“Write Your Story…Write Your Truth” was one of the slogans at this year’s “I Create Music” Expo, the annual gathering for songwriters hosted by ASCAP this past weekend in Hollywood. It was indeed a common thread throughout the weekend, from inspirational “you will succeed in your craft” career advice straight from the mouths of esteemed performers, producers and industry executives, to aspiring artists networking and creating music on the spot with newfound collaborators, to music manufacturers offering the tools to make those dreams happen. Though there is an air of “dream big and you’ll make it”- with variations on the “one day I was singing on the street and the next I was working with a major recording artist” storyline- the Expo is in fact a wealth of knowledge across all aspects of the industry for those paying attention and not just dreaming. The annual Hollywood conference has become a ‘clear my schedule’ pilgrimage for many music creators seeking their path and place in today’s music world, and a buzz event for newbies who have heard of its many offerings.
During his opening welcome speech to ASCAP members, Chairman of the Board and President Paul Williams addressed the progress his organization (along with other songwriter advocate groups) has made with the passage of the Music Modernization Act, recently approved by Congress. After countless hours of lobbying in Washington and lifting the veil to show the human element behind song creation, Williams noted politicians have come to realize, “Oh yeah, there’s people behind that song. And then the light bulb goes off and they realize something needs to change. The MMA is the first significant piece of copyright legislation for music creators in decades. It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it takes us closer to fair compensation from digital services.” Williams, a prolific and successful songwriter himself, offered a personal, touching anecdote about how writing your story and truth, especially in your darkest times, can lead to success. His brother, Mentor Williams, had a publishing deal that was not going to be renewed. On the final day, Mentor sat in an office space at the A&M Records studio lot and scribbled the lines “Day after day I’m more confused/And I look for the light through the pouring rain,” forming the basis of his hit “Drift Away,” which became a Top 10 hit for Dobie Gray and is a staple of every acoustic performer in the neighborhood bar.
ASCAP Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Matthews discussed in detail the continued financial and member growth of the company, with total revenue exceeding $1.2 billion and projections for a higher number in 2020, and membership topping 700,000. The majority of the revenue, she happily noted, is distributed back to its members. Matthews then brought it back to the human element and seemed most excited to share a video segment that emphasized the importance of being a good person and a force for social change in the world. “People in my office are probably sick of me playing this video but I love it!”
The membership meeting concluded with a moving performance by Atlantic Records artist MILCK, who performed an emotional ballad entitled “Quiet,” an emotional ballad that went viral and a solid two-song set from 2018 ASCAP Vanguard Award winners Portugal. The Man, who performed “Live In The Moment” and the quadruple-Platinum “Feel It Still.”
At the “We Create Music” panel, hosted by Billboard’s Melinda Newman, “Shallow” co-writer Anthony Rossomando offered insight into writing the Oscar-winning song with Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. “We weren’t angling for the way it was used in the film. We had a general idea about Bradley’s character, which was highly relatable to me. We talked for a long time and decided we were going to talk until we start singing what we’re talking about. Then we sat with our instruments and came up with the chord progression and the first verse and chorus came out line by line in about twelve minutes.” Rossomando offered further insight into the mysterious meaning of the song’s title, as well as how the song itself became a pivotal moment in the movie. “The script wasn’t finished. We thought maybe it would be used as an end credit theme. Then they flipped the ending. Originally, he (Cooper’s character) was supposed to drown. We grabbed that metaphor for the chorus. It seemed right on the nose to me. The whole song is a conversation. We got really lucky when they decided to make it a big part of the film. It goes back to what I’ve said: make a great song and maybe it will get somewhere. It was a wild thing to witness. It’s worth hanging around for, for sure!”
Grammy, CMA and ACM winner Lee Ann Womack shared insights from her storied career including her breakout Billboard Country #1 “I Hope You Dance” and more. “Some of my favorite times are the dreaming. Don’t fret about it while it’s not happening. Find your people and make your success.”
Pinar Toprak, the first woman to score a big-budget Marvel superhero film (Captain Marvel), discussed the importance of taking a chance. “I maxed out my credit card. I learned more from my failures than my successes.” As a result, Toparak wound up “getting up stronger each time.”
Ashley Gorley, the six-time ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year and writer of 40 #1 hits shared the secrets that have made him a go-to collaborator for Nashville’s biggest stars, including Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Thomas Rhett. The mild-mannered songwriting powerhouse also explained how to take advantage of opportunities at each stage of your career, no matter how big or small. Being active in the room and contributing is crucial. “Everyone should co-write for the experience, even if you hate it. You might find your new best friend.”
The oft-heard comment “if I could just get in the room with (fill in blank) I could make it” was countered by multiple panelists who turned it back to the audience. “Make your own scene. Build your own team- you can’t do it on your own. You need the person that’s going to fight for you all the time. Find your people, add value to your art and make your success happen.”
With so many different panels and events, it’s tough to catch every nugget from the Expo. Other select highlights from the three-day event (culled from the ASCAP recap press release) included:
• Creative Quest: Questlove in Conversation with Paul Williams: Oscar-winning songwriter and ASCAP Chairman of the Board and President Paul Williams discussed all things creativity– method, inspiration and more. The drummer, DJ, producer, author and member of The Roots was also recognized with the ASCAP Creative Voice Award. The special honor is presented to members whose significant career achievements are equally informed by their creative spirit and by their contributions to the role that a creator can play in the community. During the conversation, Questlove and Williams discussed the songwriting merits of staying positive, being “as bored as possible,” finding your tribe, leaving your comfort zone and always having good food around.
• Wyclef Jean’s Higher Education: Founder and guiding member of Grammy-winning trio The Fugees and solo superstar with numerous multi-million selling albums has been making waves on campuses sharing his incredible musical knowledge to college students nationwide. Joined by his songwriting collaborators, Wyclef dove into blazing your own musical path, collaborating, mentoring, and keeping your creative spirit alive throughout your career. The panel turned into party when Wyclef enthusiastically welcomed EXPO attendees to join onstage for a rousing, closing jam.
• The She Rocks showcase has evolved in its sixth year to a high power buzz show, with Grammy Award-winning artist and Voice alumnus Judith Hill headlining, plus performances from Gigi Rich, Halle Johnson and Eliza Spear. A separate “#SheRocksIt” mixer was hosted by the company’s parent organization Women International Music Network (The WIMN), the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation and the Alliance For Women Film Composers and moderated by WIMN founder Laura B. Whitmore. The networking event and panel discussion featured female industry performers and executives relating the stories behind their successful careers, with tips and insights on how they got to their success levels.
• How to Write Your Social Media Story: when it comes to social media, audiences aren’t looking for the picture perfect icon anymore. “The highlight reel of just posting the really happy moments is kind of going away,” according to Spencer Moya, Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Interscope Records. Fans want to see that you’re relatable and see your struggles and not just the illusion of perfection. There’s also the reoccurring theme of having a clear idea of what you want to do and who you want to be. Senior Communications manager of Universal Music Group Taylor Hornecker advised to “throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks” when it comes to creating content. Doing this is what creates a lot of momentum on socials and gets people to watch your content. And when it comes to choosing the right social media platform for you, Hisham Dahud has a plan for you. “There are so many platforms theses days so just try and kill it on two of them. Don’t be dormant on the others, but focus on two that would be really good for you in terms of who you’re trying to reach.“ Barbara “Babs” Szabo, the co-founder of Emo Nite, also commented on social media’s purpose noting that it “should be a community rather than just shouting at everybody about announcements,” emphasizing the importance of a connected community.
• In the Synch Holes and Score Wars panel, discussion took a deep dive into the negotiations behind a film/TV music deal with those who have reached the highest level of the field – including Joel Beckerman (Super Bowl and CBS This Morning theme songs), David Vanacore (Survivor, Big Brother) and Joe Trapanese (Tron: Legacy, Straight Outta Compton) – along with NBC’s Head of Music Alicen Schneider and Brad Shenfeld, a legal expert on film and TV music. The luminaries helped explain to EXPO attendees the difference between what’s standard practice and the sneaky fine print composers should watch out for. They also announced the “Your Music, Your Future” education initiative during the panel, more here: https://yourmusicyourfuture.com/
• Creating the music for This is Us: For a show like This Is Us, the scoring and soundtrack are a vital resource to connect with the audience and their emotions. Underpinning every episode is the music of new ASCAP member Siddhartha Khosla, composer for the show, who took attendees through various pivotal scenes throughout the series and explained his musical choices while also explaining the evolution of the music with the characters over three seasons. According to Sidd, “The show is about this larger picture of life. It’s about a connectivity between you, absolutely every family relationship possible. Therefore, when making music for this show in particular, we jump back in forth in time.” Sidd uses sounds that are timeless, like the acoustic guitar. As a show that is so music driven, Manish Raval, one of the show’s current music supervisors, feels like “there’s less talking about music and more doing,” which means music is being pitched from early stages of the script instead of after shooting. Jen Pyken, the show’s music supervisor for the first two seasons, said she’s always looking for new indie music. As it is with most aspects of the music industry, networking and connections tend to help. Jen also enjoys “going down the internet rabbit hole of finding music through blogs, Spotify, playlists, YouTube, etc.”
• Latin Goes Mainstream: These genre-leading creators discussed their diverse musical backgrounds (coming from the worlds of jazz, classical, hip-hop, rock and electronic music), their respective “big breaks” and a number of trends emerging in the world of Latin music. These included the colossal impact of Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” remix, and the rise in collaborations across genres. As the panelists discussed their personal experiences with the genre’s growth – from performing at the White House to teaching Katy Perry pronunciations in Spanish – the message to music creators was clear: take advantage of this moment, and be grateful to those who broke down the doors that made it possible.
• Hit Producers: Behind the Boards, Ahead of the Curve: Several acclaimed producers walked the audience through the various hats they wear– engineer, songwriter, contractor, beatmaker and so much more. Senior Director of Pop/Rock at ASCAP Jody Klein moderated a roundtable discussion with Linda Briceno, the first woman to win Producer of the Year at the Latin Grammys, Joaquin Diaz (Enrique Iglesias, Romeo Santos), Tommee Profitt (NF, Migos) and Mike Woods of production duo Rice N Peas (G-Eazy, Mike Stud, Jay Sean). The result was a compelling conversation on the art and business of producing, grinding in the studio and their respective paths to the top.
• Limitless Songwriting: A roundtable of multi-genre songwriting standouts, including Steven Battey (Luke Combs, Justin Bieber, Madonna), Priscilla Renea (Miranda Lambert, Ke$ha, Rihanna), Leland (Troye Sivan, Lauv, Kelsea Ballerini) and Sam Hook (Ne-Yo, Schoolboy Q, T.I.), with ASCAP’s Jason Silberman. Discussion centered on what it takes to pen hits in a range of sounds and styles, the songwriter’s humble beginnings and the essential need for openness in any writing session.
• ‘Least This Song Is a Smash: Ariana Grande’s Songwriting Dream Team: Victoria Monét, Tommy Brown and Charles “Scootie” Anderson – all close collaborators of the global pop star – walked through the creative process, from inception to worldwide sensation, with panel moderator and Ariana Grande music video director Hannah Lux Davis. As some of Ariana’s closest confidantes, the music creators behind “thank u, next” and “7 rings” went in-depth on how they became trusted colleagues of Ariana and the inner-workings of their highly successful musical family.
• Raise Your Voice: The Importance of Music Advocacy NOW: ASCAP President and Chairman Paul Williams, ASCAP Board Of Directors members Michelle Lewis, Desmond Child (also a Songwriters Hall of Fame member) and ASCAP EVP and General Counsel Clara Kim welcomed Congressman Lou Correa (D-CA) for a discussion of the business and policy issues, including the Music Modernization Act (MMA), shaping the financial future for music creators.
• The Writers’ Jam featured songs and stories from world-class songwriters Steven Battey (Luke Combs, Justin Bieber, Madonna), CMA/ACM award-winning songwriter Jon Nite (Cole Swindell, Luke Bryan, Ketih Urban), 2019 Best R&B Song Grammy-winner Joelle James (Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up”) and Matthew Koma (Zedd, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson) for the traditional show-closing finale.