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Do You Write For An Audience Or For Yourself?

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Of late, the question of target audience and accessibility has been reoccurring throughout the day. Do you write with a specific audience in mind, or is that nothing more than an after thought? How does clarity of meaning, and accessibility affect your writing itself as well as the process?

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Hey owenrama

To me they are not mutually exclusive. I have a very broad taste in music, so when I write with a specific audience in mind I am also writing for myself. Likewise I try to write songs that are at once deeply personal to me yet open enough in language that the listener can hopefully identify with it and personalise it. There is an art to writing a song that is intense and emotional while leaving it open to interpretation. I can't say I always achieve it, but it is something that I often aim for.

In part when I write I relate some very personal thoughts and experiences, even in fictional songs there are elements of me in there, but I am not so up myself that I think that anyone else will be interested in the details of my life, or even entertained by them. But I am a person, and much of my life experiences are shared by others. Maybe not exact events, but most people have experienced love and loss, joy and great sadness, anger and surprise, hope and disappointment. These are the things that define the human condition.

My job as a songwriter, in my eyes, is not to be hailed, or for people to hear my songs and know me, or for me to be understood. In fact it is for listeners to feel that I know and understand them. It is to connect with them so that they feel someone understands them. Yet again that is a personal aim, not a grand philosophy.

So I try to write for both myself and a target group of listeners. I am aware of both from the outset, and so they both help shape the song. Unlike some I do not see writing for specific listeners as cashing in, or selling out. Some seem to throw pronouncements from on high as if they are invested with righteousness and legitimacy. I find it an interesting position as those people often seem to be obsessed with writing about themselves while hoping to be recognised as great artists and worshipped for their skill and the great truth of their work. I find that to be conceit of the highest order. That is not to say that writing about yourself is bad, or conceited, but the songwriters of which I speak tend to be egocentric, self obsessed hypocrites who also like writing about themselves. They have decided what an artist is and that is that.

The loudest voices often seem to be those who declare making money from art to be wrong, tainted, and a sell out. Why on earth? What is wrong with making a living from music? If it takes 10 hours a day of practice to reach a skill level, the only way to do this without sponging from others is to use your skills to earn a living. Often I have heard this view expressed by people who make music part time while earning a good living in a well paid job. I wonder if they ever believe that their own music would be better if they pursued it full time, and if so what stopped them doing so? They choose a job over their art, and by their own standards That surely makes them, if anyone Is, the true sell out, and it is a position almost every artist I know has been in at least one point in their life, myself included.

The point is, there is no need for us to make pronouncements or be offended that an artist is aware of what sells and slam them for it, any more than we would be offended that anyone has pride in their work and gets promoted for doing a good job, the shop owner selling what is popular or parents getting their kids the present that their kids want for Christmas.

True there can be a fine line between catering to buyers and exploitation and manipulation, but virtually any mechanism or characteristic can be exploited for personal gain, after all not all gains are money. Even looking like a starving artist, a peaceful hippie, or a guy staying true to his art avoiding financial gain but somehow thinks it ok to use his image to gain fans and adulation, or even just to be popular in his local bar... they can all be exploitations of those around him. It is all relative. It isn't necessarily what people do that is wrong, but certainly some reasons why they do things can be more laudable than others.

I will get off my soapbox and back on topic...

When I draft, I draft from the heart and the head. Once upon a time it was all about the heart. Editing for me is more head than heart, while drafting is more heart than head.

What has changed is the quality I hold my work up to and the number of things I want from a set of lyrics. That means more measurements, more filters and ultimately more edit cycles.

To write lyrics with ambiguity built in, to write multilayered lyrics that can hold strong yet different meanings for different people, take immense attention to detail, with a great emphasis on clarity of meaning. All of this makes songs accessible and hopefully with broad appeal.

An interesting topic!

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Patton Oswalt had a great bit about no longer having music the he hates,  and another about the concept of a sellout; as well as saying something to the extent of, "I always wrote for now, where a lot of people write for the ages" , both of the ideas introduced just clicked for me. Targeting a specific demographic and succeeding in doing so seems to be an artform all on its own. This question stems from me reading my own material and thinking to myself, "nobody in their right mind would understand or even give a shit about this".

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A good song, communicates from the songwriter, via the medium of an artist, to a listener.

To write a song for yourself is like talking to yourself, very inward looking. To communicate without cause or concern for the listener is a very selfish and flawed communication. To attempt to communicate without compromise is in my mind ultimately doomed. The onus on being understood in any conversation is on the speaker, not the listener. If I try yo tell you something and you fail to understand the onus is on me to try another way or ways to communicate my message.

Writing a song is the same. More than that, adjusting how you say the message so that you are heard and understood is almost exactly like writing lyrics for a target audience. Simple as that.

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Since I write lyrics for other people it's actually up to them what they expect or what they like. Every once in a while my lyrics are rejected. That's quite fine by me as it is the singer who must present the song convincingly. While I write the words I am mostly guided by the genre I'm writing for, or by the mood the music triggers in me. My general rule is: the lyrics must serve the song/the music not the other way round. There are exceptions, of course: folk music, for example, or chansons.



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I feel as Jon does.  But, I also feel like, in some real and important ways I can't really explain, I'm "writing" the song for the song.  I've always had a kind of parental view of "my" songs; that they're independent of me, and that part of my "job"  is to help them come out into the world in a manner that best realizes their potential; to help them become what they "want" to be - whatever that means.   :)



Yep I get that too David. Whatever is done has to be right for the individual song, like it has a life of it's own and it is my duty to deliver it into the world so that it has a chance to thrive and prosper lol

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I enjoy writing.


But that doesn't mean I don't want to write songs for the sake of it.


For me, songs are for the audience, whoever that will be. My role therefore, is to give them what they expect, that is fresh and new. What an audience expects is genre driven, and I tend to write in the genre I prefer to listen to. Makes homework so much more enjoyable! I'd love the money that a pop hit may spin, but please don't make me listen to it! Nup, won't work!!!


I'll be the first to say I don't get there anywhere near enough. However, in order to even get to an end-consumer audience, any song has to get past an even more critical audience, be that a publisher, producer or artist (unless you are a singer songwriter, and anyone who has heard me sing knows I definitely do not fill that role!).

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