The problem is this: I’ve noticed myself struggling to finish a lot of song ideas.

I’m having more ideas for songs, and coming up with more interesting melodies and guitar parts, than ever before in my life.

(This is wonderful news – and something I should really stop to celebrate…)

However, I’m not following through with these ideas – instead I’m left with half-finished songs, for which I lack the enthusiasm later on to finish them.

I’ve identified the possible cause of this problem: I’m thinking too much about my audience during the writing process, and not liking what I’m projecting into the future as a likely reception.

Questions pop into my head like this:

Will listeners find this song interesting?

Will people think this lyric is a cliche?

Does the song’s vibe give it any chance of getting onto playlists or the radio?

Has someone written something similar before?

Will listeners think this sounds too similar to one of my previous songs?

And these get in the way of me actually writing…

So I’m going to take a really analytical approach to this problem to work out how I could solve it.

Should I be thinking about my audience at all?

I believe the answer is yes, for two reasons:

Firstly – art requires a careful balance between (a) exploring new ideas and pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and (b) not going so far as to leave everyone else behind.

In The Runaway Species, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt talk about this careful balance and the example of Beethoven’s 1826 string quartet and its infamous final movement (‘La Grosse Fugue’). At seventeen minutes long and full of complicated and unusual rhythms and sounds, it proved too progressive for the general public at the time and he was forced to rein it in in rewriting it. For someone with Beethoven’s reputation, this overstretching is not fatal to his art, but a lesser known artist might risk leaving their audience behind and never giving proper exposure to their ideas.

‘Creativity is an inherently social act, an experiment in the laboratory of the public’
Brandt & Eagleman, The Runaway Species [Ch.6]

Secondly – more importantly for me, the purpose behind writing songs is to have an impact on other people.

As a bit of context, I’ve explored my needs in a lot of detail (and written about them before), identifying the motivators driving everything I do. I realised that the biggest need I fulfil through my songwriting is the need for relevance: a need to have a positive impact on the people around me.

For this reason, I could never write in a vacuum – the main reason my songs exist is to enhance other people’s lives – aka my audience.

So, if I’m not thinking of my audience at all then I’m slightly missing the point. I’m not at the stage yet where I can just write and know that it’ll have the effect I want – I still need to think about the impact I want to have.

There is an argument for saying that I should let my songs (written organically) have whatever impact they have – basically leave people to enjoy and appreciate and interpret the way they decide. As an example, I imagine Radiohead didn’t set out to make millions of people happy (at least not with Kid A) and yet there’s no denying the joy and fulfilment that their music has had…

But for now I feel more comfortable seeing my audience, and the effect I want to have on them as people, as part of the creative process.

But when is it right to think about my audience, and when is it wrong?

So, if I accept that my songs’ effect on my audience is relevant, at what point in the process should I start thinking about them?

To break down my songwriting process more granularly, this is how I write:

  1. Come up with various ideas for titles / lyrical themes / stories
  2. Jam on the guitar until I find a suitable part + vocal hoo
  3. Match a lyrical idea to that musical idea
  4. Draft a full first set of lyrics, with chorus, verses, maybe a bridge and/or pre-chorus section
  5. Edit the lyrics until they REALLY fit the meaning of the song
  6. Edit the melody until I think it’s going to move people and be memorable etc…

So what I need to do is ONLY bring the audience’s reaction into the equation BEFORE I have crystallised ideas for song lyrics and AFTER I have my first draft of the song… everything in between those two points (in effect, steps 1-4 inclusive) should be left as purely exploratory… after that point, I can think about reining it in or not, etc…

To take an example:

Imagine I wanted to write a song about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Being completely honest, I don’t think I’m the voice to be discussing the needs of black minorities.

However, I would rather finish writing whatever thoughts are in my head – ending up with a first draft of a song – before thinking about whether there’s a place for that song in the public sphere, than never complete the song in the first place.

So rather than letting this realisation – I’m not the right person to write/sing about racial prejudice – get in the way of the song, I’ll delay that thought until after I have that first draft.

(And to be honest, a lot of my lyricism involves projecting my ideas about experiences I haven’t had onto the canvas of a song… so it’s not entirely ridiculous to see some value in a song whereby I try to empathise with the struggle of a black minority.)  

How in practice can I make sure this audience-free space happens?

I’ve decided to set myself a few rules of process.

The aim is to switch off my brain when it wants to think about my audience – allowing my ideas to breath and crystallise into a first draft.

  1. Try to have a first draft as quickly as possible, just following my instincts re vocal melody, lyrics
  2. Certain thoughts I should treat as negative automatic thoughts (NATs) as conceptualised in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and just let them float past
  3. Keep a totally clear physical space, to create extra focus while I’m writing
  4. Write down as many phrases / ideas as possible whenever they come to me – before I’ve had time to judge their value
  5. Don’t delete ANYTHING – capture it all….. Just in case I’m ignoring certain ideas because unconsciously I fear people’s judgment of them

Another artist’s perspective – what does Anya think about all this?

(For those of you who don’t know, Anya is a hugely talented painter and designer – you can see all her work here – and also happens to be my girlfriend and person I share a flat with… so we talk about the creative process and all these topics a lot. Or at least I talk, she mainly listens to me yack on, despite having far more interesting ideas of her own… so this time I officially sought out her opinion.)

Does Anya think about her audience at all in choosing or creating her paintings?

The short answer is no – she prefers to follow her own intuition in deciding what subject matter to paint and what style to capture it in. She is inspired by other artists’ work, rather than by the need to paint for an audience.

But I wanted to dig deeper into this, so I asked this question: even if she’s not interested in what her audience wants to hear, does she think about what she wants to say to them? 

She answered by talking about how she chose her latest painting collection.

She was choosing between two possible subject matters:

– Groundbreaking women throughout history who haven’t earned the same (merited) household status of their male counterparts,

OR

– Survivors of human trafficking, continuing a previous project whereby she worked with organisations in Mexico to shine a light on a group of people that is often ignored by society

Although she thought that human trafficking survivors and victims more urgently need exploration, she opted to focus on painting Women Groundbreakers.

Why? Rather than focusing on her audience, she listened to (a) her intuition, and what she felt like painting in the short term, and (b) the fact that she felt unready to explore human trafficking in more depth, both from an artistic technique perspective and because she still needs to educate herself further on all the complicated aspects of trafficking…

Thanks for reading – as always, please leave a comment if you found this useful / disagree with it / have anything to add!