If you've ever heard the words to a song on the radio and thought to yourself, I can do that, then a career in writing lyrics might be for you. A professional lyricist is a person who writes the words to songs, usually either for musical theater, advertising campaigns or music albums. Becoming a lyricist doesn't require a specific degree, but it does require standout talent and work ethics, a high level of ambition and an ability to make connections with music industry insiders.
A lyricist isn't a songwriter, exactly. A lyricist writes the words to an original piece of music or adds words to existing music, whereas a songwriter writes both the music and the lyrics. As a lyricist, you don't have to relegate your wordsmith talents to just writing songs for albums. Professional lyricists also write songs for plays, films, television, commercials and more.
Lyricists often collaborate with songwriters, other lyricists, musical arrangers, artists and composers. Sometimes, music publishing companies hire professional lyricists to be staff writers. Many lyricists work on a freelance or independent contractor basis, pitching their work to TV producers and advertising executives, playwrights, music supervisors, publishers and freelance songwriters and composers.
Lyricists are creative, yet highly detail oriented, persistent and passionate about the art of writing lyrics. Those who work in opera and musical theater must also possess certain narrative skills, like the ability to create a strong sense of time and place, and move the plot.
Lyricists don't necessarily have to receive a traditional music education or even obtain a four-year degree. Though you do need to have a musical sensibility and you should be able to understand the mechanics of a song, it's not required to have formal musical training to be a successful lyricist.
That being said, if you do have a strong musical vocabulary and a background in musical theory, this can greatly help you on your quest to become a lyric writer. A bachelor's degree in songwriting, music production, music theory, music performance or a related field will only strengthen your chances of succeeding in the industry.
Professional lyricists usually work in very specific roles, such as album songwriter, musical theater lyricist or adapter, or as a librettist, which is a person who writes the text of an opera. Becoming a top-level lyricist who writes for mainstream recording artists is certainly possible, although this can take many years to achieve and requires talent, extreme ambition and networking skills and connections.
Within popular music genres, there isn't much work for professional lyricists, with the exception of rap and hip-hop music. Rap and hip-hop artists occasionally employ lyricists to ghostwrite verses, while pop and country performers sometimes use lyricists that are hired by their music publishers. The music industry, in general, is always shifting and evolving as technology changes, and the demand for lyricists will undoubtedly continue to evolve as well.
Years of Experience and Salary
A professional lyricist's salary can vary widely, depending on whether you're working as a freelance songwriter, staff writer, musical theater composer or in advertising or another related field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for music directors and composers in 2018 was $49,630, or $23.86 per hour, which means that half earn more than this, while the other half earns less.
Job Growth Trend
Freelance lyricist jobs aren't the easiest to come by, and the changing market for lyrics has required many professional lyricists to forge new career roles. If you have a true talent for lyric writing and the ambition level to match, though, it's certainly possible to find a music industry job to fit your skill set.