What a week for songwriters and publishers. In the hopes of cutting down the travel costs for everyone in LA, the music publishing and songwriting community seems to have decided to cram all of their NY events into one week, which just so happened to be the last one. On Wednesday there was the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) luncheon, featuring a live interview with Lava Records president and resident music business raconteur Jason Flom, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) cocktail party and annual meeting. Then the next day, all the same faces got together for a big night out at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards dinner, an event in which several prominent songwriters each year are invited to be part of a Hall of Fame that after 40 years, still fails to exist in anything but the formidable imaginations of the leaders of the institution. It’s an apt metaphor for the week, actually, in that many discussions are had, much food is consumed, many cocktails imbibed, and in the end, no one has much to show for it all. Meanwhile, back at the office, royalty earnings are in a free fall. Oh well.
Despite the absurdity of a Hall of Fame that has no actual hall, I do have to compliment the Songwriters Hall of Fame on mounting an inspiring evening, which featured amazing performances from a vast array of artists ranging from Bebe Winans, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Chris Daughtry, and Bon Jovi to Andy Williams, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (from the Fifth Dimension), Clint Black and Jason Mraz. And that doesn’t even include the stellar cast of songwriters who were honored:
Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
Crosby Stills and Nash
Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway
“Hair” composers Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Jr.
What I found particularly interesting about the evening were the acceptance speeches themselves, and the common themes that kept popping up in the thoughts of each legendary songwriter, despite their coming from several different genres and generations. Of course, there was the appreciation of those who had opened doors: early music teachers, early believers in their talent, executives willing to take a gamble, and long-time collaborators who had been there through thick and thin. It’s worth remembering that even as isolated and personal a craft as songwriting is, it is not something one can ultimately do alone. As I say so often in my class at Berkleemusic, Music Publishing 101, and in my book, Making Music Make Money, you can not hope to succeed on any meaningful level without a core team around you– whether it’s fellow songwriters, A&R people, a lawyer, a manager, a handful of interns or all of the above. You can create alone, but you can’t survive as a creator without the help of others who believe in you and what you’re doing.
More importantly, however, the message that seemed to show up in almost every speech from the new members of the Hall of Fame, was the idea of music as a universal language, a way of effecting change, or of touching other people. The idea of songwriting as COMMUNICATION. And it came up again and again, from each writer who accepted an award. Interestingly, what did not get mentioned, or at least not in any notable way, was the idea of songwriting as personal EXPRESSION– a forum to give voice to one’s inner emotional life, to offer opinions on social or political issues, or to exorcise personal demons.
Obviously, we know that both goals, communication and expression, are part of the motivation that makes writers pick up a guitar or go to the piano with a notebook and create a new piece of music. Most of the time, I suspect that it’s the desire for personal expression that gets most writers started on their first songs– a way of letting off some emotional steam when a punching bag is unavailable or someone else is using the phone. In fact, when meeting with developing songwriters, the theme of personal expression comes up more often than anything else. There are lengthy explanations of the situation or relationship that brought the song about, then usually a long, introspective and hopefully in the end, cathartic lyric. Then finally, there is a defensive reaction to any suggestions or criticisms along the lines of “well, I’m not trying to be commercial– this is what I wanted to express”.
While that kind of desire for personal expression was undoubtedly the beginning of all of our creative urges, including those who went on to create classic songs in every different style, what the speeches at the Songwriters Hall of Fame revealed was that the process doesn’t stop there. What makes the Hall of Famers great is that somewhere in their development, they have learned to move from expression, to communication — and that made all the difference in their careers. They can use their personal experience as a window into understanding universal emotions– and their desire is to express those universal feelings in a way that can touch other people– listeners who don’t know (or care) why or how the song came to be, but relate it to their own experience and find that it has meaning. Several of the inductees spoke about the idea that there is really “one universal song” that stretches throughout time and across cultures, and that they, as individual songwriters, had simply offered their own interpretation of it. This just means that they may use their own emotions, their individual social and political agenda, or their own deep personal angst or soul-searching as the impetus for an idea– but once they move to writing the song, they seek to find the universal truth or emotion that makes the song about something larger than themselves.
As I say in my new book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell, at some point a songwriter has to decide what he or she wants to achieve with songwriting, and the ultimate choice is between expression and communication. Expression is relatively easy, and impossible to judge. If you set out to express something personal, who am I to tell you that it failed? It’s an entirely subjective process. Conversely, communication is far more difficult (how hard is it just to explain a simple task to your colleague at work?) and the success of the communication lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If I set out to communicate something and you don’t get it, then I didn’t do it right.
Objective criteria, whether it’s the size of an audience, the response of the audience, or the sales figures of a record, are all reasonably valid means of measuring how successfully a song communicates. No one watches the Billboard charts more closely than the top songwriters. They’re not content to simply express their emotions and put it out into the marketplace. They want to see whether or not people “get it”, whether or not they have touched an emotional chord.
There is a word that describes the act of writing songs for the intention of personal expression. That word is “hobby”. It’s an excellent place to start in the creative process, but not a very interesting place to end. It’s not really a question of being “commercial” versus “non-commercial”. If you write songs that communicate to others, you will find a reasonable, if variable, degree of commercial success, whether you’re Bob Dylan or Max Martin, Leonard Cohen or Jon Bon Jovi.
In an otherwise dispiriting and depressing interview at the AIMP luncheon, record label president Jason Flom (pictured) brought up what has been the elephant in the room of the music industry for over 10 years now. “Where” he asked, “have all the musical geniuses gone?” “Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?” It’s not something the industry likes to talk about– given the promo departments’ job of trying to convince the public that each new release is the seminal work of a musical genius that they can’t live without.
But it’s something that every serious person in the music business has contemplated, especially as the business has disintegrated over the past five years.
Personally, I think some of the answer lies in the balance– specifically, the balance of personal expression and communication. Somewhere over the past decade, songwriters and artists have quit trying to reach a mass audience with something universal, and settled for reaching a small group of people with a very specialized, narrowly focused, introspective yet public form of self-analysis.
Songs that are primarily intended as personal expression are no different than long, self-indulgent guitar solos, or endless pontificating by the lead singer– they are, as James Brown would have said, “talking loud, and saying nothing”. And the audience endures them, then shuffles quietly out of the club. On the other hand, songs that communicate are probably the one thing keeping the industry alive at all. In fact, they are the only reason our business can or should exist. What the great songwriters will tell you is that if you write one song that communicates on a universal level, it will change your career, as well as the lives of those who hear it. A song like that might even land you in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Wherever that may be…