It is natural for songwriters to think that you are always writing music for yourself. After all, art itself is a form of 'self-expression'. However, take a step back and think about who you are actually writing the music for by asking yourself these questions:
- What are your goals as a songwriter?
- Are you simply writing the best music you can because you love it?
- Are you making music that will appeal to your fans because you know they will buy it?
- Are you writing music that will appeal to publishers who can try to pitch the music for commercials, soundtracks and the like?
This distinction is very important for you to understand, as it will be the basis for how you approach your songs, and just how 'self-expressive' you can be, or can't be, depending on what is needed for the right scenario.
1. For yourself
When writing songs strictly for yourself, you can truly be as expressive as you'd like to be. Ultimately, the only person who has to understand and connect with the song in this scenario is you, so if you are happy with the music then you have accomplished your goal.
2. For your fans
Though this might be too 'marketing lingo' for some songwriters, you will need to know your target market - your ideal fans - in order to write for them. Successfully writing for fans requires that not only you connect with the music, but that fans can also connect with it emotionally, understanding its meaning and its purpose.
While it would seem that your fans would understand and connect with the same things that you do, this isn't always the case. If you are writing for your fans, you need to make sure that the music, lyrics and overall composition of the song are done so in a way that your fans will understand so they can embrace it.
3. For publishers
If you are thinking about publishing your music, you have most likely considered the fact that music, maybe even your music, can be placed into TV shows, movies, commercials, etc. The possible sources of income when publishing your songs is seemingly infinite. However, the music that gets picked for any of these placements have to fit the criterial of the producers who would then license the music from the publishers.
So, if you are writing music to be published and licensed, you need to make sure that your music fits within the criteria. The easiest way to do this is to simply study the music that is already being picked up for TV and film placements to see if any similarities and trends start to appear.
However, you can also check out forums such as the Taxi 'Success Stories' forum to hear directly from artists who have had placements about which songs worked and why.
There is no right way or wrong way to approach songwriting. It all depends on how important unlimited self-expression is to you, and how much of that self-expression you are willing to give up in order to make sure your music appeals to others. While some may feel it only proper to write for themselves, others are happy to write a song for someone else if it means being able to make ends meet as a full time musician.
In the words of one of the most beloved songwriters of the last few decades, Kurt Cobain, I strongly suggest you to 'come as you are'.