What if You Chose…to be a Songwriter: Insight from the Music Executive Behind Your Favorite Artists

Melissa Dean
6 min readApr 20, 2021

For decades, artists and songwriters have turned to Judy Stakee for the magic
ingredients that transform songs into hits and artists into megastars.

Twenty-five years before Billie Eilish became a global star and the voice of Gen Z, there was another new sound on the scene: the effervescent pop artist Sheryl Crow. Like Eilish, Crow quickly became a worldwide sensation and an
award-winning member of music royalty.

At Crow’s first GRAMMY awards in 1994, she earned five nominations and won three awards for Best New Artist, Record of the Year (the same award later won by Eilish), and Best Female Vocal Pop Performance.

After the awards ceremony, Warner-Chappell Executive Vice President Judy
Stakee, who had signed and nurtured Sheryl Crow as a young artist for the
prior five years, celebrated in the limousine with Crow and her family. It was a pinnacle moment for both Crow and Stakee.

And it was the first of many successes together. Stakee continued to mentor
and collaborate with Crow for another eleven years, with Crow earning a total thirty-two GRAMMY nominations, nine wins, and a litany of other awards.

For Stakee, that celebratory limousine ride in 1994 was one of innumerable
career highlights. As a senior music industry executive, Stakee has been
developing the careers of prodigies and superstars for more than four
decades. The artists and songwriters she guides have amassed hundreds of
BMI and ASCAP awards and dozens of GRAMMY, MTV, CMA, and AMA
awards. Katy Perry began her career under Stakee’s guidance, as did Jewel and Joy Williams. Stakee is the secret ingredient behind songs by Keith Urban, For King and Country, Dolly Parton, and Julian Bunetta, who wrote songs for One Direction and Fifth Harmony and continues to write for members of the groups.

It’s easy to see how Stakee became the queen of her craft. She has a unique
blend of kindness, cool, and down-to-earth wisdom that has made longtime friends of her clients. In our “What if I Chose…” Q&A, Stakee shares expert advice on building a music career and the secret to relatable music that
makes its mark.

In creative fields, one of the biggest hurdles is getting past fear and having the confidence to go for it. What advice do you have for songwriters and artists?

We develop and get better by expanding our body, mind, and soul. If you
want to feel more confident, I suggest doing something that makes you feel
confident in your body, and in turn, your soul and mind will say, “I’ve got this.”

One of the challenges I give to my clients is to do a handstand in the middle of the room, with spotters of course! Putting yourself in a position that you have not been in before or for a very long time will provide a different perspective on yourself and the world around you. Also, allowing and relying on others to help activates your vulnerability, which is a songwriter’s best friend. When most of my clients come right side up, they are always amazed at the clarity they achieve by going upside down.

What is one of the biggest challenges songwriters face, and what are some
tips for surmounting this?

Not asking for help. We have been conditioned in our society that you have to make it on your own. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You need a
community, a network, a family, and a team to help you navigate the career
you desire. You only have your perspective, and it really helps to have others
around you in order to make wise and intentional choices.

Is it helpful to think of your music career as a business? If so, what does that look like?

Absolutely, think of yourself as the CEO of your career. It doesn’t matter if
you are baking cakes, building houses, or writing songs; you are building a
company. My advice is to educate and get experience on what that looks like. For example, how do you prepare for meetings? How do you build an
infrastructure to keep track of your results and royalties? And how do you
pick, motivate, and lead a staff to follow you and your passion?

What are some rules of the game to be taken seriously and present yourself
as a professional in the music industry?

These are my rules: be the best at your craft and be a kind, smart, and
generous person and you will do just fine.

Do you need to sign with a publisher to be successful as a songwriter? If not, what are some other ways?

No. However, a publisher provides you with marketing for you and your
songs that opens up endless opportunities to make money, with royalty and
administrative departments to collect and track your copyrights and a legal
team to protect you.

If you are doing it on your own, I would advise you to use that model and
create a team that will help you in the same way. Many writers make the calls themselves to pitch their own songs. But if you don’t feel comfortable, find a good salesperson who will represent you well and a good business manager and lawyer.

What are some current trends in songwriting and is there anything new on the horizon?

Fingers crossed that Olivia Rodrigo with her songs All I Want and Drivers
have set the trend in motion to great songs: melodies that stick with
you, lyrics that tell stories of the heart, and a voice that comes from her soul.

Is it important to pursue the most popular genres to be successful, or do you recommend that songwriters work within their favorite niche?

Yes and… everyone is different and that is when “being aware” has great
advantages. Ask yourself, what do you want to do?

What are the key elements every song should have? What comes first: the
melody or the lyrics?

A song is the integration of the voice, melody and lyric. And what comes first? That depends on the writer, the co-writer and the day. It’s up to you. Ask yourself, how do you like to write? Some writers are very sure that the only way to start is with lyrics or melody, but then there are writers who vary how they begin.

Should songwriters finish every song they start?

Yes, and…..Some songs are just not worth it. I make it a rule to at least finish the song — maybe it needs fixing with made-up lyrics in the second verse, but it’s in a form that if I want to go back and revisit it at a later time, I can.

What are some ways for songwriters to get their songs noticed?

Getting on playlists like Spotify and platforms like Tiktok can raise your
profile. One of my songwriting retreat alumni and clients, Lauren Weintraub, has a hit on country radio right now after posting her song, “She’s Mine” on TikTok and receiving over 1,000,000 streams overnight. She has a publishing deal but no record deal, and it just goes to prove my mantra that if you write great songs, then the path to success gets a lot easier.

How much time should songwriters spend working on their craft every week?

I would say 10 hours a week if you are also working a full time job. But if you are able to write full time, then 40 hours. It will pay off!

I also think it’s about consistency; writing every Tuesday from 6–9 will
eventually produce results!

Is it important to have a schedule as a songwriter?

A schedule is important for everyone. Our bodies do much better when they
can count on food, exercise, and sleep. If your body is not healthy and happy, your mind and soul will have a difficult time creating.

Can you recommend a good schedule?

We mimic my own schedule at the songwriting retreats I produce. I am very
big on eating at the same time each day and giving myself breaks:

6:00 — Breakfast/Exercise
8–12 — Work
12:00 — Lunch
1–5 — Work
5:00 — Go outside and walk
6:00 — Dinner
7–10 — Chill
10:00 — Sleep

What are some books and podcasts you listen to?

I really enjoy Ross Golan’s podcast, And The Writer Is.
And one of my favorite books is, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for
Growth Through Music
, by Victor Wooten.

If you could give one piece of advice to songwriters, what would it be?

If you really want this, then set the intention to become the best.

Where can we find more information on your songwriting retreats, music, and your company?

Facebook @judystakee
Twitter and Instagram @jstakee