Each song I write is a message flung out into the world. Or maybe it’s an arrow, shot into the distance. I hope it leaves a mark somewhere or hits somehow right in the heart. But, how do I know if the song is really good enough to do that? How do I know if it’s worth singing again, or putting on a record? If the song is an arrow, then what is the target? I coach several songwriters these days, and I see this problem manifest in two ways. There are writers who think that everything they do is great, and writers who have no idea what to think about their work at all! These are people shooting arrows into an open field, aiming at nothing and trying to evaluate the results. You cannot grow as an artist if you don’t have any perspective on your work, and you can’t get perspective on your work until you build yourself a target.
For better or worse, an artistic target is not going to look anything like a business or scientific target. You won’t know you hit it by adding up data or counting sales. An artistic target is an emotional and even spiritual one. No one else will ever be able to tell you when you’ve hit or missed the mark. What’s worse, no one can build the target for you. And if you succeed in constructing your own personal bull’s-eye, you will be the only one who can see it.
So the million dollar question: How do you build this elusive artistic target? Well, if you want to produce work that you love, you have to fall in love first. If you want to paint beautiful pictures, you have to see the beauty in great paintings. If you want to write amazing songs, you have to be amazed by songwriting. We build our targets out of the passion that is evoked from experiencing the art that moves us. We have to know what it feels like to be moved in the first place. That very feeling is your target. Can you move yourself in the same way that your favorite songs move you?
Appreciating art, target-building, is as much a skill as making art itself. We get better at it the only way we get better at anything, by doing it again and again. So my advice to songwriters: listen, listen, listen and listen some more. You’ve got to get past the fads of the moment and the bullshit targets that pop up all around. The American Idol and X Factor world present fake targets that will do nothing more than teach you how to stop listening. If you are taking your inspiration only from what is popular or successful, the best you can hope for is to be a good imitator, but that’s not really art. Worst of all, if you don’t have a real target of your own, you’re cheapening your experience and you’re missing out on what great art can do.