Songwriting as a career pathway

What qualities and skills are needed by today’s aspiring songwriters with sights on the international action? It’s a lot more than just rhythm and melody.
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Troye Sivan performs during the Summer Jam concert at the Jones Beach Theater on June 11, 2016 in New York. Image by J. Stone via Shutterstock.

While artists such as Sia, Lorde and Troye Sivan hit the charts performing their own music, there is also a new generation of young creatives making a career out of crafting songs for other people. So what qualities and skills are needed by today’s aspiring songwriters with sights on the international action?

It is a convention going as far back as Tin Pan Alley in the early 1900s and the Brill Building set of the Sixties, but 23-year-old Melbourne writer Sarah Aarons exemplifies just how 21st century the world of behind-the-scenes songwriting has become. Putting uni on hold and moving to LA not long after participating in APRA AMCOS’ SongHubs writing camp, she grabbed stratospheric chart success with her co-writing credit on ‘Stay’, the Billboard #1 from Zedd and Alessia Cara, and has shared writing sessions with many other big names including Flume and Demi Lovato.

Alex Hope is another to watch. Also just 23, with a slew of songwriting and producer awards and no stranger to the charts as a Troye Sivan co-writer, she is part of the new guard of young Australian music creatives making waves not long out of secondary school. They might take different paths via TAFE, university, or a side hustle – but they are armed with a laptop loaded with music-making software, a prodigious work ethic, and a willingness to collaborate.

Indeed, collaboration is a strong hallmark of success. Of last year’s ARIA Top 50 Australian Artist Singles only six were composed by a sole writer (and Vance Joy claims two of those) and a study by Music Week magazine into last year’s top 100 Billboard chart hits found it takes an average of 4.53 songwriters to create a global hit single. Aarons and Hope, and their writer-performer counterparts like Lorde and Sivan, helped drive a record-breaking year for APRA AMCOS in fiscal year 2016-17 with over 18,000 members earning income from works played overseas.

Potbelleez frontman, Ilan Kidron, who divides his time between Sydney and LA as an award-winning co-writer, is a mentor on APRA AMCOS’ in-school SongMakers program, which is about opening high school students’ eyes to some of the more under-the-radar career possibilities in the contemporary music industry, including songwriting and producing.

Kidron says: ‘We try to get across that you have to develop a particular set of skills if you’re a career writer. You’ve got to be creative; able to work well with others; be resilient when disappointments come up; have a good understanding of the online world; have a working knowledge of industry-standard software like ProTools or Logic; and hone business skills like international marketing and accounting. And you have to be able to do all that wherever you find yourself because there’s no “workplace” in the traditional sense. How many jobs demand that? It’s scary and hard but it’s also really, really exciting.’

With recent research by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) finding that today’s young people will likely have 17 jobs over five different careers in their lifetime, it’s interesting that Kidron’s list of must-have attributes for songwriters echoes the kind of ‘enterprise skills’ the FYA says are so essential for enabling young people to successfully navigate the world of work. So developing these skills is a good long-term investment whether or not a young person sticks with their songwriting dream.

Skill development is one thing, but how does a young songwriter make the leap from school to work? Both APRA AMCOS and the music associations of each state and territory are a wealth of information and opportunities: workshops on songwriting and legal affairs, networking events, overseas support, and competitions and grants that provide a real springboard, e.g. Music Victoria’s The Push and Josh Pyke’s mentoring grant. Then there’s triple j which has been the launchpad for most of our big names in music of the last few decades.

‘There’s a team of people whose job it is to listen to all the music that gets uploaded to Unearthed,’ says SongMakers mentor, Kristy Peters, the Sydney musician and triple j presenter known as KLP. ‘That’s how I got a publishing deal, a record deal, and I even got offered a job at the broadcaster – all from uploading music that I had made in my bedroom. But once you get those connections you have to be prepared to work your butt off. You’ve got to take every opportunity, respond to changes, work with lots of different people and keep learning: the tools are all there now, more than ever.’

Nineteen year old writer-producer, Taka Perry, is a case in point. When he was in Year 12 at Canberra’s Narrabundah College he had already been producing his own music for four years and getting up at 4am to finish his songs before school. A SongMakers workshop with mentor producer, Robert Conley, whose credits include Montaigne, Thelma Plum, Amy Meredith and countless others, was just the opening Perry needed. He sent Conley some music after the workshop and was interning as a producer on Conley’s international writing camp in Sydney, 50 Songs, within six months of graduating high school. Perry has since signed a worldwide publishing deal, secured management, taken the producer chair in his own right at last year’s camp and is a keen collaborator, seeking out co-write sessions with artists including KLP and Thelma Plum. 

Tina Broad
About the Author
Tina Broad is a long-time strategist and project director with a special interest in music education. She started Australia’s biggest school music initiative, Music: Count Us In and was internationally recognised for her work, winning the International Music Council’s Musical Rights Award in 2011. She currently runs SongMakers, the in-school music mentoring program that is a partnership between APRA AMCOS and the Australian government. She is also researching the school-to-work transitions of young Australian songwriters as part of her PhD studies.