How to balance quality and quantity as a songwriter
Is it more important to have a long list of songs on hand or to write chart-toppers? In this post, learn about when either quality or quantity comes first and how to find the perfect balance between both.
To play an open mic, you can start with one song, but two is preferable. To play an opening set for a headliner, you’ll need 25-30 minutes of material. To headline, you need at least one 50 minute set. To secure a restaurant spot, you’ll need at least two 45-50 minute sets.
A single is just one song (unless you add a B-side). An EP (or Extended Play record) is a collection or “medium length” album of 4-6 songs, while an LP (or Long Playing record) is usually considered an album with a collection of 7 or more songs, more commonly 8-12.
And then there’s the “always difficult” second album to consider.
To be a working songwriter, you can see you need a bunch of songs once you poke your head above the parapet. You can also envision a pattern to releasing recorded songs; multiple singles, a stepping stone EP, an album you can consider manufacturing as physical product to sell at your shows, where you need to be able to play a set or two live.
But you also need an ongoing process to generate enough material to fill out both your live sets and release schedules, so being able to write a number of songs is mandatory. Then of course, there’s making sure that the songs you write are of sufficient quality to release or perform to an audience.
Once the ball gets rolling with any growing career, it can be very challenging to lock in writing time when the posters need to get printed, the venues need booking, and those carefully coveted interviews and live streams need to happen — not to mention the many routine tasks associated with promoting and producing indie music like responding to emails, changing guitar strings or batteries on your pedals…
You know where I’m going with this.
While there are lot of shoulds and “must do’s” in this flurry, it all comes down to this: No songs, no gigs. No good songs, no repeat gigs. No new songs, no audience or catalogue development.
Quantity is hugely important. The number of finished songs you write allows you to connect and reconnect with various audiences. But better quality songs attract larger audiences, more discerning audiences and start to garner the attention of music business folks from studio operators to music media, producers to playlist curators.
Better quality songs lift you up the hierarchy allowing your career opportunities to compound, as doors open.
And yet, it is both quality and quantity which are necessary for you to professionalize.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “6 Bad Habits in Songwriting, and How to Break Them.”
Here are a couple of examples of how song quantity and quality can operate at peak level.
To create Michael Jackson’s Thriller, producer Quincy Jones auditioned 600 songs to get to the final 12 tracks. A lot of song sifting to get the quality of material to create a quality hit record.
Improving your song can start with one word. Here’s the multi-award winning genre-crossing producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks, System of A Down, Johnny Cash) in an interview with Tim Ferriss.
Tim Ferriss: “When you’re working with an artist who believes they can’t do something, or is just hitting that wall, what are some of the ways that you help them get past that?”
Rick Rubin: “Usually, I’ll give them homework, a small, doable task. I’ll give you an example. There was an artist I was working with recently, who hadn’t made an album in a long time, and was struggling with finishing anything. And, just had this — it was a version of a writer’s block …. But, I would give him very doable homework assignments that almost seemed like a joke.
“Tonight, I want you to write one word, in this song that needs five lines, that you can’t finish, I just want one word that you like, by tomorrow, do you think that you could come up with one word? And, usually, he’d be like yeah, I think I can do one word. And, just very quickly, by breaking it down into pieces… and chipping away, one step at a time, you can really get through anything.”
Here are some ideas of how to work on both the quantity and the quality of songs you write.
1. Write regularly.
Find your way to be habitual about songwriting in all stages. There’s just as much value in brainstorming ideas as there is noodling on a guitar or experimenting with a rhyme scheme. There’s no magic formula but you will have your own way of creating songs. Prioritize it. Regular writing means you’ll have more chance of getting stuff done. It creates momentum — progress over perfectionism. Start with one word or line per day, if that helps.
2. Develop a support system
Don’t rely on motivation out of thin air. Support yourself by setting up things that help you write and minimizing the things that don’t. (You know what I mean!). Divert your resources to keep space to write/sing/play/think about your songs. Preserve your time and build a team to help you achieve more. Include people in your ecosystem who are like-minded and understand what you’re trying to do.
3. Invest in your own creativity.
Think about what you absorb and consume that feeds your muse. Find and follow what inspires you, what stimulates you, what excites you and surround yourself with it. Whether it’s a deep dive into a particular artist’s catalogue, or reading a successful writer’s biography or listening to “how I wrote blah blah” podcasts, help your creative juices flow.
Remember, the goal here is writing a quantity of finished songs at a quality you’re confident in.
4. Curate a feedback loop of folks whose ears you trust and whose opinions push you to go from good to great.
Keep this loop small and tight. You want specific comments too, rather than blanket “oh it’s great” or “it sucks, dude.” This may be challenging, but ultimately, you can choose which elements feedback to use for revision.
Collaboration lets you interact with other songwriters of different abilities and style. Not necessarily better or worse — just different. And that helps (a lot). This shows you what you can do, but also highlights your blind spots; areas where you may be less fluent.
6. Invest in improvement.
Continual learning in any area of your musicality will help your songwriting. Taking a course on Soundfly, for example, on vocal production, beat making, or contemporary harmony, is another way of filling your cup. There’s also a myriad of opportunities in terms of songwriting workshops, retreats, and classes now available, which can introduce you to new ways of working or thinking about songwriting you can use in your own practice. Most importantly, it keeps you open to evolving.
Quantity and quality aren’t at odds with the approach taken by top-level artists. Quantity and quality are intertwined, hand in helping hand. Not a bad idea to have at the forefront of your songwriting journey.
Charlotte Yates is an independent New Zealand singer-songwriter with a growing catalogue of seven solo releases and thirteen collaborative projects. She composes music for TV, theatre, and short film, and provides a songwriting coaching service, Songdoctor. Charlotte is a Soundfly Mentor, click here to work with her on your Songwriting, Lyrics and Melody craft.