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.

The Best Laid Plans

Dec 30 2010

It’s as reliable as catching a cold at Christmas. As the glow of the festivities fades away, this time of post-holiday leisure brings on that old inevitable urge… to re-evaluate, re-examine, re-assess and re-formulate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and where were headed in the upcoming year. It’s business strategy season again, where hope springs eternal, everything is possible, and for one shining moment, nothing can go wrong. Because of course, we’re not actually doing anything. We’re only planning to do stuff, and it all looks good on paper.

I just did it myself actually. While I was stranded in an airport with the rest of America, I spent a couple of hours breaking down the whole year into nice manageable chunks, setting goals and strategies for each songwriter on my roster, delegating all the things that take up the time that I need to do those other more important things which I never do, and making a list of all the potential opportunities I should be cashing in on before it’s too late. If all goes according to experience, the plan will be falling apart by the time Midem rolls around at the end of January, and forgotten soon after. What can I say? I try.

I’m not making excuses—I’m well aware that much of the problem is me. Like most music business weasels, I’m better at seeing potential than realizing it, and better at making promises than delivering.

But part of the problem is also the nature of the music industry. Tied as it is to the fickle, ever-changing tastes of the public, and dependent as it is on the sudden magic of inspiration to create hit songs or turn ordinary aspiring artists into superstars, it just isn’t a business that rewards a rigid adherence to strategy. Of course, you want to know where you’re going. But you need to be a kind of human GPS, re-calibrating at every missed turn to find a new route to the destination.

In my book, “Making Music Make Money”, I addressed the challenge of formulating a business plan in an ever-shifting terrain—the equivalent of building a house during an earthquake. The key is to remain flexible. In the book, instead of a formal business plan, I offered up a little drill called “The Music Business Weasel’s Pop Quiz”. It’s not a plan, but rather a series of questions to help you focus your mind on:
….what you’re trying to do
…what your challenges are
….and what resources you have, or will need to have, in order to overcome those challenges.

Because it’s not a specific strategy, it’s not something that you toss to the wind as soon as something changes. It’s also not something you only do once a year. In fact, it’s worth doing every 3-4 months, updating and reconsidering your answers as your life and your career progress.

A lot of the readers of “Making Music Make Money” have commented that the Pop Quiz was one of the most helpful things in the book—so many in fact that I decided to incorporate it into my class, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic.com. I’ve walked dozens of students through it, helping them to start analyzing their market, acknowledging their potential network of contacts, and recognizing the opportunities that they have in front of them. Just because we live in the highly unpredictable and volatile world of show business doesn’t mean we can’t think intelligently about our business. We simply can’t do the same kind of long-term planning as people in a steadier line of work.

So to ease you into the new year, and to save you the frustration of a January business plan that’s disintegrating by Valentine’s Day, here’s an abbreviated version of “The Music Business Weasel’s Pop Quiz”. It might seem simple, but be forewarned—you’ll get out of it as much as you put in. The more time you spend researching, contemplating and developing detailed answers to the tough questions, the more likely it is that you’ll stumble on that one big idea that transforms your business.

If it seems easy, you’re not thinking hard enough—especially these days. Nothing in the music business is easy right now—so don’t fool yourself with quick, simple answers like “I just have to make music that’s better than everyone else” or “My market is growing”. Everyone thinks they make better music than everyone else, and, at present, no one’s market is growing. The challenge is to make a plan that addresses that reality.

Good luck, both for the quiz and for the new year. Here’s to Happy Weaseling in 2011!!!

The Music Business Weasel’s Pop Quiz

1. What is your primary market?

2. Who is your competition?

3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the leading companies in your particular market? How can you imitate those strengths?
How can you exploit the weaknesses?

4. What strategies have been used successfully in this market previously?

5. What does your target audience look like?

6. Is your market growing or shrinking?

7. In what city or cities are most of the companies in your market based?

8. What are the advantages and disadvantages or your current location?

9. What segment of the market is the most crowded with competition?

10. What is the most under-served part of the market?

11. What reactions are you getting to your songs? What part of the market is reacting most positively? Which is reacting with the least enthusiasm?

12. What are the musical strengths and weaknesses of your catalog?

13. What are your strength and weaknesses as a business? How can you best utilize your strengths? How can you best compensate for your weaknesses?

14. What information do you need to compete in your market? How can you get that information?

15. More importantly, what relationships do you need to have in order to compete?

16. How can you meet those key people, or people that know the key people?

17. What relationships do you already have?

18. What equipment or supplies do you need in order to operate effectively?

19. How much money do you have to spend on your business?

And finally, one multiple choice. This one counts double.

20. At present, what is the biggest obstacle to your success? Is it:

(a) Creative—Weakness in the catalog or demo presentation
(b) Financial—Lack of capital for business expenditures
(c) Social—Shortage of productive personal relationships and industry contacts
(d) Technical—Need for musical or office equipment or technology
(e) Informational—Lack of knowledge regarding the industry or business in general
(f) Structural—Are you in a declining or nonexistent market?

Having spent the first fifteen years of my professional career as a songwriter and record producer, the truth is that I had never worked a day in an office environment prior to taking a job as Creative Director at Zomba Music Publishing, back in the late 1990’s. I had a lot to learn. Not just in regards to music publishing, but also when it came to some practical things, like transferring phone calls, running the fax and copy machines, and the basic realities of office life.

Those realities included the sudden significance of certain dates on the calendar. President’s Day, for instance, is not a holiday recognized by most musicians and songwriters– but if you work in an office, it’s sacred. Another example would be the 30th of March and the 30th of September— these are the times you are virtually guaranteed a chance for a face to face meeting with songwriters who have never found the time to stop by the office previously. They can be found hovering like migrating birds outside of the office of the accounting department, waiting to pick up their royalty statements in person on their way to the nearest bank.

But the truly dangerous dates for a music publisher are the Tuesdays following a holiday break—these are red-letter days on any Creative Director’s calendar. This is because, having been afforded several days of quiet contemplation, every songwriter on a publisher’s roster will have taken the opportunity to reassess his or her career strategy, and compile a list of things to do to get things back on track.

Item #1: Call my publisher.

These “morning after holiday” calls start to stack up by 10am, with one writer after another looking for a half-hour to discuss what’s happening with each song in the catalog, why he or she isn’t getting more cuts, and how can Dr. Luke have every song in the Top Ten all summer long? Being the experienced music business weasel that I am, I’ve learned to schedule my holidays to extend one week later, thus escaping the post-vacation barrage.

All that to say, I’m finally back in the office, having had my own time of reflection and recuperation from a summer that was more resourceful than restful. For yours truly, the summer of 2010 marked a return to Music Publishing 101, and a chance to re-learn, re-imagine, re-assess, and re-write the course that I authored for Berkleemusic.com almost eight years ago. This summer marked the launch of the newly revamped Music Publishing 101, which has been expanded and updated to reflect all of the changes in the music business over the past few years, as well as to offer students more resources, more advice from a variety of industry experts, and a more global perspective on a segment of the industry that is emerging as the last, best hope of the music business.

As those readers who have taken the course know, Music Publishing 101 is directed toward aspiring songwriters, who are hoping to construct their own music publishing company, most often to support their own work as a songwriter. That idea stems directly from my book, Making Music Make Money, which is the textbook and indeed the original inspiration for Music Publishing 101. When I first moved from being a songwriter to a music publisher, one of the first realizations I had was that far too many songwriters (myself included) spend their time searching in vain for a publisher who can make them successful.

If you’re a songwriter, you have a music publisher already—someone who has been there since the day you completed your first song. It’s you. You’re it. As soon as you write a song, you’re not only the author of it, you’re also the publisher. The challenge for most songwriters is not to find a publisher, it’s to learn to be a good, effective one. That’s the theme of Making Music Make Money, and it remains the focus of Music Publishing 101. The whole course is intended to be a step-by-step walk through starting your own music publishing company. By Week 12, you should have your business almost up and running.

Still, having watched the myriad of economic forces and winds of change that have been buffeting the music industry as a whole for the past five years, one of my goals in revamping Music Publishing 101 was to expand that focus beyond just the idea of songwriters starting their own publishing venture. As evidenced by the current record label rush toward 360 deals, the music biz today is all about owning and controlling rights, as much and as many of them as possible, and the idea of controlling copyrights (literally, the “right to copy”) is at the center of music publishing. That means that everyone involved in music—record label owner, concert promoter, booking agent, artist manager, DJ, studio owner, or record producer—should be thinking about music publishing, and probably starting their own music publishing company. If you come into contact with new songs or new songwriters, music publishing should be a part of your overall business plan. In the new Music Publishing 101, I’ve tried to provide all of the information you need to get into the game.

That’s not easy. In truth, it was one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever undertaken—far more difficult than writing Making Music Make Money, or designing the original Music Publishing 101 course. That’s because innovations like digital distribution, streaming, ringtones and mastertones have required extensive negotiations on the rules and rates that will be used in licensing to these services, some of which are still ongoing. At the same time, worldwide copyright infringement issues from file-sharing to services like YouTube are making a huge impact in both publishing income and the future of copyright protection. Meanwhile, collection agencies like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and Harry Fox Agency are continually expanding their reach into new income streams, the European Union has altered the way income can be collected throughout Western Europe, and the foreign collection societies continue to negotiate their own deals with worldwide music users, many of which differ significantly from the American model. To put it mildly, it’s a wild time out there—and compiling a text about music publishing sometimes feels like trying to draw a map during a tidal wave. You’re not always sure what the terrain is going to look like when you wake up the next morning.

Nevertheless, it was important to me, and to Berklee, that the course be as comprehensive and up to date as possible, and I feel confident that we’ve succeeded. There is information on all of the contemporary licensing issues, thorough discussions of the agencies and organizations that collect income for each of the various income streams around the world, and an examination of most, if not all, of the legal and copyright issues vexing publishers at the moment. Even better, there is plenty of practical information for dealing with all of the contemporary challenges of music publishing , including tips on:

negotiating licenses
resolving ownership disputes
collecting income in foreign territories.

Students will find a wealth of resources scattered throughout the lessons, including:

recommendations for tip sheets (to find out who’s looking for music)
A&R directories (to uncover the addresses and emails for the industry people you need to reach)
sample publishing and sub-publishing contracts
lists of the key music industry conferences and seminars
new technologies available to help music publishers organize their catalogs, issue accounting statements and monitor uses of their songs.

One of the benefits to a 25 year career in the music jungle, and to my current position as Vice President of A&R at Shapiro Bernstein & Co., Inc., one of the industry’s most respected independent music publishers, is the access it gives me to those far brighter and more accomplished than myself. That was a benefit I wanted to pass on to Music Publishing 101 students, so we incorporated interviews with a number of industry professionals, including:

Wes Wierder of InHolland University in Amsterdam,

publisher Dan Coleman of A Side Music

songwriter and publisher Jeff Franzel,

Peter Bliss, the director of SongHall, the educational arm of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

In addition there are links to an interview with songwriting guru Jason Blume, as well as a wide variety of news articles, informational videos and blog spaces (including this one), to give students the option to explore specific issues in greater depth.

Maybe most importantly, there is a new global focus in the class that attempts to offer a picture of how music publishing works around the world, not only in America. More than almost any other segment of the music industry, music publishers must work with a worldwide knowledge of copyright law, collection agencies and systems, methods of determining ownership shares and royalty rates, and the “ways of doing business” that can vary wildly from territory to territory. Especially with internet distribution systems and streaming services becoming the dominant way of sharing music, we are in a global economy, which offers both benefits and challenges. No publisher can afford to limit their music’s reach to only one or two countries—there’s too much potential money and opportunity in foreign territories. At the same time, you can’t take advantage of the opportunity, nor can you collect the money, if you don’t understand how music publishing works in the regions in which you’re doing business. That’s why almost every lesson in the 12 week course of Music Publishing 101 has a “Global Perspectives” section, which highlights the different ways the rules of the game may change in territories outside of the United States.

If it sounds like I’m trying to sell you on Music Publishing 101… I am. Not for my own sake, but rather for yours. As recently as last week, I was marveling with a former publishing colleague, now working on the record company side of things, at how little most music people–songwriters, A&R people, and even record company owners—actually understand about music publishing. People think it’s all about printing sheet music or registering copyrights or collecting pennies for every record sold. Of course, it is about all of those things—and dozens of other income streams and functions as well. The wide-range of potential ways to make money in music publishing is what makes it the single best place to be in the entire music business as the industry goes through the painful process of evolution.

This is the reason that investment firms like KKR are putting billions of dollars behind the relaunch of BMG Rights; it’s why a huge Dutch pension fund is investing in Imagem; it’s why the only division of any value to EMI shareholders within that crumbling corporation is EMI Music Publishing. As the music biz moves away from creating a physical product to instead licensing uses around the world, music publishers are positioned to become the most profitable part of the “new” music industry—as they have the knowledge, experience and business structure to exploit their copyrights on a global scale.

Of course for songwriters, it doesn’t really matter that music publishing is a strong or growing side of the business. For songwriters, music publishing is the only business there is. Songwriting is not a job. There is nothing in the songwriting process that actually generates money. It’s not supposed to. Songwriting is an art, not a business.

Music publishing is the business of songwriting. It exists to take songs, and find ways to generate income around them. That’s why my book is called “Making Music Make Money” – because that’s what music publishers do. Without music publishing, it’s impossible for songwriting to be anything but a hobby.

The reality is that fewer and fewer songwriters have the option of calling their publishers on that dreaded Tuesday after Labor Day. That’s because fewer songwriters are being signed by music publishers, and those who do get signed already have some success with their music. Music publishers are looking to partner with songwriters who understand how to make money with their music, and are doing it on their own. Today’s aspiring songwriters have to ask themselves how to get their career on track and moving forward.

Here’s one suggestion then, to kick off your fall season and lay the groundwork for good things in 2011: Check out the new and improved Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic.com. In twelve weeks, you’ll understand how to build a business around your music that can start turning your songs into money. That’s what Music Publishing 101 is all about.


A couple of years ago, a family member gave me a book called You Will Make Money In Your Sleep. I think it was intended to encourage me to get more than four or five hours a night—a carry-over from my days as a musician and record-producer. That haggard, post-all-nighter look starts to get a little scary when you reach my age bracket. Unfortunately, the generous gift-giver apparently hadn’t given the text much of a look, as You Will Make Money in your Sleep turned out not to be a brilliant get-rich quick scheme or a story of the salutary effects of slumber, but rather an expose of “the financier to the stars”, Dana Ghiaccetto. Ghiacetto was a high-profile investment advisor in the Nineties, who managed to swindle people like Toby Maguire, Michael Ovitz and Phish with that tempting come-on line.

So I admit to a little trepidation when I found out that I would be a panelist at “Music Publishing– Making Money In Your Sleep” at South By Southwest this week:

Music Publishing- Making Money In Your Sleep
Thursday, March 18

Thankfully, I’m not providing any investment advice. Or at least, not exactly. Instead, we’ll be looking at ways to try to make your music work for you. That’s a good topic, especially for the singer-songwriters and indie bands that throng to SXSW each year.

As many of you have probably noticed, the downside to the grass-roots, indie approach to making it in the music business is that so much of the work requires the direct involvement of you, the artist and/or songwriter. In this new 21st century business model, you can only succeed by getting out and building your fanbase person by person, show by show, and that means a lot of hands-on work for the musicians. Now, not only do you have to gig continuously, with all the drive-time, set-up and tear-down effort that is an inevitable part of rock ‘n’ roll touring, you also have to book the gigs, sell your merch, coordinate your own publicity campaign in each town, and spend at least a couple of hours on your social networking site, making sure your fans feel connected. And don’t forget to Twitter while you’re at it.

Not only do you need something that will help make you money in your sleep– you need to find the time to sleep. Probably, you are not in the mood to hear that you now need to become a music publisher as well.

But you do. In fact, as I’ve said so many times, you already are a music publisher– you have been since you wrote your first song. You are not only the author and composer of your song, you’re also the music publisher. The problem is that most songwriters haven’t learned to be effective music publishers. Of course, that’s what my book, Making Music Make Money, is all about. My course, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic, goes even further, and provides a week by week guide to setting up your own music publishing company.

Unfortunately, I can’t promise that having your own music publishing company comes without effort. You have to gather the knowledge you’ll need to be effective. You will need to set up the structure and systems necessary to operate the business, administer copyrights, and issue licenses. You’ll have to strategize about the opportunities that exist for your music, and then make the calls to get your music out there. Maybe you can find an intern or a colleague to help you with the day to day operation of the company. Perhaps you can even partner with a larger, already established music publisher, who can take on most of the responsibility for pitching, licensing and administration. Still, there’s no use kidding yourself that this is a small undertaking. At any level, music publishing is a big, complex job.

Nevertheless, here’s my investment advice for the day (and most certainly, the ONLY investment advice you should ever take from me):

Do it. Stop treating your songs as something more than simply the material you perform or record– start seeing them as the primary assets of your business. Stop viewing your songwriting as inherently intertwined with your performing career. Your songs, and your songwriting talent, can generate income on their own. That’s what music publishing is all about. Here are just a few opportunities that an investment in music publishing could yield:

Place your songs with other recording artists. Let them do the touring and the twittering, while you earn money.

Place your songs in films and television shows. Not only does it publicize you as an artist—it generates sync fees and performance income.

Place your songs in video games or other products. The licensing rates are pretty low, but the exposure is ridiculously high. And you don’t have to travel in a van, tear-down or set-up.

Place your songs in advertisements. It’s not only about grabbing that Apple iPod spot. There are national, local and international advertising opportunities that could fund your band’s next road-trip.

Create new music for film/TV libraries, which license “needle-drop” music to a wide variety of media. The sync fees are virtually non-existent, but because these are non-exclusive licenses, the same piece can be used again and again, generating significant performance money.

Write new songs for projects not tied to you as a performer. Of course, your artist career or your band’s development are the priority. But you’re also a songwriter, and not every song has to be for you to sing. There are artists around the country, and especially outside the US that are looking for songs. Why not spend a few weeks a year taking aim at those?

This last strategy was one that our company, Shapiro Bernstein & Co, Inc., and our partner, Tosha Music, recently employed with one of our top songwriters, Marti Dodson, from the Ohio-based band, Saving Jane. When Saving Jane’s first single “Girl Next Door” (Dodson/Buzzard/Goodman/Martin/Misevski) became a Top Forty pop hit, showed up on NOW (That’s What I Call Music) 22, and was covered by country artist Julie Roberts, we knew that Marti had the potential to be an important pop songwriter, and not only for Saving Jane. We suggested that she spend two weeks traveling to Stockholm, which is the pop-song factory for all of Europe and much of America, and the home of many of the industry’s best production and writing teams. Marti’s first trip yielded Saving Jane’s subsequent hit single, “Supergirl” (written with Mats Valentin from Sweden), which was later covered by Suzie McNeil in Canada, who took the song Top Ten in that territory. The song was used as a theme song by superstar auto racer Danica Patrick, gymnast Nastia Lukin, and showed up once again at the recent Winter Olympics.

Through the investment of a couple of writing trips to Sweden, Marti has now had songs cut by artists from South Africa to Germany (where she recently had the theme song to the German Popstars television show). When your songs are being played on TV in Europe, you’re literally making money in your sleep. That’s the goal. And that’s what music publishing is all about.

You can’t be everywhere at once and you can’t do everything all the time. If your business plan is predicated solely on your performance schedule, you will eventually reach the end of your earning potential, because you can only play so many gigs in a week. But if you have an effective music publishing operation, your songs can indeed be everywhere at once, earning money all the time. Of course, it’s not easy getting your music out there or locating the right opportunities. Yet it’s the best investment you can make, as there’s no limit to the ultimate pay-off. Do it right, and you might even be able to get some shut-eye once or twice a week.

If you’re going to SXSW, be sure to catch this panel. Afterward I’ll be at the South By Bookstore, selling some books:

Thursday, March 18 at 4:45pm

Stop by and say hello! See you in Austin…

Taking Aim At Success

Feb 28 2010

In my most recent book, The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell, I posed a question:

Given the ridiculously low odds of ever landing a Top Ten pop single, a feat which puts a songwriter in the top one percent of all the songwriters out there creating music, how is it that a quick glance at the Billboard Hot 100 reveals the same names again and again, with some writers having as many as two or three Top Ten singles in one year? Why can 99 percent of songwriters never reach the charts at all, and one percent can go there repeatedly?

Of course, there are several answers. Certainly, many people will argue that it’s simply a matter of talent, the same reason that thousands of kids can play basketball, but only a handful make it to the NBA. Naturally, there is some truth to that. But anyone who has spent anytime in music has met dozens, maybe hundreds of immensely talented people who never manage to quite crack the nut of success. The truth is, most of us in the industry can name dozens of writers who are equally talented, perhaps more so, than the writers populating the Top Ten. It’s not a simple question of talent.

Others will make the point that success in any aspect of show business is mostly about luck and timing– the proverbial “right place, right time”. Again, no one who has witnessed the vagaries of the entertainment business would entirely dispute it. Certainly, luck and timing might account for the success of one or two songs in the Top Forty on any given week. But it won’t get you seven or eight chart-topping hits in your career. Lightening does indeed strike– once in a while. It doesn’t hit the same person several times a year.

Probably the most realistic explanation of the phenomenon that allows a small number of writers to dominate the Billboard charts is the principle of “access”. Having one big hit will earn a writer/producer access to all of the superstar artists. He or she will then have an opportunity to work on all the biggest projects and co-write with other top writers. Established “hit” artists have greater access to radio playlists, bigger promotion budgets, and more label support. Naturally, those established writers and artists are more likely to repeat their early success.

Certainly, the power that comes with access is a major factor in determining future success. But it’s not as much of a factor as many writers and artists believe. The truth is, top artists like Rihanna, Pink, or Kelly Clarkson will work with dozens of different songwriters and production teams in the preparation of a new album; some of the production teams will be well-known, some less so. Such artists might be involved in cutting as many as fifty or sixty songs, from which the album tracks, and then the single will eventually be chosen. Access alone hardly guarantees that Dr. Luke or Stargate will get the single. In the same way, artists with a proven track record have no “free-pass” at radio for their next single. Ask Chris Brown. Ask Usher. Ask James Morrison.

Here’s the reality:

One of the main reasons that certain hit-makers are able to work their magic again and again is that they know what the target looks like and they aim for it. Most songwriters are shooting blind.

I never quite realized this when I was a songwriter, which I was for many years. Even having been fortunate enough to have written a few hits, I never really understood why one song had done better than another, nor did I have much of a plan for repeating the success. I had a certain amount of craftsmanship, but no real strategy.

It was only later, when I became a music publisher, that I began to see that there was a side of the songwriting business that I had been missing. I didn’t figure it out on my own. The revelation came from having the opportunity to work with a wide variety of the industry’s top songwriters, including Stargate, Max Martin, Jorgen Elofsson, Steve Diamond, Billy Mann, Rob Fusari, Don Black, Steve Robson, Wayne Hector, Andy Goldmark and so many others. All of these writers differ in style, genre, approach and temperament. But what they each have is a relentless focus– a determination not to simply write songs, but to write successful songs.

This is the idea behind a new one-day workshop, “The Hit Factory: Making Your Music Make Money”, which I’ll be leading at New York’s SongHall on Saturday, March 13. Check it out at:


This six and a half hour seminar is aimed at helping aspiring songwriters understand their market and develop their brand, turn their songs into hits, and devise strategies for selling those hits to the people that need them. There will be plenty of time for interaction and group discussion– songs by those attending will be reviewed and we’ll discuss individual business strategies based on personal career goals. The registration price of $150 includes both of my books, Making Music Make Money and The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell.



For those that live in the New York area, this is a great opportunity to take advantage of just one of the many programs offered by the SongHall, the educational division of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. For those outside of New York, perhaps it’s worth the investment of a day-trip or weekend in the Big Apple to spend a day focusing your business and creative strategy. Best of all, it’s a chance to network with a group of other new songwriters– forging new connections and learning from others who are developing their own careers.

For my part, what I hope to offer is the perspective of an industry insider, who has lived on both sides of the desk. To young writers and artists, it often feels like the music business is focused on excluding new talent rather than discovering it. The reality is that everyone in the music business food chain, from club owners to booking agents to A&R executives to radio programmers, is searching constantly for the hot new hit artist or hit song. Our livelihoods depend on finding it. The problem of is one of mismatched supply and demand: what new artists and songwriters are supplying is often not what the industry actually needs. This is a chance to share some insight gleaned from working with dozens of established and developing writers and to help formulate some strategies for helping you to build a business around your music.

I’m looking forward to it! I hope you’ll try to join in…

The Great Pie Fight

Feb 19 2010

There’s an old musician joke about how to make a trombone player miserable… the answer being: “Give him a gig”.

The corollary to this could be, “How do you make music business weasels fight?”. Answer: “Give them some money.” Of course, not many people have been giving the hungry weasels anything for the past several years. But all of sudden, manna from heaven has arrived, courtesy of the National Music Publishers Association and the recent late-fee settlement with the RIAA. And now, true to form, the fangs are being bared, and the weasels are going to war…

Granted, the found money should be good news. The late-fee settlement reflects an agreement by the Recording Industry Association of America to pre-emptively settle on behalf of the four major labels the countless claims against them for monies (songwriter and publisher mechanical royalties, to be more specific) that have been held in what are known as “pending and unmatched accounts” for the years 2000-2006. We’re not talking chump change here. The settlement, which represents a negotiated total that is undoubtedly less than what is owed, but certainly more than publishers could have hoped to collect on their own (and perhaps more than labels can actually pay at the moment), provides a fund of approximately $285 million dollars that will be dug into like a giant pie at a picnic by music publishers both large and small. Or, at least that’s the idea…

If you’ve been reading your Billboard regularly, you’ve seen that a debate has already started about how this money will be distributed among major and independent publishers, and then consequently to the songwriters themselves. My friend, attorney Wallace Collins, recently penned an insightful op-ed for Billboard warning of the feeding frenzy to come, and the danger that major music publishers (Universal, EMI, Sony-ATV, and Warner Chappell) are going to gobble up all the good stuff, leaving only scraps for the independent publishers. That piece was quickly followed by a rebuttal of sorts from NMPA CEO and master negotiator David Israelite, who reassured the little guys that the process would be fair and equitable (if such a thing exists in the music industry jungle). Both pieces are worth reading and understanding. If you’re a songwriter who has had songs released on major labels within the last decade, we might be talking about your money.


But where did this bonanza come from anyway? And isn’t ten years a bit long for an IOU? If the money was owed, why have labels been holding it all this time? Don’t mechanical licenses require payment of the royalties owed to songwriters and publishers within a more reasonable time span than a decade?

This is where the textbook rules of music publishing crashes into record business reality. In my course at Berkleemusic.com, Music Publishing 101, I explain that under the mechanical royalty licensing system, the statutory rate provides for a royalty of 9.1 cents from the record label to the music publisher for every song sold. Sweet. But there is usually a chat later on in that week, detailing the less than pretty picture that prevails on many record releases. You can check out my book, Making Music Make Money, if you want to understand how the system is supposed to work. But the game isn’t always get played by the book.


Most of the money in the late-fee fund results from the record company practice of releasing albums on which the licensing process for the individual songs has not been completed. Theoretically, every song released commercially should have a mechanical licensing agreement in place. The truth is, the licensing requests may not be sent from record label to publishers until months after the record is already in the stores. It would be easy to blame this on the usual record label inefficiency and administrative tangle, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. In truth, when the labels finally do manage to get the license request out to pubs, it’s often the publishers and the songwriters who are ill-prepared to complete the paperwork.

If you have checked out “Making Music Make Money”, you’ll know that I harp incessantly on the importance of having written song split agreements in place for any song in your catalog. Here’s why:

If there is a split dispute on a song, and the writers and publishers are not able to agree on how the ownership shares are to be divided, there is no way for the publishers to issue the necessary mechanical license. That means no money until the fight is settled. But it gets much, much worse…

Over the last decade, the record labels, seeing an opportunity, have used those split disputes, along with arguments about controlled composition clauses attached to producer contracts, three-quarter rates, and sample clearances to withhold payment for ALL the songs on an album in which even ONE song has not been licensed. This means that one split dispute on one song on an album can hold up money for every songwriter and publisher with a song on that record, often for years and years.

Much of this relates to the nature of the “controlled composition and royalty cap” clause that is often a part of recording artist contracts and producer agreements. Under this clause, there is often a maximum amount of money per album allotted to be paid out as mechanical royalties. If one song is licensed at a “full statutory rate”, it may require that all the other songs on the record receive a reduced share. Thus, it is theoretically impossible to calculate what the royalty rate should be until all the licenses for all of the songs have been agreed upon. In reality, record labels have been only too happy to keep all of the money locked up in their coffers as songwriters, publishers, and producers fought their issues out among themselves.

Does all this sound esoteric and remote? Having worked at both major publishers and labels during this entire decade, let me clue you in– we are talking about hundreds of songwriters with cuts on superstar, multi-platinum albums that have never seen a dime in mechanical royalties. These are the kinds of cuts that songwriters work lifetimes to achieve– only to find out that because two other writers on another track are fighting about five percent ownership shares, they will receive nothing this year. Or next year. Or the next.

So now we should be happy, right? The labels have finally agreed to pay out much of the money they’ve been sitting on, and all those long-suffering writers and publishers are about to get their due. Again, it may not play out exactly by the book…

As Wallace Collins points out, the primary stumbling block is that the monies in the fund are set to be distributed based on “market share”, rather than attempting to distinguish the exact amount owed to each specific publisher and writer (probably an impossible task anyway). Each publisher who believes they are owed money will have to claim their share, and then the “special master” (who wouldn’t love that title?) Kenneth Feinberg (who administered the TARP bailout for the US Treasury) will determine who gets what, based on their share of the market. Collins is quite correct when he points out that this system is likely to greatly favor the major music publishers and the larger independents, at the expense of the very small independent publishers, who may only represent one or two writers. While it is possible for those who don’t agree with Feinberg’s determinations to pursue other action, those small publishers are very unlikely to have the resources to fight that battle.

Collins makes two other very important points:

These problems of split disputes, sample clearances, and producer “controlled composition clauses” that cause the withheld payments are predominately centered in urban music genres. My rough estimate based on experience would be that at least fifty percent of this money is owed to writers in the urban genre, where such disputes are almost constant, while the other fifty percent would be split between country, pop, rock and other genres, which are far less likely to have royalties withheld. The market share calculation is likely to mean that small independent publishers specializing in r&b and hip-hop will receive far less than their fair share, while those in the pop and rock fields may get a bit of a windfall.

At the same time, songwriters may actually be the ones most at risk of being shafted (wow, there’s a surprise). In a key point, Wallace points out that “each songwriter will need to pursue his or her publisher for a share of what the publisher collects from the NMPA settlement. Otherwise, there’s a strong likelihood that publishers will simply hold the monies that they collect in their own ‘pending and unmatched’ accounts indefinitely, just as the labels had done previously.”

Uh, yeah. Call me a cynic (you wouldn’t be the first), but I’m quite confident that one reason the major labels finally agreed to pay this money out was with the idea that they could move the “held” money from one division of the corporation (the record label) to another division (the publishing division), while still avoiding the massive late-fee payment penalties that would have been imposed, had they not agreed to settle. Having spent my whole life in either the songwriting or publishing business, I can assure you that Wallace is on target here– some publishers, not all, but certainly some big ones, will funnel most of this settlement into a ‘pending and unmatched’ account, sharing none of it with the writers, unless or until the writers demand it. The publishers will claim that they are researching who should get what, how to locate writers that are owed money but have fallen out of their accounting system, how to deal with writers that have changed publishers since the time the song was released, and on and on.

While they’re doing all that, the money will remain in the publisher’s special account, earning interest and in many cases, vanishing into the ether. It’s just how this game gets played. Listen to Wallace: songwriters need to make their claims to publishers now and let them know that they are aware of the NMPA settlement and want what they are owed. That too, is how the game gets played.

So is David Israelite wrong in his rebuttal to Wallace Collins, in which he defends the agreement? No– not at all. Israelite ends his reply saying “Distributing up to $285 million to an entire industry isn’t an easy task, but what a wonderful problem to have”, and he’s certainly on the mark with that. The truth is, Wallace Collins is an attorney, responsible for ensuring that individual clients, often small publishers or individual songwriters, get their fair share of what they are owed. Such work requires one particular type of mindset. David Israelite is a negotiator, who is responsible for reaching agreements between various parties that are each protecting their own interests, and he is extremely good at that work, to the benefit of the whole music publishing and songwriting community. It’s a different job, which requires a more forgiving point of view.

This agreement frees up money that has been tied up for ten years, and that alone is a very good thing. Much more importantly, it makes major strides in resolving the problem going forward, which will be of benefit to every songwriter and publisher, large or small. Wallace is right when he points out that the settlement distribution will not be perfect or without some injustices to the little guy. David Israelite is equally right in pointing out that it’s better than what we had, and certainly better than continuing to fight.

Something is better than nothing.
Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.
You don’t get, if you don’t ask.

People don’t drop by $285 million dollar pies every day. Make sure you get your piece.

Happy New Year everyone!

I know I said that this blog would carry on our current theme, which is how to get your music out there to people– and it will. But I’m going to save my trouble-shooting blog, what to do when you run into obstacles in pitching your music, for just a minute. After all, has anyone really been making pitch calls over the last two weeks? If you have, you’ve been leaving a lot of voice mails, because it’s dead out there. All of the music business weasels have departed for ski vacations or the Caribbean (nothing like a weasel in a swimsuit) and left LA and NYC to the tourists. So instead, I thought I’d offer up a quick set of ideas to kick off the New Year, and to put me thoroughly in sync with the rest of the blogosphere, offering Top Ten lists ad infinitum. Here’s mine:


1. Identify your market.

This year, try narrowing your vision and focusing on the one specific market that best fits what you do. No more dabbling in one style, then another, then another. Most of the reason that songwriters struggle to create that two minute “elevator pitch” that we discussed last week is that they quite literally don’t know what they’re doing– they have never forced themselves to focus on one specific thing sufficiently to be able to articulate precisely what it is that they do.

2. Know your market.

In 2010, the music business is a business of specialists– A&R people, managers, publicists, engineers, producers, and yes, even songwriters, are segmented by genre, and expected to be experts in that particular area of music. That means being familiar with all of the artists old and new in that market, knowing the key business players, the labels, the current production styles. Sound like a lot of information to digest? That’s why you “identified” your market. It’s not plausible to be an expert in three or four genres at once.

3. Strategize.

Once you know your market, and you know all about the artists, labels, managers and producers in it, then you’re in a position to start looking for the openings. Where are the opportunities? Don’t focus on the superstars if you don’t have any track record– those are out of reach. Look for the up and coming artists, or the new trends, or the hot new label, or the young entrepreneurs. That’s where you’ll find your opportunities. Once you see where the openings in the market are, you need to look at every possible way in which you can take advantage of it.

4. Know who you are.

You can’t start meeting people until you know how to introduce yourself. That doesn’t mean just saying your name and handing out business cards. You need to be able to explain in three or four sentences who you are and what you’re doing. You can talk about what you’re doing now (“I’m promoting a new single that just came out…”), what you did in the past (“I had a song on Kelly Clarkson’s last album…”), who you work with (“I co-write with Brett James in Nashville”), or who you are (“I’m a producer from Norway” or “I’m a recording engineer for a jingle house, but I’m also a songwriter”), but you need to have two or three sentences to present a picture that’s clear, interesting and memorable. Whatever it is, memorize it. Ideally, it should be a conversation-starter– that way it won’t be the only two sentences you get.

5. Know what you want.

This is such a big one that it needs to be divided into a big picture and a small one. In the big picture sense, you need to know what your goals are for your music and what would constitute success. Do you want to get rich? Do you just want to be able to have a full-time career in music? Do you just want to support your hobby and have one song on a record somewhere? Everything is acceptable, and there’s a strategy to get you to each goal. But it won’t be the same one. You can’t read a map until you know where you’re going. If you want to take on the big picture question, and you shouldn’t waste a moment on any other plan of action until you do, take the “Music Business Weasel’s Pop Quiz” in my book, “Making Music Make Money”.


On the small picture side, you need to think about what you want from the person to whom you’re presenting your music. Are you looking for a record deal? Do you want them to record your song with an artist to whom they’re connected? Do you want them to sign you to a publishing contract? Are you looking for an introduction to someone they know? If what you want doesn’t match up to what the person on the other end can feasibly deliver (a BMI rep can’t offer you a publishing contract; a NY-based A&R rep can’t get your song to a country artist) then you’re wasting everyone’s time. Figure out what each person can do for you BEFORE you reach out.

6. Take the conference call.

No industry in the world has more conferences and networking events than the music business. That just means that there is no excuse for not knowing anyone, or not understanding the business. Every conference has a full array of industry executives in attendance, many of whom are on panels where they share the knowledge of the business and take questions from the audience. Beyond that, there are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC educational events, programs sponsored by songwriter groups like the Songwriters Hall of Fame and NSAI, or events hosted by industry trade organizations like the Recording Academy, NARIP, and the NMPA. Depending on your genre, your goals, and your financial and geographical situation, you can check out: MIDEM, CMJ, South By Southwest, Winter Music Conference, Billboard & Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference, Biillboard’s Music & Money, Amsterdam Dance Event, or ASCAP’s “I Create Music” Expo. That should fill your calendar for the year. If you can’t afford to register, consider contacting the conference and volunteering to work at the registration desk or within the conference itself. Sometimes you can trade some labor time for a free pass…

7. Ask one good question.

If you do attend a conference, here’s a tip for meeting that key industry player that you want to know:

Find a panel on which he or she is speaking. Then, when the Q&A portion of the panel arrives, step up to the mic and ask one good question. A good question does not directly involve you (“why didn’t you listen to the package I sent you?”), and is not too basic (“how can I get music to you?”). A good question reflects a knowledge of the business and the panelist, is relevant to all of the industry people in the room, and could be the topic of discussion among other panelists (“What do you think of the new rate decision from the Copyright Board?”, “How is your business using the social networking sites to target an audience?”, “Do you see your show widening its use of music, or the genres it uses, or narrowing it?”).

Having done hundreds of such panels, I guarantee you that if you ask one good question, you will be the only one who does. I also guarantee that if you approach the panelist at the close of the discussion, you will be remembered, and probably walk away with a business card and an invitation to be in touch.

8. Educate yourself.

At the music publishing company where I work, someone called our office this week, and began the conversation with “I don’t really understand what you do there…” Believe it or not, this happens EVERY DAY! For whatever reason, music seems to attract a large number of people who are almost entirely ignorant of the business of which they supposedly wish to be a part. Is it any surprise that most of these people are either ignored or taken advantage of?

If you’re serious about pursuing music publishing and/or songwriting as a business, it only stands to reason that you need to have the same knowledge as every other professional in the industry. Invest 12 weeks in “Music Publishing 101″ at berkleemusic.com, and learn exactly what a music publisher does, how to do it, and how to set up your own music publishing business. You’ll come out not only with a thorough knowledge of the business, but also with a full strategy for how to make your music make money.

9. Write hits.

The truth is, most songwriters’ primary obstacle to success is not a lack of knowledge, contacts, or strategy. Most of the time, the real problem is that songwriters are simply not selling what the industry needs. Most songwriters are trying to write good songs. Some are even writing great songs. But what is needed by every A&R person, manager, artist, is something else entirely. These people need “hit” songs.

If you don’t understand the difference, then check out my book, “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”. In an age where the album cut has become entirely irrelevant, there is no formula for success that doesn’t involve writing “hits”.


10. Do the work.

I read an incredible article last year in the New Yorker by author Malcolm Gladwell, called “How David Beat Goliath”.


Perhaps the most profound point made in the article was this, and I paraphrase:
most people don’t succeed simply because they are not willing to do the work required.

Having had the opportunity to work with superstar writers from Steve Diamond to Billy Mann to Andy Goldmark to Stargate to David Guetta, the one thing that all of them share is a “work ethic” that simply dwarfs most of their competition. This is not to diminish their individual talent, which is significant and unique. It is to say that there is no way you will be able to compete with these A-level writers on the basis of talent alone. Even if you have the same gifts as a songwriter, their drive, ambition, and willingness to go anywhere and do whatever it takes will put them on top. If you are going to compete, you have to do what is needed to win.

I know that most of the songwriters reading these suggestions will ignore them entirely, and search instead for a shortcut to success that involves less effort. A few will resolve to try three or four of the ten, and at the end of the year, will have excuses for why they only accomplished one or two. But be aware: the successful songwriters and music publishers will do all of these every year.

You can’t “try” to do something. Either you’re doing it, or you’re not.

Best wishes for a great 2010! Thanks for your support of the blog. See you at the top of the charts…

Back To Basics

Dec 13 2009

I’ve had some interesting inquiries come to me recently on the blog site and it got me thinking… after all is said and done, the problems of most songwriters and music publishers are not really the complex issues of negotiated royalty rates, streaming on demand versus downloads, or flat rate licensing schemes. Those big, multi-faceted bones of contention certainly affect us as songwriters and music publishers. They may weigh on our minds, get us in a fighting mood, or, best case, bring in some unexpected money. But they are not what is front and center in our mind as we go through our daily career struggle.

What we think about almost all the time is a challenge that seems considerably more straightforward and simple, but is in fact, far harder to conquer:

What specifically can I do to get my music out into the world to start earning me money?

So I thought that in the time leading up to the holiday break, perhaps I would try to address that subject, from a variety of different angles. In the end, it’s what music publishing is all about. It’s how my first book, “Making Music Make Money” got its title. It’s the primary focus of my class, Music Publishing 101 at Berkleemusic.com. And yet the questions keep on coming. And the challenges to actually getting our music into income-generating opportunities keep increasing. Let’s go back to basics one more time.


But in order to do it, we’re going to start with three more questions, all of which usually follow the big question of “what do I do to make my music earn money?” If we can tackle these fundamental issues, then we’ll have a start on conquering the bigger question in the following weeks. Here are three selections from the “greatest hits” compilation of questions to ask the music business weasel:

Question #1: How do I get my songs considered by major, superstar artists?
Answer: You don’t. You also don’t get to pitch in the World Series with no professional baseball experience or become the president of a Fortune 500 company on the first day on the job. In songwriting, as in every other business, there is a concept of “working your way up the ladder”.

Songwriters who have yet to have even one successful single do not need to be spending their time trying to figure out how to get songs to Rihanna, or Taylor Swift, or Daughtry. The truth is, most major artists want to be directly involved with writing most of the songs they record, and the ones that they don’t write will largely come from the proven, successful hitmakers so sought after by the record companies. Trust me, if it were your multi-million dollar investment on the line, you’d probably take the same approach.

If you are a developing songwriter with no real track record, you need to concentrate on writing for the next Rihanna, or Taylor Swift, or Daughtry. That means working with artists who don’t yet have a record contract, and helping to write the song that clinches the deal. Or finding a lesser-known act still trying to break-through with that one big hit. Or meeting local developing artists or managers in your local community, and trying to write the song that will expose them to a larger audience. If you can do that successfully, then you’ll get approached to work on slightly bigger, more high-profile projects. Then slowly, but steadily, you’ll be building the contacts and the track record that can move you up the ladder.

Check out tipsheets like Songlink International or Myhitsonline.com. They are full of projects in various stages of development, all looking for songs. Or get active in your local community and find the potential talent you can work with there.



Certainly, most of these projects will amount to little. But if you can provide a key song, you will at the very least make a new set of contacts, who will go on to other projects after this one. This is how “networks” are built. If you can show up with a genuine hit, you might create a new star, and immediately put yourself in a different level of the industry.

Question #2: How do I cold-call A&R people, managers, and others who I want to listen to my music?
Answer: You don’t. In my Music Publishing 101 class at Berkleemusic.com, we don’t get to the subject of pitching music until halfway through the semester. Instead, the early weeks of Music Publishing 101 are devoted to laying the groundwork that will make the pitch effective. This means building a team of support around you– a music lawyer, a Writer Relations rep at ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, a network of friends and colleagues in your local community that could include everyone from a music journalist to a studio owner to a radio programmer.

Just as importantly, it means researching and studying your music genre and identifying the major and minor artists in that world, the key labels (both major and independent), the A&R decision-makers, the managers, the radio stations, and the clubs. It means identifying what business strategies are the most effective in your market. In the pop-rock or indie band world, advertising placements can be crucial stepping-stones. In the heavy metal biz, video games are key. You have to be an expert in whatever field of music you’re pitching songs. That’s what gives you the right to bother someone else, who is also an expert of sorts, in the middle of his or her workday.

Only when you’ve established your team and network of business contacts will you be in a position to change a cold-call into a referral. Once you’ve decided who you want to approach with your music, you can then try to figure out if there’s someone on your team, or in your network, who might be able to make an introduction, or at least allow you to use their name as a reference. Obviously, the bigger your circle of supporters, the fewer real “cold-calls” you’ll make.

In the same way, proper research and understanding of your musical genre will ensure that you’re approaching the right people, and saying the things that they want to hear. If you understand the nuances of the business environment in which you’re working, know the background of the person with whom you’re speaking, and can show how your music fills a need in that person’s world, you can speak with the A&R person, manager or producer as a colleague. That’s not cold-calling. That’s connecting.

Question #3: How do I find time to get my music out to people– music supervisors, A&R, artist managers– when I’m so busy actually making and recording the music?
Answer: You don’t. The one thing I can tell you without any doubt, having been a songwriter, producer and music publisher for more than twenty years, is that every single thing that happens to you everyday will conspire to prevent you from actually getting songs sent out to the people that need to hear them. You will always be needed in the studio, or have to pick up the kids, or be exhausted from last night’s gig, or be stressed from tonight’s gig, or in need of a new computer, or SOMETHING. And each night, you will vow that tomorrow you really will get those songs sent out…

You will never find the time. There are no spare hours lying under the bed somewhere. Trust me- I’ve looked. The only hope that you have is to make the time. You will have to change your schedule, cut back on certain things, try to find an intern to help out, or figure out a way to run your business on the road. But one way or another, you must make the time to get songs sent out to the people that need to hear them. Because…

Your business depends on it. Without that, nothing happens. There is no music publisher anywhere that has built a business solely by doing administration and collecting money. At least in the beginning, someone has to get the music out to people who will use it.

What would you think of a widget-making company that invested solely in production–building a factory, hiring workers, making widgets– but had no sales team or strategy in place to sell the product? Yet, that’s what so many songwriters and music publishers do– retreating to their comfort zone of writing music, recording music, acquiring music and listening to music, until there’s no time left in the day to sell any of it. Check the number of songs sitting on your hard-drive and compare them to the amount of songs that were sent out this week. It may be happening to you.

The point of these negative answers to oft-asked questions is not to be discouraging. I’m a publisher too. I know that none of us need more discouragement. The point is to give a reality-check, and to adapt realistic strategies to our businesses.

It is the nature of show business to sell dreams, and this is one of the most prevalent– the sudden opportunity that leads to instant glory. I’m not saying it never happens. Almost every career is built on a few such unexpected moments. But it’s not a day to day strategy for approaching your business.

I heard a great story recently of a hard-working musician laboring in relative obscurity, who was playing in a band that recorded several records for small labels, none of which found any great success. However, one of the records was picked up by a dance music DJ and producer in another country, and began to garner some underground buzz. When that buzz led to more calls for material from the DJ-producer, he turned back to our friend the musician, who after more than a decade of playing and touring, had virtually given up on his band and was looking for a new line of work. But the musician answered the call for more material and sent it off to the DJ-producer, who then added his own magic touch. One of those tracks was recently released as the first single off a recent Madonna album, and it became a world-wide hit.

That’s the reality of the music business. Doing your work, getting the music out, meeting the right people and building on those contacts, as you slowly climb the ladder. Only then can you hope to finally get that lucky break that catapults you to the top.

Last question: When do you give up?
Answer: You dont. You just keep moving, one rung at a time.

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I had an opportunity this week to speak with two different groups of developing songwriters and producers, one at the ASCAP Songwriters Workshop, the other at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University. Besides the obvious benefit of getting out of work early and meeting a bunch of promising young songwriters, producers and aspiring music business weasels, these kinds of forums offer oldsters like me a chance to think for at least a minute or two (I’m not one to over-prepare) about what insight we might be able to offer to those preparing to build a career in the music biz, and what advice we might want to give.

Actually, the first thing I usually think when preparing for such meetings is: What the hell do I have to say and why should anyone listen to it? One of my favorite quotes about show business was from Eddie Murray– when asked what advice he would give to young people, his answer was “Never take anyone’s advice”. Which is actually pretty sound, particularly given the fact that everyone in the entertainment business seems to have an entirely unique path that led them to wherever they are.

But perhaps that’s the point. In pondering the relevance of anything I might have to say to a group of songwriters or students, I realized that the one valuable thing I can offer is a somewhat unique background, having spent fifteen or more years as a professional songwriter and record producer, then a subsequent decade as an A&R person for a variety of music publishing companies, from a mid-size publisher (Zomba Music) to a major publisher (Sony ATV) to a small independent company (Shapiro Bernstein). My sort of dual-track background, with a significant amount of time logged on both the creative and the business ends of the spectrum, does not guarantee that my point of view is relevant or interesting, or even accurate. But it does offer a perspective that is somewhat unique.

It’s not hard to find people ready to share a great deal of knowledge about songwriting who have never had the experience of making a difficult A&R decision: deciding which act should be signed and which should be dropped; which songs should make the album and which should be tossed off; if that new hot writer is really worth that high six-figure advance, and whether you’re prepared to bet your job on it. Say what you will about the foolishness of the music business weasel, but those kinds of decisions definitely have a way of clarifying your views about music and refining your judgment.

At the same time, there is no shortage of music business executives who are more than happy to offer their opinion about what you as a songwriter should be writing, or how a song should have been written, or what styles are in and out, or what seven hit songs (in entirely different genres) should somehow be combined into the perfect new song for their act, all without ever having had the experience themselves of sitting down with a guitar or piano and a blank piece of paper. Seems easy till you try it.

The one valuable thing I can offer is that I’ve lived on both sides of the street. In fact, since I moved from being a songwriter and producer to being an A&R person, much of my time and thought has been spent trying to reconcile the two experiences, and derive some kind of perspective that might be useful to other developing songwriters and producers. There are plenty of things that I see now, as a music industry executive, that I couldn’t see as a music creator, and I wish I could have. When I speak to groups like the one at ASCAP or NYU, all I can offer is a real-life, bottom-line picture of the music business, born of my own experience.

Whether it’s in my books, Making Music Make Money and The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell, my online class, “Music Publishing 101″ at Berkleemusic, this blogspace, or the various talks I give at industry events, my philosophy is built on two fundamental ideas, both of which grow directly out of my experience as both a songwriter and music executive:

1. Songwriters don’t need to look for a music publisher. They need to learn to be one.

Only if a songwriter learns to be a good music publisher, and actually creates a business around his or her music, will a larger company then approach the songwriter/publisher and look for an opportunity to partner, invest, and build the business together. It always starts with a songwriter taking control of his or her catalog, and learning to generate income from it. Until that happens, no publisher will be interested in getting involved.

The truth is, songwriting is not a job. Songwriting is just something you do. There is no actual financial transaction at the core of songwriting. Taking a song and generating income from it is the work of a music publisher. Until a songwriter takes on that role of creating a viable business, nothing will happen. No one is looking to sign a publishing deal for a set of songs that are sitting in a desk drawer. Publishers want to partner with people who already have something up and running.

This realization grew out of my experience as a publisher, particularly when working with A-level songwriters like Billy Mann, Steve Diamond, Gary Baker, Stargate and others. What I noticed was that the busiest, most successful writers often had less contact with their publishers than many of the less-effective writers on the roster. This was because the top writers weren’t looking for someone to run their business, or to create every opportunity for them. They had already built a successful company around their music. They wanted someone to help expand their business, generate new opportunities, and relieve some of the administrative burdens.

As a songwriter, you are your own publisher as soon as you complete your first song. The successful writers accept that responsibility, and learn to be effective at making their music make money. That was the underlying theme of my first book, and it is the foundation of “Music Publishing 101″– a class that actually takes you, week by week, through the process of setting up your own publishing company.

2. Songwriters succeed consistently when they learn to tell the difference between a good song, a great song, and a hit song.

You don’t have to be in the songwriting game for long before you learn that everyone is looking for a “hit”. The problem is, no one seems to be clear as to exactly what a “hit” is. Most beginning songwriters think they write one every week. Most experienced, veteran songwriters think they write one per month. Most A&R people, drawing upon all of the top songwriters around the world, hope and pray to find one or two a year. The problem is that the beginning songwriter thinks that a “hit” means “a good song”. The experienced writer interprets it to mean “a great song”. Meanwhile, the A&R person is looking for something entirely different.

When an A&R person is looking for a “hit”, he or she is really talking about a “first single”. That’s the song that will traditionally be released six weeks prior to an album as a way of sparking interest in the artist and the upcoming release. If it’s an established act, the first single will re-introduce the artist into the marketplace and hopefully re-ignite the interest of the audience. If the single is for a new artist, it will be the primary thing responsible for taking a “nobody” and making them “somebody”. That’s a huge order, and it goes beyond something being a “great song”. It is a very specific kind of song, capable of fulfilling a very specific function.

A first single, by definition, has to do more than simply be a “catchy” song. Most of the time, it needs to work at radio, or at least in some kind of media venue. For that reason, it’s almost always uptempo, as most media outlets rely on energy and fast-pacing to keep their audience entertained. It has to fit a specific radio format, or at least target a very clear and specific audience. It must define the artist, giving the audience a sense of his or her individual identity, attitude, and musical style. It needs to be provocative, or funny, or surprising, or trendy or shocking enough that it cuts through all the other records being released at the same time. A first single is not only a great song. It’s a song that can make someone a star.

The Billboard Guide to Writing and Producing Songs That Sell is all about the challenge of creating those breakthrough first singles– it includes interviews with writers like Stargate, Midi Mafia and Darrell Brown, as well as industry execs like David Massey, Daniel Glass, and Hosh Gureli. There are plenty of books about songwriting, covering basics like rhyme schemes, song form, and basic harmony. This is not one of them. This is a book about discovering the difference between a song and a “hit”.

Of course, the great thing about offering up advice to developing writers and publishers is that one never knows how it turns out. Some will take the advice and prosper. Some will ignore it, and prosper nevertheless. Others will take all the advice that they can get, and things simply won’t work out. Unfortunately, career attempts in show business don’t come with a money-back guarantee.

I don’t offer much in the way of predictions, but I am confident of this: songwriters that learn to make something happen with their music by being effective music publishers themselves will be the ones most sought-after by A&R people like myself, and the ones most likely to be successful should they decide to partner with a larger publishing company. And songwriters who can learn to write “first singles” will always find more than enough opportunities, even in a shrinking business environment. A band with one sure-fire hit single will get a record deal long before a band with ten strong songs. A talented artist without a strong first single will see their album delayed, postponed, and maybe even dropped if they can’t come up with the one song that a label feels will work at radio or as the catalyst for a marketing campaign. And a songwriter who writes “hits” will be discovered, sooner or later.

It’s my birthday this weekend– and I’m gradually adjusting to the fact that I’m an industry veteran. Can’t say that I enjoy being the oldest guy in the room, but it does offer some security when offering up opinions.Take the advice if it’s useful– ignore it (like Eddie Murphy says) if it’s not. It may not be the world as you’d like it to be, but after quite a few years as both a songwriter and music weasel, I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s the world as I’ve seen it. Hope it helps…

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…