When I made the move from Iowa to Nashville in late 1983 to pursue songwriting as a profession, I did so thinking it would be an easy thing to do. No big deal. I was 26 and signed to a recording contract with RCA Mexico that didn't expire until 1985. I was a multi-instrumentalist and fresh off several years of almost constant touring up and down the North American continent. Between the years 1974 and 1983, I had performed in Italy, France, Spain, England, Sicily, Crete, Mallorca, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and all over the US. Lots of people loved my songs all over the world and I had proven that. I could not even imagine not being successful living, performing, and writing songs in Nashville. To put it simply, I was fearless and if you have not noticed yet, pretty full of myself.
The fact that I was on RCA Records was a definite plus for me when securing appointments on Music Row. I could get in to see pretty much everyone I wanted to. I even had letters of reference from RCA, and from MCA, introducing me and asking for the meetings. My band, The Ozone Ramblers, had just made two albums for RCA and I had also recorded a dozen or so of my original songs with just me and my guitar, so I had my best tunes recorded to play them.
I headed out to Nashville in my old Winnebago motor home being driven by my Bro Dino - one of the world's best roadies by the way - and me in my Volkswagen van. My plan was that I would live in the Winnebago and use the van to get around in. I knew that I would get a gig quickly, so then I would have money and I could get a place, no problem.
My first inkling that this might not be the case was when we hit the Nashville city limits and needed to stop and refuel the vehicles. The attendant at the full service gas station started filling up the Winnebago and I got out to stretch. He looked through the window of the motor home and he saw all of my instruments and equipment. He said something like this ... "So you play music?" I of course said "Yes, I actually play 10 instruments and I'm on RCA Records." He said, "Yeah, I used to be on RCA, and then I was signed to Capitol a few years back and I play 15 instruments, and have had two #1 records," as he pumped my gas.
Authors Note: I invite you to listen free to my narration of a few chapters from my book:
Dedication & Acknowledgements - Dedication (2.1 MB) mp3
Chapter 3 - Rehearsing - Rehearsing (5.5 MB) mp3
Chapter 7 - Your Name - Your Name (8.6 MB) mp3
Of course, I don't know if he was telling the truth or not, but he got my attention for sure, for about one minute, then I put it out of my mind. I mean, he wasn't me, I was "special." Everybody knew that. Especially me. Fearless. You wouldn't catch me having to get a "real" job, no way. My songs were good and I was going to be a professional songwriter.
So I got my appointments with the publishers and I walked up and down Music Row with my guitar and went to them one by one. The different executives that I met with listened to about the first 30 seconds of two or three of my tunes and then told me that they could not help me. Some said it politely and others were quite rude. I was very offended and very confused. I was in shock, actually, and I stayed that way for a week. I quit making appointments because every one of them was a disaster. They tore my songs apart and several even suggested that I REWRITE them. I couldn't believe their audacity, their nerve, insulting me and my songs like that. Unbelievable.
My immediate reaction was that every one of them was obviously a fool and had no clue what they were talking about. Fancy offices, gold records on the wall, shiny cars, high-dollar suits, diplomas and degrees behind them where they sat. Bet they couldn't get up in front of a big crowd and kick butt like I could. Heck, they probably couldn't even play an instrument or sing and here they were telling me that my songs weren't any good. It really, really rocked me. For the first time in my life someone did not like my music. It had never happened to me before and I just could not believe it was happening then. But it did, and it was the same with every one of them. Not one of them offered me a contract on any of my songs.
So there I was, living with everything I owned in the world in my motor home parked in the alley behind my producer Pete Drake's studio on 18th Avenue. I was out of money, had no gig, and my plan was not going the way it was supposed to, to say the least. Sitting there with my old Martin guitar, singing my saddest songs and feeling very sorry for myself, it came to me. Like I was hit upside the head with a shovel. I understood completely what was really happening. Just like that, I understood that it wasn't that they didn't "like" my songs; my songs were just not the kind of songs they were looking for. It in no way meant that my songs weren't any "good," it just meant that they weren't the right kind of songs to be pitched to the country music artists recording in Nashville at that time and place. And as I sat there and really thought about each and every one of my songs, I agreed totally.
I also realized the most important part of this extremely valuable songwriting lesson I was experiencing. Why would my songs be right for other people? I did not write them for someone else to sing or record. It was the furthest thing from my mind when I created those songs. I just wrote them, and when I sang them for people, they liked them and it excited me and gave me confidence in them, so I wrote more. I never questioned any of them in any way and no one else had either. I was very proud of every song that I wrote and that part has never changed. I firmly believe that every song that I conceive is a gift from the Lord and should be treasured as such. I have never consciously thrown away any words or music to any song that I have ever written. I have kept them all and every one of them holds a place dear to my heart.
What changed that evening sitting there pondering and reflecting my fate was that I realized the starting point of writing a song professionally. The inspiration to sit down and write a song totally intended for someone else to sing and to record on their record. A song that is so powerful it inspires other singers and artists so much they cannot resist recording it. The type of song that will be successful on the radio, to the masses. A song that will be sung and recorded over and over because it is such a great song. Simply put, the concept of writing a song "commercially" as opposed to writing for yourself, "artistically." I would venture to say this issue could be the #1 biggest stumbling block a songwriter first encounters when presenting their music to a music publisher: their songs being accepted as being commercial. So, what is the difference?
The main difference between writing a song commercially versus writing a song artistically is really very simple. It is the "hook", the title of the song. In a song that is written commercially, the hook is everything. Very simple and straight-ahead and everything in the song lyrically is about that one idea, the hook. Every word, every completed thought, has to directly relate to the title of the song. A song written to and about the hook. One idea, one picture painted. The beginning, middle and end of this "story" all happening in 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, relative of course to the actual style or genre of the music you write. Don't assume that your listener will be able to read your mind or read between the lines. It is not going to happen. You have to say exactly what you mean. No gray area, just black and white and as simply said as possible.
In a song written from an artistic perspective, we as the songwriter know what we mean. We totally understand what is being said because it is personal, heartfelt and very special to us since we wrote it. It all makes total sense to us. It is art, our art. The biggest problem one faces when pitching art is that unless the person you are pitching to likes your art, unless they can relate to it and it touches them emotionally a great deal, they will pass. Bet on it, because they will. They might even really like it personally while passing, but they will pass.
They aren't looking for art, publishers aren't record labels that sign artists and they are not art brokers. They are publishers. As a publisher they are looking for radio ready, smash hit songs, period. Songs that can make them (and you as the songwriter) money. They are fully aware that all of the recording artists that they are going to be playing songs to are going to have plenty of their own art, we all do. That is exactly the reason they are referred to as artists in the first place.
What the majority of publishers need and actively pursue are hit songs, radio hit songs, real radio airplay performances that pay royalties. A song so special that when someone hears it come over their radio speakers, they actually call the station and ask them to play it again. Songs they can relate to and that move them.
That is why it is so important that every word in a song is "perfect." Think about it. When you turn on the radio to listen to your favorite station, the song that is playing might be half over, like in the middle of the second verse already, or the bridge or the last chorus. It is imperative that the listener doesn't have to hear the first half of your song to know where they are in your songs story. It is also imperative that within 30 to 40 seconds of hearing this song, no matter where in the song they tune in, they would be able to guess the title of that particular song. The hook. Nine times out of ten, when talking hit songs in most genres, the "hookier" the better.
Musically, songs have hooks, too. Think about all of the songs that you have heard that start out with a specific and very memorable guitar lick, or a keyboard lick, or just a drum roll. A musical section that usually starts a song and then repeats several times through the song, lots of times ending with exactly the same part. The musical hook of the song. Once you have heard it, it sticks in your mind for years to come. It hooks you.
I am totally aware as I say this that lots of very successful songs might not do any of the above. I am just as aware that there are songwriters who are so talented that they are able to write incredible songs without thinking about any of this. Maybe you are one of them. Meanwhile in my everyday, real life world as a publisher/producer surviving on Music Row in these very volatile times in the recording industry, only one thing matters to me. If a song doesn't blow me out of my chair, odds are it won't blow my peers away either. They will pass, no doubt in my mind.
I don't question it, I just "know" it, and it is based on so many years of playing so many songs to so many people and hearing/seeing their reaction and what ended up happening with that song pitch. The bar has been set very high here. Nashville is the songwriting capitol of the world, in my opinion. The competition for a cut on one of the 10 to 12 slots on a major artist's CD is incredible. The fact is the majority of these artists are going to write or cowrite most (if not all) of the songs they will record, that is just a reality we all have to deal with. The two or three slots left available for all the rest of us - the tens of thousands of us worldwide - are not easy to get, to say the least.
Even though I have heard it reported that 90%, yes 90% of the records made don't manage to recoup the expense of what it cost to record, package, release and promote them, you can make a whole lot of money as a songwriter if you do manage to write a big hit. Everyone associated with recording and releasing records on a major level is well aware of this fact and the vast majority of those same people just happen to be songwriters, too. Lots of them are really good at it, and they already have the "in" with the artist. Do you think that just maybe they might like to have that artist record one of their songs instead of yours?
Keep in mind that if you do have the gig as a producer, song listener, label rep, etc., with a major recording artist, probably your main job is to help that artist screen and locate these "great" songs. A song that would be so successful it would propel that artist all the way to the top of the charts if they just include it on their next record, no matter who wrote it. In a nutshell, they have to convince that artist to record your song, instead of theirs. When they are right, they score big time and become the hero. Now on the other hand, if they bring in a song and that song does make it to the record and the song flops, odds are they will end up taking all the blame and be fired. Like that.
In my 25 years of experience pitching songs on Music Row, I have seen it happen over and over. Many of my amigos have had it happen to them and some of them more than once! It is just how it works in the "business" of making records. The songs an artist chooses to record and release can launch, revitalize, or flat out end their career, every time they put out a record. With that said, just how good do you think your song has to be to inspire someone to be willing to stake their career on it? Their career and everyone in their circle who is associated with that record.
So understand this for what it is. Don't take it personally if a publisher passes on your song submission. Learn from it. Ask them why and listen to what they say closely and with an open mind. Whatever you do, don't try arguing with them or defending your song because it won't do you any good or secure you a publishing contract. In fact, they will probably shut their door to you for good. Songwriting professionally is a business and just like any other business it is based on making money and showing a profit. It is all about doing commerce, which is defined in Webster's dictionary as buying and selling.
Stop for a minute and reflect on your songs. Be as critical as you can and really think about it. Are the songs you write the kind of songs that you could imagine one of your favorite artists wanting to record? Do you really think that your songs are as good as the ones on that artist's last record? The greatest professional songwriters are the most awesome rewriters. They have the ability to be very critical with their own work and can detach themselves emotionally from their songs, and then go back to them later and tighten them up by rewriting them.
Professional songwriting is a craft, and like any other craft, the more you do it, the better you can be at it. And just like any other craft, the best way to learn is from other, more skilled, craftsmen. That is probably the hardest part of being a new songwriter, getting that input, direction and feedback on the songs you are writing from someone who really knows. I would even venture to say that this is the most important aspect of having a publisher in the first place. Having their feedback and getting the immediate access to the other songwriters they represent. All the things they can teach you about writing a song commercially, if you really do want to achieve the goal of writing songs for a living. The same goal I came to Nashville with so many years ago, to become a professional songwriter.
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