International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting Frequently Asked Questions

International Songwriters Association
Founded 1967

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International Songwriters Association

Frequently Asked Questions

This article contains some of the most-posed questions put to the International Songwriters Association over the years.

These particular ones were answered by Jim Liddane, but if you would like to ask some questions not dealt with below, then just email us.

We will be more than happy to reply directly by email, and if your question is likely to be of interest to other songwriters, we will reprint and answer it here also.

How difficult is it to make money in songwriting?
Extremely difficult.

If you do not believe me, then take a look at the statistics published by the various rights organisations. These show that only a small minority of published songwriters (perhaps as few as 5%), make enough money each year to be able to devote themselves full-time to songwriting.

Given that published songwriters constitute a minority of those actually writing songs at any one moment, it is obvious that there exists a vast number of people (19 out of 20 perhaps), who rightly regard themselves as songwriters, but who do not earn a living wage from their talent.

To put it in context - suppose I told you that only 5% of all doctors made enough money to devote themselves full-time to medicine - would you still want to become a doctor?

Of course I know that if a songwriter is really successful, no doctor ever will come close to that writer's earnings - but that is not the point.

My point is that your average doctor starting out, can make a full-time living from his profession from day one - the average songwriter starting out most certainly cannot.

In spite of these dismal statistics, songwriting remains a remarkably competitive business, and given the rewards enjoyed by those at the top, that is not perhaps surprising. After all, when one hit song can quite literally set you up for life, writers prefer to concentrate on the potential rewards and not the far more likely pitfalls.

Because the chances of success are low, most aspiring songwriters drop out after a year or two. However on a more positive note, it is our experience in the ISA that writers who keep plugging away eventually succeed in at least getting their material onto the market.

However, since the vast majority of even published writers (i.e., those who have managed to get some material onto the market) still make very little money from their talent, the achievement of getting a song published - monumental in itself - is still only the first step on what can be a very long, and rocky road.

This is not going to be an easy career. Honestly!

Would joining the ISA help me to become a successful songwriter?
Only in the sense that joining your local golf club could help you become the next Tiger Woods.

(And no - that didn't work for me either!)

If you can write commercial songs, then you might obviously profit from the advice, the information, and the contacts which we can offer - otherwise we would not have songwriters staying with us year after year (in some cases, back as far as 1967), but at the end of the day, it's all in the song, and we do not write your songs - you do.

In other words, you have to be able to write or learn to write, commercial songs. Otherwise, nothing you will pick up from being a member of the International Songwriters Association will be of any avail to you.

Can songwriting be taught?
Anything can be taught - and certainly, the basics of songwriting can be imparted, but the ability to achieve success with what you have learned, cannot be taught.

How many people take golf lessons? Millions.

How many Tiger Woodses are there? That's right - one.

I have never met a successful songwriter who said that he owed his success to some book he once read or some course he once took.

Of course, I accept he might have gained some knowledge or picked up a few techniques from some book or some course, but in the real world, success still has to be earned - not learned.

If you could sum up the single most important quality for an aspiring songwriter, what would it be?
In one word - "perseverance".

Great songwriters have succeeded, and indeed to be honest about it, some fairly average songwriters have made it too.

I mean there are some seriously terrible hit songs out there, although having said that, I always remember Irving Berlin's advice to a songwriter who did not like one of Berlin's songs...."Never despise any song that has sold half a million copies"!

Now there was a man who understood that this is first and foremost, a business.

But having interviewed hundreds of the world's most successful songwriters - ranging from the really great to those who seem to have just got lucky - the one quality I notice all those songwriters seem to display, is the ability to persevere - no matter what.

We may not all have the gritty determination of Neil Sedaka, who decided to learn the business of songwriting by writing one new song every day for a year (none of which was ever sunsequently published by the way), but that is the mentality which seems to be required.

(OK - it possibly helped that Neil Sedaka was a musical genius as well, but you get my drift.)

Why do I get the impression that ISA tries to discourage songwriters?
Honestly we do not try to discourage songwriters who are also dreamers - but we do try to discourage dreamers who are also songwriters.

There is an awful lot of money to be made from songwriting, but only a tiny minority will ever get to earn it.

"Dreamers" write songs because they love the thought of making money. "Songwriters" write songs because they love the thought of writing songs.

Dreamers will eventually give up anyway when the money fails to materialise - all we are suggesting is that they give up now and save themselves disappointment.

Songwriters will never give up - they love what they are doing, and nothing we say will discourage them. Nor would we want to.

But it is only right that we lay out the facts and figures for them too, so that if the are going to make a decision to continue, they will be doing so with all the facts at hand.

I am concerned about my songs being plagiarised. Apart from copyrighting my material, what steps can I take to prevent one of my songs being stolen?
In spite of popular misconceptions, it is very rare for a complete song to be "stolen"  - even an unprotected song. If you are going to have anything stolen, it is more likely to be an idea, a hook, or a phrase, and such thefts are difficult to detect and expensive to pursue, particularly if the material stolen is unpublished.

Believe it or not, most ownership disputes arise, not between the poor little songwriter and the rich cigar-chomping music mogul, but between friends and acquaintances.

Accordingly, you should always take great care of your unpublished material. Not only should you protect it to the best of your ability, but you should send it only to named people in the companies to which you are promoting, and deal only with reputable companies and reputable people.

So, keep your unpublished material as secure as possible. Doing things like posting the lyrics on the internet for all to see, leaves you open to wholesale theft by people based in countries with totally different copyright and legal systems. And in spite of what people tell you, it is extremely costly to sue for theft of copyright, and your chances of success, based on previous cases taken, are slim enough.

The motto is - keep it safe, and that means by and large - keeping it to yourself as much as possible.

This site has a separate page dealing with copyright. Use the menu button at the bottom of this page to check it out.

The music business is a closed shop, and no outsider can get a song published. Is not this the case?
Most careers are closed shops to some degree, but the music business is possibly less closed than most. You do not for example, need educational qualifications (although they might help you later on with the business side of songwriting), or experience (although you will end up gaining that anyway as it usually takes a long time to break through to the top), or money (although money helps if you need to make good demo recordings).

But you do need talent, and talent is in shorter supply than a lot of people might think.

Secondly, even newcomers do get songs published and recorded every day of the week.

Accordingly, if you are having constant rejection, the problem may lie more with the quality of the material, or the method of promotion being used, than with negative attitudes within the music industry.

Most music biz executives really do want to find hits and keep their jobs. If your song is the hit you think it is, somebody will recognise it as such. It may take longer than it should (Janis Ian's first hit "Society's Child" was turned down by 22 consecutive companies), but in the end, it probably will be "discovered". 

Remember, in most walks of life, initial rejection is more frequent than immediate acceptance, and so if you have problems dealing with rejection, this might probably the wrong business for you.

After all, Elvis was turned down the first time....the Beatles were turned down the first time...even Elmer Smach was turned down the first time.

Elmer Smach, I hear you say - who the hell was Elmer Smach?

Nobody knows - you see he gave up.

How good does a demo have to be?
Most publishers we interview say that if the song is good, they will recognise the quality in spite of the lack of sophistication of the demo.

However, our opinion is that nowadays, most demos are of a high standard, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to have yourself taken seriously if you promote a low quality demo.

Having said that, remember that the demo is certainly not everything.

A strong demo will simply not sell a weak song no matter how much you spend on it, and occasionally (particularly in face-to-face meetings), the excuse of a "poor demo" is used to by publishers to turn down songs that are in themselves inherently weak anyway.

Generally speaking, the most important part of any demo is the voice used on the recording, so if you have been blessed with a good voice, then you can save a lot by making your own demos.

Again. pop ballads and country songs can often be demoed simply, using perhaps even just one well-played instrument plus one good vocal.

On the other hand, rock or dance songs probably do require more sophisticated demos.

Where can I get up-to-date lists of publishers, labels and artists?
Some libraries stock trade directories - many don't.

For the USA, we particularly like Billboard Buyer's Guide (a very comprehensive listing of US labels and publishers, plus a less detailed but equally accurate listing for most overseas territories). They also publish the Billboard International Talent And Touring Directory, which lists management contact for a myriad of acts, although these are in the main, American acts.

For the UK, Music Week publish an exhaustive guide called the Music Week Directory which we think is probsbly the best single-country directory in the world.

In Ireland, Hot Press do the same for the Emerald Isle.

Incidentally there are links to Billboard, Music Week and Hot Press on our Contacts page.

Finally, we at International Songwriters Association publish a number of directories specially for songwriters. These are not available to the general public but are supplied free to ISA members.

And don't forget the internet. It is a magnificent source of information, and much of it is free!

A firm has suggested to me that my melody is not up to par, but that they will write a better one for me, for just $50.00. What do you think of this offer?
Ignore this. Also ignore offers to publish your song for cash, to place your song on a compilation CD or cassette and promote it for you for cash, or similar schemes. We estimate that since 1945, over two million similar offers have been taken up by songwriters. but to date, we know of not one single hit resulting from such transactions.

Having said that, let us repeat the offer we first made in 1999.

If hits have been produced, we would love to hear about them, and once we do, we will be only too happy to publicise them - and indeed the firm who made them possible.

This is not as I said, a new challenge.

We put this offer up for the first time, on Wednesday, 20 January 1999.

Today is and we have yet to receive one claim of any success whatsoever.

Is there any case where a publisher or record label would require a lyric writer or songwriter to pay and fee or part with any money, or share in any expense whatsoever?
Not that we can think of. Can you?

I have received an email approach from a person describing himself as a song plugger, who seemingly has heard my work while visiting the offices of a record label, and now wishes to promote my songs for a fee. What do you think of this?
This is very tempting, because you have indeed sent your song to a record label, and so, it definitely looks as though this person must have heard your song - how otherwise would he have your email address?

In fact, getting your email address is quite easy - all he needs is a contact within the record label who will supply him with a list of songwriters who have recently submitted songs for consideration. He then emails them saying he has heard the material, is very impressed by it, and would like to plug the songs. However, unlike most agents who take a percentage of your income once successful, he only wants an advance fee.

If you are tempted - ask him to take on your song on a percentage basis and see what is response is. If he is genuine, he will do agree to do this. If not.....

I submitted my song for possible inclusion in a movie but did not hear further about this. Now some months later, I have received an email from a different, but well-known movie producer, telling me that he has already used my song in a movie he has just made, thinking that his company could get the rights from the firm I originally sent the song to. Now however, lawyers for the original company have warned him he must pay me the fee for usage as they never signed a contract with me. He cannot release the movie until he has cleared this matter up and has even sent me a photocopy of a bank draft for $ 489,000 which is made out in my name. All he needs from me is my postal address, and/or bank details, in order to send me the money. What do I do?
This is not really a songwriting scam as such, but a variation on a long-established internet fraud which some crooks with more than a passing knowledge of the music business, have "borrowed" for the time being.

Although you did send your song to a genuine company originally, they obviously did not use it - but somebody has handed over your email address to a fraudster.

Now, this "movie producer" has contacted you, and when you check him out on the internet, he is genuinely famous, with a string of hit movies to his name. But the problem is - you have not received the email from him - just somebody using his name and forging his email address.

So where is the scam?

In fact, there are many wonderful possibilities for the fraudster. He may only want your home address and bank details to sell on for use in an identity theft scam, but more likely, he does really want to send you that draft for $489,000!

So, you send him the address, and some time later, a bank draft arrives, for $498,000, with a letter telling you to lodge it immediately. Which of course, you do, and if your banker knows you well, and trusts you, he may even credit your account with $498,000 there and then. But remember, bank drafts are not "as good as cash" - or at least, they are not if they happen to be forged.

A few days later, you receive another communication. This may come from the "secretary" who sent you the draft. She has made a terrible mistake. The draft should have been for $489,000 - but she typed it as $498,000 so she is in trouble. Any chance you could as quickly as possible, send her $ 9,000 to save her being fired?

Alternatively, you will be told that there is a fee of two percent owing to the lawyers who forced this producer to pay up - could you please send $ 9960 immediately? The possibilities are endless.

You being honest and helpful - and the amounts requested being so small in comparison with the total sent - you rush to help.

Then four weeks later, your banker tells you the original draft was a forgery.

An email is nothing but an email. It can be made to appear to come from anybody.

But if you're still tempted, why not contact us? We still have London Bridge for sale (going cheap to a nice home).

In other words - if an offer looks too good to be true - it probably is.

Is there any point in entering song contests?
Song Contests have little to do with the mainstream music industry, which does not however mean that they should be ignored. Usually, they offer cash prizes, and operate by collecting entry fees from songwriters, and then paying back a percentage of these fees as winnings.

Sort of like your local lottery really, but with added musical accompaniment!

Now and then, the winning songs make it to the record market, and even less frequently, one of them actually charts. However, apart from the Eurovision, which launched Abba and Johnny Logan, most newcomer contest finalists are never heard of again.

The Eurovision Song Contest, UniSong, the John Lennon Song Contest, and some others are worth looking at. Our Contest page has a list of some of the better ones.

Most are honestly judged by genuine judges (frequently themselves top songwriters or music publishers), but a few disreputable contests take in $50,000 in fees, pay out $10,000 in prizes, and are not too scrupulous who wins.

Now, how about Uncle John as this year's winner?

What is the first thing I should do if I want to make it?
Write songs. Good songs, middling songs, bad songs - it does not matter. Just write.

If I handed a ten year old boy a football and asked him to beat Thibaut Courtois from fifty yards out, I'd lay a bet that the kid would fail dismally. But he would not be at all surprised about that because every kid knows that he has to practice, and practice and practice again before he masters the requisite skills.

Why should songwriting be any different?

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Liddane: All Rights Reserved

The Knowledge

If you have wandered onto this page by accident, then you may very well be wondering what "The Knowledge" button above is all about.

"The Knowledge" is a free multi-part course which takes you from thinking up the basic idea for your song, through using AI or Artificial Intelligence to help improve your writing skills, to penning the title, the lyric and the melody. It then covers plagiarism (what to do if you're told your song sounds like another one!) and copyrighting your song, so that you can take action if your work is stolen.

Finally, it deals with selling your song, promoting your demo, music publishers, putting your songs on the web, and in movies, or on television, getting the money in, raising cash to fund your career via crowd-funding, before setting up your own music publishing company so that you get to keep all of the money! And that blue button at the bottom of each lesson simply takes you to the next lesson.

If however you would like to go back to Lesson 1 and start the course (it will take about 90 minutes to complete), then just press HERE!

ISA International Songwriters Association (1967)

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