To Do List 2012

Jan 12 2012

There’s never a busier day on the publishing calendar than the day after a holiday, and the first working day after New Years is the mother of them all.  Having had a nice two week break to sit and contemplate the future of music, the inadequacies of their present situation, the wealth of unexploited future classics sitting in their song catalogs, and the disturbing similarity between their circumstances this year and last, songwriters the world over wake up on the first day of the new working year with one single mission forefront in their minds:

CALL PUBLISHER!

I know this because I used to be a songwriter, and I did the same thing.  Every year.

Of course, it’s only natural to want to reassess, re-organize, and restructure in order to get a fresh start on the new year. It’s what we should be doing, whether we’re songwriters or publishers.  But often it’s too easy for songwriters to bring a list of complaints and goals to the conversation, without providing any ideas as to strategy. Likewise, too many publishers are prone to offer up a plan that’s amounts to more of the same—“keep writing, keep pitching and let’s hope we get that big break”. Both approaches leave a very good percentage chance that songwriter and publisher will be having the very same conversation next year.  And no one needs that.

So what does it take to move things ahead in 2012?  Of course, the detailed strategy will vary for every writer and publisher in every genre across every part of the world.  Nevertheless, there are a few resolutions we can almost all agree to make, that will pay off regardless of our professional level or musical market.

In lieu of a champagne toast, I offer you a no-cost kickstarter for the new year:

12 Resolutions for 2012!

1.  Get the paperwork right.

When I moved from being a songwriter to a music publisher, one of the great surprises was to see first-hand how much songwriter and publisher income vanishes every year due to paperwork errors, omissions and general sloppiness.  Settle your split disputes, check your song registrations around the world, read your royalty statements, make sure your PRO (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, PRS, etc) has your correct address.  There’s no excuse for a paperwork error in publishing. Paperwork is pretty much what publishing is.

2.  Expand your territory.

When investment-backed companies like BMG Rights make billion dollar investments in the music-publishing sector, one of the key motivators is the anticipated expansion of the global music market.  And yet many songwriters and publishers, particularly in genres like country, hip-hop, r&b, and even rock rarely think about the world outside their own borders.  Beef up your sub-pub relationships, check out internet radio to familiarize yourself with markets outside of your own territory, use YouTube and other tools to find talent all over the world. There’s almost always more than one geographical market for any type of music.

3.  Don’t demo.

Songwriters are the only ones left still using the word.  Rough work tapes for reference are fine. But when you record, make masters. That way you can license them to film & television, commercials, video games and other venues.

4.  Live the single life.

Please…. no more unknown artists making their “album”.  At this point, superstars are struggling to sell albums.  We live in a singles market, so make singles—one memorable “hit” song will move your career further than a thousand interesting album tracks.  Unless you’re Radiohead or Adele, put your focus on making singles.

5.  Tighten your belt.

The tragic truth is, there’s a lot of money that’s gone out of music publishing over the past five years, and it’s not coming back. Plummeting mechanical income, some ugly days at the bargaining table for ASCAP and BMI, the complete bungling of the negotiations for the rates on “streaming” services, and wild, cutthroat competition in the sync world all add up to one thing: less. Less money for everyone, so get used to it. We’re all going to have to cut waste, reduce overhead, and eat fewer lunches at Bice.  Let’s start with the cutting waste and reducing overhead part.

6.  Loosen your grip.

Publishers like control—it’s our nature. But with more and more of the entertainment universe being covered by blanket licenses, rather than specific song by song licenses, we’re going to have to be willing to put our music out there, with less and less control over how it will be used. Whether it’s a homemade YouTube video made by a stranger or a mix on turntable.fm, songs are being used all the time—we’re just not being asked for permission. Those uses are what keep songs alive, even if it’s not yet something remotely profitable. But squeeze those songs too tight and you’ll kill ‘em.

7.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.

In a world in which the income for publishers and songwriters has been cut drastically, we cannot continue to waste time on meaningless matters. Does the split dispute get settled at 17.5 percent or 20 percent? Unless the record goes 4x platinum, it just doesn’t matter.  Someone changed a line in the lyrics without permission? Just hope a listener is paying enough attention to notice. What matters is what makes money. All else can be ignored.

8.  Put your head in the clouds.

For better or worse, the industry is embracing new cloud-based streaming services like Spotify, which means that iTunes will soon be going the way of Tower Records.  Given that this technology didn’t exactly sneak up on us, one might have hoped that the same mistakes made with mp3s might have been avoided this time around. Incredibly, the record companies managed to get this one right, while the publisher’s income seems to be lost somewhere in the grey, murky ether.  But publishers are going to have to figure out how to turn this technology into something profitable, or the only clouds we’ll be seeing will be those we pass as we plummet to our demise.  This is the battleground for the next five years.

9.  Don’t lose that syncing feeling.

Welcome to the only game in town. In the past ten years, the focus of publishing has shifted almost entirely, from records and radio, to film, television and advertising.  At this point, the transition is complete, and the sync world is the one that every songwriter and publisher has to be a part of. Depending on the style of music you work with, it might be video games, advertisements, source music libraries, branding campaigns, television spots or web-based advertising programs. But your business has to have some strategy for licensing your music in sync uses.

10.  Get the money in.

Easier said than done. It now seems that every record label uses songs without mechanical licenses in place, theater shows routinely drop songs into a revue without clearing the dramatic rights, advertisers sign sync licenses long after ads are on the air, and everyone pays late, if at all.  It takes a new kind of tenacity to get paid, and only those who are the most persistent, the most unrelenting, and the nastiest will get their money. You can’t just put your registrations in place and wait for the payment to show up.  Those who snooze will be abused.

11.  Move your business beyond music.

Despite a slightly better year in 2011, the writing is on the wall: the music business is in an almost permanent state of contraction.  It simply is no longer the singular cultural defining force that it was 30 years ago.  The good news is, the entertainment business as a whole is growing constantly, from new cable channels to internet tv to virtual worlds to a myriad of different venues for live entertainment.  The best news is, music remains a vital element in almost every entertainment form. Sometimes it’s okay to be the supporting actor. Music publishers who rely solely on the music business can’t survive. Better to be one small part of the larger industry of show business.

12.  Move your music beyond business.

Clearly 2011 was the year of Adele. Coming out of an environment knee-deep in Dr. Luke sound-alike records and generic auto-tuned voices over a Euro dance track, “21” was a breath of fresh air that above all else, sounded honest.  Public taste always swings like a pendulum and one can be sure that whatever is popular in 2011 will change to at least some degree in 2012.  But Adele’s triumph signals a move away from things that sound blatantly contrived. Songwriters are going to have to be more subtle, more daring, and dig a little deeper. Music that sounds more like a marketing strategy than a song may be on its way out.

 

Everything always looks good at the start. I’m sure that for all of us, 2012 will have its high points and low points, and enough inspiration and frustration to keep us all battling for the next 12 months. Still, now is a moment to make some plans beyond just calling your publisher, or assuring your songwriter that this could be his or her big year.  Here’s to making, not letting, things happen in 2012. Happy weaseling in  the new year!

 

 

 

 

Recently had an opportunity to spend a very impressive evening at Berklee College of Music’s “Perfect Pitch” event, which matched student songwriters with student vocalists for a concert that gave hope to any of us planning to stick around the pop music business for the next five years. Out of a dozen or so songs, there were at least three or four songs with real radio potential, and a couple of potential stars among the performers. That’s a percentage that would satisfy any A&R person or publisher.

However, what was even more satisfying was the acknowledgement implicit in the structure of the event itself, which was that pitching songs is no longer a business of sending out mp3 files or cold-calling A&R execs.  A perfect pitch is now about artist development, finding performance opportunities, building a story and measuring results.  I took onthe same subject in my own “Perfect Pitch” event, at the New York Songwriters Collective, in October.             Songwriters sending out demos to record execs or managers because they “have a song that’s perfect for your artist” are missing the point. No one’s looking for songs.

In the new music eco-system, there are 3 things the music industry needs, and the success or failure of any songwriter’s pitch can be predicted almost entirely on the basis of how many of those 3 things are in place.  If you can provide a clean sweep of 3 out of 3, you’ll likely be signing a deal memo before leaving the building. If you’ve got 2 out of 3, you will probably get an offer, though it might not be exactly the deal you were hoping for. Bring only one out of three and the best you can hope for is a polite invitation to come back sometime in the distant future.  Here are the three things that every weasel wants and will pay for—the essential components to a “Perfect Pitch”:

1.  Product

This just means ready-made artists and productions—records that are ready to go. In case you didn’t get the memo, major music companies are no longer in the business of developing artists or “making records”. A&R staffs have been slashed, and frankly, the track records of most A&R people were abysmal anyway.  Record labels and even publishers today are looking for people who have product in hand—artists who they’ve developed, records they’re releasing, shows they’re producing. Don’t bring demos. No one in the record business even knows what those are. Bring product.

2.  Platforms.

Every artist needs a platform—or three. A platform is a stage, but not in the obvious way. It just means a venue for exposure, a way of reaching an audience.  For about eight decades now, radio has been the dominant “platform” for breaking new artists, and while it remains important, it’s certainly no longer the only game in town. In most cases, radio is simply too limited, too expensive and too difficult to control to be the sole platform for an artist. You need some other ways to expose the artist to the public: mixtapes, club play, a television talent show, a spot on Glee, a touring spot, a YouTube video. Needless to say, songwriters and artists that can bring with them a platform, whether it’s a writer/producer like David Guetta, who also can use his status as a superstar DJ to give an artist and record exposure, or an actress/singer with a Disney show, or a band with a guest spot on a prominent tour, are bringing their labels and publishers a big head start.

3.  Proof

Not only has the internet brought a vast array of potential new platforms, it has also brought the ability to measure results in a very precise and visible way. The blather of a manager hyping the band’s live show (“you gotta see the crowd reaction—the girls go nuts for these kids…”) is now just so much white noise—much of the proof is plain to see:  How many YouTube views? Facebook friends? What are the sales figures like? How many Twitter followers?

Of course there are varying degrees of proof. As many labels have learned the hard way, 500, 000 Facebook friends, signing up free of charge, will not necessarily put gold records on the walls. Ticket sales and downloads speak much louder than YouTube views. Nevertheless, an artist or producer with a platform that delivers proven results, whether it’s a Top Ten Nielsen rating or a buzz on the key blogs, has the kind of story that A&R people want to hear, and to believe.

At the risk of raising songwriter cynicism to new levels, it’s worth noting that the actual quality of the music itself is not necessarily a predominating factor in any of these three elements.  Presumably, a badly made recording of a meaningless song performed by an uninteresting artist will not find many readily available platforms, and even if it does, it will not gather the kind of reaction that proves its suitability to the market. On the other hand, stranger stuff has happened.

The truth is, most modern music execs are neither qualified or interested in being Simon Cowell-like judges of talent. If there is a proven audience for a particular piece of product, and there is a way of getting that product to the audience, that’s enough to greenlight  a project at any record company or publisher still left in business. Whether it’s an artist like Drake, who brought a story of success from platforms like mixtapes and Degrassi, or Karmin, who signed their deal at Epic on the strength of a YouTube buzz, the contemporary songwriter needs more to their business model than just a bag full of demos, regardless of the quality of them. If the business is now about product, platforms and proof, then a songwriter has to be:

1.    Producer

Producers make product. They are talent magnets; they are people that develop talent.

This does not necessarily mean that you have to be a “producer” in the sense of being able to create records. If you’re a lyricist or a topline writer, or someone who can write but doesn’t really know anything about record making, then you’ll need to team with someone who can do those things. Your role will be to write songs that define the artist and give them a reason for existing.  Just as not every songwriter is a record-maker, not everyone who can program and mix is a producer in the sense of having a vision, drawing out and developing an artist, and giving a project a unique identity.  But however you and/or your team go about accomplishing it, the business now requires both elements, the song and the record, in order to create a product that anyone actually needs or wants.

2.   Partner

You can make product by yourself. But no one develops a platform by themselves. Syco can make records all day, but they can’t develop a TV show like X-Factor on their own. Drake can write songs and sing them, but he can’t break on a mixtape without featuring Lil Wayne, or Trey Songz, or others.  DJs need singers, singers need television talent shows, rappers need guest spots, bands need opening slots on tours. As Dean Martin put it, everybody needs somebody sometimes. If you want a platform, you have to build it by working with others.

In a larger sense, this means that songwriters need to be in the entertainment business, not in the music business. The entertainment business is growing, in areas including TV, cable, internet TV, film, games, internet content, books, fashion, and clubs.  Songs are a part of almost every entertainment form, and opportunities for music will continue to grow. But you cannot live in a music business vacuum. First, you have to create product. Then you must learn to partner, in order to build a platform. And if you want to be able to provide proof that your product and platform work, you’re going to have to be a:

3.  Promoter

In the big sense of the word.  You, or your partners, are going to have to take the initial steps to get your product into the world, at least in some limited way. Maybe it’s a local release, or a test market, or a pilot, or small tour, or a mixtape. But YOU will have to be the catalyst to make something happen and to show that what you’re doing connects with people. You can’t just write the songs, you’re going to have to pitch them and place a few—at least enough to show that they’re placeable. You will have to put your artist in a place where they can develop a following, whether it’s YouTube or a residency or a foreign release.

That’s what I liked best about Berklee’s “Perfect Pitch”. Here was a group of songwriters happily embracing each of the challenges in the creative process. Not just the challenge of writing a great song, but finding an artist to present the song, putting together a performance venue to create a platform for the music, and soliciting the reaction of a live audience and industry judges to gather some proof that the product was hitting its mark.

Even better, it showed a creative community networking amongst each other to find the singers, producers, arrangers, background vocalists, organizers and musicians needed to put the whole show together. More than any of the talent on display that night, and there was a considerable amount, that willingness to partner and collaborate will be the key to these students’ future success.  Compliments to Berklee’s Songwriting club, and to the faculty that supported them, in putting together an exciting look at what the next generation has in store for the music business…

Happy Holidays everyone!  Thanks for all your support for this blog, and I look forward to catching up with you in 2012.   Keep weaseling…

Happy Together

Sep 28 2011

During the travails of the past decade, when record label turned against downloader and publisher turned against record label and streaming service turned against publisher, the sage music industry commentators have been crying in the wilderness:

“Hold up guys! Remember: we’re all in this together”.

Yea. Right.

I think I might have even said it once or twice myself. But now, it turns out to be true—truer than any of us imagined at the time. As the giant merger wheel gains speed and grinds over anything and everything in its path, it seems we truly are in it together, all destined to be owned by the same uber-corporation, tools of an anonymous international venture capital fund. In a world where everyone is “strategically linked” (i.e. owned), every deal is a 360. Welcome to the new model music industry.

It’s not even the end of September, and already we’ve seen BMG Rights, the giant German elephant in the room, purchase Bug Music—rumors are that EMI will be the next to fall to Hartwig and his gang. Within days, Billboard blared the news of the recently struck “strategic alliance” (it would take a UN sub-committee to define what that actually entails) between Universal Music Group (the world’s largest record label) and Live Nation (the world’s largest concert promoter, artist management firm and ticketing company, albeit with the world’s smallest chairman). Then we also had the unveiling of the most unfortunately named venture of the year, Primary Violator, a merger of Primary Wave Music’s management company and Chris Lighty’s powerhouse Violator Management. If Violator had merged with Universal, would it be a Universal Violator?  I thought the guys at Primary Wave were supposed to be marketers. Name-check, please.

While the relative merits of each deal can and will be chewed over for weeks at Brooklyn Diner, the motivations are relatively clear. BMG is on a buying spree, and they’re doing what any savvy new player with several billion dollars to burn would do—they’re buying up classic catalog as fast as someone will sell it. Contemporary hits come and go, but when you’re investing money, there’s nothing like classic, proven songs to provide a steady cash flow and the musical depth you need for the big ticket sync placements. In that respect, Cherry Lane (Elvis, John Denver) was good, Bug (Johnny Cash, Duane Allman) is better, and EMI (Motown, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) is the Holy Grail. It’s a hard strategy to argue with, at least until everyone gets their accounting statements and we see if these guys had any clue whatsoever as to how they’re going to integrate all these separate companies.

The Universal-Live Nation deal was in some ways the most impressive. Lucian Grainge seems to be alone among the major label chiefs in being serious about constructing a comprehensive music company.  The Universal labels are so far out in front of their competitors in this respect that they seem almost to be engaged in a different business altogether. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that EMI (which will be sold by the time I blog again) ,Warner (which still can’t seem to figure out who bought it and why), and Sony (overburdened with the usual 550 corporate bloodletting and X-Factor auditions) are engaged in much at all. Interestingly, the alliance with Live Nation seemed to implicitly acknowledge that the 360 model had not yet become effective for Uni, and that a fierce, fire-breathing dragon might be necessary to bring Universal’s artist management companies, Trinifold, Twenty First Artists, 5B, and Sanctuary into some kind of orderly place within the larger organization.

With Live Nation heading up the management side, Universal has the leadership it needs. At the same time, it’s an impressive land-grab for Irving, without much firm commitment from him for any real cooperation. (As is his custom). Front Line invests nothing, gets a 50% stake in UMG’s management companies, and agrees to discuss bringing the Madonna album to Universal, but only if Guy and Madonna want to.  Next time, can we please send Irving Azoff in to negotiate the federal budget with the House Republicans ?

By comparison, the Primary Violator deal is a genuine merger, or maybe even a “buy-out”, depending on who you talk with. As such, it may reflect a timely move by Chris Lighty to cash in on an aging artist roster. After all, it’s been awhile since Mariah, P Diddy, and LL Cool J were at the top of the game. It could also reflect that a management roster consisting only of Cee Lo Green and Eric Benet wasn’t exactly the A-list that Larry Mestel had in mind. But most importantly, it is a bold statement by a music publishing company of what a lot of music publishers are starting to see, especially as the real payments from streaming services like Spotify start to come in and they’re missing at least three zeroes on the checks:

Music publishing is not going to be enough anymore.

The numbers are getting smaller and smaller, and even as uses of music climb, the payments are not sufficient to cover the tidal wave of paperwork that goes into collecting and accounting for them. In some ways, it was better when people were stealing. At least we didn’t have to keep track of it. Music publishers are going to have to diversify into other areas, and kudos to Primary Wave for making a bold move in that direction.

Of course, what makes sense for Universal Music, Live Nation, BMG Rights, and the afore mentioned Primary Violator (I love writing that) does not necessarily make cents for artists and songwriters. Not much surprise there.  It’s easy to see the upside for most of the parties involved in the past week’s festivities.  But the creative community would be wise to approach their new adopted family with the wariness of an orphan. Grab the bread if you’re hungry and someone’s offering, but keep one eye on the giver, and make sure there’s an exit nearby. And don’t get attached. Most of these families won’t be together very long.

For songwriters, artists, and independent publishers trying to make sense of it all, here are four quick things to keep in mind:

Music companies are becoming entertainment companies.  This is an inevitable thing.

Lucian Grainge and Larry Mestel are right—no one thing is enough anymore. As I’ve been preaching in this space for several years: publishers, record labels, managers, and booking agents have to see themselves not as part of the music industry, but rather as part of show business.   Not only is the value of music falling, but the intertwining of music with all other entertainment forms, from theater to video games to sports to television talent shows is increasing tenfold. In this sense, music creators are going to have to take some cues from the corporate decision-makers and begin building a network that includes not simply other musicians or songwriters, but game designers, film directors, music supervisors and visual artists. Diversification is not so much a business strategy as a survival mechanism.

Not all companies from one sector of music are competent in other sectors of music. Some are not competent in any facet of the music industry. This is an inescapable thing.

Here’s where creators are going to have to turn up the noise filter to “high” in the next few years. The fact that a company is a proven, known entity in one field, like music publishing, does not mean that they have a transferable expertise in the management business. Simply controlling the best record label does not guarantee having the best management company. If it did, Universal wouldn’t have sought out Live Nation at all.  The merger of two giant messes (Warner & EMI) guarantees very little except one really big mess.

When I was at a major publisher, I heard a similar argument made to songwriters every day—extolling the virtues of a worldwide publishing behemoth with offices in every territory, a film division, a record label, and an electronics arm. It was all true. But it didn’t mention that the UK office hated the New York office, and the country division wouldn’t speak to the Christian division, and no one had any contacts with the film company, and the electronics arm (I kid you not) didn’t even know they had an associated publishing company.  Bigger just means bigger.

The interests of all parties in the music equation do not necessarily align simply because they are all part of the same corporation. This is a proven thing.

Of course, this is the inherent problem within the 360 structure.  A manager is not always an ally of the record label—sometimes he or she is the person to put the screws to the company, albeit with the best of intentions.  A record label may not wish to pay the tour support that a manager demands or that a concert promoter would like. A publisher may not wish to send their artist to their affiliated record division(ask EMI), and a label A&R person is definitely not going to cut every song the publishing division sends over (ask any songwriter).  We are not in fact one big happy family.  We’re in it together, but not in it for each other.

The only person who will take care of you is you. This is a historical fact.

In light of the above, don’t take any advice from a manager, publisher, lawyer or record exec about where to sign, or who to engage until you consider: what’s in it for them?  Are they sending you to their business partner because it’s a perfect fit for you, or for them?

This is not to say that there are not real advantages that can be realized by keeping things “in house”.  I used to work at Zomba Music and Jive Records, the music industry’s best example of that particular approach over the last two decades.  But not all of these new alliances are going to work out. You can’t afford to let your career be the experiment in which two new corporate partners learn, or don’t learn to work together. Lots of people who believe in public schools as a concept send their kids to private ones—because you only get one chance.

Be assured that in a year from now, when your trusted manager tells you that he’s leaving that joint venture that he assured you would be “an incredible opportunity for all of us”, he will regale you with tales of how his new partners “just never got it”.  He’ll be gone, but you’ll still be in that publishing deal for the next three years.

Not only are we not really family, often we’re not even friends.  Whatever anyone tells you, it’s never all for one (except when it comes to BMG’s acquisition strategy). It’s one on one, everyone for him or herself.  Choose your partners carefully, each on their own merits. Not every match is made in heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reach Out and Touch

Sep 16 2011

Hope everyone had a great summer. I wound it up with a nice break at the end of August, and am just now starting to get back in touch with that Music Weasel lurking deep inside of me. Have to say though, it was a rough end to the summer for the songwriting community, who lost two giant figures in the month of August with the deaths of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford.

I’ve never before used this space to pay tribute to a particular songwriter or executive, but sometimes this business is so focused on tomorrow’s hits that we pay only momentary attention to the passing of people who quite literally created the industry of which we’re a part. The lyrics of Jerry Leiber, equalled only by Chuck Berry, established the mythical, iconic imagery of rock ‘n’ roll– they captured teen spirit long before Kurt Cobain, with humor and energy and an attitude of rebellion that runs through all of popular music from the Fifties onward. Nick Ashford, along with his wife and collaborator Valerie Simpson, brought the passion and power, and also the innovative chord progressions, of gospel music to Motown, and carried it all the way through the modern r&b era, from Ray Charles (“Lets Get Stoned”) to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”) to Diana Ross to Chaka Khan to Mary J. Blige. Ashford & Simpson’s music is a common thread that runs from soul to disco to R&B to house music to hip-hop and ties it all together as one type of music– the kind that inspires you, lifts you up and makes you move.

Beyond momentary introductions at industry events, I never had the opportunity to know personally either Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford. That’s actually okay. The beauty of music is that I didn’t really need to. Some of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar were the classic Leiber & Stoller Elvis hits like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock”.  In college, one of my first arrangements to be performed (I was an arranging major, back when that was an actual job) was of Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need (To Get By)”. One of my biggest hits as a songwriter, Martha Wash’s “Carry  On”, was very much inspired by “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.  I danced at Sound Factory to Danny D’s remix of “I’m Every Woman” (the greatest dance song ever) when Junior Vasquez played it for twenty minutes at 6 in the morning. Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber felt like friends to me– as they do to millions of other people around the world.

Interestingly, both men were innovators not only in their music, but also in the music business. Leiber and Stoller were some of the first songwriters to become producers and publishers as well. They were the original modern writing/production team, and also co-publishers of their work, a rarity in those days. In fact, they essentially pioneered the “production deal” with a label (they had a long and successful relationship with Atlantic Records), working as freelancers, rather than employees of the company.  Ashford & Simpson were writers and producers as well, but broke new ground by then parlaying their success behind the scenes into long careers as performing artists, with hits like “Solid” and “Found a Cure”. Where most songwriters seem to start as artists and then move into writing songs for others, Ashford and Simpson flipped the script and went the other way, not unlike what writer/artists like Sean Garrett and others have done today.

It’s always risky to try to divine lessons from careers like Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford–  the creative genius of songwriters at that level is not particularly transferable.  If you’re as talented as those two, you can do a lot of things that might not work for other people. Nevertheless, there are a couple of obvious truths that are common to both men, even though they came from different backgrounds and eras, and had very different musical gifts. It’s worth noting:

1. There’s strength in numbers. And two is a very good number.

Granted, everyone has their own way of working. But you can’t argue with certain patterns, and one of those is that songwriting just seems to work better in two-person teams. Leiber & Stoller followed Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, Fields and McHugh, Waller & Razaf and the list goes on. Leiber and Stoller were followed by Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Bacharach & David, Elton John & Bernie Taupin and of course, Ashford and Simpson.  Certainly there are dozens of legendary songwriters who worked entirely on their own. And while I’m not a big fan of today’s “song by committee” writing method, with five or six writers all chipping in bits and pieces, I can’t deny that it has yielded some successful records. But in the end,  the songwriting duo seems to be the most consistent hit-producing machine ever devised. If you’re working solo and not getting to where you want to be, either professionally or creatively, it might mean that you need to find your other half.

2. The best American popular songs are almost inevitably rooted in black music forms.

If there’s one enduring formula in American popular music, it’s this: trends and forms originate in the culture of black America, and then are developed, refined, sometimes diluted and often homogenized into mainstream pop music. Jazz became show tunes and popular standards; funk became disco; hip-hop became urban pop. Thanks largely to Leiber & Stoller, the blues became rock ‘n’ roll, leading not only to Elvis, but to The Coasters, the Drifters, Ben E. King, and ultimately everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Zeppelin. At the same time, the music of the black church was transformed into soul music, and Ashford and Simpson turned it into Motown, into disco, into pop.  It doesn’t matter what race the creators come from– they’re all drawing water from the same well.  Even today, we see forms like dub-step reshaping pop music once again. The musical tradition that is an integral part of black culture is a seemingly unending source of inspiration and innovation.

3. Songwriting is not merely expression. It’s communication.

At a meeting not too long ago, a songwriter matter-of-factly informed me that she wrote music primarily for herself– to express her feelings and ideas.  It’s something I seem to hear increasingly often, usually as an explanation of why the song has no chorus, why the lyric makes no sense, why the song appears to fit no known sector of the market. To Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford, I’m sure the idea of music solely as a means of personal expression would have been inconceivable.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of Jerry Leiber or Nick Ashford’s personality in their music. It’s rather to say that they aimed to communicate their point of view to the listener. They weren’t aiming at something personal and introspective, but rather something celebratory, engaging and compelling. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Stand By Me” are about connecting with the audience. That’s why they’re hits for generation after generation.

This is the legacy of Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford. They built a business around entertainment in the best sense of the word, finding a raw emotional connection, an  interaction, a shared, visceral energy between writer, performer and audience. Too often now, it’s become a business of cool detachment, of artistic statements, “vibe”, and marketing concepts. Listening instead of dancing. The distant wave of a hand, rather than a human touch. Every songwriter reaches inward to some degree or another. But the greatest songwriters also reach out.

 

When it comes to holding onto a spirit of optimism in the midst of the music business jungle, no one compares to Peter Bliss. He is perhaps the most aptly named songwriter ever (with the possible exception of Denise Rich).

Peter Bliss

Peter has been making music, and helping others make music for a lifetime—he signed his first publishing deal straight out of high school, and released his self-titled debut album shortly thereafter. He went on to write songs for Barbara Streisand, Menudo, Paula Abdul, *NSYNC, and many more, as well as composing music for film, TV and advertising. Over the last several years, Peter has expanded his outreach, from inspiring, challenging, and (always) educating his co-writers (I know, ‘cause I’ve been one), to touching the whole New York songwriting community. Most recently, he was the Professional Activities Coordinator for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Now, he is working on a new and very exciting project:

The New York Songwriters Collective

As I’ve said so many times in this blog, as well as in my classes and books: there is no way for a songwriter to make it solely on his or her own. There is not even a single example of such a phenomenon. Everyone is lifted to success by others more established in the industry.

If we are to bring the music business back to prosperity, it will inevitably be through bolstering and supporting the network of musicians, songwriters and producers that make up our local music communities. That’s what Peter is doing with his new organization, and I’m proud to be a part of it as well.

In light of that, I asked Berklee’s Jorge Oliveres to quiz Peter about his plans for the New York Songwriters Collective:

What is the New York Songwriters Collective going to be?

The New York Songwriters Collective is essentially a place where songwriters can come to work on their craft in a collective workshop environment, as well as attend networking meetings, meet and greets, and weekend workshops. For example, weekend workshops will be six or seven hours long all over the course of one day. Eric Beall has done them for us in the past and will be doing a special workshop again for us in November.

The whole idea is to have a community for the New York and East Coast songwriters. In the workshops I did at the SongHall, I found a significant number of people who were searching for a way to work on their craft and jump into the New York music scene. There really wasn’t a great deal out there. Other organizations provided showcase opportunities in the city but the workshops with the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) weren’t a consistent presence. When there’s something missing, you try to create something to fill the void.

Will the New York Songwriter Collective attract seasoned writers or songwriters who are just starting out?

There may be more than one level of workshop. In the city, there are certain organizations open to all, where you can just sign up for either an intensive one-day or ongoing beginner classes. In the case of the Collective, I will probably have people submit music, so that we can put an effective group together. By listening to people’s material before we pick the groups, I can gauge everybody’s ability. By listening to a song or two, I know what the strengths and weaknesses of the person’s particular craft are.

The idea is to put people together who can help each other. Over the course of eight weeks, it’s very interesting to see how people gravitate toward each other just by listening to one another’s music. We want to create an environment where creativity is maxed and where songwriters spend their energy on the songs that really matter. That means focusing in on exactly what people’s strengths and weaknesses are. We have to show them how to maximize their strengths, and compensate for their weaknesses through collaboration with other writers or producers.

The first workshop is going to be for people who have already attended workshops in the past or show a certain merit or skill in their writing up front. Because we will be putting these people together with A&R and publishers, it’s important that these songwriters are professionally ready to have their music presented to the industry.

Is being in touch with A&R people and publishers an opportunity to learn from their expertise or is it also an opportunity to show them music?

If we bring industry professionals in as guests from the A&R, music publishing, and music licensing world; immediately we are breaking down the barrier between the artistic and the business side. As a songwriter, you can hear straight from the horse’s mouth what kind of songs people are looking for.

Everybody talks about how no one accepts unsolicited material. What we all need is an opportunity for songwriters and publishers to meet, so that executives can put a face and a personality to the music that they hear. In workshops where eight or ten writers are in a room with an A&R or a music licensing person, there’s an immediate contact and impression that is made. In some cases, I can act as an agent in between the writer and the industry person, to make sure that material gets heard, without the industry person feeling inundated.

I read that some big names, like Lady Gaga, were involved with the Songwriters Hall of Fame before they were famous.

Well Lady Gaga had been involved with the Songwriters Hall of Fame very early on. I’m not sure if she actually attended workshops. But, back in the day, Stefani Germanotta–that’s her real name–was an 18 year old kid who was looking for open mikes and places to play. The Songwriters Hall of Fame was active in sponsoring open mikes and showcases and she was part of that whole process. There are videos of her performances, and it’s interesting to see her progression. It’s very heartening to see that talent emerge over the years.

It’s also kind of nice to think that a superstar like her was like everyone else; an unknown songwriter just trying to be heard.

Songwriters are a strange breed. Songwriters tend to sit in their rooms by themselves or walk down the street singing to themselves. In the old days they might have put you in an institution for doing that.

Everything that was a hit started in a room with a single person or a bunch of people shooting ideas back and forth and seeing what flies. Every song that Barbara Streisand, Celine Dion, or Beyonce sings starts out with somebody coming up with an idea that just sticks against the wall and I think that’s the beauty of it.

Whether you spend a few dollars in a workshop or hundreds of thousands of dollars at university levels, nobody can guarantee that you’ll be a hit songwriter but everybody has the potential to gain the skills of the craft. We make no promises. Nevertheless, we’re certainly there to help you along the way.

If people want to find out more about the New York Songwriters Collective or are interested in signing up, where should they go?

I think it’s important for them to go to my website www.peterbliss.com so that they understand who I am and what I bring to the table. There will be a website coming very shortly at www.newyorksongwriterscollective.com and if they’re interested they can send an email to newyorksongwriterscollective@gmail.com. The New York Songwriters Collective is very young, but by the last week of August, we hope to have a set of workshops already scheduled and we’re going to start by doing a bunch of free meetings.

Many people are announcing the death of the music industry–I am not at all on board with that sentiment. I’ve never felt more optimistic about the music industry’s future now that everyone is embracing the changes that are coming with streaming and digital sales. There are so many more channels on TV and more outlets where original music is needed.

Songwriters need to avail themselves of these new opportunities. You’re not going to find much old school thinking at the New York Songwriters Collective. It’s all about new school. But the song is still key. Everybody is still looking for something that they can listen to and love. That’s what songwriters do, and they’re always going to do it.

Follow me on twitter @EricBeall

Having vowed to keep the blog positive and focused on the new developments that could actually save the industry, I’ve decided to do what any cynical old music business weasel would do:

I’m calling on people younger and smarter than myself. (Doug Morris—wake up from your nap and take note.)

In what may be the best marriage yet of music and social networking, turntable.fm debuted this summer to rave reviews. One of those instant fans was my A&R colleague at Shapiro Bernstein, David Hoffman. Having educated our office on the endless possibilities of this new service, David recently sat down with my Berklee intern, Jorge Oliveres, to share the good news—two young guys looking at one exciting new facet in the future of music:

turntable.fm

Turtntable.fm is a virtual nightclub in which users are the DJs. The website is divided into “rooms” that play different styles of music. Users can chat with each other and bob their avatar’s head by clicking an “Awesome” button if they like the song that is being played or they can click the “Lame” button that, if pressed by enough people, skips it. DJs can choose the music they are going to play from a huge database or they can upload it themselves.

David Hoffman, Director of Creative Services at Shapiro Bernstein & Co., Inc., began using turntable.fm since soon after it was launched and he is extremely excited about its potential. I had a chance to talk to David about all the opportunities a service like turntable presents for both music publishers and songwriters.

David Hoffman

I heard you are very interested in turntable.fm.

I’m interested, almost slightly addicted to it. Probably a month ago now, a good friend of mine who is also in the music industry and one of the most knowledgeable music people I know, emailed me about turntable.fm. He said, “You have to check it out.” He’s also a DJ and I have, from time to time, guest DJed on his show–so we know each other’s music tastes pretty well. When he told me to check out turntable, I went on it immediately and was hooked. The next day I came to the office, stood up in front of everybody and was like, “You have to check out turntable.fm!”

I follow the digital music industry and the future of the music industry through blogs and reading up on the trades, and this, turntable.fm, [represents] the potential that I see for the new cloud services that are coming up. Hopefully, it’s something that will stay around for a while. Even if it doesn’t, it will show the potential of how great music discovery can be with the right website and the right digital tools.

What do you think of the legal implications of turntable.fm? I was reading that right now they claim they are protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Like Pandora, and a few other services, they are operating under the DMC Act of 1998 that allows Internet radio to exist as long as it operates within the confines of the law. If you spend a lot of time on turntable.fm, you’ll notice that there are some interesting little rules that they don’t tell you are rules. For instance, if you go into a room, you can’t listen to music just by yourself. As with Pandora, if you want to hear the latest Beyonce single, it’s not necessarily going to play that first; it’s going to give you other music. That basically limits the listener to what is now Spotify. [On Spotify], you call up the song and listen to it, but Spotify is a service you have to pay for. Right now you can get it for free if you have an invite, but eventually you’ll have to pay. There are other rules too: you can’t play an artist more than a certain number of times in an hour.

Last week turntable signed agreements with both ASCAP and BMI. That’s really great news because I think a lot of these services didn’t originally sign with the PROs because they figured they didn’t have to. Turntable.fm signing with them is a big step in the right direction.

I think the only problem they’ll have moving forward, and it’s a big one, is the fact that you are able to upload your own music onto turntable.fm. That’s where the waters get a little bit muddy. If I create a mashup of a song and I don’t get permission from the publishers to create that mashup, that piece of music is technically one big copyright infringement. I’m able to upload that song and play it for people, and I believe once you upload a song to turntable.fm, it stays there. And those are the most popular rooms–the ones that play these mashups and remixes.

It’s going to come to a point where they’re going to have to do some licensing like Apple has done with the cloud services and Spotify has done. I hope they can really get it together. I also hope that the music industry realizes the strength of turntable.fm. I think they do.

What do you think is its potential? How could publishers take advantage of this?

Publishers can take advantage of it in a lot of different ways. Number one: for music discovery. It used to be, back in the day, music lovers would go to record stores. You’d go to a really good one (for me it was always some of the Ma and Pa cool shops or going to the Tower Records on West 4th Street). You’d go in and just thumb through the records. If I was into jazz that day I’d go to the Miles Davis section and say “Oh, wow, this is a CD I hadn’t seen before,” an interesting import CD or something, and I’d buy it. For music discovery [today], aside from word of mouth and what you read on blogs, the organic element of actually discovering something for yourself is kind of lost.

Turntable is the perfect place [to recover this] because you’re combining word of mouth (you’re learning from someone that you’re virtually meeting or someone that you know because they’re on turntable) and you’re listening to it. You’re talking about the music, you can link from it, and that, from an A&R perspective, is the closest thing to that original sense of discovery.

As publishing companies seek out talent, they can go into the cool room on turntable.fm, figure out who the DJs are going to be, and actually listen to it, learn about it and be on stuff before anybody else. I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve heard on turntable that I’d never heard before. When you are in a great room and the DJs are really going with the vibe, there could be a song that may not be your favorite song if you just heard it out of context. But when you hear it within the context of songs that are along the same vibe, [it] makes a big difference to someone who has a good ear for music and is out there to scout talent.

Not only publishers, but also record labels, managers, publicists, booking agents; everyone [can take advantage of this] to promote music. There was a band who was inviting people to a turntable.fm room for a listening party to debut their new CD. If one of our artists or songwriters has a new album or a new song, instead of sending out random emails or taking every music supervisor out to lunch and handing them a CD, I can invite them to a turntable.fm room. I’ll know if they’re there or not, see that they’re bopping their head, thinking it’s “Awesome” or not, and I can actually talk to them about it within the chat room. You’re basically creating a virtual listening party. I think that more and more bands are going to take advantage of it, and I think publishers will as well. There’s definitely the potential to have music supervision and A&R rooms.

I was also wondering about the potential it has on the other side, for emerging artists. Do you think it’s a good platform to promote new music?

I think it’s one of the best platforms. Whenever I speak on panels, people ask, “How do I get my music into the hands of the gatekeepers?” I say, “The best way to do it is to give it to someone who knows that person.” The analogy I like to use is [this]:

I’m in my apartment in NY and I hear a random Chinese food menu come underneath my door. It’s from the local Chinese place and I’ve never heard of them before. I take it and throw it out. But if Eric [Beall], my colleague, says to me, “Hey, this great new Chinese place opened down the block from me, you should check it out, ” I’ll probably go there the next day.

I take pride in listening to most stuff that comes to our office. But if I’m learning of music because I’m getting a random email, I’m thinking “OK– most of the stuff that comes randomly is not very good.” But if I’m learning of the music at turntable.fm from someone I know, or even someone I might only know virtually, it’s a different situation. If they’ve played a few good songs that I liked, and they say “Check this out,” I’m going to listen with open ears.

It seems like a really cool blend between social networking and music. I’m surprised something like this didn’t come out before.

I agree with you. It’s such a simple idea. Yet the potential is massive. Think about colleges. Since it came out in the summer, it hasn’t made its impact on college yet. Once the fall semester starts, you’re not only going to be at a party and listening to awesome music— you’re going to be playing the music. You’ll bring your laptop, we’ll get up on turntable.fm and start our own room. And while we’re partying, we’re also going to be DJing. If I were in college, I’d probably do that about 14 hours a day.

Right now [turntable has] limited capacity to 200 people [per room]. I think that will eventually expand. It’s going to become more like satellite radio. It will be an Internet radio station playing in the background, somewhat like Pandora because you’re choosing your overall theme, but more like satellite radio or traditional radio with great DJs. In fact, you might personally know the DJs.

What about when turntable has an application? What about when automobiles are wired with wifi? Once it’s on your phone and you’re able to DJ on your commute to work, you’re going to say, “This is really tremendous.” There are so many ideas I’ve been reading about, like an external “Awesome/Lame” button. You can be hosting a cocktail hour and secretly, in your pocket, hitting ”Awesome”.

Also, the link with Spotify is fantastic– turntable and Spotify go together like peanut butter and jelly. You’re discovering [music] and immediately clicking the Spotify link so that you can learn more about the band later. When you’re DJing, you can call up and research songs on Spotify—it’s a better interface than turntable for that.

Turntable.fm is the first thing in a really long time that’s made me very excited about music discovery. Instead of being an old curmudgeon saying, “Back in the day it was so much better,” this is the sort of thing that [has me] thinking, “Wow, this is amazing!”

David Hoffman is the Director of Creative Services at Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc., one of America’s oldest independent publishing companies. At Shapiro Bernstein he is an A&R rep, TV/Film/Advertising placement person and song plugger amongst other things. The catalog ranges from classics including “In The Mood,” “On The Sunny Side of The Street” and “Ring Of Fire” to current hits by David Guetta, and current indie-darlings Savoir Adore. David is also a music supervisor who has worked on indie films like “Still Bill” a documentary on Bill Withers, and advertisements for Apple and Puma. Prior to becoming a full time publisher, David was a professional drummer with the popular instrumental jazz/funk/jamband ulu, touring upwards of 220 nights a year. Before hitting the road, David worked at BMI and Giant Step Inc.

David has been a featured speaker/panelist for CMJ, ASCAP Expo & ASCAP Night School, AIMP and others and DJ’s regularly on EastVillageRadio.Com.

Follow me on twitter @EricBeall

Try Try…Try Again

Jul 15 2011

It’s become the ultimate music awards show cliché: a twenty-three year old pop star telling aspiring musicians in the crowd to “never give up on your dreams”, as if Joe Rockstar’s three or four year climb to stardom offered irrefutable proof of the inevitability of hard work leading to success.

Of course, such advice overlooks the simple statistical fact that the career dreams of most musicians and songwriters do not in fact come true. The reality is: many people play dead-end gigs night after night to make ends meet, sure that one day their labors will lead to a record deal or a publishing agreement, or a big breakthrough moment—and it simply doesn’t happen. Most people who get the major record label deal put out one failed album and disappear. Most songwriters with publishing deals don’t write a hit. That’s not negativity. It’s just the numbers, and it always has been. In many cases, people might have been better off to give up their music career and focus their efforts somewhere more suitable for them.

And yet…

And yet, those of us in the industry who come in contact with the success stories know that one of the most common defining factors among the people who find not momentary, but long-term career success in the music business is indeed a grinding, relentless, near-obsessive determination that simply refuses to accept defeat. Successful artists, songwriters, and producers do not give up. Neither do successful managers, A&R people, or label owners. It is the one common trait between a wildly diverse population of creative types and music weasels.

So how does a young musician or songwriter reconcile the need for determination in the face of overwhelming odds with the equally necessary need to face reality? It’s a question that has been in the back of my mind since the day I started in the music industry. I haven’t had a day since without it spinning around my psyche. In all honesty, I hope I never do.

That’s because the two qualities, determination and realism, are only helpful when they’re closely intertwined. Without a balance of both qualities, you can be assured of either rushing headfirst off a cliff, or throwing in the towel without realizing you’re only inches from the goal. It’s true that you should never give up. But doing the same damn thing over and over is not going to work either. You need determination all right. But you need to be realistic about what “determination” actually means:

Determination is an endless capacity for reinvention.

I thought of this yesterday, when I saw a particular new act break into the Top Ten of the Hot 100 for the first time. We’ll leave the name of the band out of it, to allow for more candor in recounting the story.

I first met the lead singer and chief songwriter of this band when he was still a teenager—he played and sang in my office, with unshakable confidence and undisguised ambition. He was clearly talented, but not yet ready to sign a publishing agreement. I didn’t sign him, and no one else in the business did either. Several years later however, he had grown both as a person and as a musician—and he did get that publishing contract, which subsequently led to him forming a band, toughening up his sound, and starting to record some demos.

Fast forward another 12-24 months, and those demos began to attract interest from managers. Soon the young band was being represented by two major industry veterans, who were able to secure a major label record deal for their clients. Now this project was off to the races—only about four years after that initial office performance in my office.

Once the band had finished recording their debut album, the label sponsored another showcase, this time at a major venue in NYC, and I had a chance to see the band a second time. While the depth of talent in both the songwriting and performance were obvious, the show didn’t sell me on the group. I felt they were a little too derivative and not terribly convincing, and definitely not packing a breakthrough first single. When the single came out several months later and quickly disappeared, I felt confident I’d made the right call.

Given the current propensity for record companies to drop an act at the first failed release, I was surprised to see the band get a second chance with a follow-up single. Most of this I attributed to their high-powered management team, who had clearly pulled some favors and issued some threats to give their act one more opportunity to grasp the brass ring. Still, even that power-base wasn’t enough, as the second single did even less than the first, garnering almost no radio action and little label support. Right around that time, I was given another opportunity to get involved with the band on a publishing level—and once again, I passed. When the president of the label and the Sr. VP of A&R, who signed the act, both left the record company, the demise of this particular band, after five or six years of local gigs, recording, showcasing and touring, seemed inevitable.

So imagine my surprise when several weeks ago the group’s new single, a third attempt at breaking through to radio, suddenly leapt onto the Hot 100. I was even more surprised when I heard the record. The band had radically shifted their sound and visual image toward a younger demographic. It worked immediately, and continues to build into one of the major success stories of the year. The band’s success is not only a testament to their talent, but also to their determination, and the determination of the business team around them. They never, ever gave up.

But they did adapt. In fact, their determination did not result in a refusal to change—their determination was expressed through their constant willingness to change. I’ve seen it through personal experience with artists and songwriters ranging from The Script to the Jonas Brothers to Stargate to Billy Mann. The kind of determination that wins in the music industry is the kind that never stops looking for a new angle, a new approach, or a new audience. Playing the same songs in the same city to an ever-dwindling number of the same people year after year is not determination. It’s futility. If you look at the careers of show business icons like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Madonna, Tom Jones or U2, they are filled with an endless capacity for reinvention, and a conviction that there is always another way to get to the top.

The Jonas Brothers

Every artist or songwriter meets obstacles along their career path. Many of them vow never to give up—and don’t. Unfortunately, most of them fail, because they simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. The ones that succeed are like the best competitors of any kind—they simply refuse to lose, and will try everything until they find what works. Here’s four tips to keep in mind:

1. Keep an eye on the scoreboard
Anytime you’re on the playing field, you better know the score of the game, because you play differently when you’re behind and when you’re ahead. The most deadly danger is to tell yourself that you’re winning when you’re not. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re making progress–gaining fans, building a network of contacts, refining your sound—when you’re simply standing still. Set measurable goals. Monitor your results. And be honest. If it’s going nowhere, admit it. Just because you’re behind, it doesn’t mean you’ll lose the game. But it does mean that you better be prepared to change something.

2. Change the team
Almost every great band has a member who never quite made it the distance (right, Pete Best?). If one member of the team, whether it’s a musician, a manager, a publisher or a record executive, is holding everyone back, then there has to be a change. Sometimes even the best people get stale, especially after a run of success. Look at how Madonna has switched producers or how songwriters like Billy Steinberg or Max Martin have found new collaborators. It’s never easy to do. But you have to find the chemistry that will make magic.

3. Change the field
Music is fashion, and like all pop culture, it’s constantly changing. Production sounds come and go, whole genres of music transform themselves, audiences grow older or are replaced by a new generation of listeners. Whether it’s Elvis going to Vegas, Darius Rucker going from Hootie to country star, or Rod Stewart transforming from rocker to crooner, you have to be willing to meet your audience where they are. Sometimes that means changing styles, genres, or geographical territories. Go where the grass is greener.

4. Change the strategy
Coaches put their game plan on a chalkboard, not a stone tablet. That’s because it’s inevitably going to change, based on how things are shaping up on the field. I recently signed a songwriter who had her first big cut in Nashville this week. She started as a pop singer, moved to Nashville as a country artist, got a few breaks as a songwriter and finally went with that. It doesn’t mean she’s given up her hopes of being an artist. It just means that she took her breaks where they came, and changed the plan as necessary. It’s only about winning.

5. Change the game
Kara DioGuardi went from songwriter to media personality to A&R person. Justin Timberlake went from artist to actor. Will Smith was a rapper once upon a time. Bono went from rock star to international political crusader. Sometimes the best thing to do with your musical talents is to blend them with your other skills, and use them to add a different dimension to a whole new field of work. Whether it’s in the entertainment or media business, education, music therapy, politics or technology, there are other places to bring your talents to the world, outside of the narrow definitions of the music industry.

In the end, the only mistakes I’ve ever seen that are career-ending are cynicism and bitterness. As soon as those elements set in, all is irretrievably lost. For most of us, no one suggested that we should get into the music business. In fact, most of our friends and family probably did all they could to warn us off it. We made the choice, and we continue to pursue the dream only as long as we choose to. There’s no room for bitterness in that.

I had three different chances to sign that band that I mentioned earlier—the one with the current Top Ten hit. I blew it every time. But tomorrow, I’ll pick up the phone and call the manager, who knows exactly how many chances I had to make an offer, and who is well aware of exactly why I’m calling now. I’ll tell him, in all sincerity, how happy I am for the band’s success, and what a testament it is to their determination. Then I’ll ask if the band has closed a publishing deal yet. Because real music business weasels never, ever give up.

Follow me on twitter @EricBeall

This Year's Model

Jun 14 2011

It’s all about songwriters and publishers in NYC this week, with the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) annual lunch on Wednesday, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) annual meeting that afternoon—then if all that wasn’t quite exciting enough, some real star power with the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner on Thursday evening. But amidst the rubber chicken meals, the cocktail chatter and the endless self-congratulation, it’s probably worth taking a minute to try and tackle the tougher questions, like considering what lies ahead for those who want to be in the business of making music.

Clearly, this is not the same business as it was for many of the writers being inducted on Thursday into the Hall of Fame. That’s not to say it’s harder— it’s never been an easy road, after all. But at a time when the role of the record company is evolving (or perhaps evaporating), sales are plummeting, and at least two of the four major publishers are laying on the “For Sale” shelf like tchotchkes at a bargain garage sale, there’s no reason to plod blindly down a career path with a detour sign set in the middle of the road.

I had a couple of A&R meetings at the major labels this week, and it was clear that regardless of who stays and who goes—which is the only real topic of discussion at any of the four major companies these days—the needs of a music company in the 21st century are pretty much the same across the industry. Falling revenues, reduced A&R staff, a singles-oriented market, and an audience with an attention span barely sufficient for a twitter posting are the realities that everybody has to face. Across the board, the companies that sell music on a national or global level are all looking for the same three things:

1. Ready-made artists
Record labels are no more in the business of developing artists than Wal-mart is in the business of growing apples or raising cattle. The A&R people who once brought some amount of expertise (meager as it may have been) to making records, choosing songs, or helping an artist define his or her sound have either been downsized into the role of an occasional consultant, or upsized into being label presidents, which of course means they don’t have the time to spend making records, choosing songs, or helping define an artist’s sound. Labels need a product that is ready to sell, but they are no longer in the business of making that product. That’s someone else’s job.

2. Marketing platforms
Even with allowances made for the impact of file-sharing and free YouTube music videos, it’s hard to deny that music, by itself, no longer packs the entertainment punch that it once did for the general public. Today, music competes with video games, social networking, and homemade movies of someone’s funny cat—and at the moment, we’re losing the game. As one A&R veteran bluntly told me, it’s simply not enough to try to get a song on the radio and hope that it will cut through the pop cultural clutter. This is why Columbia has just done a deal with the upcoming TV show “Smash”, that they hope will be the next “Glee” (another Sony Music project). It’s why Universal signed on for not one, but two, talent contests, with “American Idol” and “The Voice”. It’s why Bono and the Edge are spending endless hours reworking “Spiderman”. To be effective in the present entertainment economy, music needs to be teamed with some other entertainment or marketing element, whether it’s theater, live performance, television, brands, video games, books, or nightclubs. Music is becoming like sugar—it’s part of everything on the plate, but it’s not really a meal in and of itself.

3. Machines that are already up and running
They don’t have to be Big Machine’s, like Taylor Swift’s. But in the same way that a record label’s A&R department is not looking to develop an artist, a marketing department is not looking to create a marketing plan from scratch. Everyone wants to be part of something that is already happening. A marketing plan is a theory, which often looks good on paper, but doesn’t play out quite as expected. A marketing campaign, even on a very small, local scale, is already generating a response, showing what strategies work, which ones don’t, and whether or not there is an active audience passionate about the artist. Whether it’s artists selling their own downloads, YouTube videos getting seven figure responses, hot mixtapes generating a buzz, or high-profile guest spots with established stars, music companies are looking for artists with a story—and they’re looking to enter that story on page 50, not on page 1.

In an environment like this, it’s interesting to see that the Songwriters Hall of Fame has chosen to give this year’s Hal David Starlight Award (usually handed out to relatively young talent—young being anyone under the age of Hal David himself) to Drake. Here’s an artist who was already on the charts before locking in his label deal, who used marketing platforms from “Degrassi” to mixtapes to features with artists like Lil Wayne to launch a career that seemed almost a fait accompli from the moment he first emerged onto the scene. Whether Drake’s actual music warrants a Songwriters Hall of Fame award is arguable. But there’s no question that his business model is, quite literally, state of the art.

Drake


Where does this leave the isolated songwriter who spends his day making demos to send out to the strangers listed on tipsheets, hoping for that one big cover? Or the singer/songwriter recording her own album with the hopes of finding someone to distribute it? Most likely, it leaves them endlessly behind—forever chasing an industry that has changed, one which demands new skills to play a new kind of game.

Producers have to be talent magnets—finding artists, defining their sound, and making records that break through the white noise of a thousand other entertainment options. Lyricists have to be able to capture, or in many cases, give an artist an identity, with a provocative, reactive message. Artists need to be multi-faceted—singers, dancers, actors, DJs, fashion or lifestyle icons, or all of the above.

Every music creator has to be in the entertainment business, not just the music biz. Producer/writers like David Guetta, Will.i.am, or Dr. Dre, artists like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, and topliners like Kara DioGuardi are not simply songwriters. They’re entertainers on multiple different levels. And in many cases, successful songwriters have to be catalysts—capable of getting something started on their own. It’s not enough to put together great songs, or even great records. In order to build that initial momentum, songwriters have to be able to pull together the right team, network to find the key relationships, strategize a street-level marketing campaign and invest the effort to get the whole thing started.

To hear a hit on the radio and blithely announce “I could have written that song” is to miss the big picture. Could you have found the artist? Developed the artist and defined their musical, visual and lyrical persona? Identified the other marketing platforms that could be the initial springboard to launch their career? Welcome to the big leagues, kid. There’s more to it than meets the ear. With the understanding that no one can do everything well, and it’s not only advisable, but essential to bring others into the process, here are five things you can do to be a songwriter for the here and now:

1. Start looking for artists to develop. Or start looking at yourself.
Remember, you’re not the only one out there searching for stars. You’d better be looking as hard or harder than any A&R person. On the other hand, if you are an artist/writer, then put yourself to the A&R test. Do you have the look? If you’re an urban/pop artist, can you dance, act or rap, as well as sing? If you’re a singer/songwriter, are you a musician and performer at the level of a John Mayer or Alicia Keys? If you’re investing your songwriting in your artist career, you have to be realistic about that investment.

2. Write singles
You’ll never break an artist, whether it’s yourself or someone you found, with a collection of album cuts. So don’t bother writing them. Focus on songs that are mid to up-tempo, fit into a radio format, and have a lyrical idea exciting or provocative enough to cut through the clutter and define the artist.

3. Know your audience
Who are the people who will buy this music? What do they look like? Where do they live? Why do they listen to music? What are they doing when they listen? What’s important in their lives? If you don’t know who will like this music, then neither will a record company, or a radio station, or the press. Successful songwriters hit the target consistently because they aim.

4. Find the platforms
Once you know your audience, it’s not that hard to find the other marketing platforms that might reach them. Classical crossover acts appeal to an older, somewhat sophisticated audience—consequently, you look to land a special on PBS. With a dance artist, you look for a song placement in a video game or Jersey Shore.

5. Do something. Don’t wait until you can do everything. Just do what you can.
Now that you have your artist, your single, a clear picture of your audience and the marketing platforms that can be used to reach them, what will it take to get something started? What could you do on a local level? What can you do for nothing on the internet? Who do you need on your team?

Not many of us are strictly songwriters. Think about your other skills and how you can use them to support your project. If you’re a great musician, can you put together a band for the artist? If you’re a DJ, can you get the artist a few track dates or play the record in your club? If you’re a studio owner, can you shoot a great YouTube video? If you write jingles, can you introduce the artist to some of the advertising agencies you work with?

Perhaps there once was a time when you could make a living writing songs in the secluded privacy of your living room and sending them out to artists around the world to cover. I don’t know—I wasn’t there. I’m old, but not that old. But just as a contemporary author has to be a media personality, talk show guest, and public speaker, or a modern soldier is expected to fill roles ranging from technician to policeman to community organizer, the job requirements for songwriters have expanded. Times change. The good news is, this new model songwriter has a lot more power and influence in the industry than his or her counterpart from even a decade before. At least if you build the machine, you control it.

So what better way to celebrate the end of a week spent celebrating songwriters and publishers than New York Songwriting Day 2011, a songwriting clinic aimed at jump-starting your songwriting in one day! Put together by well-known songwriter and producer Tony Connif, and with a variety of speakers that includes Berklee professor John Stevens, my buddy Alex Forbes, and myself, this should be a great educational and networking opportunity. It’s held on Saturday, June 18 from 12-6pm, at The Collective School of Music Performance Space, 123 West 18th Street. Contact tonysmusic@earthlink.net for more info.

Hope to see you there!

With Memorial Day quickly approaching, it’s time for the annual migration of summer interns, returning from school to fill their summer with a dose of real-world experience, an insider’s view of the industry, and the kind of work history that will actually mean something when graduation rolls around. Unfortunately, three years of academic study have not necessarily provided a background of fundamental skills for a day in the office. Having been a songwriter for almost 20 years before I ever got my first taste of an office gig, I can assure you that it requires some adjustment.

Whether you’ll be spending your summer working in a small start-up venture or wandering the halls of 550 Madison Avenue or Rockefeller Center, you’ll need to know more than how to run the coffee-maker. That “Critical Analysis of Music and Entertainment Industry Paradigms in 21st Century American Popular Culture” class you took might not have fully prepared you for 12 weeks in the trenches. Here are 10 Tips for Maximizing Your Internship, and Getting Invited Back Next Year:

1. Be on time.
Most music companies do not open at sun-up. A 10a.m. start time will not strike most of the working world as cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless, showing up at 10a.m. for a job that begins at 10 will put you ahead of 90% of the other employees and interns. It’s that easy.

2. Do some homework.
I know—school is out. But the homework continues. One hour on the company website and a little Wikipedia should be enough to give you what you need to know: the company history, top executives, biggest hits in the catalog, top current acts, whether or not the company is being bought or sold and to whom. Now that you have all the essential information… memorize it.

3. Read Billboard.
The people around you are watching their lives and careers rise or fall with the chart positions each week. If you want to understand their mood, share their humor, feel their pain or avoid their wrath, it’s best to know who’s moving up and who’s falling down.

4. Accept all invitations.
If you’re asked to check out a showcase, attend a video shoot, go to a rehearsal, put up fliers on telephone poles or join in a birthday party for another intern, it is not actually a social proposition. It is a command performance. Be there. Everything else you’re doing can be cancelled or rescheduled. That’s life in the music business.

5. Know the music.
No one actually cares what kind of music you like. Or what new bands you’re into. Or that you’re a hip-hop kid who happens to have gotten an internship at Sony Masterworks. You need to know the music that your department works with, whether it has any appeal to your personal taste or not. This is not actually about you. It’s about the music that pays the bills for the office you’re sitting in.

6. Listen.
Even when no one is speaking to you. I had an intern once who overheard me speaking with someone about dub-step, and ten minutes later brought me information about an upcoming NYC show and two hot producers. Mastering the art of subtle eavesdropping is a valuable survival skill.

7. Elevate the communication level.
If someone asks you to give them an update, a report or a brief on something, they’re not looking for some jotted down notes on a piece of tablet paper or a print-out from the internet. Write a report, or a memo, or an email—with a proper heading, a consolidated and edited summary of what you’ve found, and bullet points for what you feel is the crucial information. Use spell-check. If you speak in a meeting, don’t ramble and don’t be shy. Especially in a large corporate environment, appearances matter, from the layout of your memo to your posture when you speak.

8. FOCUS.
It is possible to go a full eight hours without checking your Facebook page. Try it. If you’ve got a YouTube video on your computer screen, it better be an act on the label, a song in the catalog, or an artist the company is looking to sign—not a funny kitten or an SNL segment. Unless your boss has your number, turn off your phone. Listening to your iPod will preclude listening to what’s happening in the office—see item #6. You’re at work. So work.

9. Ask questions—that aren’t about you.
Everyone likes an intern that is full of questions. But not the following questions:
Will you listen to my band? “
“What do you think should be my career focus? “
“What’s the best way to work my way into a full-time gig at the company?”
“Can you introduce me to your contact at the company across the street?”

These are questions about you. The questions that are interesting to the people at the company are about them—the company itself, the artists or songs that the company represents, the people who work there, or the business strategies that are paying off or not paying off. Try:
“What were the key factors in deciding to sign that particular act? “
“What areas of this company will be the growth sectors in the next few years?”
“What are the skills that this company feels are the most important for entry-level employees?”
“How long have you been doing business with Joe across the street? How did that relationship develop? “

10. Bring the energy.
No one expects a young intern to know everything, to solve their company’s problems or even to drastically alter the workload. In fact, it’s pretty acceptable to screw things up once in a while—everyone’s done it. You’re supposed to bring the youthful energy. The know-how can come later. What’s not acceptable is to be tired, bored, distracted, or anonymous.

Even in the relatively small company where I work, we’ve had numerous interns who became full-time employees after graduation. We’ve had interns who we later signed to publishing contracts. We’ve helped interns get jobs with other companies in the industry. We’ve also had a reasonable number of interns fade off into the sunset, leaving no follow-up email address, no sustainable relationships in the company and no lasting impression on anyone. That’s a wasted summer.

Andre Harrell & Russell Simmons, with their best intern... P Diddy!

This is a very bad business for boring people. If you can’t make some kind of impact over a 12 week internship, then you may need go back to school considering other career options. This is the first mark you’ll make in the music industry. Make it count…

Here’s a shocker: Billboard reports that Germany has now overtaken the UK as the #1 European market for music.

This is while obscure, little-known UK acts like Adele, Tinie Tempah, and Taio Cruz are sitting at the top of the charts around the world– and the biggest selling track in Germany last year was by Unheilig. How is this happening? How can the country that gave us the Beatles and the Stones fall behind the country that gave us Falco and Milli Vanilli? And what does it mean to the future of civilization?

Adele

As in most things statistical, there is more than one way to read these numbers. The IFPI (the international music trade group) reports that the trade revenue generated by sales of recorded music in the UK dropped 11% in the past year to $1.38 billion USD, while Germany generated $1.41 billion USD, which clearly gives Germany the edge. However, the UK remains a considerably bigger consumer of music per capita than Germany, with Brits buying 1.93 albums per capita compared to 1.32 for the Germans. But the more interesting stat was the one that explained the difference in revenues between the two countries:

The primary reason for the relatively stronger performance from Germany in 2010 was the continued dominance of the CD in that market, where physical sales still account for 81% of recorded music purchases. This contrasts with the UK where the move to digital music, whether it’s iTunes purchases or services like Spotify, is much further along. In the UK, physical sales are only 67% of total sales.

Bottom line: you generate a lot more revenue selling CDs than you do selling downloads.

Putting a positive spin on their fall from glory, UK experts (and quite a few US experts as well) explain that because Britain is further along in the transition to a digital market, their country is actually better positioned for the future, even if they are lagging a bit in the transition period. To put an Easter spin on it, you gotta die before you can be resurrected– therefore, the sooner you die, the better off you are. Of course, if digital sales stall (which they have started to do) and the coming Cloud actually brings less income than the physical business that’s been cleared away, well then… there is no resurrection. You’re just dead.

This may be one of the lessons in the turnabout between the Brits and the Germans that’s worth noting:

Anytime you encourage the new kid, you’re discouraging the old one. Of course, one wants to support the future, and it’s only natural that the music industry should get behind successful digital distribution channels like iTunes. But we have to remember that by doing so, we only hastened the demise of the old, brick and mortar retailer on the corner. It might have been worth asking if iTunes really had the potential to make us more than our old friend did. Likewise, an industry embrace of streaming services like Spotify will only fast-forward to the end of download sales. Are we sure that the income from streaming services, that vague mix of advertising revenue (which has been soooo profitable with YouTube) and subscriptions (which no one seems to buy) will beat 99 cents a download?

While the UK industry has sacrificed retailers like Zavvi, Borders, and though they’re still breathing, HMV, all in the name of progress, the German industry has continued to support it’s retailers with new product and packages. Explains Frank Briegmann, president of Universal Music Germany, “Over the past few years, we have repeatedly tried to generate impetus for the physical product without merely lowering prices”.

In return, the retailers have supported the local acts, and in particular, veteran artists, making local repertoire a dominant factor on both the German radio and sales charts. Pretty remarkable– given that it would be hard to name one genuine worldwide superstar in the German market. While the UK has compiled its numbers based on Adele, Tinie Tempah, JLS, and Taio Cruz, Germany topped them with the likes of Rammstein, Lena, Ich + Ich, and the Scorpions. What can it all mean?

Scorpions

It comes down to this one terribly unsexy truth:

The weasels that win over the next three to five years will be the ones that play to the past, not the future.

The writing is on the wall everywhere– even if no one particularly wants to read it. The top touring acts? Bon Jovi and U2. The top-selling albums of last year? Lady Antebellum, Susan Boyle, Sade, Michael Buble… all aimed at the adult demographic. Even Eminem and Alicia Keys are not exactly new faces. The reason people are bidding to buy Warner Bros. is not for their new stars (there aren’t many) but for their catalog. The same is true of Warner Chappell and EMI Publishing. Their value is in the classic songs, not in their current market share.

Roger Waters

Across Europe, it’s not only the Germans who are profitably investing in revitalizing or re-packaging their older superstar acts. In Italy for example, the charts continue to be dominated by names like Eros Ramazzotti and Vasco Rossi. Given the predominately aging populations of most of the major European countries, this trend won’t change anytime soon. In America, Rihanna has had an unprecedented string of #1 hits, and still can’t manage to mount a successful tour, while acts like Roger Waters pack arenas, without having had a hit record in more than a decade.

Rihanna

For music publishers, the older catalogs are far more profitable than chasing current hits. It’s the classics that show up on American Idol; the classics that get made into jukebox musicals like “Jersey Boys”, “Mama Mia”, or “Rock of Ages”; the classics that will bring the worldwide money with the advent of mobile music and video. As for me, I’m giving up my spot at Mercury Lounge or Rockwood and checking out whoever’s playing at Foxwoods casino.

If you’re in the record or music publishing business and you’re looking for safe ground, put your money on heritage acts. Old acts singing old songs to old people may not be the future of the music business, but it sure looks like the here and now. The generation that created lasting superstar acts like Bon Jovi and U2 is one that continues to support live music and buy CDs. Until something better comes along, that’s what keeps us all in business.

Like the Germans, you may only be holding off the inevitable Five years from now, all that investment in older acts might well put you out of position to face the future. On the other hand, if there is no future, you will have stayed alive longer than anyone else. Sometimes winning is just not losing. It’s better to be #1 than #2, even if it’s only for today. Just ask the Brits.