“I don’t have any songs.” Many starting musicians use this as their excuse for not playing gigs, promoting their music, and continuing on in their music career. This excuse is very common and is out of insecurity and not actuality. There are three simple solutions to this excuse.
There are millions of songs in the universe and hundreds that are popular and recognizable to your target music demographic. Playing these songs yourself is called “covering songs” or playing “cover songs”. Many venues allow cover songs to be played, however the reason this is accepted is because they are usually paying a “blanket” license fee to ASCAP or BMI. This means that your cover songs are being accounted for and the proper fees are being paid to the original artist/writer. This does not work for any other use of the songs such as recording it for your CD, putting it on YouTube.com or other video/social media site, or playing the song in a venue that does not pay ASCAP or BMI fees. You would have to get separate licensing agreements and pay them yourself. Nearly all venues will tell you whether or not you are allowed to play cover songs. When choosing the songs you will cover, remember to pick ones that are similar to your genre or adapt them to your style. This helps audience members get a feel for your type of music even if you’re not playing original songs.
Similar to cover songs are public domain songs. These are songs with no licensing issues. Nearly all songs written before 1922 are public domain since they were written before the establishment of music licensing. There are many resources to find these public domain songs at the library or online. One thing you need to be careful of is the arrangements. Even if the particular song is public domain, the specific arrangement is probably not. This means that someone wrote out the piano music or guitar cords in a certain key with certain notes and called this their arrangement. This arrangement is copy written but, again, the song is not. PDSongs.com has a large selection of Public Domain Music, Songs, Books, Lyrics, and other resources. Public domain songs are not dull old tunes. These songs have been hits on the popular charts, made into famous movies, and are continually being performed and recorded by artists like Frank Sinatra and Fiona Apple. These public domain songs include not just American hits but classical music and many familiar holiday tunes like Jingle Bells. In a recent interview with “M Music and Musicians,” Willie Nelson talked about old standards and said, “If it was a good song a hundred years ago, it’s still a good song today.”
Knowing these public domain songs and cover songs not only gives you songs to play, it increases your music knowledge and shows you the formulas for how to write a hit song of your own. You can choose to add/change lyrics, notes, and styles. Taking a public domain song and adding your own flavor might just be the next big hit!
Besides cover songs and public domain songs is the most obvious remedy of all– write more songs. Writing songs is not always easy, fun, or produces big results. Practice is the best way to get good at anything. Look at and study the past hit songs and incorporate their winning formulas into your own writing. This does not mean stealing melodies, but rather ideas. For example if many of the songs you like have descending melody lines, make your own song with descending melodies. The more you write, the better you will become. Do not forget the biggest tool writers use: editing. Never cease to go back through what you have written to tweak it; there is always room for improvement.
“I don’t have any songs” really does not stand up in any argument. There are plenty of songs to borrow, re-create, or to be written. Do not let insecurities or lack of knowledge get in the way of the truth that there are songs for you.