Don't Get The Drift

Oct 01 2010

None of us enjoy going under the knife, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will make you better.

One of the publishing companies I used to work for had a dreaded bi-annual event called “blue book”, which for most of the creative department at the company was about as enticing as a root canal and lasted twice as long. At the “blue book” meeting, all the heads of the various offices (Nashville, LA, New York, London) and their creative staffs would convene in front of the company owner and president to review the overall financial results for the past six months, and make some predictions for the upcoming period. That was the easy part.

The ordeal would then proceed to a songwriter by songwriter review of the entire roster, examining not only the current activity of each composer, but also the financial realities. How much had the writer been advanced? How much had been recouped? How much was out there to be collected? When was the next advance due? What were the chances of ever moving the deal from red ink to black?

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, the truth of almost every large publishing company is that most of the bills are being paid either by back catalog (songs controlled by the company for many years, but written by writers who have long since moved on) or by a tiny handful of current writers, perhaps 10% of the whole roster, who bring in 90% of the income. Ironically, those super-successful writers are usually self-contained business entities, who need little support from the creative staff at the publishing company, and often have very little contact with their publishers beyond cashing the royalty checks. From a “blue-book” standpoint, that means it’s pretty hard for the Creative Director to claim much credit for the success of the top ten percent. Instead, you’re left squirming in your chair, trying to explain to the owner of the company what happened to the other 90%. It focuses the mind, that’s for sure.

And that’s the point. The danger of making a career out of songwriting is not outright failure. In fact, that’s almost impossible. After all, songwriting is not actually a business–it’s just something you do. No one can force you to stop. No one can fire you. The danger of a profession like songwriting is:

The drift.

Years go by. Opportunities arise, but never quite pan out. More songs are written. A few contacts are made, but people move on, change positions, you lose touch. There are a few good breaks, but the timing is wrong and the chance to follow up on them is lost. More years go by.

“Blue-book” was bad. But drift is worse. That’s why music publishing is an essential element in making a career out of songwriting. Because music publishing is indeed a business. It has rules, and the process of keeping score is very clear. If you’re making money– at least more than you’re spending– then you’re winning. If you’re not, then you better beware of drift.

It’s the end of September, and as most songwriters and artists who have publishing deals or record deals will recognize, that means royalty statements for the past six months are starting to arrive in the mailbox. Like it or not, that’s the scorecard. If you want to make writing or publishing music your career, at some point you have to start to do the math. Of course, if you have a DIY model for your company, you don’t have to wait for a twice-yearly royalty statement– you can do the numbers month by month. Either way, this is a good time to put on your publisher hat and do your own “blue-book” review. It’s not something most of us look forward to. But it’s the only way to stop the drift.

Ask yourself:

Is your music generating enough money upon which to build a profitable business?
Does the money you make with your music cover the expense of making it?
Is your music doing what you want it to do, and reaching your audience?
Are you seeing consistent, measurable growth?

These are tough questions, and for most of us, the answers are not all positive. As I pointed out earlier, you’re not alone in that. For any Creative Director in a large publisher, there are always more challenges than success stories. The point is not the analysis of the current situation, but what you’re going to do next. When your boss asks you to explain how you’re going to recoup a six-figure advance to a singer-songwriter who’s just been dropped by her record label, you either have a coughing fit, or you get creative very quickly. Advocating “perseverance and more of the same” does not go over well. The role of the publisher is to come up with strategies for success.

I can’t give you the specific formula to change the trajectory of your songwriting career, or the career of one of the writers whom you publish. In fact, any strategy you employ will be changing all the time, like a GPS that keeps re-adjusting for every wrong turn or missed exit.

But I can give you a framework that should direct your thinking, focus your approach and inspire your creativity about how to end the drift and restore some forward motion to what’s happening with your music. Like any good battle plan, you start with a knowledge of the terrain and the challenges you’ll face, and then figure out how to adapt to the situation. Here are 8 Strategies for Success, to get you started:

1. Know Your Market and See What’s Working.
If you’re a dance music producer, you generally need to either be a DJ or work with one. If you’re a rapper, you need to be part of a local crew of similar artists. Most rock bands start with a live following. There are paths out there, and you need to try to get on them.

2. Know Your Audience and Give Them What They Want.
Most songwriters never figure out what they’re aiming at. Understand who buys the kind of music you make, why they buy it, how they listen to it, and what they do when they listen to it. Then give it to them the way they like it. If you understand the nature of the audience for Ke$ha, Rihanna, Toby Keith, or Drake, it’s not hard to understand their success. Successful songs and artists are mirrors, reflecting to their audience an idealized picture of who the audience wishes they could be.

3. Know What’s Missing and Provide It.
Every market has gaps in it, in which a segment of the audience isn’t finding what they want. The smart songwriters and artists don’t go where everyone else already is– they find the gap and fill it. Say what you want, but Justin Bieber filled a gap. So did Lady Gaga. So did Taylor Swift.

4. Know What You Do Best and Do It.
The modern music industry is a business of specialists, not generalists. As a songwriter, you are being brought in because you are a specialist in a particular market, genre, or style. There are very few examples of people who are specialists in three or four different musical areas. By diversifying and trying to write in four or five genres at once, you are not increasing your chances of success. You are exposing yourself as a generalist. There are songwriters who earn a fortune solely for programming drum beats, coming up with guitar riffs, or blurting out lyric concepts. That’s because they do that one thing better than anyone else in the world.

5. Know Your Weakness and Fix It.
If you know what you do best, it should be easy to acknowledge that there are places where you fall short. It only matters if you choose not to fix it. If your lyrics are weak, then collaborate. If your demo production is dull, then find a producer or engineer and put him or her on the team. If you can’t sing, don’t. There are people that do these things. Hire them.

6. Know What’s Changing and Change With It.
Nothing stays the same. That’s true not only of audience tastes, but of marketing strategies, the structure of the industry, and the role of music in society. If you’re a hip-hop artist still talking about “Crips and Bloods”, you missed the game change. Ditto for the songwriters still writing big “Disney” ballads for the Celine Dion types. Time marches on.

7. Know Where The Money Is and Go There.
Just because a style of music is out of fashion in one place doesn’t mean it’s out of fashion everywhere. A good friend of mine, a legendary songwriter from LA with a boatload of pop hits from the mid-1980′s, recently did a deal in Japan, to re-record some of his best known songs. It seems there’s a market for smooth, West Coast 80′s American pop in Asia. If you do something well, there’s usually a land of opportunity somewhere. You just have to find it.

8. Know Who You Need To Know and Get To Know Them.
Meeting people is a random accident. Networking is a business strategy. You build a network by identifying who you need on your team, figuring out ways to meet them, and then, most importantly, thinking strategically about how those contacts fit together.

Not only do most songwriters fail to think strategically, a large number of them actually refuse. They are determined to write what they feel, ignore the distinctions between one genre and another, insist that their audience can and should include everyone from teenyboppers to grandparents, and make the market come to them. For a very select few, it occasionally works. But if after your careful “blue-book” career reassessment, it’s clear that what you’re doing isn’t working, you might need to consider a change. Especially if you want to make your music not just a hobby, but a career. You can’t just let it drift.

A strategic approach to songwriting is what my upcoming workshop, “The Hit Factory: Making Your Music Make Money ” is all about. It’s a one-day, 6 hour workshop that includes song review and discussion, all aimed at developing an effective business around your songwriting. I’ll be doing the workshop in partnership with New York’s Songhall, on:

Saturday, November 6th, 10am-4:30pm at Shetler Studios in Manhattan.

I had the opportunity to lead this workshop last year, and it was a sell-out, so contact the SongHall now if you want to reserve a spot. Hope to see you there!

    Hi Eric,

    I attended one of your songwriting workshops in New York in February of this year. I took away so much great information. Some of the main things I took away are that I needed to develop a strategy to clearly identify my target audience and develop methods to write what THEY want to hear. After all, the audience is the customer and as the songwriter you are supplying what they demand. When I first started writing songs, I only wrote the songs I wanted to hear; this is not a totally bad strategy, but it does not directly hit the target.

    I am currently enrolled in the newly revised course “Music Publishing 101” at Berklee College of Music and I absolutely love it! I am learning so much. I just started my own publishing company, Songs of Charisma LLC, and I am working on establishing a strong foundation. Attending the course, along with reading your book “Making Music Make Money,” is providing me with all of the guidance I feel I need to be successful as a songwriter/music publisher. Please continue to offer advice to aspiring songwriters and music publishers. You efforts and hard work are truly making a difference.

    Christie M. Sadler
    Songs of Charisma LLC

    You make my day! So great to hear from you again, and so happy to hear that things are going well. Very glad to hear you like Music Pub 101– I just revised it and updated it over the summer. I’m really happy about the way it came out.

    Again, thanks so much for reaching out, and for the very kind comments. Look forward to staying in touch. Good luck with all that you’re doing!



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