142 – How to Succeed as a Songwriter – with Award-Winning Singer-Songwriter & Producer Troy Kokol

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Podcast

Sometimes, it might seem like building a music career is all about the hustle. But sometimes, you just need to let the opportunities come to you.

In this episode of The New Music Industry Podcast, I interview award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Troy Kokol, who shares his journey as a songwriter and how he’s been able to make songwriting his full-time gig.

Podcast Highlights:

  • 00:34 – Who is Troy Kokol?
  • 03:00 – Revenue streams you can create with songwriting
  • 05:10 – How do you get into writing songs for others?
  • 07:36 – When opportunities come to you (and not the other way around)
  • 10:16 – Do you have a team helping you?
  • 11:51 – How to write hits and become a professional songwriter
  • 17:52 – Being prolific vs. being perfectionist
  • 19:58 – Is writer’s block real?
  • 22:56 – Getting passed analysis paralysis and staying true to yourself
  • 24:07 – What are your thoughts on the Calgary music scene?
  • 28:05 – Grants and funding for musicians
  • 29:31 – What is Calgary Songsmiths?
  • 33:21 – Concluding thoughts


D.A.: Today we’re chatting with award-winning Candian singer, songwriter, and producer, Troy Kokol. How are you today Troy?

Troy: Doing good. Doing very good, David.

D.A.: Awesome. Thanks for joining me. I was trying to learn a little bit about you for this conversation but you’re a bit of a mystery online, so I would love for you to take a moment to share about your background, who you are, and what you’re up to.

Troy: Yeah. So, I started late in the business. I didn’t pay my dues like everybody else. I had a job and was just going about my life, and we had a fortunate break with songwriting.

It’s a super long story but ultimately, what ended up happening was a song that we wrote was cut by a Canadian artist with a brand-new label, brand new artist, and it blew up. It did as good as a song could have in that type of situation.

And so, all of a sudden, we were thrust from doing a day job thing to like, “Oh, okay. I guess we’re songwriting now.” And so, that was about 10 years ago. A little over 10 years ago.

And so, from there we just have evolved. It’s evolved into songwriting. I started producing and then of course the more you start singing, the more you start doing your own stuff.

Right now, what we do business wise is pretty broad. I’m an independent artist as well. I mix, and master, and produce, and record all my stuff myself but I also produce, mix, and master for other artists. And most of the stuff that we do and most of the things that we have had success with are in the country pop genre but I do work in folk as well with folk artists.

It all feels new even though it’s been 10 years. Like I say, I never suffered sleeping in the van down by the river. Nothing like that. I kind of have the best of both worlds. And so, yeah, I’m really enjoying it.

And we make our home here in Calgary and we decided to do that a long time ago. We could have moved south and that was an option but we decided that Calgary was going to be the place where we’re going to set our roots and just do what we could from our home. And so, we’ve been really glad to do that.

D.A.: That’s awesome. It strikes me that there are a lot of opportunities in songwriting just from having talked to a few other people out there who are doing the same thing.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but sort of what I’m seeing is it actually offers quite a few different revenue streams, right? Because you could be writing songs for others and collecting royalties on that, but you could also be making your own music. And like you said, you’re producing other people’s music too.

So, creating more opportunities for yourself really allows you to draw from a bit of a bigger pool, right?

Troy:  That’s right. I think the other part of it is that when we got in the business, it was a different world. And now, especially because of the digital era, a lot of people I feel think that digital era has crushed the music business and it certainly has for the large companies but I feel like the smaller independent artists, the independent labels, and you know even someone like myself, I mean because we can now… I mean I can do all of the things I need to do to make a record sound, you know, half decently pro and put it out.

And so, I think as a songwriter, yeah, you’re absolutely right, David. If you can write your own music and you can release that music, there are five major revenue streams you can draw on as a songwriter. And so, you can take advantage of that because you own the master, because you’re paid for the recording, because you are the singer, because you are the songwriter.

Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of, you know. You’re collecting pennies from all over the place but there’s the more exposure and of course the better the songs are.

I always tell artists it’s so important to focus on the quality of your songs. Until that’s ready, it’s almost not really worth it to go busting down doors and making CDs quite yet. Performing, absolutely. But on the songwriting side of it, I think you just need to give yourself the opportunity to grow and to grow into something that other people can get into.

It's so important to focus on the quality of your songs. Until that's ready, it's almost not worth it to go busting down doors and making CDs. Share on X

D.A.: So, how do you get into writing songs for others? Is that a matter of like networking and getting to know people? Is it a matter of using certain tools online? Is it a combination thereof?

Troy: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a combination, but I would say most importantly for all of it is honing your craft and being good. And being okay with not being good for a while, and having that patience and persistence.

I can honestly say and I tell people this all the time. The opportunities that have put money in my pocket have been almost exclusively when my phone rings. It’s not when I’m trying to get a publishing deal or I’m trying to get a co-write with some big artist or I’m trying to you know, whatever it is, fulfill some ego thing that I’ve got.

We’re all artists and we all have that sort of… It’s really hard to suppress that want to just like, “I should get a record deal, or I should do this, or I should song write for this person or that person.”

But what I’ve found is that every time I tried to do that and take control of it, it’s always failed but when I’ve had success is when I’ve just decided, “You know what? I’m going to do what I have control over and just try to write better songs.”

Lo and behold, the more I did that and the more I focused on my own skills. You know what? The phone rings because you’re actually… I think part of it is that you’re proving yourself. You’re able to prove to other people and you’re not coming out of it with an attitude of desperation.

People are coming to you because it’s like, “Wow! Did you hear that song that David just sang? That’s amazing. I’m going to go talk to that guy.” Because you spent the time to work on it.

So, all of my opportunities have come that way. I never called… Like I write children songs for international educational company that’s headquartered in Japan. I didn’t call them and I didn’t get that gig because I thought that’s what I should do. I always wanted to write children songs but the funny thing was that it was through people that I knew.

And, I feel like part of that work had to do with me just focusing on the things I had control over which was writing songs, you know playing out, releasing songs, and you know definitely meeting people. Networking is so important.

D.A.: Yeah. I love that because there aren’t too many people that are taking that sort of approach or attitude to things, like just working on your craft allows you to get better gigs, right?

I have something similar going on in the sense that I’ve booked so few of my own gigs probably in the last five to 10 years. They get booked because of band leaders, because of acquaintances, or friends, or people I know, or other musicians to where when I do go and try to book my own gigs, it often fails and I don’t get the gig.

Troy: Yeah. I always say when your phone rings that’s the opportunity you’re ready for. My friends are sick of hearing this but I call the pie shop. You know, you have this amazing recipe because your grandma gave it to you, and you know you can make these amazing pies, and you take this recipe and you go out the street and you try to get people to buy this recipe from you and we’re like “Man, are you crazy?” Like, “Go away.” Like, “I don’t want your stupid recipe.”

When your phone rings that's the opportunity you're ready for. Share on X

But instead, if you take control over what you’re able to do and maybe you rent a little corner place, and you get a little oven, and you start baking stuff. What happens? The smell goes out to the street. People are like, “Oh my God. What is that?” And you know you focus on. And maybe it starts small but then you start… you’re always improving your apple pie. The more that you improve it, after awhile people start talking about it. It’s like, “Oh my God, have you ever been to that place? The pie is unbelievable.”

And so, after awhile, your work, the work that you’re trying to… the things you’re trying to make happen just happen anyway.

I think we as artists focus a lot, especially in the beginning, we focus a lot on outcomes which to me outcomes are like you know getting an award, getting a gig, getting an agent, getting a manager.

And to me, what I have found in my experience with people that I know that have been signed with major labels even the little bit of success that we’ve had. I feel all of those things, those outcomes that people are wanting often are just byproducts of doing what you have control over, which is gigging when you can, writing or making your songs as best as you can, and networking, and doing the things you have control over – your website, your photos.

Those outcomes that people are wanting are just byproducts of doing what you have control over. Share on X

And then everything else once the songs are there you don’t really have to do a lot. You really just need to be visible and to be active in the industry, but that’s been my experience.

D.A.: I love that. And, you used the term “we” earlier, so I’m wondering what sort of help and support do you have, or do you have a bit of a team helping you out in making this happen?

Troy: I don’t. It’s funny because even from day one, so we had a fairly substantial success with this first song and I thought, you know, “Man.” Like, “Everybody’s going to want a chunk of this money.” And so, I thought, “Well, that could be a good thing.” But the funny thing was that we’ve always operated independently.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking questions, and learning about the business, and also studying what… for me, what was most important is studying what works and what doesn’t work. That comes not only with people with money but also people with lots of talent because a lot of people think just because someone’s talented that they’ve got it all figured out. That’s not always true. As a matter of fact, it’s almost never true.

What's most important is studying what works and what doesn't work. Share on X

I would say for us, we rely on… I rely on watching and learning from other people to really help me move forward. I’ve done a lot of things to constantly learn how to mix, learn how to master stuff, learn how to write songs better.

Part of that is just learning from my peers and listening to new artists and hearing what new business people are doing to monetize their music. All that good stuff.

D.A.: So, what’s interesting about that, you know, I’ve been to enough workshops and certainly have read enough articles to know that there are certain like nuances to writing hits, so to speak, or writing songs that are more largely accepted and mass-consumed.

So, what tips do you have for someone that’s interested in becoming a professional songwriter?

Troy: You know if you want to… If someone tells me, “I want to be a professional songwriter.” So my assumption is that you want your music to be consumed by a large, like the middle 60%. Because I think often people really just want to do cool stuff and they want to just write what they want to write but they wanted to be successful and those two things don’t always mix together.

Sometimes what you do naturally just pops. And, it works and everybody loves it. But not often.

I think the one thing that I would say if you wanted to be like a professional songwriter and you want to have the ability to make money from songwriting, I think the most important thing is to spend time listening to great songwriters, and taking all the… I can honestly say I haven’t read a lot of books or taken a lot of courses on songwriting but I have for sure spent a lot of time listening to great songwriters and listening to how does… what do I love about this song, and why is it working for me.

I would say the one piece of advice I got was from a fellow named Ralph Murphy. He used to be the VP of International Relations at ASCAP, which is the equivalent of SOCAN in the US.

D.A.: Yeah.

Troy: When I first met with Ralph, he told me it’s like, “Think about…” He said, “Don’t”… He basically said, “Don’t think like a songwriter. Think like you’re a listener.”

Don't think like a songwriter. Think like you're a listener. Share on X

Like his whole thing was, if you’re trying to get on radio people really… As in the radio industry who sells advertising and you’re trying to get… all that they care about is that when your song’s playing, that single mom driving to work at 7:30 in the morning in her crappy car to her crappy job that she hates, doesn’t turn the radio off.

So, you know, a big chunk of what I think needs to happen in that is just keeping that in mind. It doesn’t mean you’re writing every song for that but it’s always sort of keeping… trying to understand that you’re trying to reach that middle 60%.

The truth is that sometimes in order to get to that place, you just really need to be honest and you need to be in a way that is in a creative way that is accessing your most… your deepest secrets or your most vulnerable place.

But I think at the end of the day you really need to spend a bit of time listening to the radio. I think also understanding the craft itself and what kind of music is acceptable because if you don’t really get that, if you don’t spend time listening to radio and if you don’t spend time sort of studying the people that are having success, I think it’s sort of a crapshoot, and you’re guessing. Yeah.

D.A.: You know that’s a great tip. Whenever I perform these days, and it definitely wasn’t always this way, my friends or other artists mention, “Wow, your songs are always so pop.” I think it’s gotten to the point where that comes like somewhat naturally to me, but I was in pursuit of that for a long time because I knew I was writing these songs that didn’t have as strong of a melody as I wanted because I was listening to some of my favorite artists and really what I noticed was, “Wow! I really love that melody. I want to write melodies like that.”

And when I got in pursuit of that and was endlessly listening and my roommates were like, “What are you listening for?” And I said, “I’m just listening to get a sense of how to write melodies like that.”

Troy: Yeah. Yeah. And I think spending a little time with… a guy listen… I always listen to new stuff and relatively new music. Anything that to me is different, you know like when twenty one pilots came out with “Stressed Out”, or when Ed Sheeran came up with “The A Team”.

For me it was just, “Wow! Really cool.” Like I really love the way he illiterates in this part, or the way that this person just kind of describes something.

And so taking that into consideration as to like, “Okay. Well, how can I lead that into my old stuff?” And again, I think the most important thing is doing that in a way, and you know even in a commercial songwriting way, that I think the trick of it all is to do all of that into… and to create fearlessly. And to be okay with like, “You know what? I’m probably going to miss nine times out of 10. And that’s okay. But I need to give myself a chance to turn and turn the tap on, so to speak, and just let it flow out of me until it’s feeling right.”

I’d like to say to people that it’s sort of like turning on the shower. You turn on the shower, at first you turn it on it’s too cold, and you turn it the other way and then “Oh my Gosh, it’s too hot.” Then you look around the thing for quite a while. It’s like, “Okay. This is just right.”

And even then, you might tweak it a little bit but I think it’s kind of the same thing with creativity. You’ve got to give yourself an opportunity to just say stuff and be honest and find that ability to see your truth.

And then, once you kind of get to that place where you can easily fearlessly come out with that then I think that’s when you have something that is going to… people will relate to. And that’s going to feel honest and real.

D.A.: So, here’s a bit of controversy. Being prolific versus being perfectionist. What are your thoughts?

Troy: I used to cartoon professionally, a long time ago when I was in college. Charles Schulz was like, “There’s no such thing as…” And Charles Schulz was a guy who did like Snoopy and Peanuts and all that stuff. His thing was, you know there’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s just different forms of fear.

There's no such thing as writer's block. It's just different forms of fear. Share on X

To me, I think… I always tell people. When you’re creating, there’s two elements in the room. There’s a child and there’s an adult. The child will come out and come up with like fun ideas, and be honest, and cry, and laugh, and just be in the moment. And the adult will sort of like say, “Well, what about that? What about this?” I think when we get “writer’s block” is when both of those, you know the child and the adult are in the room at the same time. And you’re trying to come up with ideas but at the time you got an adult saying, “No. No. That song’s too long” or “You can’t say that” or whatever.

And so, I always tell people to differentiate those two things. Compartmentalize your creativity. Allow your child to be joyful and don’t try to cage in what you’re doing with things like what genre you’re singing or what the content is. Forget about that.

The greatest songwriters there ever were, if you listen to their work, it’s vast and it’s weird. And like if you listen to Beck, or if you listen to Tom Waits, or Bob Dylan, it’s all over the place. And it’s because those guys were experts at just creating freely.

And then they probably went and let their parent or the adults in the room after they’re like, “Hmm. This could be too long. We need to change this. We need to move this around.” But I would say in terms of like being prolific versus you know editing a lot, I would say that’s my take on it.

D.A.: I love that. And I really enjoying what you said about there is no writer’s block because in the last few years, I have done a lot of blogging, I have done a lot of ghostwriting. This year, I’m working towards publishing 10 to12 books. And my second book is on its way.

I really believe that there is such thing as burnout but there is no such thing as writer’s block.

Troy: Yeah. And I think though, you know, even for yourself, if you were writing your books but you were constantly, “Oh, is this going to be relevant? Is this going to be…?” You could literally… Paralysis by analysis, right?

And, you could honestly stop yourself from creating something. And the truth is that you write lots of stuff. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to fall short, and you’re going to maybe say things that weren’t quite spelled out correctly or could have been stronger but the fact is that just the more you do it, the more you’re going to look back and be like, “Oh, I could have done that better.” And those are all learning opportunities, right?

So it’s just really sharpening your blade so the next time you go to battle you’re going to be more prepared for it, right?

D.A.: Yeah. Actually, you’re really in my brain right now because when I launched The Essential Guide to Music Entrepreneurship last year, I thought I was kind of taking a big risk by putting such a short book out there. It’s probably an hour and a half read at most.

And the response has been tremendous. I haven’t had a bad review yet. It’s all been five stars, and I’m like, “Wow! Well, that’s worth doing so I’m going to launch more of these handbooks or mini books.” They will be a little longer but I’m going to try to put more of these out there.

And like you said, this is a philosophy I’ve kind of adopted for my business in general, let small bad things happen.

I think it was originally in Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Workweek but I thought, “Yeah. So true. I’m going to let small bad things happen because they will. There’s going to be some mistakes in these books. I’m going to miss the carriage return, or I’m going to use the wrong word, I’m going to misspell a word.” It’s just going to happen when you’re producing this volume of work.

Troy: Yeah. And I think especially when you… We mostly get hesitant when we think about the content and the validity of what we’re doing. Like, is it any good? Will anyone care? And the fact is that I think that you have to approach it like, “I don’t care if anyone cares.”

You always hear about those great artists and songwriters. A lot of times they don’t care if anyone listens to it. I think it’s not a function of, “I’m a big deal or I don’t care what anyone thinks.” I just think it really is more of a function of, “I really want to do this. I love to do this. And so, I’m going to do it.”

I think generally, when you’re coming from a creative place that is honest and joyful, people groove with it and they really think… You’ll find an audience of some kind anyways.

D.A.: I think that’s the other piece is getting past the analysis paralysis. You could so easily kind of stop and evaluate how each book went, and how it was received, and what people thought of it.

Troy: True.

D.A.: We sort of get into almost like people pleasing, right, which can be very unhealthy.

Troy: Yeah. And you see that happen with songwriters and artists. You will see an artist come up with this amazing record that they did in some crappy studio somewhere, and it was like super raw and super genuine.

And then the next one was like you know they get signed to some huge multi international label. And it’s nothing like it was before.

To me when I think about that it’s like it really is just a really… It’s fear. It’s fear from the label. It’s fear from the artists. Like, “Oh damn, we’ve got an audience now.”

And so, I think staying genuine and always creating in a way that is joyful. Yeah, the absence of fear I think is definitely the way to go.

Stay genuine and create in a way that is joyful. Share on X

D.A.: I love that. Yeah, you’re definitely bringing new or slightly different perspective to the podcast than usual. And, I love that too.

So, to change the flow of the conversation slightly, this is funny. Something I used to ask at my old podcast so it brings me back a bit but we’re both living in Calgary so I thought I would ask you. What are your thoughts on the Calgary music scene?

Troy: Honestly, when I first started getting into music, it seemed like there was nothing going on. Of course, there was. There’s a large folk scene. Country music had some prominence in the city, but I feel like in the last five years we’ve kind of turned the corner.

There are… We have a bunch of really great award-winning studios. We’ve got lots of amazing producers. We’ve got some artists that are coming out of the city that are getting signed to labels and being able to make a living doing what they’re doing.

I feel like there’s more infrastructure. Maybe not for live playing as much as we would like but still it’s… I feel like we’ve turned a corner.

Calgary is very corporate. We have lots of oil and gas here. We have lots of headquarters, and so one could tend to think that there is no art scene here. Especially after going to the YYC Music Awards this year and seeing all of the talent. Like I was blown away.

We work professionally in the country music world and so… but going to the award show here in Calgary, I was honestly like kind of embarrassed at how little I knew about all of the amazing artists that are in this town. I feel like the art scene in Calgary right now is as good as it’s ever been quite honestly.

D.A.: Yeah. I think I had a friend that said 10 years ago or maybe a little bit more, Calgary is going to have its turn. Maybe we’ll become like its own Seattle or its own Vancouver in some sense. Who knows? I mean I don’t think we’re there yet but like you say, as far as great talent goes, there is a lot to be found here.

Troy: Yeah. We’ve got, you know, we have some of the best producers in the world, some of the best studios in the country. And we’ve got some pretty strong songwriters. We’ve got some amazing artists. And some of the greatest like the Ironwood is one of the most sought after live venues for folk and Americana artists

You know, in North America they come from all over the place. We’re really lucky. Now with the National Music Center and the whole King Eddy venue being set up. I just feel like it’s only going to get better. I’m really hopeful.

D.A.: Will Calgary continue to be your home for a time to come?

Troy: Yeah. We have family in Canada, of course, and so we… Like I said, we could have moved to the US a long time ago and that was an option but I just felt like, “Man, we have a radio system that supports Canadian content. We have grant systems for municipal, provincial, federal, that can support artists.”

We just decided that, “Let’s just do it here. Let’s take it slower.” Yeah, maybe we’re not going to be rubbing shoulders with Jay-Z but at least we’re going to be here and at least we’re going to be nurturing a community here in Calgary.

And so, that was… Whenever I say we, I’m talking about my business partner, my wife, and also songwriter Joni Delaurier. We run this business together, and so you know we just decided that let’s just do it here and let’s be okay with that because ultimately, we just wanted to nurture our own creativity and create a good community to work with. We’ve been able to do that so you know what more do you want really?

D.A.: I think the grant and funding piece is a big one because based on my research and experience, there isn’t a whole lot in the States compared to Canada.

Troy: Oh my gosh. So, every publisher or small label or independent artists that we know… we’ve been talking to artists that are signed to labels. I mean like when they hear about what we have up here, they’re like, “You can get $30,000 for a record? What? Like how? Like who pays for this?”

We have those systems in place but that’s why we have artists that are you know like we have the Drakes and the Celine Dions and the Shania Twains, and you know a friend of ours Tenille Townes as an artist from Grande Prairie. She just got signed to Columbia Records in Nashville, but all of her career was honed on the generosity of CanCon and the generosity of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. They helped her learn, cut her teeth. And so, she wouldn’t be able to have done in the absence of that, without hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so, we’re really lucky. That’s why we decided to stay here.

D.A.: Super cool. And you mentioned community a little earlier. I know you’ve done quite a bit with Calgary Songsmiths over the years so I’d love for you to talk about that. What is it and what have you been up to?

Troy: Yeah, the Calgary Songsmiths. It started out as a small group that was associated to the Songwriters Association of Canada and it was like a regional sort of branch. It was started by Nancy Laberge. Everybody got busy. Nancy got busy. The group sort of dwindled down to about three people.

The cool friend of ours kept it going, thank goodness. After we had a little bit of success, I was kind of grappling about, “Man, I really wish we had a songwriting community in Calgary.”

And a little voice in my head was like, “Well then do something about it.” We went back to that group, and thankfully there was… I think there’s like three people there. And thankfully, Nicole had kept it together. We just injected some love into it. We started a Facebook group. We started to bring speakers in and just put a little bit of energy into it. It slowly, slowly built.

In the last couple years, we sort of amped it up and said, “Hey, what if we started bringing in some speakers from out of town?” And so, we brought in some Grammy award winning songwriters to do some workshops and just little things.

And now, right now, the Calgary Songsmiths, and we just found this out a few months ago, we’re the largest independent songwriter group in Canada. I would say all in North America. It’s arguable but where it’s grown to a point where it’s just so much fun. We have a really great turnout of amazing songwriters.

We’ve now seen some of the songwriters that we have been in the group where you know on the verge of getting a record deal or moving on to bigger and better things.

And so, it’s been so awesome. It’s my favorite day of the month. It happens on the third Tuesday of the month, at 7 PM at Waves Coffee House. And you can check it out. All the details are on the Calgary Songsmith’s webpage, which is really just the Facebook page. If you Google “Calgary Songsmiths”, all the info is there. There’s about five of us that sort of make it work.

D.A.: That’s great. I really love that. I’m all for providing more education as it were to musicians. There are so many oversights, at least from my perspective, in the traditional education and schooling system. It sort of applies to the generalities of life but not the specifics of life so often, if you want to pursue a career in arts or music and stuff like that, right?

Troy: For sure. We’ll have agents come out. We have promoters come out. We have radio people come out. We have vocal coaches. Just all different things.

And so, it’s not necessarily all focused on songwriting but more of like, if you’re a songwriter and if you want a demo or if you’re songwriter and you want to go perform.

I think it’s really cool because we have like some people that don’t… They’re just lyricists. We have other people that are performing all the time in our radio.

So some people have had lots of success and some people are just starting out. It’s a really broad spectrum of music and skill level so it’s just… it’s such a joyful event. I encourage anybody that wants to get into it or is into the songwriting thing to come out and check it out.

D.A.: Super cool. Well, thanks so much for your time and generosity, Troy. Is there anything else I should have asked?

Troy: No. You know I think it’s just a really great what you’re doing. I applaud you for injecting your energy into the Calgary scene so thank you for that. Hats off to you.

D.A.: Awesome. Thank you.

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