How to be a better songwriter and collaborator

how to be a better songwriter

Want to be a better songwriter? One of the most important skills is collaboration—knowing not just how to write a song, but co-write one. And the best way to get better at anything is to learn from the pros, so we asked a couple of them. Bonnie Baker has worked as a songwriter in Nashville for decades and has penned songs for Reba, Hunter Hayes, and Rachel Platten. Emily White is a veteran artist manager and the author of How to Build a Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams, hands down one of the most thorough yet accessible books on the music business. 

So yeah, they both know a thing or two about successful co-writing. 

I’ve edited our interviews and highlighted seven ideas to improve your co-writing etiquette and have more productive, fun collaborations:

Be Prepared (duh)

The best collaborators are the ones who work before the session. 

Walk into the room with at least three ideas that are well thought out and focused. If you’re the melody person topline, walk in with three melodies. If you are the lyric person, walk in with three titles. If you’re the beatmaker, have three beats ready to go,” Bonnie says. Being prepared for a writing session is a sign of respect; it shows your collaborators that you’re serious and value their time and effort.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Drafting a melody isn’t the only thing that should happen before a co-writing session. Emily reminds us of the importance of talking with your collaborators about splits before you start writing.

“If you’re a solo songwriter meeting up with a fellow songwriter for a formal co-writing session when you’re making those plans, ask how the other person wants to handle songwriting splits,” she says. “Put what you both decide on in writing or an email that you both reply and agree to. If it’s a band/group situation, have a conversation in the earliest possible days on how you want to handle songwriting splits.

These money conversations are important but can be awkward. What do you do if you’re uncomfortable talking about money? Sometimes it’s as simple as moving an in-person conversation to email.

“Zoë Keating mentioned to me in the foreword of How to Build a Sustainable Music Career and Collect All Revenue Streams that she prefers email for these conversations,” Emily says. “That has worked for her, but in my experience with anything regarding email, if the back and forth begins to be too long—pick up the phone. A conversation with a human touch makes all the difference in the world. And I promise isn’t as scary or intimidating as it seems.”

Respect the people in the room with you. Know that everybody brings their own DNA, their own magic.”

—Bonnie Baker

Know Who You’re Writing With

“Do research on who you’re writing with. If it’s an artist, go through and listen to their work. If they have five or eight songs out, check out their most successful one. Then go to the other side of that,” Bonnie recommends. “What is their least successful song? Try to kind of get a vision of who it is you’re working with.” 

Researching your collaborators will give you a better idea of their style, strengths, and weaknesses, which can help your work together better. But again, it’s also a sign of respect. It shows that you care about the people you work with and are actually interested in who they are as musicians.

Not a Cellphone in Sight, Just People Living in the Moment

“Don’t be chaotic and answering your phone or texting. Turn your phone off. Look at your collaborator, talk to your collaborator, try to make that connection,” Bonnie says. “Things come up, but my take on it is if something has come up where you need to be on your phone, then just cancel the session. If you can’t be focused, if your girlfriend is home sick, your dog just had surgery, then just cancel. Don’t be unfocused the whole time because you’re wasting time.”

Don’t Forget to Pack a Lunch

No, seriously. You never know how long a writing session might last, and no one likes a hangry collaborator.

“When you go into a writing appointment, you never know if it’s going to be three hours or seven hours or ten hours. I always take food and drink for the day. I have a little backpack that I put a sandwich in or some fruit,” Bonnie says.  “You never know if you’re going to get in a situation where you can’t break for lunch. Once I get low on energy and food, my energy levels go way down and I’m not going to be as creative.”

Aretha Said It Best

“Respect the people and the process,” Bonnie says. “Respect the artist, respect the producer, respect the other writers… Respect the people in the room with you. Know that everybody brings their own DNA, their own magic.

“Having respect for the process means that you understand that it may not be an immediate gratification. You may work on a song for three hours or five hours and it’s a really good idea, but you just haven’t given it the time to really emerge. Respect all of that and respect the process. Give it time.”

Wait, I’m supposed to enjoy this?

For Bonnie, there’s one rule that hangs above the rest.

Have fun. Just enjoy having a collaborator that loves music as much as you love music. If you’re gonna be a songwriter or artist making music with other people, hopefully, it’s a process that’s really fun.”

Hopefully, there’s something in here that you can take away and apply in your next band rehearsal or co-writing session. If you found this post helpful, sign up for our newsletter to receive each week’s article days before it’s published anywhere else!

By Mike Powers

Mike is a composer, arranger, and artist manager who writes for Tonic Audio.