STREET SMARTS: The Lure of the Songwriter Business

Written by January 1st, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I have a friend-a brilliant songwriter with one heck of a Nashville résumé. He decided that if he was going to support his family he’d better not rely on the uncertain income of a songwriter. So he opened a restaurant. Then he opened some more restaurants. Thinking creatively, making decisions a-mile-a-minute, pleasing people, the man is building a fantastic business, and I believe he is having a glorious time doing it.

And yet, when we get together, he wants to know: how’s Music Row? What’s going on with so-and-so? How are the guys at X Publishing Co.? It’s still in his system.

The songwriting business is addictive and seductive. It gets you in its iron grip and hangs on. You walk into it a stranger, hoping to get people to applaud on writers’ nights. Somewhere, somehow you find a publisher that loves your songs, and you respect that publisher, so every time you bring in a song that pleases him/her you feel a rush. The publisher says he/she is gonna pitch the song to George Strait or Martina McBride and you go to bed that night dreaming of a George Strait or Martina McBride cut. Then the cut comes and you watch the CD climb the album chart and pray for a single. Then the single comes, you watch it climb the charts and you realize your lifestyle is about to take a turn for the better. Meanwhile successful writers are seeking you out for co-writing sessions and you’re seeking them out, each hoping to grab a little of the success of the other.

The camaraderie of professional songwriting is terrific, if you’re actually writing rather than just staring at each other (especially when you’ve got a good start in the morning session). Then you go off for lunch and come back for the afternoon session and finish off the song laughing all the way. At least that’s how it may feel, years later, looking back-I’ll get to that.

If your song hits No. 1, then BMI, or ASCAP, or BOTH, will throw you a No. 1 party. People who don’t even like you will say the nicest things about you and you might even get a plaque. Then come the fall you’ll rent a tuxedo or buy a fancy dress and collect an award from BMI, ASCAP or SESAC at a glamorous dinner. Lots of people at the labels and other places begin to learn your name and they start being a whole lot nicer to you than when you had started storming the ramparts. There are lots of things to love about the songwriting business. And I think my friend with the restaurants misses it-at least a little.

I lecture him about the wondrous things he’s doing, and how much more substantial they are than the house of cards that is so often a songwriting career. He hears me and he understands…but he still wants to know. And once in a while he still sneaks off to write a song with one of his songwriter buddies.
And that’s why successful songwriters who lose the hit-making knack-as almost all of them/us do eventually-have issues. Because when things are going good, then life is very good. Oh, sometimes these old writers forget how very good things were until they’ve lost their knack. Then they look back on the cuts, the hits, and, I almost forgot, hearing their songs on the radio. Wow. Every songwriter oughta have at least one hit in his/her life.

But oh! When it goes away, life gets hard. Even if you have the sense to know when to stop chasing it, pick up the pieces and do something useful, even if what you’re doing is really, really satisfying, there is that little part of you that wants another cut, another shot at the airplay, another opportunity to dress fancy for a banquet in honor of your hit song, and another six-figure royalty check. You remember the look on your banker’s face the first time your brought one of those checks in-the sudden respect, the realization that you’re not just another schleppy wannabe, but a real player.

Catch Up

Last column I wrote about the band One Flew South and their first single, on Decca, out of New York. I promised to continue their saga the next issue. Well, at this writing, their single “My Kind Of Beautiful” has been hanging around the bottom of the country charts for 14 weeks. Their producer, Marcus Hummon, tells me that about 30 stations love the record and continue to play it in spite of the fact that most country stations have not jumped on it. In this world of consolidated radio, it’s great to see that some music directors still program with their ears rather than the charts. Marcus says the band has been out a lot and that the label is planning for a second single, though at this time neither track or release date has been selected.

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