Have you ever listened back to one of your songs and thought, "This sounds like it should be on TV"? It's not far off if you have – songwriters are an invaluable asset to television. All of your favorite shows have a particular soundtrack, one that you might feel you could be writing yourself. Well, Debra Gussin has done just that. With an extensive career in television under her belt (ABC's Wide World of Sports, Fox Sports News, Daytime Emmy Awards, National Geographic Channel, Dr. Phil), she's now a full-time songwriter who's won numerous songwriting competitions and has had her tracks featured on 90210, The Event, Kourtney & Kim Take New York, NASCAR Race Hub, and more.
It's safe to say that Gussin knows what makes a song screen-ready. Having insider information on how the television industry works and what music supervisors are really looking for can be the key to getting ahead of the curve on the rest of your competition – and Gussin was kind enough to share her knowledge and journey with us.
Before you started your path as a professional songwriter, you were a television producer. What inspired you to leave that career behind and pursue songwriting full-time?
From the time I was young, there were always two constants in my life: television and music. While I knew that I wanted to produce television and set forth on that career path early on, music was always along for the ride as a hobby. I'd taken music lessons growing up, playing the violin, flute, guitar, and piano, and often enjoyed rhyming. But I never thought about doing anything music- or song-related for a living.
Many years into my TV career, I had pretty much accomplished everything I had set out to do. I worked on numerous TV shows, from primetime to daytime to cable. I was part of the launch of many successful programs like The Dr. Phil Show, as well as networks including the National Geographic Channel and Fox Sports Net. I started to notice that the higher up on the ladder I climbed, the more I was dealing with the business end of entertainment, and the farther away I was getting from the actual creation process.
I missed that, but didn't realize how much until I started writing songs, getting back to the core of creating something from scratch. That was the turning point for me, though it would still be another few years before I actually walked away from the TV career I had built, into the unknown world of being a full-time songwriter.
You've been very successful landing licensing deals with your music – a feat many songwriters dream of accomplishing! How did your previous career in TV inform what makes a song screen-ready?
While both careers are vastly different, the one thing I find in common is storytelling. Ironically, while my TV background helped to inform stand-alone songs that tell stories and paint characters, those kinds of songs are not what's used in TV shows and films because they contain dialogue that already tells a story. So a song can't tell a story that would compete with the one that's taking place on the screen. Songs used in film/TV projects need to support the emotion of the story that's being told, in more of a universal, non-specific way, so that they won't interfere with what's going on in a scene.
With your extensive background in TV, is there any "insider" information you can share with songwriters looking to get their music licensed? What are some essential steps to getting your music licensed that most songwriters might miss?
It helps to have the kinds of songs that are universal enough to work on TV and film projects. These types of songs generally differ from songs you would write for an artist. It's important to learn the differences and determine whether your songs could work for music licensing or would be better for an artist.
It's a good idea to watch the kinds of shows that use your style of music and try to pitch to those kinds of programs where your style of songs closely matches the music they use. Use whatever resources you can to pitch your songs. There isn't just one way. Sonicbids often has listings looking for songs. Music libraries are another option if they're open to receiving unsolicited material. Networking can be useful as well; there are many songwriting and music conferences and festivals throughout the country that have seminars which provide information about how to pitch for film/TV.
Along with having the right material and pitching to the kinds of projects that use music similar to yours, luck and timing can play a role. You may have songs signed to music libraries, and you may know music supervisors, but your songs may not fit their exact need at the exact moment they hear it. Most importantly, be resourceful, and don't give up.
Walk us through a typical day of a full-time songwriter. From wake-up call to lights out, what does your daily to-do list look like?
The cool thing about creating your own schedule is that no two days are ever alike. I might wake up with an idea that I want to work on, but usually I jot it down and write in the later hours of the day, as I tend to be more creative in the evening, or save it for a co-writing session. During the day, I usually work on the business end of things, which can vary from pitching and submitting songs, to researching potential opportunities, to going through contracts, to updating my website.
How has your success in winning esteemed competitions such as the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and the Hollywood Music In Media Awards opened new doors for your songwriting career?
When I first started submitting to contests, all I heard was crickets for a very long time. So, I stopped submitting for quite a while. When I had some new songs, I was curious to see if they were competitive with other songs out there. I started to get some honorable mentions, which told me I was on the right track. Then came semi-finalist and finalist placements, top 10, top five... and my first category win from the Unisong International Songwriting Contest. Needless to say, it was a huge thrill!
I went on to win 30 more contests internationally, including grand prizes. Every single one of them is as surprising to me as the first one! The prizes can range from cash, to demos, to co-writing with a professional hit writer, to memberships to Sonicbids and other sites, to amazing studio equipment, etc. But for me, in an industry filled with rejection, just coming in at the top of the heap gives me the positive encouragement that I need to keep on writing. I've also met many other great writers who ended up becoming collaborators and friends. The inspiration and friendships have been the most valuable benefit to come out of it.
The John Lennon Songwriting Contest is huge, and it was your first big win. What inspired the song that won? How did it stand out among your other tunes?
The idea came to me the night of my brother's funeral. That night in New York, some odd things happened in the house, including the lights flickering, the water faucet not turning off, etc. I wondered if it was my brother wanting us to know that he was there, so I kept asking, is that you?
I was still working in television at the time, and it was very early in my songwriting development, so the lyric took a number of years to evolve. My wonderful composer Rik Howard was very patient! I would put the lyric in the drawer for a year or two at a time, and as my writing improved, I would take it out to work on it. No matter how much time had passed, whenever I was working on that lyric, the lights in my LA home flickered. Over the years, the only time the lights flickered was when I was working on that song. The night I was finishing up what I thought might be the final draft, not only did the lights flicker as expected, but the electricity went out in my entire three-building apartment complex! I took that to mean I was finally done.
This was when I had stopped submitting to contests, and I have no recollection submitting to the John Lennon Contest. A few months after the demo was produced, I received an email that said I won. I didn't believe it; I thought it was one of those phishing emails claiming that I won some foreign lottery! I eventually discovered that the song had indeed won the grand prize in the country category, as well as the Lennon Award, and that it was submitted through Sonicbids!
"Is That You?" has continued to be the gift that keeps on giving. After the song was named a top-five song by Songwriter Universe magazine, I wrote a new version of the lyric for the Contemporary Christian market. The song was the grand award winner of SongDoor International, and this past Christmas Eve, it won the UK Songwriting Contest. "Is That You?" was recently honored with a silver medal at the Global Music Awards and has just been nominated for a Hollywood Music in Media Award – the winner will be announced this November at their red carpet awards dinner in Hollywood.
What's the value for you, personally, in submitting to so many contests? Are there any other ways in which you use Sonicbids for your songwriting career?
As a non-performing songwriter, I use Sonicbids mostly for contest submissions. Whenever I have a new song, contests help me gauge the song's potential regarding how competitive it might be out in the real world. I look at every outcome as feedback, which I find very valuable in improving the songs, whether the lyric could use some rewriting, or the music track could use a different groove, as well as how I can apply that knowledge to future songs.
The articles and blogs that Sonicbids posts are also quite helpful in keeping members up to date on the industry, featuring up-and-coming artists and writers to discover and learn from their process. And the EPKs are a convenient way for people to hear my songs, read my bio and lyrics, and find my social media links, all in one place.
How does writing for TV differ from writing for yourself or fans? Do you feel like it's less personal?
Every writing experience is an opportunity to learn and stretch myself in different directions, so I'm always open to working in different styles, whether it's writing for a character in a musical or working with an artist who has something specific they want to say.
Writing a commercial jingle lyric where information needs to be conveyed in 30 seconds is far different from writing a love song where you have three minutes to tell a story – just as writing a song that was inspired by something in my life can be far different from writing with an artist who has fans that have certain expectations of them based on a past catalog of songs that attracted them to the artist, or the direction that the artist wants to take their next project.
Each situation has its own set of challenges and parameters that have to be taken into account if the song is going to have a life. Who might be singing the song? Is it for a specific project? If it's just a personal song that I am inspired to write, is there a way to make it accessible and relatable to others? Am I aiming for a specific market or artist? A teen-pop song will sound and feel and even be structured differently than an adult contemporary or Christian song. The more styles I am knowledgable in and adept at, the better a song's chance of success.
Think your tunes are TV-ready? Submit them to these opportunities for free and find out:
- Licensing for The Discovery Network and NASCAR (apply by August 14, 2015)
- Licensing for a documentary (apply by August 14, 2015)
- Licensing for a TV series pilot (apply by August 31, 2015)