Ever been in a creative rut? It’s something I struggle with regularly. When I’m in a creative funk, nothing feels right. Everything sucks. I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall…and the Muse is mocking me. I begin to wonder, “what if my best work is behind me?”. Fear creeps in. I feel like I’m trapped in a dark pit of…. nothingness. And I hope to God I can climb out.

Maybe for you it’s not that strong. Or maybe it is. But we’ve all been there. There are days when our creativity flows, when the Muse dances along with us, and inspiration is offered up to us like a holiday gift from the Universe. Those days are intoxicating, right?

But then there are days when the well runs dry. Every song lyric falls flat. Every chord progression is lifeless. Nothing feels new. Nothing excites our curiosity or our playfulness. Everything is dull and gray.

In those days, what do you do? How do you grow your creativity? How do you feed and water and nurture it? In my experience, I’ve found three basic starting points that have helped me.

Get outside voices. Innovation is literally everywhere. Steve Jobs once said ‘creativity is just connecting things’. When I need a fresh shot of creativity, I immediately look for outside voices to inject into my soul. I recently asked my FB tribe for suggestions on audiobooks (I like to listen while running, driving, etc.). Fiction. Non-fiction. History. Psychology. Drama. Graphic novels. The response was amazing! (Not only did I receive about 30 widely-varied suggestions while I slept that night, it also gave me a priceless insight into my community…). I grabbed 2 random suggestions (someone in my community actually ‘gifted’ me a book on Audible.) and got started. Sometimes I ask for music suggestions. Sometimes it’s a random TED talk or artist interview on YouTube. And sometimes I ride my bike to our community library and pick a random children’s book. I watch Telemundo TV shows. I buy a coloring book. I do whatever I can do to make my right brain chart new territory. For me, it’s not necessarily about the source of the voice. It’s more about exposing myself to a new voice. That’s helped me gather enough ‘escape velocity’ to blast out of the rut I’m in.

Get out of your head. Yes, creativity can be difficult sometimes. It can take effort. But remember, all creativity is play, not work. You don’t work a violin! The moment my creative endeavor becomes ‘work’… I’m done. Finished. Kaput. You see, work comes from our head, but play is in our soul. The moment I can get out of my head and return to ‘play’, I’m free. When I’m creatively stuck, I create something disposable. Something that no one will ever see or hear. I write a bad song. I record the most horrible drum track I can play. I pull 20 random words from a random website and write a silly song. I draw a terrible picture. I build something out of Play-Doh or Legos. Whatever it is, I focus on the ridiculousness of play, remembering that play, like art, is its own reward. It doesn’t need justification. Recreation is recreation.

Get into your heart/emotion. Emotion is the seat of passion. And emotion creates motion. When you’re stuck, you gotta get moving, right? Pick an emotion and go to that place where you feel it can intensely (a memory, a hope, a fear, a dream ) and create something from within that state of mind/feeling. Typically, I think anger and love are the two emotions we can tap into quickest. (Remember, the goal is to get moving quickly.) Ask yourself, “What makes me angry?” Is it injustice? Is it wounds you’ve suffered? Is it something personal? Political? Cultural? Whatever it is, hop online and read up on the latest statistics or events about it. Get really pissed. I mean, like, Hulk-turning- green-pissed. Now go write. Vent. Vomit. Purge. Sit down at your notepad or keyboard and freakin’ bleed. The same can be said for the emotion of love. Going through pictures, videos, memories or even gifts that belong to a loved one can stir up powerful, passionate emotions. It can be even more powerful if that loved one is no longer living. (My mom passed away just before Mother’s Day this year, so this has been especially helpful for me lately.)

Do YOU ever get stuck in a rut? These are just three starting points that have helped me. What do YOU do when you’re stuck creatively? How do YOU approach it?

I would love it if you’d leave your thoughts.

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that said “Increased Happiness by Lowered Expectations.”

In my opinion, this little gem of wisdom can be applied to so many areas of life–including our independent music careers. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t aim high and reach for the stars, but it’s also positive to achieve and celebrate small wins. Let’s face it, we all have limited time, energy and resources, and what we set out to do should actually be, well doable. So, in keeping with the idea that 1) goals are good and 2) goals should be something we can reach, here are:

 

5 Resolutions Singer/Songwriters Can Stick To

 

1- Creatively write every day–  set a timer, pick a random object, and free write on it for a few minutes to keep your writing skills sharp. These exercises can generate a lot of good ideas you can use later in writing sessions. In the book The Artist’s Way, it talks about starting out the day with ‘morning pages’- stream of conscious writing when you first wake up as another way to get your creative brain in gear. Writers write…simple as that!

2- Pick up your instrument every day (if you don’t already)- while you may not be able to practice for three hours every day, at least play a little and spend some time noodling. You never know what you might come up with in these sessions—and what will turn into a future song. It’s also a great idea to learn cover songs, and experiment with new arrangements of old standards.

3- Interact on social media every day– even if you spend a few minutes here and there throughout the day, make sure to keep your interaction consistent. I use Hootsuite to schedule out tweets, and the Facebook scheduler to pre-schedule posts. Especially if you’re going to be extra busy one week, it’s great to pre-schedule the content then just ‘check in’ to respond to comments. It’s important to vary the content…don’t post the same thing on every social media account on the same day.

4- Make one contact a day– every day, reach out to one booking agent, one music supervisor, one music reviewer, one new co-writer or one artist who is looking for songs. Even with the ‘one a day’ rule, you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish in a year!

5- Be a learner/improver– pick an area you feel like you are weak in as an artist and take a class or a workshop to improve in that area. A few years ago, I felt like my live shows needed some help, so I went to a performance coach a few times. It made a world of difference to me! If you struggle with pitch, get a vocal coach. If you aren’t great at social media or emailing your fans, take an online course in it. If you need to learn more about music publishing, read a book on the subject. There are also great songwriter camps with professional writers you can attend to learn writing techniques from the best.

I’d love to hear your ideas about what you’re thinking of doing this year to build your music career! Please share in the comments below.

I seem to do a lot of mentoring and coaching of other artists. This isn’t because I feel like I have this all figured out in building a music career, not even close. It’s mostly because I know how hard it is, first hand. I’ve been on this road for 17 years now. And, I also know how frustrating it can be to not have any help as an indie artist when you are trying to figure out the next step.

When I get asked questions from young artists, or artists new to Nashville, I can guarantee I will be asked at least one of these questions. So, I wanted to share the answers for those who might be wondering the same things. In fact, I might just send a link to this blog instead of sitting down for coffee with people from now on. 😉

1. I’ve written some lyrics, could you put them to music?

Usually about twice a month someone asks me to write music for lyrics they’ve written (or lyrics for music). The short answer is “no.” Why the answer is no is that I already have a great group of professional songwriters that I co-write with. We write some really good songs, and we also have some connections to further promote the songs we write- so it’s a win-win for us all. Yes, it is a harsh reality, but it’s also true for me too. For example, I haven’t had 20 #1 hits so I would never walk up to someone who has and ask them to write with me. It’s just one of the unwritten rules in Nashville.

Having said this, some professional songwriters will do paid co-writes with people who have never written a song. It’s one way they monetize their skill. I know a songwriter who does about five of these paid writes a month, and it’s a main source of income for them. And, you can also look for collaborators who are local to where you live too through local songwriting clubs like NSAI.

2. I’ve written a song that would be great for (insert famous person’s name here), how can I get it to them?

First of all, good for you! And, honestly, you have a very slim chance of even getting to the artist with that song and some MAJOR competition. The reason is that most artists write for themselves because they don’t want to lose money in songwriting and publishing royalties. Here’s the real deal…

On every given major artist’s country album, there are usually only about 2 songs that will come from outside the artist’s camp. The artist’s camp is comprised of their producer, publisher and songwriters they know. A good example of this is Luke Bryan. Luke has close-knit group of hit songwriting friends: Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip (known as the Peach Pickers) who write songs with and for him. Dallas and Luke were roommates when they moved to Nashville and have been friends forever. So, unless you are a Peach Picker or writing with one of them somehow, you have a very slim chance of getting Luke to record your song.

So what about the other two songs on the record that weren’t written by the artist or someone in the artist’s camp?

The first place the label is going to go is to their catalog. For example, if Brad Paisley is looking for songs he didn’t write, Sony will go to their publishing company Sony/ATV and they will look through literally thousands of songs they have. The reason is that they have invested money in those songs because they paid staff songwriters (songwriters with publishing deals at Sony) to write them. They want to make their money back, and it makes total business sense they would want to keep that money in the Sony family.

The last place the artist/label is going to look for songs is from a song plugger (someone paid to pitch your songs for you, like an agent) or another publisher. Let me just say that there are a lot of sharks in the water in this world. If you want to try this route and are just starting, use a service like TheSongTuner.com because they actually work with reputable song pluggers and you only pay if you really have a song that fits what are looking for instead of a monthly fee. They also give you constructive feedback on the song.

3. How do you get your songs into film and TV?

Read this blog to answer that one.

4.How do you make money in music?

Ah, the big one. There are lots of ways to make money, but making a living is a whole other story. Let me give you a couple of real examples from my career.

About six years ago, I had my first song cut and released to country radio as a single. The artist spent around $1,200 recording it and $8,000 to promote it, and we were all really excited. The song climbed the charts into the top 60 or so, and got airplay on hundreds of stations. People were sending me emails about how I had ‘arrived.’ It was awesome, and it still is! But, financially from that song, we all made about $30 each on the songwriter/publisher side. Yes, that is all.

Here’s another real-life one. In my experience, indie films pay about $200 to license a song. Recently, I placed a song in an indie film for $75. This was because one of my cowriters really wanted their first film credit, and the story/actors looked reputable. We spent $350 on the demo of that song; we lost $275.

I wish I could say I make a full living doing music. But, I don’t yet. I have a full time day job to fund my music career. And the reality is that most people in Nashville do as well, or they have a bread-winning spouse, parents or an investor. And these economic realities are not only at my career level. I had a friend who was nominated for a Grammy this year, and they couldn’t afford to go to LA to the awards. They are obviously at the top of their game as a Grammy nominee, and they are also someone who has to pay the bills. Just like the rest of us.

5. Have you written any songs I would know?

If you watched Hart of Dixie then the answer is ‘maybe’ because I had some songs on the show. But more than likely, no.

So are you depressed yet?!?! Please keep reading…

Look, I don’t want to give you or anyone else the reality smack down. At the same time, I really don’t want you to have wildly unrealistic expectations of the experience and the economics of pursuing a career in music.

If you truly love writing and performing, and are willing to face the realities above, then move here and do it! It’s like I always say, dreams are free but hustle (and hard work) is sold separately.