SongWriter: Identity, Sexuality, and Changing Norms

Years ago the television show Men in Trees licensed five of my songs. They offered a few hundred bucks per side (master/publishing), money I badly needed. Still, when I excitedly shared the news with an older musician friend, he was outraged. He told me I was being stupid, that I needed to demand much more, and recalled that he used to get $20,000 for television licenses. I wasn’t sure whether he was out of synch with the licensing market, or whether I was being naive. I worried that I was helping to drive down prices for myself and my fellow songwriters, but finally decided I couldn’t afford not to take the money. Maybe when my friend licensed his songs he could demand fees like that, but decades later I wasn’t sure I could.

I thought about generational perspectives, and how norms shift over time, recently when I was talking with Lou Barrett. Lou is a they/them femme and a poet, essayist, and blogger, and the founder of Purpled Palm Press. The story Lou reads in this week’s episode of SongWriter is about falling in love with their best friend in high school, and contending with the resulting emotions and questions of identity. Lou told me, “Some people are like, ‘This isn’t a choice for me,’ and I think that’s just as valid and interesting of an experience as someone like me, who’s saying, ‘No, I think I’m choosing some of this.’” 

Lou asked if the idea of innate sexual identity is – in today’s world of myriad identities and pronouns – becoming anachronistic. “It’s not a choice in that people cannot help who they’re attracted to…but I don’t think that I’m innately non-binary or innately queer,” they told me. “We got obsessed with the choice thing for political reasons….and what I don’t like is that it’s like, ‘Who would choose this? Who would want to be gay?’” The idea that choice has no role in sexual identity was perhaps once a necessary posture, but the blossoming of identities in new generations invites a broader and more complex conversation.

Cleveland musician Michelle Gaw wrote a song in response to Lou’s story about the intense intimacy of friendship. Michelle spoke particularly about intimacy among fellow artists: “Some of the closest friends I have are people that play music. When somebody shares a song with you before they show anyone else…it’s almost like a language that only people that really know me can understand.”

Years after my music plinked away in the background of Men in Trees, I was chatting with the supervisor who licensed my songs. I couldn’t help asking what would have happened if I had demanded more money. Was my older friend correct – could I have gotten thousands for my songs if I had only asked? 

She was unequivocal: if I demanded more money she would have just moved on to the next songwriter. It wasn’t personal; payouts were wholly constrained by the budget. The money she offered me was simply the money she had to offer.

You can hear Lou Barrett’s story and the song that Michelle Gaw wrote in response in the newest episode of SongWriter. Ben’s current single is “Precious Cargo,” and you can follow him @MyHeart.

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