your next meeting, and subject it to fair judgement from all parties – but then you run the risk of dismissal, meaning your creation was worth nothing, or even the risk of watching it mutate into something far flung from your initial vision, meaning it was misunderstood. Alternatively, you can give into your urges and finish writing it yourself, lyrics, basslines, drums and all – but then you’ll be in violation of ‘band code’, as you’ll be depriving your bandmates of the same thrill of discovery and creation that you yourself have enjoyed, and you’ll also be displaying a lack of trust in their compositional abilities.

If you’re certain that your song is suffering in the hands of your bandmates, take a calculated risk and ‘shelve it’. Don’t outright blame them for ‘not getting it’ – archive it in the back of your mind, and figure out in private how to make it work for everyone else.

Public Service

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Sometimes, especially in bands which have been together for a while and are made up of close friends, you’ll be on the same page, so you’ll be imagining your song with your bandmates’ signature playing styles in mind, and can probably predict what they’ll suggest for their own contributions, so you don’t have to say anything and can just watch the song materialise they way you’d hoped. Other times, you can miraculously get away with being a control freak, and your band will love the parts you’ve crafted for them – especially if you’ve written the parts with them in mind, as it shows you know them musically.

These are both best case scenarios, and can’t be counted on to actually happen. It depends really on how much creative control you want over your song’s journey to completion. If you’re happy to have just contributed the chords, then sit back and let the other musicians work their magic – it can be really rewarding to see your spark of an idea ignite the brain fuses of musicians you have a lot of respect for. Plus, you don’t need to worry about anyone getting jealous of anyone else, and you can expect to be treated with that very same fairness once the drummer or singer comes to you with their ideas.

Private ‘I’

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However, if you’re not satisfied to be riding in the passenger seat and want to take your song by the wheel, then you’re better off compromising some of your vision (or at least appearing to do so), but digging your heels in where it counts. It can be frustrating when you feel like you’re miles ahead of a band still umming and ahhing about which part’s the chorus and where the bridge should go when you’re sitting on a full-realised musical goldmine, and sometimes it’ll be worth the risk and convincing your band to just try out your idea. If they love it, then it’s settled, and you’ll have got away with your domineering ways this time.

Peace of mind is essential for fine-tuning your creation, and if you’re really not happy with how quickly you’re progressing as a collective, then taking yourself off for a while might be the best course of action. It’ll all be worth it when that tricky section finally clicks.

What you don’t want is a scenario wherein you’re so wrapped up in your own little bubble of genius that you end up neglecting or even hurting your bandmates’ feelings. If you burst into the practice room with your hot new property and start bossing everyone around because you literally can’t wait another second to hear it come to life, you’re going to look like a megalomaniac. Your poorly thought out approach is going to eclipse however good the song may have been on an objective level. Try to contain yourself and conduct yourself in such a way that your band mates appreciate your efforts, and show them how you’ve thought of them whilst coming up with parts for them to play.

Private Hell

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As we’ve seen in previous sections, there’s as much to be said for writing with your band mates as there is writing alone. Co-writing will spare feelings, but can confuse and delay the song’s development; solo writing may hurt feelings, but in most cases will get the job done much quicker. That being said, you must be careful not to bite off more than you can chew, because you’ll end up spewing it all back out. Finishing a song on your own will make you attached to your creation – perhaps so much so that you won’t be willing to permit any output from anyone else. This is self-indulgent, as your bandmates won’t feel the same connection to it, and ultimately self-destructive, as you’ll be solely responsible for how the song is received. If it’s a flop, and you didn’t let anyone else save it from being a flop, then there’ll be no ‘oh well, at least we gave it our best shot’ to make you feel better about it. Also, the road to this specific failure is a very lonely one.

You’ve got to be especially careful when you take someone else’s initial idea and run with it. Picture yourself at practice – up pipes the bassist with a riff and rough melody, and lo and behold, it ain’t half bad. But, a few practices later, it’s still only not half bad. You’ve played the riff over and over again with your bassist at the helm, and no one has any idea where to take it next. No one else but you, that is. Now you’ve got quavers and crotchets for eyes, and basically take it over, certain that, in your hands only, will this song become great. This may seem to you like the greater good – or even the only option – but it’s a classic case of thunder stealing, and will likely be frowned upon, not least by the one who actually came up with the idea.

It’s also worth entertaining the admittedly unattractive idea, both in this case and that of coming up with a song entirely on your own, that you might be wrong. You might not actually know best, and in your haste to complete the track you could have overlooked some key details that your slow and steady band mates will pick up on. Beautiful things take time, like the transformation of coal into diamonds, or the painting of the Sistine Chapel. That, or your ideas might just not work as well with this particular song as everyone else’s. It doesn’t make you any less of a song writer, but it might be worth allowing your bandmate to be more of a songwriter this time around.

In essence, it’s important to see the value in both approaches, but also to see which is most applicable to your band’s own dynamics. Play to each other’s strengths, as well as your own, and don’t get stuck in a routine that neglects any one of you. Let your band offer their input, and in turn they’ll respect your ideas where appropriate.


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This post is written by author and songwriter, Joe Hoten from Bands for Hire. Bands For Hire are a UK entertainment agency representing a diverse range of live party bands, jazz bands, classical acts and musicians.

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