Attending a couple of networking luncheons this week around the Nashville area, I was reminded of how many aspiring songwriters feel completely lost and locked out of the industry.
A Rutherford County banker approached me with that proverbial question, "How do I get my songs heard?" He has the home pro-tools studio and is applying his creative inspirations and whatever time and energy he has outside of his day-gig by expressing himself with his music. A female bank exec said that her husband was a shy, reclusive creative type who was struggling to find ways to expose his words and music to Music City pros. A young writer moving here from Texas is looking for some real connections.
In every case, I asked if they were a member of NSAI. Every response was negative. There is an obvious place to start. NSAI is the most potent advocacy organization on behalf of songwriters and provides regular opportunities for its membership to have their songs heard by industry pros.
But, what it boils down to is that most burgeoning songwriters are concentrating on the wrong things, seeking the least-likely paths to success. They're looking for publishers to hear and sign their songs. They want their songs pitched by song-pluggers, when they should be concentrating on making friends with young artists and producers, developing long-term relationships.
Over the last four decades, I've been blessed to have more than 200 of my songs recorded and released by both major and independent artists. Heart, Cheap Trick, Beach Boys, Tim McGraw, Indigo Girls, Vanilla Fudge, etc. I've also placed songs in about 15 feature films. I can almost count on my fingers and toes the number of those cuts came from a "pitch."
Over 90% of my success has come from relationships. In many cases, I wrote the song with the artist or the producer. Sometimes the production company was also the publisher. In other words, someone close to the project, a decision maker had something to gain by preferring my song over the hundreds of other comparable tunes submitted for that slot.
In 2001, a song of mine that had been gathering dust for well over a year caught the attention of Toby Keith. My List was one of maybe a half-dozen songs that were in my co-writer Tim James' "schedule A" when Tim signed to Toby's brand new publishing venture, Paddock Music. (BTW, schedule A songs, for those who don't know, are as-yet unpublished titles that a publisher signs at the commencement of a new songwriting contract). Tim James signing to Toby Keith's new company spelled a massive stroke of good fortune for me.
Being a smart businessman, Toby knew that by recording a Paddock copyright, he would prime the pump for the new Paddock venture. So, Toby recorded My List for his Pull My Chain CD. Then, his "people" gave me a jingle, "requesting" that I give them part of my ownership share of the copyright. Not having been born yesterday, I knew that 75% of a Toby Keith cut was worth a whole lot more than 100% of an unrecorded, unreleased song. So I negotiated a deal that gave Paddock 50% of my publisher's share - but only with the guarantee that the song would actually be released on the forthcoming album. The day after I signed the paperwork, My List was available as a free download as one of the three chosen singles from the DreamWorks album.
In the mid-'90s, when Mark D. Sanders broke big time as one of the elite Music Row tunesmiths, a journalist asked Mark what he was doing differently that his songs were achieving such a high level of success.
"Nothing different," said Sanders (I'm paraphrasing here). "It's just that my friends are now in a position to say yes." In other words, the co-writers, demo singers, young entrepreneurs with whom Mark had developed relationships over the last five or six years (or more) were now the hit writers, the recording artists, managers and executives that could make the difference between getting a cut or being locked out in the cold.
So relationships can be the most critical factor to your ultimate success. But, while you're building those relationships, it's also of immense importance to apply yourself to improving your craft - so that you'll be ready to play in the big leagues when you're finally drafted onto the team.
I encourage every aspiring writer I meet to seek out professional, objective, constructive feedback (from somebody other than Mom or a supportive spouse). You need to hear what's working and what might need improvement in your songs from people who are not afraid to tell it to you straight.
But, if you're that banker in Rutherford County or that new kid in town from Texas, where do you go to get that kind of feedback? Well, you could attend Songposium at NSAI or Jason Blume's monthly workshops at BMI. And there are some writer-relations people at the performing rights orgs who make themselves accessible. There are even some independent publishers and pluggers who will meet with you every now and then. All of those can be helpful ways to get perspective on your work.
But, each of these suggestions is kind of a pot-shot, an inconsistent, sporadic source of the kind of feedback that is so essential to your development as a writer.
There are some great online song-craft coaching programs that many developing writers are finding invaluable to improving their chops - and to making their songs more competitive. Take a look at SongU, Jasonblume.com, Writesongs.com, and MakinStuffUp.net for starters. After all, you are competing for attention with writers who have huge name recognition. Supposing you write a song that is just as good as a Jeff Steele, Rivers Rutherford or Craig Wiseman song. Which writer is liable to get the cut? It's a no-brainer, right.
So, while you're cultivating those critical relationships (the friendships that will one-day pay off big time in your eventual success), you need to be writing songs that stand out; songs that are more unique, more crafty, even more special than the songs being cranked out by that handful of writers who, at any given time, seem to be getting 90% of the cuts.
To sum up - get out there, go to writer's nights, meet the talented young artists bubbling under on the Music Row scene. Write songs with those people. Find the writers who've just signed or who are about to sign their first publishing deal. Write with them (maybe you'll get a song on their schedule A). Keep your eyes and ears peeled for demo singers that knock your socks off. Stay in touch and offer to write the songs with them that might launch their performing careers. One or more of these relationships may be the ticket into that exclusive, gated community called Hit City.
Join NSAI. Attend events, network, see and be seen on the Row. Be cheerful and joyous and fun to be around. People want to work with likable people. That's the simple truth.
Get professional, constructive feedback on your songs. And re-write, re-write, re-write!!!
Onward and Upward,
Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer/author with over 200 cuts