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!

By this time, most of you are probably trying to figure out how a 14 pound turkey is supposed to fit into that tiny little browning bag, or you’re stuck in an airport somewhere trying to reunite with a family that will be driving you crazy within about twenty minutes, if you ever do manage to arrive. If so, then the point of Thanksgiving may already be starting to grow a little hazy.

Having spent the last several Thanksgivings in Italy, on a single-minded mission to educate the unknowing locals about the pleasures of this peculiarly American holiday, I know that it can be difficult to explain what this event is all about, especially in times like the present. As one Italian friend asked, “Thanksgiving, yes… I see. But for what? “

With blessings few and far between in the music industry these days, one could be forgiven for focusing solely on football and food on Thursday. Still, particularly in the hard times, one should always be mindful that even the worst of times have their mitigating factors that allow us to survive and fight another day. Well, at least most of us will survive, unless we’re Guy Hands and EMI.

In the spirit of gratitude for past acts of kindness and hope for the future, here are five things for which we songwriters and publishers can thank our lucky stars. Feel free to make your own list, or offer up suggestions—we need all the help we can get.

This year, let’s be thankful for:

1. Our Friends
No one survives in this business on his or her own. Not only do we have our own personal networks of contacts, cronies, and colleagues, we are fortunate enough to have dozens of organizations both large and small that support the efforts of songwriters and music publishers. Some go out and get our money for us. Some offer career advice. Some recognize outstanding achievement. Some fight for our rights at a government and industry level. Here’s to the whole lot of helpers: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, NARAS, NARIP, RIAA, Songwriters Hall of Fame, Songwriters Guild, NMPA, AIMP, etc. If you don’t know what those acronyms stand for, it’s time you do some research. You may be missing out on a valuable ally.

2. Little Girls and Old People.
Never thought I’d see this happen, but the truth is that music is no longer a crucial element of youth culture. That spot has been handed over to a whole collection of pastimes from social networking to electronic games. The people keeping us in business these days are adults and their 10-13 year old daughters. Don’t believe me? Go ask Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Michael Buble, Susan Boyle, and every top touring act of 2010, almost all of whom are old enough to be Justin Bieber’s grandparent.

3. Hipsters, trend-chasers and buzz-mongers.
There’s certainly enough of these people out there. If you haven’t seen ‘em, just go and spend a few days at SXSW, or MusExpo, or check out any edition of Music Week. No matter how many times these characters chase the new trend that never quite catches on, or fork up massive advances to buzz bands that never make it out of Williamsburg, or fill up endless amounts of blog-space waxing on about an act so obscure that it will never be more than a flea on the industry long-tail, they’ll always have a home in a business endlessly devoted to the next big thing.

For small independent publishers looking for opportunities, that’s a great thing. Because while the hype-sters and the cooler than thou types are drawing everyone’s attention in one direction, a smart, savvy, and yes, conservative publisher can take his or her pick from dozens of proven, steady income-earners to go in business with. They might be songwriters whose catalogs survive on oldies stations, or heritage acts that sell year after year to their core audience, or jazz, classical and world music acts that barely register on the industry radar screen. They’re not too cool or sexy, and they won’t get you any mentions in the A&R Worldwide newsletter. But they will make you money, and they’re being all but ignored by the A&R staffs of most major music companies. For that, I say thank you.

4. Sub-publishing, if not sub-publishers.
Those of you who follow this blog know that several recent postings have dealt with the opportunities and challenges related to sub-publishing. Like most blessings, this one can also be a bit of a curse. For those looking to spread their business to other foreign territories, the subject of sub-publishing is primarily focused on finding partners in other territories where your music might be effective. That’s an opportunity that often winds up being more of a source for frustration than real income.

The problem is that most sub-publishers are simply not very good. Most companies are simply offering lip-service to foreign publishers—promising to promote their music in the local territory, but rarely doing anything but the most basic collection functions, and sometimes not even that. If you’re counting on your sub-publishers to create a global presence for you, you’re likely to be disappointed.

In fact, the bigger opportunity in regards to sub-publishing is often to become a sub-publisher for other companies. By offering to represent viable catalogs in your local territory, you create a whole new set of business relationships, build your roster without having to make a major financial investment yourself, diversify your song catalog, and improve your cashflow—and that’s not even mentioning the 15-20% that you can often take as your percentage. For a small publisher, picking up other catalogs to sub-publish in your local territory is one of the easiest and most cost-effective business strategies you can hope to find.

5. The suits
And finally, a good word for the lawyers. That’s unusual. However, the truth is that the biggest growth area in the music publishing business for the next 10 years will likely be lawsuits—particularly the large-scale, class action kind. Having already seen distributions from YouTube and Napster cases, and in anticipation of receiving payouts from the late payment fund set up by NMPA as part of the recent negotiations over digital payments from record labels, music publishers are anticipating a windfall. Sooner or later, dozens of major internet media and music businesses will be forced to settle up for music that they’ve been using without a license for the last 5-10 years. It won’t be easy or quick, and it won’t happen without a fight. But given that the copyright laws are clearly on our side, we are likely to eventually walk away with some money, with a little help from our trade organizations, and of course, the lawyers.

I know—it’s not the most uplifting list. Anytime you’re actually thankful for lawyers, lawsuits, trade groups, Justin Bieber and heritage rock acts, you know that it’s been a tough year. Nevertheless, we’re still fortunate to be in a business where we are able to spend our days working with music and songwriters. There are a lot worse ways to make a living.

Most of all, I’m thankful for the indomitable spirit of the Music Business Weasel that lives in all of us. Sure, it’s a business that is often short-sighted, ridiculously speculative, and maybe a little bit sleazy. At the same time, it’s a business of survivors. The people I work with each day are clever, full of ambition, endlessly determined, and always sure that tomorrow will bring the big hit that makes it all worthwhile. That’s the kind of weaseling I most admire, and it’s what assures us that there will always be a music business, in some shape or form, for us to profit from and complain about in the future.

Have a great holiday and thank YOU for your support of the blog over the past 12 months. See you in December!

Town Hall Meeting

Sep 07 2009

Don’t worry– we’re not going to talk about Obama’s national health care program, or listen to angry senior citizens rail about the end of the world as we know it. But given that I’m on vacation this week, it seemed a good time to do something I’ve meant to do for some time now, and that is to make sure that those of you who frequent this blog have a chance to not only hear from me, but also to benefit from the insights of each other. One of the things I enjoy about this blog is to be a part of a music community, and to hear your opinions and insights into the various facets of the music industry of which we are all a part.

Some of your comments have raised very interesting questions, some have inspired subsequent blogs, and all have added to our discussion forum here– and I thank all of you who take the time to fire off a supportiing argument, a related question, or an angry diatribe (yes, there’ve been a few). I always look forward to hearing what you think. And I also feel that it’s worthwhile for all of you to check out some of the comments from each other, so I hope you’ll take a minute to do that this week.

There were a couple of very insightful comments on the recent “Too Close for Comfort”– check out Keith Monckton-Smith and CJ’s responses. Also, be sure to take a look at Ritch Esra’s comment on “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”. Ritch is responsible for the Music Business Registry, which is something I recommend to everyone. It’s my industry bible, and I wouldn’t survive a day without it– if you aren’t familiar with it, be sure to check out all of the different directories they offer. There were a lot of lively comments about “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing”, which raised a question that originated with an interview that Lava Records President Jason Flom gave at the AIMP luncheon. Jason asked “Where have all the musical geniuses gone? Why has this generation produced so few, if any, musical geniuses, while the Sixties and Seventies for example, produced such a vast array of artists in that category, from the Beatles and Stones, to Dylan and Van Morrison, to Led Zeppelin and Sly Stone?” It was a good and interesting question, and solicited plenty of opinions from all corners.

The other blog that seemed to strike a nerve was “What’s So Strange About It”, which actually grew out of a comment made by Big-A, which first turned me on to Tech N9ne. Clearly, Tech has a lot of fans out there, both for his work as an artist as well as his indie business approach.

Finally, have to give a special shout out to Brandon Keeley– one of the most frequent contributors of comments in this space. I always enjoy hearing Brandon’s clever, insightful and well-written thoughts.

Thanks to all of you for checking out the blog regularly, and weighing in when you agree, disagree, or just want a little clarification on what was said. I always look forward to staying in touch. Hope you’ve all had a great summer. Enjoy the holiday!

What a week for songwriters and publishers. In the hopes of cutting down the travel costs for everyone in LA, the music publishing and songwriting community seems to have decided to cram all of their NY events into one week, which just so happened to be the last one. On Wednesday there was the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) luncheon, featuring a live interview with Lava Records president and resident music business raconteur Jason Flom, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) cocktail party and annual meeting. Then the next day, all the same faces got together for a big night out at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards dinner, an event in which several prominent songwriters each year are invited to be part of a Hall of Fame that after 40 years, still fails to exist in anything but the formidable imaginations of the leaders of the institution. It’s an apt metaphor for the week, actually, in that many discussions are had, much food is consumed, many cocktails imbibed, and in the end, no one has much to show for it all. Meanwhile, back at the office, royalty earnings are in a free fall. Oh well.

Despite the absurdity of a Hall of Fame that has no actual hall, I do have to compliment the Songwriters Hall of Fame on mounting an inspiring evening, which featured amazing performances from a vast array of artists ranging from Bebe Winans, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Chris Daughtry, and Bon Jovi to Andy Williams, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (from the Fifth Dimension), Clint Black and Jason Mraz. And that doesn’t even include the stellar cast of songwriters who were honored:

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
Crosby Stills and Nash
Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway
Stephen Schwartz
“Hair” composers Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Jason Mraz

What I found particularly interesting about the evening were the acceptance speeches themselves, and the common themes that kept popping up in the thoughts of each legendary songwriter, despite their coming from several different genres and generations. Of course, there was the appreciation of those who had opened doors: early music teachers, early believers in their talent, executives willing to take a gamble, and long-time collaborators who had been there through thick and thin. It’s worth remembering that even as isolated and personal a craft as songwriting is, it is not something one can ultimately do alone. As I say so often in my class at Berkleemusic, Music Publishing 101, and in my book, Making Music Make Money, you can not hope to succeed on any meaningful level without a core team around you– whether it’s fellow songwriters, A&R people, a lawyer, a manager, a handful of interns or all of the above. You can create alone, but you can’t survive as a creator without the help of others who believe in you and what you’re doing.

More importantly, however, the message that seemed to show up in almost every speech from the new members of the Hall of Fame, was the idea of music as a universal language, a way of effecting change, or of touching other people. The idea of songwriting as COMMUNICATION. And it came up again and again, from each writer who accepted an award. Interestingly, what did not get mentioned, or at least not in any notable way, was the idea of songwriting as personal EXPRESSION– a forum to give voice to one’s inner emotional life, to offer opinions on social or political issues, or to exorcise personal demons.

Obviously, we know that both goals, communication and expression, are part of the motivation that makes writers pick up a guitar or go to the piano with a notebook and create a new piece of music. Most of the time, I suspect that it’s the desire for personal expression that gets most writers started on their first songs– a way of letting off some emotional steam when a punching bag is unavailable or someone else is using the phone. In fact, when meeting with developing songwriters, the theme of personal expression comes up more often than anything else. There are lengthy explanations of the situation or relationship that brought the song about, then usually a long, introspective and hopefully in the end, cathartic lyric. Then finally, there is a defensive reaction to any suggestions or criticisms along the lines of “well, I’m not trying to be commercial– this is what I wanted to express”.

While that kind of desire for personal expression was undoubtedly the beginning of all of our creative urges, including those who went on to create classic songs in every different style, what the speeches at the Songwriters Hall of Fame revealed was that the process doesn’t stop there. What makes the Hall of Famers great is that somewhere in their development, they have learned to move from expression, to communication — and that made all the difference in their careers. They can use their personal experience as a window into understanding universal emotions– and their desire is to express those universal feelings in a way that can touch other people– listeners who don’t know (or care) why or how the song came to be, but relate it to their own experience and find that it has meaning. Several of the inductees spoke about the idea that there is really “one universal song” that stretches throughout time and across cultures, and that they, as individual songwriters, had simply offered their own interpretation of it. This just means that they may use their own emotions, their individual social and political agenda, or their own deep personal angst or soul-searching as the impetus for an idea– but once they move to writing the song, they seek to find the universal truth or emotion that makes the song about something larger than themselves.

As I say in my new book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell, at some point a songwriter has to decide what he or she wants to achieve with songwriting, and the ultimate choice is between expression and communication. Expression is relatively easy, and impossible to judge. If you set out to express something personal, who am I to tell you that it failed? It’s an entirely subjective process. Conversely, communication is far more difficult (how hard is it just to explain a simple task to your colleague at work?) and the success of the communication lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If I set out to communicate something and you don’t get it, then I didn’t do it right.

Objective criteria, whether it’s the size of an audience, the response of the audience, or the sales figures of a record, are all reasonably valid means of measuring how successfully a song communicates. No one watches the Billboard charts more closely than the top songwriters. They’re not content to simply express their emotions and put it out into the marketplace. They want to see whether or not people “get it”, whether or not they have touched an emotional chord.

There is a word that describes the act of writing songs for the intention of personal expression. That word is “hobby”. It’s an excellent place to start in the creative process, but not a very interesting place to end. It’s not really a question of being “commercial” versus “non-commercial”. If you write songs that communicate to others, you will find a reasonable, if variable, degree of commercial success, whether you’re Bob Dylan or Max Martin, Leonard Cohen or Jon Bon Jovi.

In an otherwise dispiriting and depressing interview at the AIMP luncheon, record label president Jason Flom (pictured) brought up what has been the elephant in the room of the music industry for over 10 years now. “Where” he asked, “have all the musical geniuses gone?” “Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?” It’s not something the industry likes to talk about– given the promo departments’ job of trying to convince the public that each new release is the seminal work of a musical genius that they can’t live without.
But it’s something that every serious person in the music business has contemplated, especially as the business has disintegrated over the past five years.

Personally, I think some of the answer lies in the balance– specifically, the balance of personal expression and communication. Somewhere over the past decade, songwriters and artists have quit trying to reach a mass audience with something universal, and settled for reaching a small group of people with a very specialized, narrowly focused, introspective yet public form of self-analysis.

Songs that are primarily intended as personal expression are no different than long, self-indulgent guitar solos, or endless pontificating by the lead singer– they are, as James Brown would have said, “talking loud, and saying nothing”. And the audience endures them, then shuffles quietly out of the club. On the other hand, songs that communicate are probably the one thing keeping the industry alive at all. In fact, they are the only reason our business can or should exist. What the great songwriters will tell you is that if you write one song that communicates on a universal level, it will change your career, as well as the lives of those who hear it. A song like that might even land you in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Wherever that may be…

What a week for songwriters and publishers. In the hopes of cutting down the travel costs for everyone in LA, the music publishing and songwriting community seems to have decided to cram all of their NY events into one week, which just so happened to be the last one. On Wednesday there was the AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) luncheon, featuring a live interview with Lava Records president and resident music business raconteur Jason Flom, followed by the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) cocktail party and annual meeting. Then the next day, all the same faces got together for a big night out at the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards dinner, an event in which several prominent songwriters each year are invited to be part of a Hall of Fame that after 40 years, still fails to exist in anything but the formidable imaginations of the leaders of the institution. It’s an apt metaphor for the week, actually, in that many discussions are had, much food is consumed, many cocktails imbibed, and in the end, no one has much to show for it all. Meanwhile, back at the office, royalty earnings are in a free fall. Oh well.

Despite the absurdity of a Hall of Fame that has no actual hall, I do have to compliment the Songwriters Hall of Fame on mounting an inspiring evening, which featured amazing performances from a vast array of artists ranging from Bebe Winans, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Chris Daughtry, and Bon Jovi to Andy Williams, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. (from the Fifth Dimension), Clint Black and Jason Mraz. And that doesn’t even include the stellar cast of songwriters who were honored:

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora
Crosby Stills and Nash
Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals
Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway
Stephen Schwartz
“Hair” composers Galt MacDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Jason Mraz

What I found particularly interesting about the evening were the acceptance speeches themselves, and the common themes that kept popping up in the thoughts of each legendary songwriter, despite their coming from several different genres and generations. Of course, there was the appreciation of those who had opened doors: early music teachers, early believers in their talent, executives willing to take a gamble, and long-time collaborators who had been there through thick and thin. It’s worth remembering that even as isolated and personal a craft as songwriting is, it is not something one can ultimately do alone. As I say so often in my class at Berkleemusic, Music Publishing 101, and in my book, Making Music Make Money, you can not hope to succeed on any meaningful level without a core team around you– whether it’s fellow songwriters, A&R people, a lawyer, a manager, a handful of interns or all of the above. You can create alone, but you can’t survive as a creator without the help of others who believe in you and what you’re doing.

More importantly, however, the message that seemed to show up in almost every speech from the new members of the Hall of Fame, was the idea of music as a universal language, a way of effecting change, or of touching other people. The idea of songwriting as COMMUNICATION. And it came up again and again, from each writer who accepted an award. Interestingly, what did not get mentioned, or at least not in any notable way, was the idea of songwriting as personal EXPRESSION– a forum to give voice to one’s inner emotional life, to offer opinions on social or political issues, or to exorcise personal demons.

Obviously, we know that both goals, communication and expression, are part of the motivation that makes writers pick up a guitar or go to the piano with a notebook and create a new piece of music. Most of the time, I suspect that it’s the desire for personal expression that gets most writers started on their first songs– a way of letting off some emotional steam when a punching bag is unavailable or someone else is using the phone. In fact, when meeting with developing songwriters, the theme of personal expression comes up more often than anything else. There are lengthy explanations of the situation or relationship that brought the song about, then usually a long, introspective and hopefully in the end, cathartic lyric. Then finally, there is a defensive reaction to any suggestions or criticisms along the lines of “well, I’m not trying to be commercial– this is what I wanted to express”.

While that kind of desire for personal expression was undoubtedly the beginning of all of our creative urges, including those who went on to create classic songs in every different style, what the speeches at the Songwriters Hall of Fame revealed was that the process doesn’t stop there. What makes the Hall of Famers great is that somewhere in their development, they have learned to move from expression, to communication — and that made all the difference in their careers. They can use their personal experience as a window into understanding universal emotions– and their desire is to express those universal feelings in a way that can touch other people– listeners who don’t know (or care) why or how the song came to be, but relate it to their own experience and find that it has meaning. Several of the inductees spoke about the idea that there is really “one universal song” that stretches throughout time and across cultures, and that they, as individual songwriters, had simply offered their own interpretation of it. This just means that they may use their own emotions, their individual social and political agenda, or their own deep personal angst or soul-searching as the impetus for an idea– but once they move to writing the song, they seek to find the universal truth or emotion that makes the song about something larger than themselves.

As I say in my new book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs that Sell, at some point a songwriter has to decide what he or she wants to achieve with songwriting, and the ultimate choice is between expression and communication. Expression is relatively easy, and impossible to judge. If you set out to express something personal, who am I to tell you that it failed? It’s an entirely subjective process. Conversely, communication is far more difficult (how hard is it just to explain a simple task to your colleague at work?) and the success of the communication lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. If I set out to communicate something and you don’t get it, then I didn’t do it right.

Objective criteria, whether it’s the size of an audience, the response of the audience, or the sales figures of a record, are all reasonably valid means of measuring how successfully a song communicates. No one watches the Billboard charts more closely than the top songwriters. They’re not content to simply express their emotions and put it out into the marketplace. They want to see whether or not people “get it”, whether or not they have touched an emotional chord.

There is a word that describes the act of writing songs for the intention of personal expression. That word is “hobby”. It’s an excellent place to start in the creative process, but not a very interesting place to end. It’s not really a question of being “commercial” versus “non-commercial”. If you write songs that communicate to others, you will find a reasonable, if variable, degree of commercial success, whether you’re Bob Dylan or Max Martin, Leonard Cohen or Jon Bon Jovi.

In an otherwise dispiriting and depressing interview at the AIMP luncheon, record label president Jason Flom (pictured) brought up what has been the elephant in the room of the music industry for over 10 years now. “Where” he asked, “have all the musical geniuses gone?” “Why has this generation not produced even one musical genius on the level of Dylan or Sly Stone, or John Lennon, or Prince?” It’s not something the industry likes to talk about– given the promo departments’ job of trying to convince the public that each new release is the seminal work of a musical genius that they can’t live without.
But it’s something that every serious person in the music business has contemplated, especially as the business has disintegrated over the past five years.

Personally, I think some of the answer lies in the balance– specifically, the balance of personal expression and communication. Somewhere over the past decade, songwriters and artists have quit trying to reach a mass audience with something universal, and settled for reaching a small group of people with a very specialized, narrowly focused, introspective yet public form of self-analysis.

Songs that are primarily intended as personal expression are no different than long, self-indulgent guitar solos, or endless pontificating by the lead singer– they are, as James Brown would have said, “talking loud, and saying nothing”. And the audience endures them, then shuffles quietly out of the club. On the other hand, songs that communicate are probably the one thing keeping the industry alive at all. In fact, they are the only reason our business can or should exist. What the great songwriters will tell you is that if you write one song that communicates on a universal level, it will change your career, as well as the lives of those who hear it. A song like that might even land you in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Wherever that may be…