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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Hope to see you there!