What makes you stand out in the business of songwriting? Bree Noble welcomes Mike Errico, a New York-based musician, writer, and lecturing professor. Mike tells Bree how being yourself is all that people want. Why? Because being yourself differentiates you. One way to know yourself and how you fit into songwriting is by journaling. Pay attention to what you write. If you start pouring out poetry, perhaps it’s not writing songs that make you happy. The key is to understand what you want to share with the world from within you. Tune in!
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How To Succeed In The Business Of Songwriting With Mike Errico
I am excited to be here with Mike Errico. He is a professor. He teaches at Yale, the New School, as well as the Clive Davis school in New York. He has got so much to share with you about songwriting. What is cool is he has written a book and it has grown out of the questions that he gets as a professor. I am going to let him give you a background on himself and how he got into songwriting, teaching songwriting, and then how that led up to creating the book.
Thank you for having me. I did not know what I wanted to do when I got out of college. I was bouncing around, lifting weights, and doing whatever I was doing. That is a pattern of my life. I was born backward and I got into songwriting backward. My father is a pianist who got into a popular songwriting course and decided he hated it because he is more of a classical person. We have the same name so I took his songwriting class. The first song I had ever written was in this class, and it went great.
A few years later, I got signed. I went out on the road. I have put out records ever since. I then went back into teaching as an outgrowth of the touring. It then grew into the book, which was another backward way of finding out that I needed a program to teach. I had to create one because one did not exist, the one that I wanted anyway. That is how the book came to be.
It comes straight out of the kinds of questions my students asked me and a lot of searching for the meaning of songwriting and parts of the song. Ultimately, it turns into the meaning of life. I hate to say that because it sounds like I am being philosophical or whatever. Songs, when you break them down, utilize a lot of the same mechanisms that we use in lots of other skills. In the book, I interview a lot of people in other disciplines in order to make those connections for everyone.
The name of the book is Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter. I love that you are tying this into more than just songwriting because I tend to tie songwriting into a lot of other things. When I am talking to artists about telling their stories, stories they need to tell on stage, or stories that they should be telling on social media, I am like, “It is like songwriting.” If you want to tell a story, give detail, show, and not tell, all that kind of stuff. I am sure we will get into all of that. There are a lot of crossovers between what we do as a songwriter and in other areas of our artistry and even life. Before we get into that, you are an artist. You are a singer/songwriter who is performing your own songs.
I have done that. I have been on a couple of different labels. I have several albums of my own. I have also written for TV and film. I have done theme songs, ads, and anything. I love to remind my students, who are hell-bent on being pop artists, that you have no idea where you are going to end up. Be awake and open to so many different types of music writing and songwriting.
Lots of stars have done all kinds of things in order to get where they presently are, and some people stay. I have people who are friends who are phenomenal composers, but they found a way into composition for television and film. You do not know who they are and they are doing great. They are loving their work and life. They were just open to that.
A lot of times, there are people that are making very good money that is in the background. As you said, you do not know who they are and yet, they still have a nice comfortable income and are enjoying what they are doing. You do not have to be out in the front. Regarding songwriting, do you think there is still an opportunity for people to write only for other people versus being your own artist? When you are your own artist and you write your songs, you have the mode to get it out there. You can go produce your albums and perform, but if you are just writing for other people, you have to get other people to get behind what you are doing in order to get it out there.Think as versatile as possible. Click To Tweet
It is always on a case-by-case basis but in all cases, I try to get my students to think as versatile as possible. Can you do that? Yes, you can, and maybe it will last your whole life or it probably won’t. Let’s be honest. It will ebb and flow, move into other things, and do all the other things that other writers do. That is great. When I hear a student writing in a particular way that is idiosyncratic, I try to push them to think of themselves as an artist or to put the stuff out themselves because then you have that outlet.
That was much more of an avenue in other times. There were people who were not the greatest performers, voices, or whatever but they got their songs out, and then the songs got heard and picked up by other folks. That still does happen. Bo Burnham is a great example. I have always played with him in my practice from way back. I have always preached that parody is important because it is like protest music. There is so much you can say.
Watching his trajectory and it ends up with Phoebe Bridgers covering his song is the trajectory that you were looking for if you were just going straight down Music Row in Nashville, in LA, or doing whatever you wanted to do. He found his own way of doing it by staying idiosyncratic and true to himself. It got a great cut if you were to think of it in another term.
He put the attention on himself and got people to pay attention, and then they were like, “That is awesome. I want to do that song.” That is one way to go about it.
It is a great way. It is also the one that you have more control over. In the question that you ask, there is so little control for a songwriter that if you can control anything that you can control, including your definitions of success and your ability to put the stuff out yourself, or to produce yourself as well if you can, any of those things bring your blood pressure down. They give you control. They give you a sense that you are not hat-in-hand all the time. It feels that way a lot but if you can mitigate that, it goes a long way.
It is also going to do a lot for your mindset and the way that you show up. Hat-in-hand is not a fun way to show up all the time.
I have done it. The last time I did that was when I was hell-bent on getting a record deal. It all depended on who showed up to the show, how did the show go, how did I look at the show, how my voice was, did the guitar sounded right, or whatever. All of that is crazy for someone else. Instead of like, “I am writing for me and for my fans. You all can go, stay, or do whatever you want to do. Get onboard or don’t but this train is leaving the station.” When I mentor students, I am like, “Always get on the train and be leaving the station.” That is the more attractive train. Everyone rushes for them.
I love that analogy. Let’s get into the book. What can people expect to encounter and learn inside this book? I love that you are interviewing people in different disciplines. How does that tie into songwriting?
I am aware of what is available, first of all, on YouTube. If you want to know where to put a chorus or whatever, that is simple to find. There are terabytes worth of videos about that thing.
You are not going over, “These are the song frameworks,” and that kind of stuff.
No. Very cursory I did that. It follows the trajectory of my class. It starts with the stuff that we started talking about. It is time for you to define what success is even if it is just a momentary thing, and at the end of the semester or the end of the book, it will change. Let it change, but from the chaos of music and the chaos of the music industry, build yourself a target, whatever it is.
Musically and artistically, it is a playlist. What songs do you love? What are the fifteen songs you wish you wrote, you want to be on a playlist with, and all that thing? In there, there are harmonic clues and lyrical clues. There are all sorts of clues that may not be right, but it is a North Star for now. We get the chaos pulled out of the process.
From there, it moves into areas with people in other disciplines. I have had a student ask me, “Why do we need courses anyway? Why do we need a section that repeats? That is stupid.” I am like, “In a way, yes, you are correct. That is stupid, but it is not stupid. Why is it not stupid?” Instead of talking to a musicologist or whatever, I spoke to Janna Levin, who is an astrophysicist who does a lot of exploration of the universe, pulsars, black holes, and all that kind of thing.
It is amazing how important repetition is when looking into the universe. There are two possibilities. One is crazy math, which happens. The other possibility is intelligent life, something that can control an environment to make it repeat. Her philosophy was that the reason why we go crazy with it is because our ancestors are the Laws of Physics that determine what is going on in the universe.
When we see that, we see ourselves. When we see a chorus, we see ourselves. We have communion with it in that way. As she was talking, I was blown away. She has fantastic examples of this using Pi and the determinations of Pi and all these things. I was like, “This is a much more interesting way of talking about choruses, to me.” Of course, we could say, “We like it to repeat so we can sing along,” but it is a much different thing to talk about.
It is more existential, and that is good. There are people that will just accept, “This is the formula. I will follow it,” and there are other people who are more philosophical that want to know why like, “I do not want to invest in this unless I understand why it is true.” I get that because I am a bit that way. The real reason is that we need to have a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. It cannot be all familiar, and then we get bored.You need to present yourself in a compelling and innovative way. Click To Tweet
There are lots of ways of getting to that. Because I am still a little bit of a sci-fi nerd, I was able to track her down, which was such a coup. There are things like that and also things like planting a flag in a song. I called it a mission song. I was able to speak to Paul Stanley, who is the lead singer of Kiss, about a mission song called Rock and Roll All Nite that changed the trajectory of their career, which was not going great.
They had the greatest live show in the world, but no one understood them because they were so crazy with the fire, blood, and everything else that their A&R person sat them down. They were like, “Listen to Sly and the Family Stone. There is a song called I Want to Take You Higher. We know, thanks to Sly, how to understand Sly. What does Sly want? He just told you, so you guys with your cat outfits or whatever you are doing, go home and tell us what you want the listener to know.”
They went home and they were like, “I want to rock and roll all night and party every day.” That was it. That was the hit and that is what broke their career. When they put it on a live album, their fourth album, it blew up. Using that example and being able to talk to Paul Stanley himself, I tell my students to do likewise. It happens all the time. Billie Eilish has Bad Guy. Lorde has Royals, so we know how to understand her. Now, we can be part of her world, thanks to that. These are both of their first singles. The Beatles’ first single is I Want to Hold Your Hand.
That is the kind of stuff that once you get past the existential, it is also like, “How are we teaching the listener how to listen to us?” I try to do that with as much fun and weird interviews as possible. We are talking about song form or whatever. I decided to talk to someone who builds tires at Goodyear because every tire they make is round because the form works.
Song form works in the same way. I asked him, “Do you ever try triangle tires?” They are like, “We probably did it at one point and we found out that did not shock, but it does not work.” A lot of people in my classes want to be individuals. What they try to do is break the form. I am like, “I understand but how about being an individual in the content part of it and letting the form do the work of the form so that we can continue to understand in the way that we understand with repetition and such? We can also get an individual look at you the way Kiss gave us an individual look.” It is much like how you learn anything. If we learned the alphabet but changed up the letters every time in the alphabet song, no one would ever learn it. Consistency becomes important as well.
I am sick of the same chords but if you try to introduce something that is way out of the left-field, it is not going to connect.
That is true. It is funny because my friends and I go back and forth on all the copyright violations, lawsuits, and everything that is coming out. I then listened to one of the attorneys for the Marvin Gaye estate. He was like, “There are only 26 letters. How many books are on your shelf?” I thought that was compelling. The thing is, there are four chords or whatever that work, but there are other chords. Maybe it is time to be a little bit idiosyncratic as far as chords go. You would not get sued that way. With 60,000 songs a day going up on Spotify, it might be worth a sixth chord.
You cannot just introduce a chord that is completely out of the blue to do that either because it is going to throw people completely off.
Royals by Lorde and Bad Guy by Billie Eilish are not reinventing the wheel to bring that back, but what they are doing is presenting themselves in a compelling, new, innovative way. That is what sticks with us.
I want to go back to what you said about the North Star and the playlist. How do you incorporate that without becoming derivative?
Derivative of the things that you love?
Obviously, you are somewhat derivative, but you do not want to sound like them either.
There are a couple of ways. First of all, if you were to make a playlist of fifteen songs and there might be a song or two that would be the same, in that way, there is not a derivative nature between the two of us. This is funny. I have been thinking about this. To be derivative of the things that you love is dangerous but it is how we learn.
I have a son. When I go to my couch and I cross my legs, he goes to the couch and crosses his legs. I am like, “That is derivative. You are appropriating my leg cross.” That is also how people learn. When Coldplay came out, it was like, “You guys are derivative of Radiohead.” They grew out of it. They grew into their own thing. There is an ambition there, though. You have to start from somewhere and move forward. You have an LP of Thriller behind you by Michael Jackson. He came up the old-fashioned way. People are writing stuff for him, the Jackson 5, the Motown world, and all of that kind of thing. He grew into Thriller. That is how you do it. You expand, stay ambitious, and stay idiosyncratic.
What you are saying is there is nothing wrong with being somewhat derivative at first because that is how we learn, but then, as we start to get our legs under us, we start to find new ways to branch out.
There is no other way to do it. This is from years and years of listening to my students, watching them, and going like, “You are going to be sued by John Mayer in five minutes.” As they grow, they expand and they grow out of that, hopefully. It is when you are static or trying to plagiarize that you get in trouble with that. I hear pieces of everybody in everybody. I hear pieces of 75 singers in Amy Winehouse, Adele, or whoever.You find your people before you’re famous. Click To Tweet
It is funny because I get a lot of artists that come to me and they are like, “I cannot figure out who to put in my bio as who I sound like or who I am similar to. I am not similar to anyone. I am a special snowflake.” I am like, “No, you are not. You just cannot see it because you are too close to yourself.”
I was listening to Phoebe Bridgers or somebody like Phoebe Bridgers and I was like, “This is the long shadow of Taylor Swift, which is the long shadow of Joni Mitchell, which is the long shadow of on and on.” That confessional in the diary songwriting. Everybody is influenced by everyone else. I feel like it is difficult to be the special snowflake.
I do not come from anywhere. I just landed from a distant planet like, “What is this six-string guitar that you have?” If you pick up a guitar, you are derivative of something. If you are a blues guitarist or a blues anything, that is a whole genre. If you are going to do the 1-4-5 progression, I do not know if you owe Robert Johnson any money, but it is just part of the language. It is what we do.
Does your book also cover the business side of songwriting at all?
Yeah. I spoke with Shane McAnally, Leah Jenea, and several other pop songwriters. Madison Love was another. Madison has written for Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Camila Cabello, etc. I talked to them about co-writing splits and how co-writing has become such a big thing. Justin Bieber’s Grammy had the largest number of co-writers ever in the history of Grammys. That is a function of the business.
Shane talked about how they go about it in Nashville. What he said was, “We have our people. If you are lucky, you find your people before you are famous because they become your crew. When they become your crew, they understand you, and then you can start generating.” Madison Love was out in LA. She was a little bit more like, “I go on write and there are unspoken rules like do not be late or bring snacks.” If someone is like, “Please do not smoke,” then don’t. They are obvious things, but they are not writing things. They are people things. There are a lot of people skills involved. What you want to do is be in that group that begins to generate.
When my students are like, “I have something that Rihanna would love,” I am like, “Rihanna is done. Rihanna has got her people. She is doing her thing. Make your crew.” The book talks about that. It talks about how to work out co-writing splits and how to be indispensable in co-writing. There is a lot of business stuff like that.
Everything goes back to relationships. Relationships are tantamount to making it in this business, whether you are writing, an artist, or a crew. What if one of your students is not a singer-songwriter? They are a writer, they are not going to be an artist, and they have got something for say Taylor Swift, but Taylor Swift is off-limits probably. Should they try to find artists that they can collaborate with or work with that they think might be the next Taylor Swift?
I spoke to an A&R person who is also in the book and he swore me to anonymity. I cannot divulge who it is but there is something interesting in the question that you asked. They have a song that would be great for Taylor Swift. This A&R person says, “I work with these large artists. What are they looking for?” What they are looking for, in his opinion, is a song that does not sound like it is pitched, an artist’s song, a song that the artists will become a fan of, as opposed to like, “This would be perfect for you.” They get 100 million of those.
They could write those tomorrow too.
Sure because they are them. They do not need that. It is like, “I do not need any shirts that fit me because I have a drawer full of them. What I need is a shirt that is going to make me look great, something that I am a fan of.” That is what they are looking for. Interestingly, when you are talking about people who are pitching that kind of stuff, he was like, “I cannot tell you how many times we get songs that would be perfect for the artist. Also, it sounds like the artist is singing because the singer is so good that they can mimic. It can sound like mockery to them.” Don’t do that.
It is funny thinking back. That might be why people like Randy Newman got so many songs copy by everyone because he has a small growly weird voice. It certainly does not sound like he is trying to mimic hundreds of chanteuses who have sung his material. If you can sound like Christina Aguilera, I would not do that in a pitch to Christina Aguilera. I’m just using her as an example.
That is an interesting perspective.
This came straight from the horse’s mouth. There is an opinion on every street corner. That is one, but I feel like that also harkens back to this thing where it is like, “Be yourself.” I watch TikTok a lot and too much. TikTok influencers would be like, “Do you know how I blew up and got 700,000 followers? I just am being myself. I stopped freaking out. I am lighting it great and doing all this kind of thing. That’s it.” That is all people want.
I am talking to college students between 18 and 22 or 23. They are right at the top of their career. I feel like if I get them at that moment and I tell them to be themselves, even if they are songwriters and writing for someone else, that be-yourself attitude offsets you and differentiates you. That is what you want because what this A&R guy said is, “The greatest writers in the world are writing for my artists.”
A song that comes from you is also coming from Diane Warren, Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd or whoever. Be weird. He said at the end, “Write to the left because if you are writing to the left, you have a better chance of being in your own area, for one thing. For two, if it does not work out, you have something that is more interesting at the end for someone else.” We see that all the time. Max Martin and Dr. Luke wrote Since U Been Gone for Pink and it landed up with Kelly Clarkson. It was a great song. It could move to other places.Being yourself is all that people want. Click To Tweet
You can also see how Pink could have done that song.
She would have killed it. She would have been amazing.
This is a little more of an existential question because I remember being in college and I have a college daughter right now. For some people, it is hard to know what yourself is in order to be yourself. If you do not have a lot of life experience yet, how do you figure out what that is to be yourself and your songs?
That is difficult and it is the charge of the artist to do that. In order to do that, what I assign to them and make mandatory is journaling every day. There are two types of written journaling that I have told them about. One comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, three pages a day, start to finish. That’s it. The other comes from a Pat Pattison book called Writing Better Lyrics, ten minutes a day, and then it is pencils down or pens down.
Do not be an overachiever but if you know that you only have ten minutes and you are going to write about headphones or something, you are going to vomit stuff. It is going to come out fast and it is a sprint, as opposed to when I get three pages a day, I stretch out, get a nice cup of coffee, and have a great time. The book came from doing that kind of thing. Those kinds of things are important and can be done. There are also other ways of journaling that are non-written.
I spoke to Eric Bazilian about that. He wrote One of Us by Joan Osborne, but he also was in The Hooters and worked with Cyndi Lauper. He has a thing called riff of the day, where he will play the guitar and wait for a riff to show up, then he will record the riff. If it takes him forward, he will write forward with it but if not, he has got a riff, and that is it. That is his journal for the day. There are different ways of going. There are also rappers who are like, “I do not journal at all. If I have something to say, I run, do not walk to the microphone, hit record, vomit, and I can edit it later.”
It is crazy impressive to me that people can do that. I feel like that is one of the major talents of rappers. They can just rattle things off. Those of us are painstakingly writing and trying to come up with something. It is amazing.
It is amazing to me watching instrumentalists do it, like a horn player cascading melody.
It is usually those that are trained in jazz.
It is beautiful to witness either way. In that way, the journal is frozen and it is recorded, which is great so you can edit it and work with it. A lot of rappers are like, “If I write it down, the power is on the page, which is not my job. What I want is the power to be on the recording.” These are the different ways that I talked to students about how to ultimately pay attention to yourself and learn what it is you are talking about.
I do say to them, “If you are going to journal and all of a sudden, you start talking about poetry or you are making a schematic for a guitar pedal or something like that, your journal is trying to tell you something and that songwriting might not be your thing. You might be here, but you are here because this is a point on a different line. Follow the line. If it means not being a songwriter but being happy doing something else, do that. Know that this is an important moment that you had to go through to get to another place to know yourself.”
That is a good point. If they are doing their audio journals and they are more excited about making it sound the most amazing and putting all these plugins on it, maybe your thing is production.
I get songwriters who are frustrated because they do not have the plugins, and then I have producers who are like, “I have all these great plugins and nothing to say.” They are trying to cross one way and the other way. There is a lot of traffic in class.
That is good because they are finding their way.
It never stops. I used to go out, tour, perform, and stuff like that. I had to go through a lot of that in order to teach. Teaching has been a centering moment in my life. It has been such an important time to watch and help based on the experience that I had. I needed to get the experience in order to impart it. This whole trajectory for me has been fun. I finished this book and now I am writing songs again because maybe I am back to that. Watching them bounce around all over the universe has been inspiring.
I feel the same way about teaching. I did the whole performing and recording thing, and then I did the teaching thing. It has helped crystallize so much of the experience that I had and it helped me figure out what that meant. Now I am like, “I am excited about performing again. I have focused on the teaching stuff and I am still doing that, but now I can get back into the performance.” It is cyclical.There are important things you have to go through to know yourself. Click To Tweet
It has been fun because I do not just continue hammering on one thing. I am like, “I want to write, teach, do a book or whatever, but I need to be continuing to write songs.” It does not work that way for me. I have always flowed through different ideas. You see that all the time. You see these great artists getting into fashion, painting, sports, management, and all these different other creative worlds. They all feed each other.
Is there anything else that you want to let our readers know that is in the book that they need to know to make them say, “Yes, I need to go out and get this book?”
I am not going to advertise it. What has been so important for me is having my students read it and know that they have loved it and learned a tremendous amount. It is being taught at Berkeley now and in other schools, which is cool because I also wanted it to be fun and funny. I did not want a dry thing. The Artist’s Way, we love it, and Pat Pattison love it, have a try.
He does a good job of putting some stories in there about how songs are written. It is a little technical.
It has a bounce but it is a little bit more performative, which was a lot of fun. It is a lot like the class. The big blurbs on the back of the book are students who are now household names or becoming household names. That is so gratifying knowing that the students have embraced it. I am trying to think of my teachers. How many of my teachers have I ever embraced? Not a ton. My music teachers were off doing crazy experimental things with the sound of rocks or whatever the hell they were doing, crazy and out kind of things. This is something that they have been able to grasp, which is cool.
Tell them where they can get the book and remind them of the title of the book and all that.
The book is called Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter. It is available anywhere you buy books. However, I would recommend getting a signed copy on my Bandcamp page. It also comes with a handy bookmark, which will work in any book, which is cool. If that is not your thing, I recommend you go to your local bookstore. Skip Amazon for now and patronize your local bookstore, which is important, buying local and having a bookstore. If you are in a city or a town that has a bookstore, count yourself lucky and go to it. You will maybe pick up mine, but you might pick up 2 or 3 others. That makes the economy of books so much better.
I like that perspective. Of course, you can get it on Amazon. What is your Bandcamp page if they want a signed copy?
Are you on social media? Are you on TikTok?
I am going to go follow you on TikTok. I want to see what you are doing.
On TikTok, it is @Mike.Errico.
Thank you so much. This has been such a fun conversation. I love how we got into more of the deeper side of songwriting, a little less of the technical stuff, and a little more of the existential stuff that has always been in the business stuff. I love talking about that, too. Thank you so much, Mike, for giving your time, experience and knowledge.
Thanks so much. It is great to be here.
- Mike Errico
- Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter
- Janna Levin
- Paul Stanley
- Shane McAnally – Twitter
- Leah Jenea – Twitter
- Madison Love – Twitter
- The Artist’s Way
- Writing Better Lyrics
- Eric Bazilian
- Instagram – @MikeErrico
- @MikeErrico – Twitter
- @Mike.Errico – TikTok