I’m beginning to think that “independent” is becoming the most over-used and abused word in the music biz vocabulary.

What used to simply mean: anything other than one of the six, then five, now four and counting major music companies (EMI, Universal, Warner, Sony), now also describes a particular business approach, and even identifies a particular style of music (“indie pop” or “indie rock” as opposed, I suppose, to big, corporate pop or rock). No band is unsigned—they’re “independent”. No one is simply putting out the record themselves—it’s an “independent” release. Of course, I have my own part in all of this, as my book “Making Music Make Money” was aimed at encouraging songwriters to take control of their own publishing company. This means creating a new breed of “independent” publisher, which has a writer roster of one, a creative management team of one, an administration staff of one, and all the same one.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Especially as the major players in the industry either implode (like EMI), grow themselves into a beast that cannot be tamed (like BMG Rights ) or sink in their own swamp of political vitriol and incompetence (like Sony), there’s much to be said for bands, songwriters, management companies and others stepping into the void and creating some lean, mean machines with a willingness to fight for their own place in the market. I’m all for it.

But I’ve also been a songwriter and musician myself, and I know the dark side to the “independent” mindset. Too many hours in the formative years of our youth spent noodling around on our musical instrument of choice or searching for a lyric to express what we would never be able to actually say out loud can lead to an independent spirit that’s just a little too self-reliant. Running a record company and publishing entity out of your bedroom in a town with no music scene whatsoever, making music in which you write all the songs, play every instrument, sing, engineer, and mix,, and then distributing that music by yourself through the internet doesn’t necessarily make you “independent”. It makes you a recluse.

It’s worthwhile remembering that Howard Hughes struck it rich before he became a hermit, not after. And the truth is, despite all the wonders of technology and the internet, despite the fact that you can make music all on your own in your bedroom and sell it to invisible fans without ever having any actual human interaction, this kind of “hyper-independence” is not an effective business model. In fact, I’ll even go a little further. To those who dream of making it all on their own, with no help from anyone, no industry ties, no schmoozing and no compromises, I offer a prediction:

It will never work.

In twenty-plus years in the music business, I have never seen a single successful artist who didn’t have at least one major contact in the industry who opened doors and then brought in other allies and supporters to join the campaign. Even a quick glance at the Top Ten makes it obvious. Ke$sha has Dr. Luke; Luke had Max Martin; Max Martin had Swedish producer Denniz Pop. Rihanna had producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rodgers. Eminem had Dr. Dre. Some of these affiliations are obvious—of course, many artists and songwriters have much lower-profile supporters, whether it’s managers, lawyers, publishers, or other songwriters. Certainly, most successful artists and songwriters have not one, but dozens of key people who came on board at any given point to help move them from unknown, to buzzing, to the hot new thing, to superstar. There are virtually no examples of people who have done it alone.

I thought of this recently, as I had an opportunity to meet with several great young musicians who are using the “independent” model, but in a very “inter-dependent” way. At the company I work for, we have the good fortune to represent a fantastic Brooklyn, yes “indie” band called Savoir Adore, which features Paul Hammer and Deidre Muro. Paul and Deidre both attended NYU, where they became part of a diverse music community that has fostered a particularly “collective” approach to music-making. In addition to Savoir Adore, both Paul and Deidre are part of a variety of side projects, ranging from solo records, to writing, producing, or performing with other former NYU cohorts like singer/songwriter Ron Pope, The District, or the very buzzy electronica act French Horn Rebellion,. These are independent musicians, but not isolated ones. As a result, an upward move for any of the musicians within the circle only opens up more opportunities for everyone else.

In the same way, I had a meeting last week with a group of songwriters from Berklee College of Music, all of whom are determined to break into the writing & production world before—not after—they graduate. They’re drawing upon the wealth of talent around them to build a real independent publishing entity, with a roster of songwriters and producers who all interact with each other. They’ve even enlisted some music business majors who are able to pitch songs. The model is an independent one, but the spirit is “collective”. That makes all the difference.

Of course, no one has utilized this approach more effectively than the hip-hop community, in which the “collective” spirit is so strong that it’s almost impossible for a rapper to succeed without being part of a particular “clique”, based either on style and genre, or geographical region. Every successful hip-hop artist brings with him or her a group of young developing artists, producers, and executives who then in turn, begin to develop a circle of up and comers underneath them. There is no way for those working in isolation to compete effectively from the outside. In this world, you have to become an insider within a group of like-minded creative people. As far back as the Renaissance or Tin Pan Alley, it’s the way that careers in art have been made.

When I first moved to New York, I was very fortunate to become part of a circle of songwriters who would gather once a month for what we called “Song Party”. Alexandra Forbes, who went on to write hits for everyone from Alisha to Taylor Dayne to Joey Lawrence (with yours truly), was the catalyst, and she brought together a group of songwriters, as well as the occasional A&R person, artist, or producer to listen to new songs, critique each other’s work, make plans to collaborate in various combinations, and trade industry tips and gossip. It was casual, completely unstructured, and always good fun.

It also worked. Within the core group of “Song Party” regulars was Alex, Jeff Franzel (who wrote the Taylor Dayne hit “Don’t Rush Me” with Alex, and has since written for everyone from *NSYNC to Shawn Colvin to Placido Domingo), Shelly Peiken (one of LA’s top writers, with hits like “What A Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera and “Bitch” for Meredith Brooks), Barbara Jordan (who later founded the television and film music company Heavy Hitters Music), Nina Ossoff (who just recently had a single with Daughtry) and myself.

If ten random songwriters moved to New York, the odds would clearly dictate that the chances for success, even if you define success as simply sustaining a career in music, would be remarkably low. To suppose that even three out of ten would somehow find a life-long profession in music would be a statistical stretch. But what the odds don’t take into account is the power of a collective approach. Because we were able to work together, and pool our talent, and share our experience through things like “Song Party”, six out of ten people managed to build a successful music career. The same will undoubtedly be true of the NYU crew from which Savoir Adore has emerged, as well as the group of aspiring writer-producers at Berklee.

These opportunities are all around. I see it happening among some of the writers that work with the Songwriters Hall of Fame, thanks in part to the leader of the SongHall’s education program, Peter Bliss. I see it among many of the top writer-producers, like Dr. Luke, who are putting together teams of songwriters within their organizations to help deal with the growing workload. When I was at Sony ATV Music in New York, I saw it among the crew of writers and artists that grew out of clubs like the Living Room—people like Jesse Harris, Norah Jones, Richard Julian and others all interacting, working on each other’s projects, forming side projects and finding new acts to develop together. Wherever it happens, sooner or later you always see a success story.

The fact is that this kind of interaction is not so much a matter of opportunity as it is a mindset. It’s a determination not to go it alone, but instead to build a community of people that can play a part in your career, and to whom you can also contribute something valuable. If you make that your goal, you’ll find places and chances to do it. Independence is over-rated. It takes a village to make a superstar.

Ready, Fire… Aim!

Sep 24 2010

Here is the story of how professional songwriting works:

One hundred people go to a firing range to take target practice. Of that hundred people, ninety of the shooters are wearing blindfolds. They can’t see a thing. Not surprisingly, they’ re blasting off bullets in every direction—in the air, in the ground, behind them, at each other. Nothing is hitting the target except by sheer luck.

Of the remaining ten people, five of the marksmen are not wearing blindfolds, but they have poor vision and they’re not wearing their eyeglasses. So these five people can see the target vaguely, but it’s very blurry, and they can’t focus enough to really get all that close to the bullseye with any consistency.

The final five shooters have normal 20-20 vision, and they’re not wearing blindfolds. They’re staring straight at the target and pulling the trigger. While they’re not hitting their mark every time, they’re consistently able to get somewhere near the center of the target.

Have you ever wondered how it is that some songwriters (like Dr. Luke, Will.I.Am, Max Martin, RedOne, Alicia Keys, or Ryan Tedder at this particular moment in time) can consistently come up with hit song after hit song, while the vast majority of songwriters struggle to even get a cut? As a publisher, I certainly have.

One of the first things I noticed when I entered the world of music publishing after having been a songwriter for many years, was the vast imbalance that characterizes the writer roster of almost every publisher in the music business. If you’re fortunate enough to be having success at all, it’s almost always one or two writers who are generating all the activity that sustains the company, while the rest of the writers are struggling even to pay back the cost of their demos. Ironically, the writers who are making the hits that pay the bills are usually the ones a publisher is least likely to hear from—they are usually self-contained, self-sufficient business entities that rarely need the creative input of the professional manager at the publishing company. For a publisher acquiring new talent, the question is:

What are these writers doing differently than everyone else?

That question came back to me this week, as I was asked to speak to a group of up and coming songwriters at the New York ASCAP Songwriter Workshop—a fantastic group of young songwriters, selected based on songs they submitted, who participate in a short series of meetings intended to help them along their path as writers, producers and artists. These are people who have the talent, and in some cases, have already started to make an impact with their music. Still, they are faced with the challenge that greets every young, developing songwriter, and every publisher who is in the business of finding and developing talent:

How do you move beyond being a talented songwriter on an artistic or technical level, to being a successful professional songwriter on a financial level?

That’s a tough question, and it’s getting tougher all the time. In giving professional, real-world advice to people pursuing a career as songwriters, it would be very easy to simply say, “Don’t”. Having been a songwriter myself in a career that spans almost 20 years, I can honestly say that I don’t think the environment for new artists, writers or producers has ever been more challenging than it is right now. Of course, it’s true that there are more opportunities to distribute or expose your music than ever before, and viable DIY models that did not exist even a decade ago. Still, the professional realities are that sales are falling drastically (whether it’s for DIY product or major label superstars), fewer and fewer artists are recording outside material, fewer labels are signing or breaking new artists, and the level of sync fees and other forms of income are plummeting as well. It’s not a pretty picture. The obvious advice would be to look for some other form of self-abuse to engage in.

And yet, there are success stories every day. Four years ago, I went to see RedOne at his studio, just after he had moved to Manhattan—there were no hits at that point, but the buzz was building. Today, he’s announcing his own label deal, and topping the charts with Lady Gaga. A year after I first met RedOne, the company I work with, Shapiro Bernstein & Co, signed a deal that allowed us to represent a French DJ and producer, David Guetta in the US. Guetta was already a superstar in France and much of Europe at the time, but not well-known in the United States. Since then, he’s had hits ranging from “I Gotta Feeling” with the Black Eyed Peas to “Sexy Chick” with Akon to “Club Can’t Handle Me” with Flo Rida. On paper, songwriting makes playing the lottery look like a conservative business strategy. Nevertheless, success happens everyday.

In fact, as an A&R person, I can’t even say that success is terribly hard to predict. If you’ve been doing this for awhile, and you’ve learned to recognize the vibe of a hit songwriter, it’s actually not all that difficult to predict which upcoming songwriters will one day hit the jackpot. I always say—it’s easy to spot the writers who will make hits. The challenging part is to determine when they’ll make them. For publishers, it’s not enough to know that someone will one day be successful. You need to know if he or she will be successful during the three or four year span that you have them under contract.

So what are those signs that mark a songwriter who will defy the odds and go from up and coming to become the sound of the moment? What do you look for as a publisher to identify those potential superstars? What can you do as a songwriter to move up the ladder into the circle of successful hitmakers? Here are two fundamental qualities that make all the difference between having the potential for success, and actually realizing that potential:

1. Successful songwriters know who they are.

Whether you write for yourself as an artist, for your band, or for outside artists, the first step toward success as a songwriter requires defining who you are and what you do. That’s harder than it sounds, because it involves being realistic and objective about your own work, which is something that many songwriters never quite master. As I often mention in my class, Music Publishing 101, one of the values of embracing your role as your own music publisher is that it forces you to take a more critical view of your own work—seeing what you do well, where your shortcomings are, what styles you excel at and which you struggle with—and challenges you to take steps to shore up any weaknesses in your songs.

Songwriters who become successful generally have a very clear view of where their particular gifts lie, what makes them special, and what help they need to compensate for their shortcomings. Certainly, they can take criticism and even embrace it, if they think it’s well-founded. But more importantly, they don’t need criticism, because they are already acting as their own toughest critic. They are constantly searching to find the musical styles, writing collaborations, working environments, and business structures that allow them not just to experiment or create, but to excel.

Then, once they find who they are and how they work best, the successful songwriters FOCUS. It’s hard to think of any of the top A-level songwriters that don’t have a pretty narrow approach about what they do. Ryan Tedder, the primary writer for OneRepublic as well as for artists like Beyonce and Leona Lewis, is the most diverse I can think of, and even he moves in a pretty restricted area that crosses between pop rock and pop urban, often crafting songs in either genre which are fairly similar, except for the production values and lyrical point of view. In general, most successful artists and songwriters have learned to specialize and to become experts in one specific area or style. They don’t try to do everything. Instead, they know themselves enough to realize that they need to do not what they do well, but what they do best.

Ryan Tedder

There’s also another reason they’ve learned to focus their efforts in one particular area:

2. Successful songwriters know their audience.

Again, no matter if you write for yourself as an artist, for your band, or with the hopes of having other artists record your songs, the secrets of successful songwriters hold true. In addition to knowing who they are as songwriters or artists, the people who manage to be effective in this business have an intuitive, deep, respectful knowledge of who the people are that will support their music. In some cases, songwriters may be writing for people very like themselves—most rock bands, for example, tend to resemble their audience. In other cases, the songwriter may be from an entirely different generation, background or gender than the audience he or she appeals to.

Dr. Luke

But as Rakim said, “it ain’t where ya from, it’s where ya at”. Dr. Luke would never be mistaken for the 13 year old girls that make up the audience for Ke$ha or Katy Perry, but he is very clearly aware that they are his audience, and he intuitively understands what they want from a song, what interests them, how they speak, and what they aspire to. This is likely why Luke doesn’t write country songs—because he knows himself, and he knows that he doesn’t have an accurate picture of that particular audience in the way that Brett James or Hillary Lindsey might. Popular songs reflect the values and interests of the audience they serve. Not surprisingly then, every successful artist or songwriter has a very clear idea of who their core demographic audience is, and has gleaned as many details about that group of people as possible:

Age
Gender
Location
Hobbies
Occupations
Social Values
Political Values
Other favorite bands
How and Where They Listen to Music
Why They Listen to Music

It’s a lot of knowledge to accumulate. That explains why top hitmakers don’t try to have a cursory knowledge about dozens of different genres, but rather prefer to FOCUS, so that they can become experts in one specific area. The reason that Kanye West can make bold records like the one he previewed at the VMA’s a few weeks ago is because he knows his audience, and he understands how they will react. Toby Keith understands his audience just as clearly. David Guetta knows how dance music fans will respond to a particular record, because he studies them at 200 DJ gigs a year. And yet, incredibly, most of the new developing artists I meet can barely articulate who their target audience is, much less describe them with any degree of accuracy. Most songwriters have never given it a moment’s thought.

Kanye West

If you don’t know who will like your music, or who it is intended to speak to, the record company, radio programmers, publishers and music supervisors probably won’t be able to figure it out either. That means the music can’t be marketed— because no one can market to an audience that includes everyone, everywhere. Just as importantly, if you can’t target your market, it’s very unlikely that you’ll happen to create what the market wants or needs. Which leads us back to our original story…

It’s isn’t hard to predict that the five people who are not wearing blindfolds, and who don’t need glasses, will hit the bullseye more often than the other 95 shooters. It’s because they can see the target in front of them, they understand what they’re trying to do, and then they’re taking AIM. Most songwriters never take aim. It’s almost as if they feel it’s cheating. Meanwhile, a tiny number of writers hit the mark over and over again.

Very often, the primary difference between a good, developing songwriter and a hitmaker is not one of talent. It’s strategy. Successful songwriters and artists have learned to think strategically about what they do and who they’re doing it for. Sometimes that process takes years. Sometimes it doesn’t last. If you study once successful artists or songwriters whose careers have faded, it’s usually because success led them to lose sight of their own strengths and weaknesses, or to lose touch with their core audience. Still, the sooner you start to focus and take aim, the sooner you’re likely to start having a real impact in this industry.

For publishers, helping developing songwriters to think strategically is the single most productive thing we can do. For all of the technical and legal aspects that are explored during my 12 week course at Berkleemusic.com, the primary mission of Music Publishing 101 has always been, and continues to be, to help songwriters begin to put together a strategic plan for their music. The goal is to be able to hear your work objectively, assess your strengths and weaknesses, focus your efforts on the most productive markets, and formulate a plan to bring the music to its target audience. That’s how music makes money.

http://berkleemusic.com

This week is the start of the fall semester at Berkleemusic.com, but there’s still time to register for the newly revamped Music Publishing 101. In an environment as difficult as the one in the current music industry, it’s not enough to be talented. After all, there’s an ASCAP Writer Workshop every year, full of writers with infinite potential. The challenge is to separate yourself from all of the aspiring artists and writers, and start to build a professional career. If that’s what you’re hoping to do, this course may be what helps you find your path to success.

Not For Everyone

Jul 30 2008

I had a flurry of responses to a variety of recent blogs all arrive in my inbox this week. I’m not sure if everyone just suddenly decided to throw in their two cents, or whether it all happened to show up at once. It’s always great to hear from those of you who follow “Music Publishing and Songwriting”. Whether you agree, disagree, like the blog or hate it, it’s engaging to hear your thoughts and reactions.

One of the most interesting responses I received was from Mark Simos, a songwriting teacher at Berkleemusic– he wrote to share a different point of view in regards to the blog called “Hits Only, Please”. I’m excerpting here– but I’d encourage you to go back and read his comments in full, as they’re very perceptive and full of useful insight. Mark writes:

It’s absolutely true that successful hit songwriters are thinking about communication and not mere self-expression, in the sense of just “emoting” or venting emotion through their songs. But it’s important to acknowledge that this attitude is also true of great songwriters in many genres and many styles, from traditional folk, to acoustic singer-songwriters, to political songwriters, to children’s music writers, to musical theater writing. Writing radio-friendly “hit format” songs is one kind of stylistic and audience focus and choice. Writers of equal discipline, craft and integrity may choose to write for other, admittedly smaller audiences, and in other styles and genres – yet still must think about the experience of the listener, still be thinking about communication and not just self-expression.

I make this point because I work with lots of talented young writers – and not all of them have the goal of writing, “hit songs” in current pop or country formats. I like to encourage diversity and innovation in music and songwriting. But you can also critique a narrative folk song or a jazz ballad from the standpoint of the experience created for the listener. Good writers – in any genre – study great model songs and explore why they work so well. Good writers – in any style – seek feedback on their songs, and revise them with patience and dedication.

Mark makes a great point here– and certainly, I didn’t mean to imply that the only communicators are those who write for Top Forty success. In every genre or sector of music, from musical theater to jazz to children’s music, there are those writers who bring the discipline of craftsmanship to bear on their personal expression. The point here is really how you judge your success as a songwriter, regardless of which area of music you choose to work in. The “hit” writers judge success, at least in part, by whether or not their song reaches and communicates with their target audience. The other writers are interested only in whether they have “expressed themselves” and feel good about their own song.

But where Mark is really on to something is when he points out that “writing radio-friendly, hit format songs is one kind of stylistic and audience focus and choice. Writers of equal discipline, craft and integrity may also choose to write for other, admittedly smaller audiences…and yet still must think about the experience of the listener, still be thinking about communication and not just self-expression.” The key here is that little phrase “audience focus”. If you want to identify what separates the successful songwriter from the struggling one, here’s a place to start:

Successful songwriters know their audience.

Not personally, of course. But successful songwriters in any genre have learned the same lesson that everyone else in the media and entertainment industry has learned: There is no general audience. In our increasingly fragmented world, there is very, very little that everyone likes. Even a basic newscast is right-leaning or left-leaning, hip and irreverent, or slow and wonkish, and clearly aimed at a particular age, gender, political persuasion or marketing angle.

When a songwriter tells me that his or her work “appeals to everyone”, or “crosses a lot of different genres”, or “doesn’t really fit into any category”, the songwriter is not convincing me as to the potentially universal appeal his or her music could have. The songwriter is in fact telling me that he or she has no idea who the audience for his or her songs is– and doesn’t much care. If you write musical theater songs, you are not aiming for the kids that buy rap records. If you’re writing children’s songs, 20-year-old alternative fans are not your crowd. In today’s entertainment industry, anyone that sets out to appeal to everyone will very likely reach no one at all.

If you don’t believe that, take a look at every media and entertainment company, from magazines to television networks to radio stations. Notice how precisely they target their product to a very specific audience. They don’t do it by accident. Radio stations, advertisers, movie studios and everyone else study the public constantly– watching demographic shifts, seeing how different markets are changing, monitoring how well they are reaching their target audience. If a radio station is targeted to a young, urban audience, that station will study everything about that particular lifestyle. They want to know what movies that audience watches, which stars are rising and which are fading, what clothes are in and out of style, and what cars are being bought and sold.

If it works for every other entity in the entertainment business, why would it not work for songwriters as well?

One of the first steps to success as a songwriter is to define and understand your market. For many, it’s a relatively simple process. If you’re in a band in Williamsburg that’s aimed at appealing to the Williamsburg hipster crowd, you should be able to follow your instincts about what would appeal to you and your friends. As long as you’re reasonably representative of the audience that you write for, you shouldn’t have to engage in much of a research project. Your job is simply to make sure that you stay up on what’s happening in your particular scene– so that you see trends coming and sense fashions changing before anyone else.

On the other hand, if you’re a 40-year-old guy in Nashville trying to write songs for Avril Lavigne, you’ve got a bit more of a challenge. You’re going to have to invest some time and effort in understanding the teen market, and the female demographic in particular, if you’re going to come up with something that will entertain that audience. It’s not impossible– trust me, Dr. Luke or the Matrix are well outside of Avril’s core fanbase. But when they write for her, they are focused on targeting ideas that appeal to that particular demographic and communicate on that audience’s terms. Alternatively, one of my favorite country writers, George Teren, who’s written songs like “Ladies Love Country Boys” and “Homewrecker”, is a long way from a typical country music listener. But he understands that audience, and when he writes for them, he speaks in their language.

Defining your target audience doesn’t mean that those are the only people that will like your music. There are thousands of exceptions to every demographic description– 70-year-old grandmothers that have a peculiar fondness for hip-hop, or 17-year-old Hispanic kids that love musical theater. But you don’t write for those exceptions. You begin by drawing a reasonable, defined picture of those at the heart of your market, and write for them. Perhaps you’ll draw in a few people you never expected. Perhaps your song will become such a success in your core market, which it will begin to crossover to a larger audience. But you start by aiming at a specific, core audience that will become your fanbase. You can’t start from everywhere. You have to start from somewhere specific.

There’s a wonderful new musical that just opened on Broadway, called “title of show”. If you’re in NYC this summer, be sure to check it out. In “title of show”, there’s a great song called “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”, in which the characters writing a musical agree that they’d rather be “Nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing”. The truth is, that’s the goal of most successful entertainment today. Whether you’re shooting at mass success, or working in a more specialized field, you still have to hit a very specific target. The first step in doing that is to take aim.