Billy Steinberg: Steinberg Advises: L.A. Not Easy Town For Writers

When Billy Steinberg was a child, he couldn’t understand why his friends didn’t love music as much as he did, and he felt alone because he had such an intensity about music that he did not see in those around him.When Billy Steinberg was a child, he couldn’t understand why his friends didn’t love music as much as he did, and he felt alone because he had such an intensity about music that he did not see in those around him.

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“I loved the song I was on the radio, and I would beg for records and then would play them and was crazy about them,” Steinberg recalled. “I knew the color of the label, the name of the song, everything about it, and that record became a prized possession to me. I still get a thrill to hold a record and play it – it’s just a magical experience for me.”

Today, it’s likely that Steinberg will be playing records with his name on the label as the songwriter. He and frequent co-writer Tom Kelly have written for Whitney Houston (“So Emotional”), Madonna (“Like A Virgin”), Heart (“Alone”), Cyndi Lauper (“True Colors”), Pat Benatar (“Sex As A Weapon”) and The Bangles (“Eternal Flame”). He sometimes writes with artists, including Lauper and The Bangles’ Suzanna Hoffs.

Though he loved music and wrote poetry, Steinberg didn’t put the two together until he was at Bard College in upstate New York and learned to play acoustic guitar. At this time he started to put music to the poems he had been writing and discovered songwriting. That was In 1968, but it was another ten years before he was to see his songs start to be recorded.

“During the 70s I had visited a number of publishers and played them songs and had not received favorable reactions from them,” said Steinberg, who had by this time returned to his father’s farm in the Coachella Valley, where the third generation Californian worked in the family vineyards. “I kinda had a chip on my shoulder and really felt bruised by the rough treatment I had been given by the people who not only didn’t like my songs, but were callous as well.”

Steinberg went on to explain his resentment. “I’d call and make an appointment with a publisher two weeks in advance, drive three hours, wait an hour for him to see me. Then the publisher would pop in a song and while the song was playing, he would speak with his secretary, receive phone calls and fast forward the tape. After 20 minutes would lapse he would tell me he wasn’t interested.”

So why did Steinberg persist? “I didn’t have a lot of choice about it,” he replied. “Songwriting is a part of me just like eating, breathing, and sleeping.”

Persistence paid off. In 1978 Steinberg put together a band for the purpose of recording the songs he was writing, and they were signed to Planet Records by Richard Perry. Their record was never released, but of the 12 songs they recorded, three were cut by other artists, including “How Do I Make You” by Linda Ronstadt.

“That was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to me,” Steinberg confessed. “It felt like such a relief to have positive news about my songwriting career.”

Steinberg and Kelly met in 1981 at a party given by a mutual friend and found that they both had cuts on the Pat Benatar album that was out. At Steinberg’s suggestion, the two tried collaborating, even though he felt that they were very different and might not be suited to writing together. As it turned out, the two have been writing together ever since and have also become best friends.

“At that time I hadn’t made the determination if I was better at music or lyrics,” Steinberg said. “When I got with Tom, over a period of time it was clear that his musical ability was something to satisfy the reason I had decided to search for a collaborator. Although I have contributions to make to the muse, he is better at it, and he had trouble writing lyrics. It works out great.”

Steinberg cautions young writers that to make it as a songwriter in Los Angeles without also wanting a career is very hard.

“There are very few slots open on records by big name artists,” he explains. “We had one song, “True Colors” on Cyndi Lauper’s album. Of the ten songs on that album, she co-wrote seven, two were oldies. That left one slot open, and that is very typical. There are others, like Whitney Houston, who don’t write, but she makes an album every two or three years. It’s very tough – actually the labels look for the singer/songwriter when they go in to sign an act.”

In examining the R&B side of music, Steinberg admitted that there are fewer artists who write in that genre of music, but that often the writer/producer gets involved with the project, leaving the R&B songwriter in the same situation as his rock or pop counterpart. A trend he thinks may be phased out is the idea of the artist who doesn’t write and records ten songs with ten different producers, which gives the album very little sense of continuity.

“The record company now recognizes that trend was ending up in confusion,” Steinberg pointed out. “I do think there are some artists who would benefit if they were more open to outside material, but that may just be a selfish songwriter statement. I’m not in the position to complain because Tom and I are succeeding.”

Steinberg retains his publishing as does Kelly and both pitch their songs without benefit of a songpluggers or outside publisher.

“I have, over the last eight years, slowly but surely developed a relationship with managers, producers, A&R people and artists,” Steinberg explained. “When Tom and I finish writing a song, we decide who we’d like to hear do the song and try to contact someone with that artist.

“For example, we had a song that we wanted to pitch to Tina Turner, and I didn’t know her producer or her personally, but I knew her manager. I called him, he asked me to send him the song, and he called back a couple of weeks later and put it on hold. Sometimes that first choice doesn’t come through, though, like in the case of “Alone,” which we wrote in 1982. It was recorded by Heart in 1986.”

In putting together a demo, Steinberg doesn’t believe in aiming for a particular artist. He considers the song itself, puts together the best demo possible, and then decides who it sounds like. “If you don’t demo it for a particular artist and they don’t take it then it sounds too much in their direction,” he repeated and often heard theory. “We demo the song for the song’s sake.”

Although Steinberg moved to Los Angeles nearly four years ago, he continues to return to the Coachella Valley and work in the vineyards April through July. “I tend to write my best song lyrics when I’m there,” he explained. “The vineyard is in the desert and the open spaces are like an empty canvas and they make me want to take out my paints. In Los Angeles, the canvas is complete and I’m not so creative there.”

For the new writer looking to break into the Los Angeles market, Steinberg advised “It’s better to write one really good song than ten pretty god songs. If you think you’ve got a good idea and title, and then write it the best you can and demo it the best you can. Look at the melody, the lyric, the arrangement, and make it as good as it can be. The songwriter who writes one number one song is more remembered than the guy who gets two or three album cuts.”

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