Gold Digging: The Independent Way

You’ve written a song you truly believe in. Everyone tells you it’s a smash for so and so, but you don’t have an “in” with a major record company, producer or artist. You have sent tapes and never heard anything back. Is that the end of the line? Not by a long shot.You’ve written a song you truly believe in. Everyone tells you it’s a smash for so and so, but you don’t have an “in” with a major record company, producer or artist. You have sent tapes and never heard anything back. Is that the end of the line? Not by a long shot.

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Independent record companies have traditionally been an outlet for music that is on the cutting edge, fits into a niche, or is simply eclectic, interesting, and worthy of exposure. Independent record companies also have a well-established track record for taping into emerging marketing trends and being at the forefront of changing audience tastes. So you never know when a small label may hit a home run and have an album that goes gold.

The frustrating experience of submitting tapes and never getting a response is all too common. Most labels, major and independent, do not listen to tapes from unpublished writers, because they lack the staff, don’t have the time, or want to avoid any possible claims of copyright infringement at a future time. Several independent labels I spoke with told me they listen to every tape that comes in the mail and some make an effort to respond to the writer, time permitting, and ‘lo and behold, now and then, they find a diamond in the rough.

Whether you’ve got a list of cuts as long as your arm, or are still searching for your first recording, don’t overlook the opportunities that independent companies offer, to have your song heard, recorded, and making bucks.

The first thing, you might ask is how do find the company, what kind of sales do it’s artist generate, and why should I bother? At the sublime end of the sales curve is the huge success of the Alison Krauss album, Alison Krauss: Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, on the Rounder label. Rounder is celebrating it’s Silver Anniversary this year, and has literally struck “gold” with Alison’s CD. Perfect Stranger’s album, You Must Have The Right To Remain Silent, is another example of an independently released album that wound up on a major label. It’s rare, but it happens, and getting your song to the marketplace any way you can is important to your songwriting career.

No matter where you live, there is bound to be an independent label within a few hours drive. The simplest way to find out if you should submit a tape is to call and ask if they have an A&R person (artist and repertoire) who looks for songs for the labels acts. Next ask if you could send a tape. As long as you respect their time and policies, you stand a good chance of talking to someone who can give you the information you need, i.e., who to address tape to, artists recording soon, etc.

Bob Reeves at Core Entertainment said their label doesn’t try to pigeon-hole or limit the style of it’s artists roster. Instead, they look for talent, uniqueness, and originality, ad are always “looking for a good song, performed well.” They focus on country, Triple A, and Americana acts, and they try to listen to all the songs that come in through the mail. Their best known artist is Englebert Humperdink, and by press time his album will most likely be finished.

A&R spokeswoman Karen Karan says although she has yet to find a song through the mail from an unpublished writer that knocked her socks off, she still listens to the tapes that come in, and she tries via postcard to report the status of the pitch so that the writer knows his/her song was listened to. Her advice to writers/publishers would be submit no more than three songs on a tape, know the style and work of the artist that songs are being submitted for, and above all, be objective about the songs being submitted, i.e., are they similar in musical style to previously recorded songs by that artist. Does the point of view in the lyrics reflect attitudes and more consistent with the artists known works Translation, does it sound like mainstream radio.

Veritas Music Entertainment Inc. (Country/Alternative), a new indy label which opened it’s doors with a public stock offering, is headed by two well respected, seasoned, industry pros. Founded by Bud Schaetzle and former Sony Music Nashville President Roy Wunsch, Veritas will employ “less conventional methods of fostering name recognition and sales for their artists,” a company release said. Tracy Gershon, the label’s A&R person, was previously in publishing at Sony/Tree and has great empathy for the frustrations that plague the songwriter who can’t seem to get a response to their pitches. She does listen to unsolicited material, and tries to respond to writers with a post card so, “at least they know it was listened to.” Tracy also advises writers to only send a few songs, and to always put the “best song first”, on the tape. Their first artist release will be Bob Woodruff, who was formerly on Giant Records.

Bob Bennett from Encore Records (Country) and Proclaim Records (their positive Christian label) says they are constantly on the lookout for that special song that can help launch a career. Bennett tries to let writers know if they are, “on the right track.” When he finds a song of particular interest, if he doesn’t have an artist for it right then he puts it on file, and when he feels ti would work for an artist, he checks with the writer/publisher to see if the song is still available as an exclusive, (first recording of the song). Although to date Bennett says that he hasn’t “found anthing through the mail tha was of particular interest to me,” the door is still open, and that beats the heck out of the toss and burn unopened policy tha tprevaisl at many labels and production companies. He advises writers not to worry about writing for particular artist, but to “put your whole heart in it,” letting the chips fall where they may. It’s the emotional connection he’s looking for.

Getting to know the local studios, engineers, and producers in your own back yard can lead to connections with writers/artists that are in their formative stages, giving you an ‘in’ when things start to happen for that artist. Dave Copenhaver, engineer, producer and the head of A&R at Lunacy Records (Pop/Rock/Country/Blues) in Oklahoma City say, for example, that native Okie Toby Keith was doing demos at their Studio Seven and a few years later…bingo, Toby’s a big star. So there’s no predicting who you might meet, collaborate with, or pitch a tune to, just around the corner. Copenhaver says he listens to everything that comes through the door and told me that, “some of the best songs I’ve found were walk0ins. About all they had was a song.”

At CMH Records (Bluegrass), almost everyone at the label screens songs, looking for a gold nugget and they also welcome unsolicited tapes.

Raynee Steele, in A&R at Silver Wing Records, is another example of an open door policy at an independent label. She listens and tries to give a written response to every writer who submits a tape. Sometimes she includes a short critique to help writers understand what they need to do to have a better chance at success at her label. The major no-no she says, is that “I don’t like people to send me just lyrics.” The company leans heavily toward country music but also records Gospel, Alternative artists, and stars from the past who still have a following but no record deal. Steele was one of the few A&R people I spoke to who said she has actually found unsolicited material that was held for an artists to record.

These are just samples of the labels who accept outside, unsolicited material. A little digging on your part may well turn up others of interest to you. In general, independent labels are more accessible. You can simply call them and ask if they are accepting outside material, published or unpublished, for what artist, and who should the songs be addressed to. Some labels are more responsive than others, but it’s well worth it to give it a shot. That’s the good news. The bad news is, that most independent label artists write their own material, or co-write it with people they know.

I didn’t say it was easy, but a cut on an independent label is exposure for your song, and a boost to your reputation as a writer. You never know which other artists, producers, managers, or publishers will hear that cut, become aware of your name, and be more receptive to listening to your songs in the future. You never know how much success will come from an unexpected source. The bottom line is, any cut is better than no cut.

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Top Christian Songwriters of 1995