Do You Have to Write Songs to be a Singer?

Do You Have to Write Your Own Songs to be a Successful Singer?

“I Want to be a Singer but I Can’t Write Songs! Help!”

Normally, I discuss the topic of music-making from the perspective of a songwriter, but I’m well aware that we all have different talents. Some people are not interested in writing songs, they just want to sing them. Or perhaps you’ve never written songs before and you’re worried you don’t have the knack for it. I want to dedicate this article to both those kinds of people. Can you gain brand recognition or make a career out of just being a singer? Let’s dig deep into this topic and discover the various methods you can sing (and make a name for yourself) without needing to write the songs.

Do I Need to Write Songs To Make It As An Independent Singer?

Let’s be real for a moment: the vast majority of us music-makers are not major label top-billing acts. We shouldn’t expect to be and we don’t need to be in order to get our music heard—or to make money on it, either. So What I’m talking about here is whether an independent, unsigned singer can gain any traction in the music world without having songwriting—or even music composition—skills.

Do you need to write songs to be a successful singer? Definitely not. The majority of billboard-charting artists do not write songs on their own, or even at all; more so, many independent singers have created a brand for themselves with just their voice as their tool. To succeed* as a singer without songwriting, there are mainly three ways to go about making music. I’ll cover them in more details throughout this article, but to start with they are:

  1. Perform cover songs
  2. Freelance as a guest vocalist / collaborate with beat producers
  3. Team up with a songwriter or form a band

What Does “Success” Mean for a Singer?

In the previous section, I put a little asterik (*) next to the word “succeed”. Success can mean many different things. It really depends on what you want to get out of your singing and your life. I see singing success as existing on a spectrum.

  • On one end of that spectrum, you may just enjoy singing. Be it for your own amusement, or singing for your family and friends. but you aren’t looking to make a career out of music.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, maybe success for you means getting your performances heard by an audience, going viral online, making a bit of side money with your voice, or even catching the attention of a label and getting signed. Even with these bigger goals, success can still be achieved without ever having to write a single line of lyrics.

Am I A Fake If I Don’t Write My Own Songs?

However, you may fear that people will call you a fake—that they’ll claim you’re not a “real artist”if you can’t compose your own music or pen your own lyrics. If that’s the case, I want to stop you right here: singing in and of itself is an art form. Being able to express the tone and emotion of a song through voice requires artistry and a talented singer can transform a song with just his/her voice. Two different singers can perform a song in two dramatically different ways, taking it in a totally new direction emotionally and sonically. So if anyone demeans you be saying “singers aren’t real artists” tell them that Whitney Houston and Pavarotti would disagree.

With that in mind, the following methods of attaining success as a singer are focused on the latter side of the spectrum (performing for an audience, making money, etc).

1. Performing Cover Songs

Covering songs by popular artists is the most obvious method of branding yourself with just your voice. There’s an entire market online for just cover songs, especially on YouTube and TikTok. You don’t need to belt it like Beyonce to gain a following; you don’t need to accumulate millions of subscribers to make money off it, either. But what you do need is to add a unique twist to your covers.

I have a full article dedicated to being a cover artist on YouTube, but I’ll summarize here:

  • You need to find your own style (i.e. your niche) of performing covers and stay consistent with it so your fans know what to expect.
  • Build a brand around yourself, even as a cover artist. Even if you can’t directly monetize your covers on social media, you can still offer tertiary products (like affiliate products or merch) or set up a patronage account (Patreon, Kofi, Onlyfans, etc).
  • If you don’t know how to play an instrument, you’ll need to obtain backing music for your covers somehow! You can do this in one of the following ways:
    • Hire a freelance musician/producer to make your backing tracks.
    • Find someone you personally know who will do this for cheap/free and chum up to them!
    • Use beats in the correct key and genre: this will only work if you’re niche is to cover songs in a style for which beats are easily found, like doing pop songs in the style of drill trap, etc.
    • Use samples and produce your own backing tracks with MIDI and VSTs: this method requires you to learn some composition, but not necessarily an instrument. More info on arranging samples is available here.
    • Perform a cappella, which means you perform the melody and the harmonies with overdubs of your own voice
    • Learn an instrument: in the long run, this may be the most cost-effective option and—just because you play guitar, or ukulele, etc—doesn’t mean you need to start writing your own lyrics. You can get away with just learning basic chords and techniques since the focus will still be on your voice and not the accompaniment.
  • If there are other cover artists in your niche (doing your style), that does not mean it’s “already taken”; fans tend to listen to multiple artists in the same genre. If someone else has found success in a certain niche, that often means there is a viable market for it. But YMMV.

2. Freelancing as a Vocalist

Not all singers want to base their life around covers. Perhaps you rather take a direct approach at monetizing your windpipes; or you want to build an audience with more original content. In that case, consider doing freelance work as a singer.

Now by that I don’t mean grinding for pennies on Fiverr! What I mean is contacting musicians who may need vocalists and offering your services. There are a wide variety of composers, instrumentalists, and producers who want vocals for their tracks but prefer not to use their own. Many producers are shut-ins who are self-conscious about their singing abilities or lack thereof. You can therefore lend your voice out so those producers’ song ideas can become a reality.

Who Would Hire a Vocalist?

Below are a few examples of musicians/producers who may hire a freelance singer:

  • Beat producers who need vocal hooks (usually just a few lines or a chorus)
  • Loop sample producers who need vocal samples they can add to kits they sell
  • Independents musicians who are too self-conscious about their own voices
  • Songwriters building a portfolio of finished tracks for their social media or website
  • Synthwave producers (a lot of synthwave musicians are guys who prefer to feature other vocalists on their tracks; examples include singers like Ollie Wride, PAWWS, and Kristine making names for themselves by singing on tracks by Timecop1983, FM-84, etc)
  • Solo artists who want background vocals for filling out group harmonies on their songs

Most producers these days are on YouTube and/or Instagram posting their tracks. You can search for artists who make instrumentals in a style you like and message them about collaborating. Keep it warm and make sure to mention which tracks of theirs you like; nobody wants to get a canned template message that sounds like a sales pitch and mass messaging people can get you banned on most sites.

A definite advantage to freelancing in the music industry is the easy visibility: once you start getting featured on tracks that get published across the internet, you’re name will start to build rapport with other producers. It can cause a snowball effect.

3. Find a Songwriting Partner

Maybe you don’t like the idea of freelancing or jumping from producer to producer for tracks. That’s understandable, turning music into a daily grind can suck the fun out of it. An alternative tactic is to find just one songwriter/producer that you can work with consistently. Building a personal relationship with a songwriter comes with a basket full of advantages:

  • Less social media hustling
  • An exclusive partnership usually means splitting royalties rather than paying upfront for tracks
  • If you are paying for tracks, you can probably get a discounted rate for being a loyal customer
  • When your songwriter/producer gets to know your voice, he/she can tailor the tracks to fit better

In the same vein, you could seek out or form a band. I personally wouldn’t go this route because the more people involved the harder it will be to:

  1. Get everyone together at the same time to practice
  2. All agree on the music you are going to make
  3. Settle on the royalty percentage splits or gig payment splits

But if you plan on performing as a live artist, then a full backing band may be useful.

Why Don’t You Want to Write Songs?: A Brief Tangent

Before you go, my reader, there is one last question I want to ask: what is the reason that you don’t want to write songs?

If it’s because you lack experience in writing lyrics, then I want you to know that songwriting is as much a skill as it is an art. It doesn’t matter what age you start writing, with consistent practice any person can become a writer. Working with other musicians is still a great way to start your musical journey, but if you want to someday have your own name in the composer credits of a song I have several resources here on this site to get you started as a songwriter.

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