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…