The Hit Songwriting Formula

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Feature Article #3: The Long Distance Co-Writer

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For the Month of June the S.A.C. will be featuring a series of articles by James Linderman.

James @ Berkleemusic
James Linderman works at the James Linderman Music Lesson Studio in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. He teaches guitar, piano, bass and music theory as well as contemporary songwriting and film composition, in studio, as well as over Skype to students all over the world.



The Long Distance Co-Writer

By James Linderman

As songwriters we live a fairly solitary existence.

If we are any good at it, we have unquestionably practiced an entire lifetime away and have gotten pretty good at being alone.

Certainly every skilled songwriter I know has done the now emblematic 10,000 hours of alone time drilling chords, strumming strums, singing and writing lyrics over and over…and over!

For me, this is added to the hours that have gone into being an agile notational reader on the guitar, piano and bass most of my life.

One of the reasons I started to love collaboration was simply for the company, and not just that it was “people time” but more that it was my kind of people time.

It was also great to have other artists make good use of my education and training and to turn our work into something greater than the sum of its parts. I did however find that there were certainly limitations to having to meet with other songwriters face to face. Schedules and distance would be in direct conflict with skill and status.

If someone was further along than I was in terms of success or skill then it was understood that I would have to travel to where they were at. That was not always possible and certainly never easy, since I always lived in the suburbs and most of the heavyweight songwriters were certainly not in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. Yes, really!

There is also the fact that I have never been a performing songwriter and so everyone writing with me would have to carry that part of the songs future completely on their own shoulders. I found that really narrowed the field of opportunity as well.

Very early in the development of the internet I started trying to figure out how I might write with collaborators online and I started reaching out to some writers I already knew right away.

My first long distance co-writes were top lines and bottom lines. I would send out tracks and get writers to write a melody and lyrics on them. Sometimes they were just a single rhythm guitar track or a piano performance, and other times it was full band, or small form orchestral tracks I would record here as instrumentals with my first DAW.

Sometimes writers would ignore these e-mails with the mp3 attached of my track and delete them as if they were spam and never return my e-mail. Some writers would politely e-mail me back and let me know that this was not the kind of music they were interested in writing, or not the kind of collaboration that they were “into” but would often thank me for sending the track and respectfully decline.

Occasionally, this would be the start of an actual collaboration and the other writer would often get started right away. They would usually get part way in and we would schedule a phone conversation (in the pre-Skype days) and see where the song was at and often work a little bit together over the phone to get on the same page before all the ink was dry.

If outside musicians were needed to do up a good demo we would split the cost of hiring who we might need but for the most part I would do most of the playing and my collaborators were almost always singers who would then take the tracks into a studio (or their own home studio) and add the vocal.

We would then work together to promote the songs, doubling our chances of placing our work and had some reasonable successes with that approach.

Bottom lining is the same approach but I would send potential collaborators a completed lyric with the suggested stress syllables underlined and they would create a melody and send it back for me to write the accompaniment to. One of us would then add everything from chords strummed on the guitar or comped on the piano to full band or orchestrated tracks.

Another outcome would be that they would take the lyric and write all of the rest of the song and complete it to a finished recording.

It was not always essential that the song ended up to be “my kind of music” or my idea of what a great song would be, since I felt like there were lots of “kinds” of listeners and our songs would attract fans of that kind of music. I was aware, pretty early into this, that I was not the only valuable target market and I also trusted the judgement of my co-writers.

A destructive collaborator is the one that needs to be right, even when they are unsure. The most destructive collaborator is the one that has to be right even when they know they are wrong. I have written with both of those kinds…only one time! …And I WAS that collaborator…but only one time!

Anyway, back to bottom lining……

Writers who found it challenging to write a complete lyric would be very enthusiastic about being handed a complete lyric since the “struggle” part would be handed to them and all that remained was the part they actually found to be fun and easily inspired.

Skype has also become a valuable tool to the long distance collaboration as it allows songwriters to write together almost as if in the same room face to face. There is often a slight time delay with Skype and FaceTime but this will get better soon and long distance writing will have almost all of the advantages that having a co writer in the room has.

The question I get asked all of the time is where to find potential collaborators. The first thing I did when I started out was to make a list of all of the songwriters I already knew and ranked them, not based on any metric of value, but based on overlap of skill and if I liked the idea of spending time with them as people as well.

I did not actually contact some of the songwriters on my list simply because most, or sometimes even all of their skills overlapped with mine and I determined that they did not actually need to write with someone like me. I wanted to start with writers who would most benefit from my skill set. Most of the writers I tried to collaborate with were singers since I am not a “great” vocalist. I also looked for good song starters because at the time I was slowly getting to be known to be a good editor and so was thought of as a song “finisher” in those terms… and it was becoming legend that I was not a brilliant singer.

I got good at describing my strengths and weaknesses to my potential co writers which helped them understand their role in the collaboration and I ALWAYS let them know how grateful I was that they would consider writing songs with me. I also eventually found co writers on sites like Indaba Music, Hit Licence and even DAW forums but mostly someone would show me a Youtube video of someone that they were “into”, and if I liked their writing, I would go to their website and contact them.

When you ask someone to co-write with you it is helpful to have something prepared that is a good fit for them and it is helpful to let them know how you discovered them and why the collaboration will benefit them…as well as you. There are only 2 answers to the question, “Will you write this song with me?” One is “yes” and the other, these days, is silence and if you get silence back then fill that void by sending another request to another writer till you find a good fit; someone who values your song and values you as a person.

There are a LOT of people out there in the world writing songs so go find the ones that will want to write some of those songs with you.


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James is the author of the book series titled “Song Forms for Songwriters” that is based on his primary academic discipline known as compositional abstraction. It is a system for creating new songs from shadowing single elemental features extracted from existing work.
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Disclaimer:   Songwriters Association of Canada posts songwriter related news and events as a resource to members.  Publishing these posts does not imply that the S.A.C. endorses the teacher, product, service, or company.

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