You should be stealing stuff from other songwriters and musicians. It’s one of my favorite ways to create music, or to get unstuck. Let’s talk about it.
What I Mean by “Stealing”
Bestselling author (and one of my faves) Austin Kleon is “a writer who draws.” And in his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, he talks about how to rip off other artists.
To steal like an artist, you need to let your heroes intentionally influence your work. In other words, use their art as a starting point for your own.
Take another artist’s song and use it as a jumping off point for yours. Combine some of this artist’s lyricism with a bit of that artist’s musicality. Then mix it with something in your head and you’ll end up with a song that’s totally yours.
Now, Kleon says you should always give credit to the people who have influenced you, and obviously yes. Be humble. Admit you are influenced by others.
And when I say “steal” and “influence,” this is not “plagiarism.” Plagiarism is straight-up playing someone else’s music and saying it’s yours. Influence is letting others’ work color your own.
How You Can Steal Like a Musician
So if you want to get unstuck and create work you’re really proud of, here are some things you can try. I do all of these and I’m almost always happy with the results.
1. Rewrite someone else’s song
This method has led to some of my strongest songs.
First, rewrite the lyrics to one of your favorite songs, but in a way you would say it.
For the music, play the song’s chord progression backwards. Or only play every other chord. Maybe remove the last chord. Play the same chords but in a different key and in a different time signature.
For the melody, start with the first two notes of someone else’s melody, then create your own melody from there.
See? Other people’s songs can be a starting point for yours.
2. Build a song from sampled beat
Producers commonly use a sampled kick or snare from another song to build their own. If you want to do this, you of course need to stay legal.
Then you can run that beat through a sampler so you can manipulate the individual elements (kick, snare, hi-hat, etc).
Start your song this way, then build from there.
3. Use a reference track during production
When I produce a song for an artist, I ask them to send me a reference track – a song they want theirs to sound similar to. So when I produce the track, I’ll borrow elements and ideas from that reference track.
For example, I’ll listen to the drums in the reference track, then try to program similar sounding drums in the artist’s song.
Obviously, I’m not going to get the same exact drums, but that’s the beauty of creating music. You’re making something new.
To steal like an artist means you intentionally find influence from other artists so you can create something that’s unique to you.