Tell or Sell?


Presentation is a form of display, so are we there to tell or sell? In songwriting, it has to be both.

This challenging question is raised by Edward Tufte and analyzed by Prof. Bob Kalm in a recent lecture.

I raise it here because I know some songwriters who think they don’t need to sell or pitch their song. They think their words and melodic lines will stand however they come out of their mouths and instruments, rehearsed, perhaps, but unrefined. A word forgotten here, an out-of-tune note there, trite or hackneyed ideas that go unchallenged.

As a result, those songs may be heard by the audience at hand, but they will go largely unheard by a broader listening public, the audience for whatever niche you choose to write for, the people who would slap down a tenner for your CD or download your mp3 off iTunes.

The antithesis to this supreme arrogance came my way in the form of a young songwriter I saw at an open mic the other night. Strong voice, competent guitar playing, confident stage presence. She sang a cover song by Pink and then introduced an original she wrote last week. The song had delicate strummed chords as an introduction, some catchy but unsurprising lines about youth and love, like “your footsteps on my heart,” and a powerful refrain.

The song wasn’t the best piece I’ve heard. Her “telling” has the mark of youth and easy ideas, lacking originality.

Yet, it was well-delivered. It sold. With poise, confidence, a dynamic voice and simple modesty, she was a crowdpleaser.

And during a break, leaders of another out-of-town open mic invited her to sing at their venue.

If you can’t pitch your work, it won’t get heard, and if it doesn’t get heard, all the “telling” and wordsmithing in the world won’t change that.

Not every songwriter is a singer, of course, but for those who do both, selling yourself with a strong presentation can really help tell your song’s story to the right people.

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