Music Business Underground is a monthly column attempting to put the business of being a musician in real, attainable, and actionable terms for the non-established musician.  Upcoming topics include booking, live performance, show promotion, tour booking, recording, licensing, distribution, design, publicity, manufacturing, and more.  

Last month’s article covered how to put together a musical project.  This means that hopefully you now have the key musicians in line with equipment and a moniker.  Now, what do you perform?  Many groups are happy to perform covers of popular artists.  There is good money in performing long sets of cover songs live in bars and restaurants.  However, I would like to focus on original music in the industry.

Being a Blank Canvas to Avoid the Blank Page

The first step in writing a song is to think like a writer.  As you go through your day, actively listen and experience the world around you.  If anything rings that bell in your head that says, “Hey, that’s beautiful,” or “That’s hitting on the tip of a deeper truth,” or anything that creates a deep emotional/intellectual reaction, store it in your mind for later.  This could be a person, an interaction, a sight, a sound, a smell, a memory, a feeling, or a long list of other things.  Allow yourself to be open and conscious of your experiences.

If you are actively creating a body of work, write down notes for yourself.  These can be simple, possibly just a couple words or a sentence long.  You just need it to be enough to mentally transport you to that time and place to elaborate on the thought later.

Similarly, when sitting down to rehearse your instrument of choice, allow yourself to explore the sounds that the instrument can create.  Let mistakes happen.  Go places that are too ugly or too sweet.  Chances are that you will land on something outside of your normal playing style that becomes an “earworm” or a “hook” (that sound, melody, beat, or tone that you want to continue hearing into the indefinite future), if you give it the time.

It also helps to create a library of musical ideas.  I currently keep an iTunes album of short badly recorded clips to listen back to whenever I am trying to put something together into a finished song.  This is getting much easier these days, with most people being able to simply perform into the voice recorder on their phone or Garage Band on their computer.

When you find yourself lacking in inspiration, take a look at some of your favorite songs.  Learn them.  Rehearse them.  Pick out your favorite aspects of those songs and think about how you could make those pieces your own.

If you have been keeping yourself open in this way for some time, then you will find that things flow quicker and more easily when you sit down to compose a song.  You now have a collection of deeply moving experiences and sounds that you can draw upon.  On any given day, take out your notes, browse your collection, choose what connects with your current mood, and then work from there.


Writing for a Group

Writing in a group setting can become a little more complicated.  There are two ways that group collaboration usually works.  The first and simpler one would be for a singular writer to present a pre-written song to the group.

This writer may have created a demonstration (“demo”) recording and written parts for the other musicians to perform.  Or, as is more often found in my circle of friends, the writer brings in a song and the accompanying musicians write their own parts with limited guidance.

Writing all of the parts for the group will allow a band more interchangeability, which may come in handy if you have growing pains once the touring schedule becomes more intense.  However, it often turns out that letting musicians write their own accompaniment will lead to a more enjoyable time for all, along with stronger group dynamics.

Fully Collaborative Writing

Another method of group collaboration is the democratic or fully collaborative method.  This can take the form of live jamming and improvisation with the group.  This can also be a variety of group members bringing small lyrical or musical pieces that the group as a whole then blends together into a composition.

The fully collaborative writing method tends to work better when a group consists of several songwriters and more experienced musicians.  Even in a fully collaborative setting, you may find group dynamics taking shape with general roles such as one member bringing in more raw materials, one member focusing on lyrics, one member editing, and one member directing.


Once you have some ideas to bring to the table, you have to put them together into a song structure.  This means a lot of different things for different musical projects.

Pop music is a great place to start because it deals with repeating structures and universally known songs.  A verse is usually where the story of the song happens and is different each time you get to it in the song.  A chorus is the repeating theme.  A pre-chorus is used to build up to a chorus and may repeat or may change.  A bridge is a new part thrown in later in the song to add variation.  Here are some examples:

Taylor Swift “Shake It Off”
0:00 Verse, 0:28 Pre-Chorus, 0:41 Chorus, 1:05 Verse, 1:28 Pre-Chorus, 1:41 Chorus, 2:06 Extended Chorus, 2:18 Bridge, 2:44 Chorus, 3:08 Extra Extended Chorus

Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues”
0:05 Intro, 0:09 Verse, 0:34 Verse, 0:58 Verse (Instrumental), 1:22 Verse, 1:45 Verse (Instrumental), 2:09 Verse, 2:32 Outro

Kendrick Lamar “Swimming Pools” (An example of the 16-bar rap verse structure)
0:12 Pre-Verse, 0:25 Verse, 0:52 Chorus, 1:18 Pre-Verse, 1:31 Verse, 1:57 Chorus, 2:23 Pre-Verse, 2:36 Bridge (performed over verse music), 3:02 Chorus, 2:28 Pre-Verse

I generally use pop song structure in most of my solo music.  However, structural possibilities are open and endless.  As I mentioned earlier, hooks can be all about how an artist breaks away from the popular habits.

Other methods of songwriting include linear non-repeating structure (which can create a strong feeling of progression and growth) and repeating melodic themes (as heard in a lot of classical works).

More Resources

For more information on how different artists approach songwriting, I highly recommend subscribing to Song Exploder Podcast, which interviews a wide variety of artists about specific songs while breaking the songs down into essential elements.

I also recommend viewing music documentaries.  Muscle Shoals, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, The Fearless Freaks, and Shut Up & Sing are personal favorites that give great insight into the process of making music.

Featured Artist: Grill Billyenz

Grill Billyenz

Grill Billyenz

Grill Billyenz is a rapper based out of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.  He generally performs rap and trip hop.  He most recently released 5 EP, a four-song digital download.  I wanted to get outside input on the creative process, so I asked Chadman (aka Grill Billyenz) a few questions.

PEN: On 5 EP, did you collaborate or was it a solo effort?

Grill Billyenz: The 5 EP was a solo project of mine but definitely a collaborative effort from multiple people. I don’t make beats so I’ve been fortunate to connect with folks around the globe to find the type of soundscapes that I like.  JAX, CoreyArnell, DizzySmith, Sergioisdead…they provided the backdrop for that project.  Burlei are the homies out of SanFran/LA who helped push that as a digital release. Definitely one of my favorites that I’ve put out.

PEN: How do you like to begin the process of writing a song?  Do you start with music, a sound, a phrase, or a full set of lyrics?

GB: The writing process is constant.  Most times a song starts with the beat, honestly.  I may have an overall idea that I am going for but things always change.  I could listen to a beat for a year and still have no words. When you first start rapping, it’s always about sounding cool. But, when you analyze music as a whole, it’s about a feeling.  So, when the beat makes me feel something then I talk.  You can make that sound cool because everybody feels.

PEN: Do you follow the 16 bar format?  What are your thoughts on this structure?

GB: The only time I do the whole 16 bar thing is when I work with people who are concerned with structure and 16 bars. Since I started writing music, I don’t think I’ve ever followed any kind of format.  Just write and adjust as needed. I been trying to do more bridges/chorus/ditty things in between verses or do a short verse then a ditty and end the song. Punk style.  People don’t pay attention. 

PEN: How do you know when a song is finished?

GB: Hmm… songs are finished when I’ve said the feeling I need to say. I try to shoot for 2 minutes and 30 seconds or less to say what I need and move on. If I say it in that amount of time then blam, I’m done.

PEN: What advice would you give to artists just starting to make their own music?

GB: Write what you feel.  Understand that it’s going to take a few years to find your voice.  Write for you and you only.  Everything falls into place from there.  Also, have fun, regardless of what kind of music you make.  Never be afraid to be vulnerable.  I’m relearning that part now.

PEN: What’s coming up for Grill Billyenz?

GB: I have a few projects I’m putting final touches on.  Raisin is on its way via Eclectic BPM.  It’s always work, work, work (no Rihanna).  I’m playing Mates Fest 7 in Peoria AND Mates Fest Jr. in Normal.  Come out and hang. 

There you have it.  Column #2 of Music Business Underground for PEN.  Please tune in next month for #3.  Thank you to Grill Billyenz for contributing to this month’s column.  Until next time, take care of each other and keep practicing.