Street Smarts: Some Things Never Change

kosserWhen I write this column, it’s a little too easy for me to slog my way back in time and talk about the way things used to be. Heck, the world is altogether too full of curmudgeons who constantly moan about how good things were then and how bad they are now. Of course, they were better then, when you still had all your teeth, most of your hair and plenty of pheromones left to attract lovers.

Still, history is history and sometimes it’s educational to talk about the way things have changed without necessarily moanin’ the blues.

Back in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and even the ‘70s, Music Row was one big open door. It just was no big deal for a songwriter to swing open a door to a Nashville publishing office, walk up to the receptionist’s desk and say, “I’m a songwriter. Is there anybody here who will listen to my songs?”

Often there was somebody, and that somebody often knew something about songwriting and could tell you how to make your song better.

When Hank Williams arrived at Acuff-Rose in the mid-‘40s, he found Fred Rose, an experienced, successful songwriter who co-owned the company and was thrilled to find a talented young man to mentor. As their relationship progressed, Rose would tell Hank, “This thing might sing better if you’d change such and such line,” and Hank might say, “Dang it, Mr. Rose, I cain’t ever bring in a song that you don’t try and tear apart.” Then, re-thinking his reaction, he might say, “I’ll think a bit on it.” And ol’ Hank might decide that Fred was right and come up with a new line.

In the ‘60s, Hank Cochran was working for Pamper Music when he heard a young Willie Nelson singing in a Lower Broadway beer joint called Mom’s, later called Tootsie’s. Willie was singing some very good songs and Cochran wanted to know who published those songs.

“Nobody,” said Willie. “Nobody wants them.”

“You won’t be able to say that tomorrow,” Cochran replied. “Can you get out to my office?”

That was the beginning of Willie’s songwriting career. His mentor, Hank Cochran, went on to write some huge hits himself. Likewise, Teddy Wilburn, half of a popular country duo from the ‘60s, mentored Loretta Lynn in her early songwriting career. Tom Collins mentored Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan, writers of “Nobody” and “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.”

Marijohn Wilkin and Bob Beckham mentored Kris Kristofferson. Buddy Killen mentored Joe Tex, Curly Putman (“Green, Green. Grass of Home,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and many others). Curly mentored Bobby Braddock (“I Wanna Talk About Me,” “Time Marches On,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”) and Sonny Throckmorton (“The Way I Am,” “Last Cheater’s Waltz,” “I Wish I Was 18 Again”) and me—well, you can’t win ‘em all.

All this mentoring was a lot more than cheerleading. It involved listening to songs, commenting on songs, suggesting ways to make them better. It involved…involvement.

How things have changed. The Nashville music industry was built around great publishing companies. Those companies were all bought up by worldwide conglomerates, most of whom have offices in Nashville. Those old publishers were happy when their companies made money. But when your company is publicly owned, making money is not good enough. You have to make more money than you did the year before so the stock prices will go up. Publishing is just a part of these major conglomerates, which also own record companies, movie companies, book companies, etc. To do their share in helping the bottom line of their parent companies, publishers spend millions buying up smaller companies. They sign singer/songwriters and hope to strike gold with these budding superstars. And they sign up hot writers for big advances by outbidding the small companies that nurtured those writers in the first place.

These things are constantly on the mind of the executives that run these publishing companies. For most of them, there’s not much room in their daily schedule or in their skill set to sign a promising young writer and hold his/her hand while he/she goes through the awkward period of polishing raw skills into hit-making quality.

In many cases, the same is true of the publishing staffs. The sync rights guy is busy combing the catalog for music to plug into movies and ad campaigns. The songpluggers are concentrating on their hottest writers, all a sweat to get enough cuts to keep their jobs for another year. And major publishers tend to hire pluggers who have demonstrated their ability to get a cut, not for their song-mentoring skills. They see songs as ready or not ready for demos, ready or not ready for pitches, not almost ready as in, “If you do this, this and that to the third verse, I think you’ll have a hit.” In fact, I’m not sure that songpluggers get as emotionally involved with songs as they used to, as in, “I love this song and I won’t stop pitching it until it’s a hit single.” Let a promising song go through a month or two of rejection or languish on an album without being considered for a single slot and the pluggers may forget about it.

That’s not a knock on big company songpluggers. Sadly, a lot of the excitement has gone out of that part of the industry. That’s just the way it is.

And yet there are still a lot of publishers left on the streets of Nashville, a lot of smaller companies, in three- or five-room offices with a secretary, a plugger and a handful of writers working on small or no advances. Some of those companies have not broken through and will soon fold. Others have had a bunch of cuts, but no hits yet to provide a little breathing space for them. Still others are competing out there, getting CD cuts here and there, a single or two or more, shaping their writers into recognizable brands, maybe even launching one of their own singer/songwriters. Lurking in the offices of some of these companies are publishers with instincts and skills like their esteemed predecessors. They can take a songwriter in hand and help to shape that songwriter’s skills and psyche. New writers in town who are or are not seeking a record deal need to seek out such people, and not expect them to be a mommy or daddy to them, but expect some wisdom and working knowledge.

I may be naïve, but I believe there are still mentors on Music Row, not necessarily in the big companies, but there nevertheless. Those are the people new writers in town need to find.

Michael Kosser is a Senior Editor at American Songwriter and author of 17 books. His songs have been recorded by George Jones, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, Ray Price, Tammy Wynette, Barbara Mandrell, Josh Gracin, Black Shelton and more. He is director of the Songwriters Institute at Cumberland University, where he teaches the craft and business of songwriting.