Recently had an opportunity to spend a very impressive evening at Berklee College of Music’s “Perfect Pitch” event, which matched student songwriters with student vocalists for a concert that gave hope to any of us planning to stick around the pop music business for the next five years. Out of a dozen or so songs, there were at least three or four songs with real radio potential, and a couple of potential stars among the performers. That’s a percentage that would satisfy any A&R person or publisher.
However, what was even more satisfying was the acknowledgement implicit in the structure of the event itself, which was that pitching songs is no longer a business of sending out mp3 files or cold-calling A&R execs. A perfect pitch is now about artist development, finding performance opportunities, building a story and measuring results. I took onthe same subject in my own “Perfect Pitch” event, at the New York Songwriters Collective, in October. Songwriters sending out demos to record execs or managers because they “have a song that’s perfect for your artist” are missing the point. No one’s looking for songs.
In the new music eco-system, there are 3 things the music industry needs, and the success or failure of any songwriter’s pitch can be predicted almost entirely on the basis of how many of those 3 things are in place. If you can provide a clean sweep of 3 out of 3, you’ll likely be signing a deal memo before leaving the building. If you’ve got 2 out of 3, you will probably get an offer, though it might not be exactly the deal you were hoping for. Bring only one out of three and the best you can hope for is a polite invitation to come back sometime in the distant future. Here are the three things that every weasel wants and will pay for—the essential components to a “Perfect Pitch”:
This just means ready-made artists and productions—records that are ready to go. In case you didn’t get the memo, major music companies are no longer in the business of developing artists or “making records”. A&R staffs have been slashed, and frankly, the track records of most A&R people were abysmal anyway. Record labels and even publishers today are looking for people who have product in hand—artists who they’ve developed, records they’re releasing, shows they’re producing. Don’t bring demos. No one in the record business even knows what those are. Bring product.
Every artist needs a platform—or three. A platform is a stage, but not in the obvious way. It just means a venue for exposure, a way of reaching an audience. For about eight decades now, radio has been the dominant “platform” for breaking new artists, and while it remains important, it’s certainly no longer the only game in town. In most cases, radio is simply too limited, too expensive and too difficult to control to be the sole platform for an artist. You need some other ways to expose the artist to the public: mixtapes, club play, a television talent show, a spot on Glee, a touring spot, a YouTube video. Needless to say, songwriters and artists that can bring with them a platform, whether it’s a writer/producer like David Guetta, who also can use his status as a superstar DJ to give an artist and record exposure, or an actress/singer with a Disney show, or a band with a guest spot on a prominent tour, are bringing their labels and publishers a big head start.
Not only has the internet brought a vast array of potential new platforms, it has also brought the ability to measure results in a very precise and visible way. The blather of a manager hyping the band’s live show (“you gotta see the crowd reaction—the girls go nuts for these kids…”) is now just so much white noise—much of the proof is plain to see: How many YouTube views? Facebook friends? What are the sales figures like? How many Twitter followers?
Of course there are varying degrees of proof. As many labels have learned the hard way, 500, 000 Facebook friends, signing up free of charge, will not necessarily put gold records on the walls. Ticket sales and downloads speak much louder than YouTube views. Nevertheless, an artist or producer with a platform that delivers proven results, whether it’s a Top Ten Nielsen rating or a buzz on the key blogs, has the kind of story that A&R people want to hear, and to believe.
At the risk of raising songwriter cynicism to new levels, it’s worth noting that the actual quality of the music itself is not necessarily a predominating factor in any of these three elements. Presumably, a badly made recording of a meaningless song performed by an uninteresting artist will not find many readily available platforms, and even if it does, it will not gather the kind of reaction that proves its suitability to the market. On the other hand, stranger stuff has happened.
The truth is, most modern music execs are neither qualified or interested in being Simon Cowell-like judges of talent. If there is a proven audience for a particular piece of product, and there is a way of getting that product to the audience, that’s enough to greenlight a project at any record company or publisher still left in business. Whether it’s an artist like Drake, who brought a story of success from platforms like mixtapes and Degrassi, or Karmin, who signed their deal at Epic on the strength of a YouTube buzz, the contemporary songwriter needs more to their business model than just a bag full of demos, regardless of the quality of them. If the business is now about product, platforms and proof, then a songwriter has to be:
Producers make product. They are talent magnets; they are people that develop talent.
This does not necessarily mean that you have to be a “producer” in the sense of being able to create records. If you’re a lyricist or a topline writer, or someone who can write but doesn’t really know anything about record making, then you’ll need to team with someone who can do those things. Your role will be to write songs that define the artist and give them a reason for existing. Just as not every songwriter is a record-maker, not everyone who can program and mix is a producer in the sense of having a vision, drawing out and developing an artist, and giving a project a unique identity. But however you and/or your team go about accomplishing it, the business now requires both elements, the song and the record, in order to create a product that anyone actually needs or wants.
You can make product by yourself. But no one develops a platform by themselves. Syco can make records all day, but they can’t develop a TV show like X-Factor on their own. Drake can write songs and sing them, but he can’t break on a mixtape without featuring Lil Wayne, or Trey Songz, or others. DJs need singers, singers need television talent shows, rappers need guest spots, bands need opening slots on tours. As Dean Martin put it, everybody needs somebody sometimes. If you want a platform, you have to build it by working with others.
In a larger sense, this means that songwriters need to be in the entertainment business, not in the music business. The entertainment business is growing, in areas including TV, cable, internet TV, film, games, internet content, books, fashion, and clubs. Songs are a part of almost every entertainment form, and opportunities for music will continue to grow. But you cannot live in a music business vacuum. First, you have to create product. Then you must learn to partner, in order to build a platform. And if you want to be able to provide proof that your product and platform work, you’re going to have to be a:
In the big sense of the word. You, or your partners, are going to have to take the initial steps to get your product into the world, at least in some limited way. Maybe it’s a local release, or a test market, or a pilot, or small tour, or a mixtape. But YOU will have to be the catalyst to make something happen and to show that what you’re doing connects with people. You can’t just write the songs, you’re going to have to pitch them and place a few—at least enough to show that they’re placeable. You will have to put your artist in a place where they can develop a following, whether it’s YouTube or a residency or a foreign release.
That’s what I liked best about Berklee’s “Perfect Pitch”. Here was a group of songwriters happily embracing each of the challenges in the creative process. Not just the challenge of writing a great song, but finding an artist to present the song, putting together a performance venue to create a platform for the music, and soliciting the reaction of a live audience and industry judges to gather some proof that the product was hitting its mark.
Even better, it showed a creative community networking amongst each other to find the singers, producers, arrangers, background vocalists, organizers and musicians needed to put the whole show together. More than any of the talent on display that night, and there was a considerable amount, that willingness to partner and collaborate will be the key to these students’ future success. Compliments to Berklee’s Songwriting club, and to the faculty that supported them, in putting together an exciting look at what the next generation has in store for the music business…
Happy Holidays everyone! Thanks for all your support for this blog, and I look forward to catching up with you in 2012. Keep weaseling…