FIRST, THE BAD NEWS...
I'm not gonna lie... in the current environment it's VERY challenging to make the leap from hobbyist to pro songwriter — much harder than when I was "coming up."
I started making a living in music in 1985, and since the so-called digital revolution the amount of actual songwriting royalties coming in for most (but not all) songwriters has moved nowhere but down.
In the old days when people bought vinyl, then CDs, they paid a certain number of cents per song (currently 9.1) to both songwriters & publishers, which added up to 91 cents on a 10-song album.
Nowadays, how many people do you know actually PAY for their music on a per-song basis? I ask this question constantly when I teach a class, and a couple hands go up. When's the last time YOU bought a song outright? For me it was a while back, admittedly.
Yeah, there's iTunes, but a) that's cherry-picking on a per-song basis for the most part, so only SINGLES sell very much. And b) most people either get their music free or very cheaply via YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, etc. which pay a teeny-tiny fraction per play. For 12 million plays, you get a few thousand dollars. This is why Taylor Swift pulled her music from free streaming services, and proceeded to sell more albums than anyone all year. (Never mind illegal file-sharing!)
SO HOW DO YA MAKE A BUCK?
Nowadays money can still be made by licensing songs to film, TV, games, etc., though of course the competition is fierce. And selling single songs and albums still happens, don't get me wrong... There's also touring, and selling merchandise and other non-downloadable items. This is why you see 70-year-old performers doing comeback tours... because their old albums just ain't sellin' like they used to!
I'm not trying to be discouraging, just realistic. This is also why it's essential that your songs and your recordings go ABOVE & BEYOND the competition — otherwise they risk getting "lost in the sauce."
It's also why RELATIONSHIPS are more important than ever. Most producers, artists, music licensors, etc. will put their own or their friends' music on whatever they're releasing ahead of a perfect stranger's. In retrospect, this is how I've achieved almost every success, however big or small.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE (STILL!)
So these are my suggestions: 1) make music that a certain audience will LOVE, and 3) befriend someone in a position to release, promote, or otherwise champion it.
The beauty part of the digital age is that we songwriters can make AMAZING-sounding music in the privacy of our own homes, or for a reasonable amount of money in a professional studio. And we can partner up with people who live thousands of miles away via email, Skype, and online communities.
This week I wrote 2 songs with friends in Germany, one of whom I've never met in person. Due to a snowstorm, I also wrote with people in NYC when I was stuck upstate. And today I have a coaching session with a client in Chicago.
There are also tons of songwriting CAMPS, which are week-long or ongoing groups that combine their talents to write, perform, produce and then place the material that's created. This way each individual contributes their unique strengths, and their weak spots are supplemented by other members. It's incredibly rigorous and fulfilling to partner up in such a pressure-cooker environment!
For all of these reasons, I like to say "Participate, Don't Isolate." Humans enjoying other humans and their music — that's the surest path to success, even in the current environment.
Let me know what you think!