Dispatch from the 2017 ASCAP Expo


Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP

It was another momentous ASCAP Expo — held at the Loews in Hollywood in mid-April — that featured a host of classes, seminars, showcases, panels, and much more, all designed to inform and educate songwriters while celebrating the ongoing meaning and moment of music.

The festivities kicked off with ASCAP’s Annual Membership Meeting, which included remarks from ASCAP President Paul Williams, CEO Elizabeth Matthews and EVP of Membership John Titta, as well as a performance by five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald, who still possesses one of the most soulful and uniquely visceral voices in pop music. A humble man, however, McDonald recoiled slightly when told of the greatness of his pipes, and said, “When I got my voice, yeah. But it’s not always there.”

Also performing were four-time ASCAP Country Music Songwriter of the Year Ashley Gorley, Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T’s and Troye Sivan collaborator Brett McLaughlin. 

Among the highlights of the early panels was the “Freshman Orientation,” with Beyoncé collaborator Vincent Berry; “Hit Producers Go Behind the Beats” with J. Cole, and “You Should Be Here: A Peek into the Country Music Market,” which included a special honor for Ashley Gorley, commemorating his 30 #1 hits on the country music charts.

The first afternoon also included Billboard‘s “We Create Music” panel (with Gorley and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner), as well as a master session with Greg Wells, producer for both Katy Perry and Keith Urban.

Day two was also jam-packed with a plethora of meaningful panels. The morning panels featured some of the country’s most prominent advocates for music creators discussing the issues that songwriters and composers currently face. Two members of Congress, Rep. Karen Bass of California (D) and Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia (R), came together to discuss the need for music licensing reform with ASCAP President Paul Williams and songwriter Priscilla Renea.

Later in the day, Aloe Blacc, Songwriters Hall of Fame member Desmond Child, composer Alex Shapiro and Auddly founder Niclas Molinder discussed the growing concern about proper credit for songwriters and producers on streaming music services, and what music creators can do to make sure their contributions are recognized.

Additional early panels included “Women In Film Music,” which featured several of Hollywood’s most prominent female composers discussing the challenges they’ve faced on their way to the top of their field, and Grammy-winning songwriter Darrell Brown’s annual Live Multi-Genre Song Feedback Session, a hit as always.

ASCAP also brought together the songwriters, producers and A&R reps behind Justin Bieber’s Purpose to dissect the making of the critical and commercial smash.

Afternoon sessions focused on the business side of music creation, with panels like ‘What Publishers Can Do For You,’ ‘Maximizing Digital Revenue’ and ‘Building Your Team.’ These panels featured top tastemakers and execs from across the music industry, including VP of A&R for Warner/Chappell Ryan Press and Head of Urban A&R for Atlantic Records Gary Leon.

The EXPO Factor attendee showcase kicked off day two’s round of evening performances. During the event, up-and-coming musicians got the opportunity to play their original work for a panel of artist managers and A&R execs.

The day wrapped up with the Writers Jam, featuring performances from songwriters Dave Bassett (Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” & Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s”), Lindy Robbins (Jason Derulo, David Guetta) and more.

The Freshman Orientation panel, which outlined how best to navigate the Expo and the industry, proved to be an informative session. American Songwriter had a few moments after the panel with two artists who shared their knowledge and wisdom to first time attendees.

Leah Palmer, a singer/songwriter from Dallas is now working with hit-making songwriter/producer William Larsen (Nico and Vinz’s “Am I Wrong”), all due to her tenacity. “It’s great that panelists are accessible and not stuck up,” she said. “They’re open to sitting down with you.”

At her first Expo, she ran up to Larsen after he spoke and asked if she could play a song. “I said, ‘After that you cannot talk to me again if you don’t want to.’ If you really want to outshine other people or impress someone, sing it live. Show them you are willing to show them that one unique experience.”

In anticipation of her full-length debut, Palmer debuted an acoustic teaser of her song “Love Letters in Flowers” on the eve of the ASCAP Expo.

Vincent Berry is a shining example of persistence to the craft and receiving the payoff. Berry landed a cut on Beyoncé’s Lemonade with his song “Sandcastles” while he was homeless. Through ASCAP, Berry met GRAMMY-winning songwriter Malik Yusef, who worked with him on the song and helped get it in front of Beyocé’s team.

“The key is to make the contacts and build your team but not bombard them,” he said. “Just give it time and it will come. I joined ASCAP in 2005. I was living in Detroit and had to figure out how to get my songs out to the industry. First, I joined NSAI (Nashville Songwriter’s Association) because Nashville is closer than L.A. and they had a chapter in Detroit. I found out about the Expo and came to it in 2009 with no publishing deal. The worst thing was that I would meet people.”

One of the most valuable takeaways for Berry was picking up a copy of The Craft and Business of Songwriting by the late great John Braheny, which showed him the personal value of creating a song, but more importantly, the monetary value.

“[John Braheny] broke down performance rights, publishing, labels, sync in layman’s terms,” said Berry. “I realized I wasn’t just a songwriter. I’m a publisher too.”

Berry was disciplined enough to be able to do both the creative and the business end: “In my mind I separated from everything in this world in order to achieve the thing that I dreamed, which was already out of this world. You have to write every day. If you’re not writing every day you’re not a songwriter. You will get better. How can you not? You only have a responsibility to write the song. The people will tell you if it’s good or bad. I now have about 50 songs that have been placed. But I have about 300 that haven’t found a home. But it will come.”

Asked about his response to this year’s Expo, Americana singer-songwriter John M. said he most valued wisdom and advice offered by fellow songwriters. He felt the emphasis on sales of so much gear was more attuned to the NAMM show, and they he came to Expo not for gear but for information and inspiration.

“The highlight of Expo this year for me,” he said, “was the presentation by Stevie Wonder. Hands down. It was the highlight, both entertaining and inspirational. At one point he said, ‘Never be afraid to stand up for what you know is right, or stand up against what you know is wrong… never be afraid to speak your truth, but… speak it with love!’ Good advice for musicians and non-musicians alike, I think.” His most recent album is M-VI on M-Pire Records.

Rob Seals, founder and director of The Songwriting School of Los Angeles, an entire school dedicated to educating, informing and honoring songwriters, shared his love and appreciation of the Expo both to inform and inspire.

“The Expo gave The Songwriting School of Los Angeles the chance to talk to songwriters from all over the world,” he said. “Of all the inspiring words I heard this weekend, Stevie Wonder said it best: ‘Those of us who have been given the gift of expression must express ourselves, lovingly.’ I’d like to think The Songwriting School is devoted to that idea: giving passionate people the tools, mentorship, encouragement, and support to do work that matters. I’m grateful to Irwin Kornfeld and everyone at ASCAP for providing an event of this scale where we could join the conversation.”