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

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

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

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

This year, let’s be thankful for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

TEN THINGS THAT YOU CAN DO IN 2010 TO MAKE YOUR MUSIC MAKE MONEY!!

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”.

http://www.amazon.com/Making-Music-Make-Money-Publisher/dp/0876390076

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”.

http://www.amazon.com/Billboard-Guide-Writing-Producing-Songs/dp/0823099547

10. Do the work.

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

http://www.gladwell.com/2009/2009_05_11_a_david.html

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…

Double Dutch

Nov 07 2009

Had quite an interesting visit to Amsterdam last week, where I was part of the first ever Dutch Writers Camp. The event was sponsored by Holland’s collection society BUMA STEMRA (the equivalent of our ASCAP/BMI/SESAC and Harry Fox Agency) and brought together an all-star group of international songwriters, ten contest winners from across Holland, and a couple of assorted special guests, which included yours truly. The songwriters participating in the camp were treated to an incredible master class from Ralph Murphy, the great guru of songwriting, and then paired off to write in alternating groups over the next two days. The result was an explosion of creative energy, a fascinating mix of cultures and working styles, assorted moments of euphoria, panic, insight, and a few emotional meltdowns, and alot of new friendships– as well as ten great new songs, all written and recorded in about two and a half days. No, everyone didn’t just hang out all day in the Amsterdam coffee shops. We worked!

As one of the American writers, Shane Alexander, put it, this was the songwriting “trenches”, with time pressure, competitive spirit, and a wild melange of musical and cultural influences adding a whole new set of challenges to the craft of creating a song. For the writers themselves, it was an exhausting and exhilarating week. For the special guests like myself, who had the luxury of observation rather than direct participation, it was a fascinating look at the creative process. In light of that, I thought I’d share two experiences from my stay in Amsterdam. Consider them souvenirs of my trip…

It’s funny how sometimes you have to go all the way across the globe to meet someone that’s been your neighbor all the time. Ralph Murphy and I are not literally neighbors–he’s a resident of Nashville (via Canada passing thru New York by way of London) and I’m a New Yorker. But we’ve certainly covered alot of the same territory. Both of us at various times have been songwriters, music publishers, and A&R managers, and both of us spend a great deal of time writing, talking, and thinking about the craft of songwriting. So to find ourselves at the Dutch Writers Camp together was a pleasure. For me, it was also an invaluable education.

If you’re serious about songwriting on a professional level, you can’t find a better teacher than Ralph Murphy. Currently ASCAP’s Vice-President of International and Domestic Membership, Ralph is a legendary songwriter and publisher with more than twenty Number One hits. But Ralph is not merely a gifted songwriter, he is both a student and a professor of the craft.

Ralph is a student in the sense that he has studied, and continues to study the science of the hit song from every angle– watching the chart action on new releases, spotting trends, and analyzing the reasons for a song’s success or failure. If you want to discover the rules and realities of creating commercially successful songs, you should start by checking out Ralph Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting at:

http://www.murphyslawsofsongwriting.com.

The truth is, most people who take the romantic view of songwriting, as a mysterious vocation built primarily on intuitive talent and luck, simply haven’t bothered to study it much. Ralph is the ultimate scientist, breaking down the factors that lead to success, one element at a time.

Even better though, Ralph is also a professor– someone who delights in sharing what he’s learned with songwriters at every level of the business. He’s an instructor for the Nashville Songwriters Association (NSAI) International Song Camps, and he leads his songwriting master classes at venues around the world. To hear him lecture at the Dutch Writers Camp, and watch him bring together an audience that ranged from veteran writers with numerous hits under their belts to developing writers across all different genres, was a real eye-opener, even for someone who has been working with songs and songwriters for more than twenty years. If you’re ready to challenge yourself to go from writing good songs to writing hits, make the investment and sign up for one of Ralph Murphy’s classes. It’s a lifetime’s worth of songwriting knowledge condensed into a couple of very entertaining hours.

Speaking of very entertaining hours, the other Amsterdam experience I wanted to share was my trip to the Vincent van Gogh Museum. Living in New York, I have ample opportunity to check out quite a few great museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and many others. But I’ve never had a museum visit quite like my trip to the Van Gogh.

What makes the Van Gogh museum so unique is that it is centered solely on the creative life of one person. Where most museums are “greatest hit” packages, with the masterpieces of one artist after another, the Van Gogh is a “career retrospective”, with paintings from each period of Van Gogh’s development, interspersed with personal letters between he and his brother Theo. The result is not only a remarkable collection of paintings, but a fantastic and deeply moving portrait of an artist’s development and all the challenges that brings. Seeing the museum while I was also a part of the Dutch Writers Camp prompted me to consider the parallels between a painter like Van Gogh and all of us who write songs and make records. Here’s three quick observations to keep in mind as you examine your own creative development:

1. Where you are now is not where you are going.

To see the paintings done early in Van Gogh’s career is to see a shadow of what was to come. Some of the paintings are very beautiful in their own right, and they have certain characteristics that would become part of Van Gogh’s unique style. Yet they look very little like what we have come to think of as a Van Gogh. They are dark, restrained, and a little somber– very much influenced by Dutch masters like Rembrandt, and reflective of Van Gogh’s Dutch upbringing. There are masterpieces among those early paintings. But they are not the pictures that would ultimately define Van Gogh’s legacy.

In the creative whirlwind, it can be easy to forget that wherever you are, you are not at the end point in your artistic development. No matter how good they may be, the songs you’re writing today are not the songs you’ll be making five years from now. So don’t get too depressed (if you’re struggling creatively) or too proud (if you’re having success). It’s impossible to know just where the work you do today will ultimately rank in your overall career. All you can do is to try to do the best job possible on each song, and to keep moving ahead in your development. Which leads me to…

2. Where you’re going will be depend upon your willingness to challenge yourself with new opportunities, and by the people with whom you choose to surround yourself.

By far, the most dramatic moment in the Van Gogh museum is to see the metamorphosis that takes place when Van Gogh’s dark, moody early work suddenly gives way to the wild explosions of color that most of us recognize as the classic “Van Gogh” style. What happened? How did he so quickly go from a gifted but conservative artist to the ground-breaking innovator that became an art world icon? The short answer is: he moved to Paris.

It was only when Van Gogh moved to Paris that he came under the influence of the other French Impressionist painters that were popular at the time. The new methods of painting that he saw, the friendships with people like Gauguin, the challenge of surviving and competing in what was the artistic center of the world, all combined to push Van Gogh out of his earlier comfort zone and to help him re-invent his style. It was only with the influences of other people that he was able to truly find himself and his own unique way of painting.

The truth is, moving to Paris must have been very traumatic for Van Gogh. He hated cities, lived an almost reclusive lifestyle, and disliked much of the social-climbing that has always been part of the art world. Nevertheless, he knew that he needed to make the move in order to become a part of the larger artistic community. In the same way, your artistic development will be determined by your willingness to put yourself in new situations, with new people, with the pressure to create new and different kinds of music. Whether it’s moving to a city that is a music center, attending a writers camp in Europe, scheduling a writing trip to Nashville or LA, attending a Ralph Murray master class or taking a Berkleemusic course, you have to be willing to face the competition and challenges of a new creative environment. No one creates in a vacuum. You will not find your own unique style by working in isolation. You’ll find it by being part of a community.

3. Ultimately, it’s not about where you are, or where you’re going. It’s all about the journey.

By the time you reach the end of the Van Gogh museum, you’ve seen dozens of renowned works of art. But what sticks with you is not any single painting, but rather the story itself– the progression of one man’s creative journey, full of exhilarating breakthroughs and career detours and emotional challenges and tragic moments. So it is with great musical artists like Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, or Prince. Even beyond any single great song, what makes their careers significant is the journey itself, as they were constantly pushing ahead, experimenting, moving from one style to another, and capturing the changing times within the context of their own changing lives. In the end, the story of the journey touches us more even than the one singular work of art.

When faced with the pressures of surviving in this difficult business, it’s easy to take for granted the everyday experiences of a life in music. As someone who has been doing this for far too many years, I know that the one thing that sticks with you in the end is not the songs themselves, but the people you meet when writing and recording them, the places you go, and the experiences you have. That’s the best part of the show– so don’t miss it. I had a great time in Amsterdam, met a fantastic group of creative people, learned a lot and brought home some good souvenirs. That’s the kind of journey you don’t forget.

I was recently called to testify in a lawsuit involving copyright infringement: an unknown songwriter, who will remain that way for the purposes of this blog, was claiming that a song written by a very well-known writer/artist, which appeared on a multi-platinum album, was in fact, stolen from the unknown writer. As the Creative Director at the music publishing company that published the very well-known writer, I had only the most distant relationship with the writer and almost no knowledge of the song in question. Nevertheless, I was dragged into the situation,largely because the unknown writer had used biographical information about me that is easily accessible on the internet. The unknown writer had decided to try to use me as the link between the well-known writer and himself. In a nutshell, here was the basic information in the case:

The only similarity between the two songs in question was the title, and the fact that both songs included some rapping. Obviously, there are thousands of other songs that share that title as well. It is not possible to copyright a title or an idea, nor is it possible to copyright the idea of rapping (though I wish I’d thought of it).

The unknown writer claimed to have written the original song more than fifteen years prior to the release of the well-known writer’s song. However, the unknown writer could not produce any registrations of the song, or even a demo tape of the original version.

Required to explain how the well-known writer would have gained access to an unreleased song written when he was probably 7 or 8 years old, the unknown writer claimed to have had a meeting in New York with two A&R people (one of which was yours truly) at the record/publishing company that would, almost twenty years later, become the home of the well-known writer/artist. The hypothesis seemed to be that one or both of the A&R people had heard the song in the late 1980′s, and held onto it until around the year 2000, when they played it to the well-known writer and producer.

However, employment records revealed that I was not actually an A&R person at the record/publishing company until almost ten years after the alleged meeting took place. The other A&R person was an employee of the company at the time of the meeting, but worked in Chicago, not New York. Interestingly, the unknown writer was unable to identify the exact date of the meeting, where it took place, where the office was located, or what songs were presented at the meeting.

Needless to say, this did not seem to present a very credible case of copyright infringement. The unknown writer’s authorship of the original song was impossible to verify, given the lack of any registration, commercial release, or even physical recordings. The whole matter of infringement seemed to hang on the use of the same title between two songs, which is not a copyright violation. The proof of access, which must be shown in order to constitute a copyright infringement, hinged on a meeting for which the plaintiff could offer no evidence, and which all employment records indicated could not possibly have taken place.

Happily, the case did not actually go to trial. What it did do was this: it dragged on for more than a year, ran up thousands and thousands of dollars of legal fees, suspended royalty payments to the well-known writer, and required the deposition of the well-known writer/artist, several other co-writers, and several industry executives. This might explain why, even with all evidence in his favor, the well-known writer/artist and his publishing company agreed to settle the case and to pay the unknown writer a small sum of money to drop his claim. Economically, it was far more practical to pay a small settlement, even if it was entirely unjustified, than to incur the additional costs of a trial.

If you’re wondering why copyright infringement disputes are one of the few growth areas in the music industry, the previous story should give you a good hint. Increasingly, it seems that writing a hit song almost guarantees an accusation of plagiarism and a demand for money. As in most things involving lawyers, the game is never as simple as it seems. More often than not, the issue is settled with cash out of court, under the assumption that it’s cheaper to settle a false allegation than be vindicated in court at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Of course, the willingness to settle only begets more crazy claims, which then starts the whole process all over again.

Am I saying that there is never an instance in which one well-known, proven hitmaker borrows from another, perhaps unconsciously? Of course not. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is the same as “He’s So Fine”. It doesn’t mean George Harrison knowingly stole it. But it does mean that he infringed on the copyright, and owes something to the original writers. Are there cases where a little known songwriter finds his or her song suddenly transformed into a worldwide hit, only to find that the name of the original writer has vanished? Certainly there are– in fact, there have been several recent stories about Michael Jackson’s appropriation of “Soul Makossa” for “I Wanna Be Startin’ Something”. And every publisher knows that disputes between songwriting partners as to who did what and who owns what percentage are an everyday fact of life.

That said, I will bluntly go on record to declare that I believe the vast majority (probably eighty percent) of the copyright infringement cases involving top hit songs are complete nonsense, dreamed up by delusional (best case) or opportunistic (worst case) hacks trying desperately to scam their way into some money. They have learned that most major publishers would prefer to pay what it takes to make the problem go away rather than be tied up in litigation for years. The truly unfortunate aspect of this issue is that the songwriter, who may have worked and waited years for that one big hit record, is the one who ultimately winds up paying, both economically and emotionally.

I’ve never been one to preach paranoia, and I still believe that you can’t afford to let copyright infringement fears make you overly cautious about getting your material out to the public and the industry. I do always recommend four basic steps to fend off the most common problems:

1. Always have a letter signed by each writer at the end of a writing session to designate (a) when the song was written (b)who the writers were (c) the percentage controlled by each writer (d) the contact information for each writer. I also recommend identifying the engineer (if there was one), the studio, and any other musicians that may have been involved. Most copyright disputes are between collaborators, or at least between people who know each other and work together frequently.

2. Register your songs, in some manner, once they’re completed. That doesn’t necessarily mean registering them with the Copyright Office, which can get expensive. If you’re a member of ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, it may be easier to register them there. You can also use the “poor man’s copyright” method of sending yourself an unopened envelope containing the song. But somewhere, try to make a record showing the existence of the song.

3. Keep your records. Hang on to work tapes, records of pitch meetings (and identify what songs were pitched), work for hire agreements with musicians or singers, and correspondence. All of these can be vital in defending yourself against a claim.

4. Don’t take it personally. If you’re involved in a dispute, try to remember what’s really at stake: Money. Copyright disputes are best treated like business matters, not issues of morality. The well-known writer that settled the bogus copyright dispute at the beginning of this blog was right, even if it was an unfair outcome. If it’s a fight about money, then you have to do what makes economic sense.

On that last subject, there’s a new service being offered by the Nashville Songwriters Assn. International, that may make a lot of economic sense for some songwriters. If you’re someone who regularly has songs commercially released, you may want to consider NSAI’s recent partnership with insurance agency Frost Specialty, which has created a copyright-infringement insurance policy for NSAI members.

This group plan allows songwriters to pay relatively low premiums for a moderate level of coverage. In the past, writers often had to purchase at least $1 million dollars worth of coverage, which is very expensive. Under the NSAI policy, writers can pay premiums as low as $1,500 for $100,000 of coverage– most copyright disputes are settled for less than $100,000.

Kudos to NSAI, which is truly one of the most effective songwriter organizations in existence (and one to which every songwriter should belong anyway) and to NSAI president (and legendary country songwriter) Steve Bogard for taking on a very challenging problem. Remember– in our society, anyone can sue anyone for anything, with or without cause. The plaintiff may not win, but for the accused, who finds his or her money frozen, legal fees mounting, and reputation damaged, it may not matter who wins. If you’re making a living at songwriting, I would strongly suggest that you consider the necessity of the NSAI-Frost policy. Check it out at:

http://www.frostspecialty.com

I was recently called to testify in a lawsuit involving copyright infringement: an unknown songwriter, who will remain that way for the purposes of this blog, was claiming that a song written by a very well-known writer/artist, which appeared on a multi-platinum album, was in fact, stolen from the unknown writer. As the Creative Director at the music publishing company that published the very well-known writer, I had only the most distant relationship with the writer and almost no knowledge of the song in question. Nevertheless, I was dragged into the situation,largely because the unknown writer had used biographical information about me that is easily accessible on the internet. The unknown writer had decided to try to use me as the link between the well-known writer and himself. In a nutshell, here was the basic information in the case:

The only similarity between the two songs in question was the title, and the fact that both songs included some rapping. Obviously, there are thousands of other songs that share that title as well. It is not possible to copyright a title or an idea, nor is it possible to copyright the idea of rapping (though I wish I’d thought of it).

The unknown writer claimed to have written the original song more than fifteen years prior to the release of the well-known writer’s song. However, the unknown writer could not produce any registrations of the song, or even a demo tape of the original version.

Required to explain how the well-known writer would have gained access to an unreleased song written when he was probably 7 or 8 years old, the unknown writer claimed to have had a meeting in New York with two A&R people (one of which was yours truly) at the record/publishing company that would, almost twenty years later, become the home of the well-known writer/artist. The hypothesis seemed to be that one or both of the A&R people had heard the song in the late 1980′s, and held onto it until around the year 2000, when they played it to the well-known writer and producer.

However, employment records revealed that I was not actually an A&R person at the record/publishing company until almost ten years after the alleged meeting took place. The other A&R person was an employee of the company at the time of the meeting, but worked in Chicago, not New York. Interestingly, the unknown writer was unable to identify the exact date of the meeting, where it took place, where the office was located, or what songs were presented at the meeting.

Needless to say, this did not seem to present a very credible case of copyright infringement. The unknown writer’s authorship of the original song was impossible to verify, given the lack of any registration, commercial release, or even physical recordings. The whole matter of infringement seemed to hang on the use of the same title between two songs, which is not a copyright violation. The proof of access, which must be shown in order to constitute a copyright infringement, hinged on a meeting for which the plaintiff could offer no evidence, and which all employment records indicated could not possibly have taken place.

Happily, the case did not actually go to trial. What it did do was this: it dragged on for more than a year, ran up thousands and thousands of dollars of legal fees, suspended royalty payments to the well-known writer, and required the deposition of the well-known writer/artist, several other co-writers, and several industry executives. This might explain why, even with all evidence in his favor, the well-known writer/artist and his publishing company agreed to settle the case and to pay the unknown writer a small sum of money to drop his claim. Economically, it was far more practical to pay a small settlement, even if it was entirely unjustified, than to incur the additional costs of a trial.

If you’re wondering why copyright infringement disputes are one of the few growth areas in the music industry, the previous story should give you a good hint. Increasingly, it seems that writing a hit song almost guarantees an accusation of plagiarism and a demand for money. As in most things involving lawyers, the game is never as simple as it seems. More often than not, the issue is settled with cash out of court, under the assumption that it’s cheaper to settle a false allegation than be vindicated in court at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Of course, the willingness to settle only begets more crazy claims, which then starts the whole process all over again.

Am I saying that there is never an instance in which one well-known, proven hitmaker borrows from another, perhaps unconsciously? Of course not. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is the same as “He’s So Fine”. It doesn’t mean George Harrison knowingly stole it. But it does mean that he infringed on the copyright, and owes something to the original writers. Are there cases where a little known songwriter finds his or her song suddenly transformed into a worldwide hit, only to find that the name of the original writer has vanished? Certainly there are– in fact, there have been several recent stories about Michael Jackson’s appropriation of “Soul Makossa” for “I Wanna Be Startin’ Something”. And every publisher knows that disputes between songwriting partners as to who did what and who owns what percentage are an everyday fact of life.

That said, I will bluntly go on record to declare that I believe the vast majority (probably eighty percent) of the copyright infringement cases involving top hit songs are complete nonsense, dreamed up by delusional (best case) or opportunistic (worst case) hacks trying desperately to scam their way into some money. They have learned that most major publishers would prefer to pay what it takes to make the problem go away rather than be tied up in litigation for years. The truly unfortunate aspect of this issue is that the songwriter, who may have worked and waited years for that one big hit record, is the one who ultimately winds up paying, both economically and emotionally.

I’ve never been one to preach paranoia, and I still believe that you can’t afford to let copyright infringement fears make you overly cautious about getting your material out to the public and the industry. I do always recommend four basic steps to fend off the most common problems:

1. Always have a letter signed by each writer at the end of a writing session to designate (a) when the song was written (b)who the writers were (c) the percentage controlled by each writer (d) the contact information for each writer. I also recommend identifying the engineer (if there was one), the studio, and any other musicians that may have been involved. Most copyright disputes are between collaborators, or at least between people who know each other and work together frequently.

2. Register your songs, in some manner, once they’re completed. That doesn’t necessarily mean registering them with the Copyright Office, which can get expensive. If you’re a member of ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, it may be easier to register them there. You can also use the “poor man’s copyright” method of sending yourself an unopened envelope containing the song. But somewhere, try to make a record showing the existence of the song.

3. Keep your records. Hang on to work tapes, records of pitch meetings (and identify what songs were pitched), work for hire agreements with musicians or singers, and correspondence. All of these can be vital in defending yourself against a claim.

4. Don’t take it personally. If you’re involved in a dispute, try to remember what’s really at stake: Money. Copyright disputes are best treated like business matters, not issues of morality. The well-known writer that settled the bogus copyright dispute at the beginning of this blog was right, even if it was an unfair outcome. If it’s a fight about money, then you have to do what makes economic sense.

On that last subject, there’s a new service being offered by the Nashville Songwriters Assn. International, that may make a lot of economic sense for some songwriters. If you’re someone who regularly has songs commercially released, you may want to consider NSAI’s recent partnership with insurance agency Frost Specialty, which has created a copyright-infringement insurance policy for NSAI members.

This group plan allows songwriters to pay relatively low premiums for a moderate level of coverage. In the past, writers often had to purchase at least $1 million dollars worth of coverage, which is very expensive. Under the NSAI policy, writers can pay premiums as low as $1,500 for $100,000 of coverage– most copyright disputes are settled for less than $100,000.

Kudos to NSAI, which is truly one of the most effective songwriter organizations in existence (and one to which every songwriter should belong anyway) and to NSAI president (and legendary country songwriter) Steve Bogard for taking on a very challenging problem. Remember– in our society, anyone can sue anyone for anything, with or without cause. The plaintiff may not win, but for the accused, who finds his or her money frozen, legal fees mounting, and reputation damaged, it may not matter who wins. If you’re making a living at songwriting, I would strongly suggest that you consider the necessity of the NSAI-Frost policy. Check it out at:

http://www.frostspecialty.com

Can’t say I’m sorry to see 2008 draw to an end. What was shaping up to be a reasonably positive year through the first three financial quarters suddenly imploded in the final stretch, resulting in a economic disaster that sent everyone, in almost every industry, into a tailspin. When even oil sheiks are complaining, you know you’ve hit hard times.

For the music industry, there were bits and pieces of reasonably positive news in regards to settlements on some of the many court cases with internet providers like AOL and Yahoo, the agreement on mechanical and digital royalty rates, and significant rate increases on digital sales. But in the interest of fair reporting, the truth was that the sales figures for the all-important holiday season were an ugly sight—one that will almost inevitably result in more lay-offs and cutbacks at labels and publishers in 2009.

Perhaps more frightening than the disappointing results of highly anticipated records from Kanye West, Guns and Roses, and others, was the industry’s failure to launch more than even a handful of new potential superstars in the past 12 months. Beyond Katy Perry and
Duffy, there is little to point to as far as “the next big thing”. If you ever want a true dose of reality about the current state of the music industry, check out the “Touring” section of Billboard, or the magazine Pollstar. The biggest touring shows of 2008? That would be the Police, Springsteen, The Spice Girls, Madonna, AC/DC…

Needless to say, a business in which the most popular acts are all over fifty years old is not looking at a healthy future.

And yet, for many individual songwriters, artists and bands, the music landscape actually appears brighter than for the industry as a whole. The truth is, never has it been more possible for a reasonably hard-working band to eke out a decent living without the support of a major company behind them. Thanks to the Internet, anyone can sell their music or merchandise, anywhere in the world. Thanks to myspace, the blogging network, and other social sites, it has never been more possible to mount a publicity and promotion campaign on a world-wide level. Because of the demand for new and different-sounding music on youth-oriented TV shows and advertisements, many independent musicians are finding an outlet to the mass audience, and in some cases, discovering a mass appeal they didn’t know they had. And because of exchange rate fluctuations that have left the American dollar with a value rivaling the peso or the old Italian lira, many songwriters are seeing that it can be as profitable to have a hit in Europe as in America.

Certainly, no one would contend that success in this environment is easy. But then again, I’m not sure it ever has been. The point is: success is possible, and it will happen to some companies, some writers, some producers, and some artists. The question is how to make it happen to you. To start off 2009 then, here are a couple of quick suggestions for focusing your efforts to get the most out of the current business climate:

1. Make Hits!
The good news is that in the digital age, everyone has access to the market. That’s also the bad news. While you’re trying to get noticed, there are thousands—no, millions—of other acts from all over the world, trying to do exactly the same thing. After two decades in this business, there is only one sure-fire solution that I’ve ever seen work: make hits. Whether you’re a songwriter, producer, publisher, or artist, you need at least one song that grabs attention—something that is so radically different, surprising, maybe a little shocking or controversial, funny, or genuinely emotionally moving that it simply will not allow people to ignore it. Every other band on myspace has a good, pleasant, and instantly forgettable song. You need one that DEMANDS a reaction.
 2. Think local.
Every tree is built from the roots up. In the current music environment, that means learning to do it yourself—to lay the foundation, and probably the first and second floor of the building—before you look for a larger company to take an interest. You have to build a grass-roots following where you are, then use the social networking and blog sites and other sources of free publicity and promotion to spread your presence in the market. If you need a company behind you in order to be effective, then you’ll probably never find one willing to invest in you. You have to get the ball rolling on your own.
 3. Act global.
Remember, it’s a very big world out there. If you look hard enough, there’s a market for even the most obscure musical style, given that it has a level of quality and integrity. But you have to find it. If things aren’t happening for your brand of jazz in the US, what about Asia? If you’re competing with a thousand other rappers in Atlanta, could there be an opportunity instead in South Africa or Stockholm? Country music doesn’t exist only in Nashville— maybe there’s an opening in Canada or Australia. Don’t be limited by geography in a global age. Spread your wings and pitch your music all over the world.
 4. Ignorance is NEVER bliss.
Ask any experienced musician or songwriter— in this biz, what you don’t know definitely can hurt you. The good news is, unlike generation’s prior, you have an opportunity to learn about this business from a wide variety of experienced sources and structured programs. Take a look at Berkleemusic.com and find the course that meets your needs. Check out blogs like this one. Make a trip to the bookstore or join in some of the educational events sponsored by groups like ASCAP, BMI, NSAI, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and others. The business is putting demands on musicians and composers that go far beyond knowing how to write music or play an instrument. You need the right training if you’re going to compete in today’s market.
 To quote Charles Dickens—these are the best and worst of times. They are the worst, because even the biggest and most financially powerful industry players are battling forces that are beyond their control. They are the best, because for the first time, musicians, artists, producers, songwriters and other creative souls hold their fate in their own hands. Just like every year before it, and every year to come, 2009 will be what we make it. But more than ever before, we have the capability and the tools to make it exactly what we envision, rather than what a massive media conglomerate envisions on our behalf. Let’s seize the moment! Happy New Year!!

Song Party!!

Jul 06 2008

Does anyone actually enjoy networking?

Everyone, even people with even a minimal knowledge of the entertainment business, seems to understand the necessity of it. In show business, “it’s not what you know– it’s who you know”, or at least that’s what the old adage says. Most songwriters who’ve actually started to try to make a business out of writing music have quickly learned the need for a circle of contacts and connections. But do most writers enjoy the process of “networking”– trying to meet new people, collecting business cards, hanging out at industry events, persuading friends to introduce you to their contacts? Probably not. It’s not exactly why you got into writing songs, right?

Probably because we spent too many of our formative years locked away in solitude– listening to records, practicing an instrument, or penning heart-wrenching poems of love and longing– most songwriters tend to be loners. Networking is not something that comes naturally. Of course, most of us are perfectly happy hanging out with our friends. That’s something else entirely. Unfortunately, most of us don’t understand that hanging out with our friends can often be the best form of networking that we do.

When I first moved to New York in the 1980′s to become a songwriter and producer, I had the good fortune to come into contact with a small group of other songwriters who were also in the process of launching their careers– the group included Alexandra Forbes (who wrote “Don’t Rush Me” for Taylor Dane),
Shelly Peiken (“Bitch for Meredith Brooks, and “What A Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera), Jeff Franzel (who has written for everyone from NSYNC to Placido Domingo) and Barbara Jordan (former Berklee faculty and founder of Heavy Hitters Publishing). While none of us were in exactly the same musical style, we were all primarily oriented toward writing the sort of mainstream pop material in vogue at that time.

We all initially got to know each other through what we called “song parties”. We would meet at each other’s apartments and trade leads about who was looking for material, listen to and critique each other’s songs, and of course, trade industry gossip and horror stories. These get-togethers inevitably led to collaborations and friendships, and an ever-expanding network of other writers, musicians, singers, engineers, and record executives.

Before long, a fledgling musical community was thriving. If there were an A&R person that I hadn’t met yet, inevitably an introduction would come through someone else in the group. If someone else needed a recommendation for a demo singer, or some help with an arrangement, I might be able to lend a hand. This doesn’t feel like networking. It’s just what friends do.

Of course, we were all competitors– all chasing after the same cuts, working on the same projects, and cultivating relationships with the same industry contacts. This too is part of being in a community—competition inevitably makes everyone else raise their game.

How well did it work? Interestingly, out of a core group of ten people, at least eight are still working in the industry today. All of those people have had Top Ten hits some have had several. That’s a remarkably high percentage for a group of songwriters chosen at random. And yet, I suspect the averages would be about the same for many of the songwriting groups run by NSAI or others. It’s not that this was such a talented group of people. It’s the fact that when talented people get together, rather than trying to go it alone, it opens up opportunities for all of them. In fact, the song party worked so well that most of us who were part of it remember it as one of the key elements in the development of our careers.

The good news is “song party” is about to get a new twist. Partly at the suggestion of Shelly Peiken, music business veteran Suzan Koc, one of the top publishers in the industry, has launched a new venture, called “Songwriters Rendez-vous”, inspired in part by the “song party” and what it did for that small group of writers in NYC. This time around, the program is based in Los Angeles, and as it’s an actual business (there is a fee to attend), it’s considerably more organized. There are critiques, counseling, industry guests, and more– it’s a 6-week mentoring session, in groups of 12 participants. Check out the website:

The Songwriter’s Rendez-vous

As valuable as the technical knowledge is, don’t miss the real point. This is the way networking is done. By meeting 12 other songwriters, you are suddenly part of a songwriting community. You’ll be challenged, helped, inspired and educated by others who are doing similar things, and facing similar obstacles. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some collaborators. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find some friends.

Last night, I went to a party for a friend who was having one of those milestone birthdays. That friend is a very successful writer/producer, and was another of the original “song party” crew. Not surprisingly, the rest of the room was filled with people that I had known for more than 25 years. Despite all the ups and downs of this crazy business, everyone was happy (as much as songwriters or musicians can be), successful, and still making music in one way or another, more than two decades later. Whether or not you know it now, this is the goal.

When you’re younger, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to leapfrog over your peers, or finding that industry “power-player” that will open all the important doors. As you get older, you realize that the best part of surviving or thriving in the industry is the friendships that endure over what is inevitably a journey filled with highs and lows.

Networking won’t make you very many friends. But things like “song party” will– and they’ll give you a network too. There’s strength in numbers, and there’s company and support as well. Don’t miss opportunities like “Songwriters Rendez-vous”, if you want to find your way into the creative community.

Gone Country

Jan 16 2008

Who ever thought you’d get travel tips out of this blog?

I’m on my way back to New York tonight, returning from five days in the music capital of the USA—a little bleary-eyed and overloaded with CD’s and memories of some amazing musical moments. LA? Atlanta? Miami? Nope. I’m coming home from the original Music City, USA: Nashville, Tennessee.

Long understood to be the center of the country music industry, Nashville is much, much more than that. In fact, I would argue that it’s the real center of American music. For instance, take my five-day schedule. It began with one of the transcendent music experiences of my life, at the BMI Trailblazer luncheon, honoring gospel music legends Marvin Winans, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and Vanessa Bell Armstrong. In an ironic mix of secular and spiritual, Nashville is not only the home of country music’s heritage of cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs, it’s also the home of the Christian music and Gospel industry. That was followed by meetings with top country producer like Keith Stegall, who just finished a remarkable album with new rock act the Zac Brown Band, rock producer Jeff Coplan, who has developed new country act Love and Theft, country publishers like Midas Music who are riding high with the success of CCM rock act Rush of Fools, Murrah Music who are launching hip-hop writer/producer Bar-None, and Full Circle, whose star writer Rachel Proctor is working with pop act Jessica Simpson. It’s all pretty mixed up here.

Add in a few trips to the honky-tonks of Nashville’s District area, to hear a wild mélange of traditional and modern country, bluegrass and rockabilly, played by some of the best bar bands to be found anywhere in the world. Then there was the opportunity to see Alan Jackson on his home turf, delivering two hours of straight-up country music in a style that captures all the beauty, dignity and humor and heartbreak of that venerable tradition. And a night at the Bluebird Café, to hear the industry’s greatest songwriters strip their craft down to a guitar and vocal— tall tales and three-minute tragedies passed around a circle of writers in a tradition as old as the campfire. The surprise discovery of up and comers Telluride, blending soul, rock and roll, and classic country harmonies in a testament to the inescapably intermingled roots of American popular music. An afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame, watching the evolution from hillbilly music to Hank Williams to Elvis and Jerry Lee to Charley Pride and Garth Brooks and Rascal Flatts. And I haven’t even started listening to the CD’s.

If you’re looking for a vacation spot that offers ample nightlife, a little history, a vast range of cultural experiences, and a minimum of pretense, put Nashville on your list. But more importantly, if you’re looking for a supportive, accessible musical community that boasts the greatest musicians and songwriters in the country, along with some of the industry’s shrewdest operators, you might want to pack your bags.

Is it competitive there? Undoubtedly. But it’s also a place where industry execs still listen to songs, musicians can cut three demos in a four-hour demo session, guitar-vocal demos can turn into Top Ten hits, and songwriters can hang out together, trade ideas, offer encouragement, and learn from those with more experience.

Throw in the ham and biscuits at the Loveless Café, and it’s enough to make a NY boy start to go country.