Commercial Art vs. Authenticity

Nashville Tennessee – Photo by Dan Steven Erickson

I spent a week in Nashville at Rodney Crowell’s songwriting camp last summer. This was my second time at the camp and it was a lot of fun. However, something still wasn’t right. I felt like I spent a lot of money to simply get nods of approval from songwriters I love and respect. That’s great but I’m still unpublished.

That’s an issue with the whole idea of songwriting workshops and camps. They don’t really lead to opportunities in the business as much as one might hope. They merely stroke your ego, or make you a super-fan to the artists acting as the teachers. I’m strongly reconsidering going to another one of these kinds of camps.

However, something interesting did happen while I was at the camp. One of the members of the team told me…

If this was a contest for the most-commercial song, you’d win. But that’s not what this camp is about.

Here’s the thing. I don’t try to write commercial songs.

In fact, I’ve worked harder and harder to NOT write songs that sound commercial. Instead, I’ve just written songs about where I am in life and how I feel. I have about as much commercial appeal as John Prine, Tom Petty, and Tom Waits mixed into one.

Choose authenticity over commercialism.

Here’s a little history about my songwriting journey.

When I was kid, I loved Top-40 radio. I spent hours listening to the pop hits of the early 1970s. When I started writing lyrics at the age of 10, I just tried to emulate what I heard on the radio. I loved Jackson Browne, Elton John, Dr. Hook, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, and Three Dog Night.

As I wrote more songs in my teens and early 20s, my goal was commercial appeal. I wanted to write hits. I shopped my songs and even got a few published in Nashville, but nothing came of it.

But in my late 20s, I discovered great songwriters. I started listening to John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and Steve Earle. In my 30s, I went back to college. I spent two years of graduate school studying the protest songwriting of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Marley. All the while, I kept writing songs.

Over the years, I’ve experimented in writing songs in almost every genre of popular music. From pop to rock & roll to blues to country, folk, and jazz, I’ve honed my songwriting skills. Still, no matter how hard I’ve tried to not write commercial-sounding songs, I’ve wound up with lots of work that could be radio magic in the right hands.

I just do what I do and you should too.

This 50-year journey as a songwriter has led me to just do what I do. I’m not trying to impress anybody. My goal isn’t to write the next hit for an up-and-coming pop or country star. I just write songs that are meaningful to me and my journey in life. That’s authenticity. I’ve written more than 1200 songs. I have nothing to prove. I just love the art of song.

If you’re any kind of artist, I encourage you to practice authenticity. Do your art for yourself first. It’s okay to study the commercial aspects of your art, but don’t waste too much time. My advice for you if you’re just starting out in songwriting is this:

  1. Choose an instrument and learn it well.
  2. Focus on a single genre but listen to everything, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
  3. Listen to the great writers. Pay attention to structure and melody.
  4. Be a writer. Songwriting is only one form of writing. Write poetry, stories, letters, and essays. Write.
  5. Write about things that are important to you.

Remember, it’s not a competition.

I doubt that the person who told me that “I’d win” if Rodney Crowell’s songwriting camp was a contest for the most-commercial song reads my website. But if they do, I want them to know something.

It was never my goal to write the “most-commercial song” out of more than 100 songwriters at the camp. If my song sounded “commercial” it’s only because I’ve spent my entire life studying the art of song. I’ve learned how to write songs by listening to, and studying the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years. I’ve immersed myself in the art. I’m authentic.

The only difference between me and the teachers at the Rodney Crowell songwriting camp is simple. I’ve never made the connections that would bring my music to larger audiences.

I dare to make this bold statement:

As a songwriter, I am basically an equal to the teachers who have worked at Rodney Crowell’s camps. I’ve spent my life in practice.

And that’s why I’ll likely not return to the camp or any other songwriting workshop or seminar. I’m not a person to compete with 100 others to get the attention of my contemporaries, and for what?

I’m not a super-fan to anyone. I have no desire to stroke others’ egos. I try to leave my own ego at the door and remain humble at these kinds of events, and am therefore often overlooked. I didn’t hound the artists and teachers for photo ops or extra attention, and I won’t.

If it’s true, that my work was “the most-commercial” at the camp, I take that as a compliment. But what good does having great songs do if nobody is listening because everyone is too busy with their own star-struck statuses? – dse

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Author: Dan Steven Erickson

Dan Steven Erickson is a great undiscovered American songwriter.