This article is the first in a series which will run in each issue of American Songwriter in 1997. In addition to tips from John Braheny in Los Angeles, upcoming issues will feature pitching songs in Nashville by Jerry Cupit, and Sheila Davis will advise you on the New York scene.This article is the first in a series which will run in each issue of American Songwriter in 1997. In addition to tips from John Braheny in Los Angeles, upcoming issues will feature pitching songs in Nashville by Jerry Cupit, and Sheila Davis will advise you on the New York scene.
What can you expect when you knock on doors in L.A.?
Nothing. You only, figuratively speaking, knock on doors in L.A. The industry is so spread out that you’ll run out of gas before you get your first rejection. Some succeed in getting in-person appointments. Your odds are better if you’re from out of town and will only be in town for a few days. Take a professional attitude and set up appointments at least a couple of weeks ahead of time. Most of the time, however, you’ll be asked to send or drop off a tape. Drop it off if you can just to make the human connection. But first, get permission to submit the tape because most companies have policies against accepting unsolicited material for both legal reasons and knowing that most unsolicited submissions are a waste of their time. To get permission, call or fax with the best reasons someone would want to listen. Faxes will give you a better opportunity to get your pitch right. You many not get much time on that first call. After your pitch, ask for permission to submit. Always have the name of the person you’re submitting to, determine if there is a code that needs to be placed on the package, then get them the tape immediately. If you’re not ready to do that yet, don’t call.
What kind of material are they looking for?
On the song side, they are searching for almost everything. Though not so much country, since there’s only a limited amount of country production going on out there. There are publishers, however, who have country branches or reciprocal agreements with Nashville publishers to pitch each other songs. Primarily hip-hop, R&B, and pop, since the pop market is dominated by black artists or black-styled white artists, a great many of whom still rely on outside songs. Obviously the charts are also full of artists in the Morrisette, Hootie, Gin Blossoms styles of pop and alternative genres, but they’re predominantly self-contained and rarely look outside for songs. Publishers in LA need access to a variety of material, including that of self-contained writer/artists and bands to service the film and television industries. We got a call last week from a music supervisor for Mexican Ranchero music for a film. We just said “Sure, we’ve got it,” made about a dozen calls from our database of writers, and got the songs. But those were songs I never would have signed, just in case. So even though we’ll sign songs we feel our potential hits in the popular genres, we need access to virtually all styles.
What kind of artists are hot now and what might they look to sign?
For quite a while now, everyone was looking for an alternative band. Now that alternative is mainstream, nobody quite knows what the term means anymore. Labels are dropping lots of those acts from their rosters now because they haven’t recouped their costs. But we have to remember that historically, more than 80% of acts of any style don’t recoup and alternative bands are just what they’d signed lots of. Nobody ever knows for sure. There are always individual artists or bands with unique sounds, great songs and marketable images that someone will gamble on, particularly if they’ve test marketed themselves by selling records on their own. Publishers will also do publishing/artist development deals.
Is there a lot of co-writing going on? Who sets it up? Publishers or writers?
Yes, there is a lot of co-writing for both artistic and career strategy reasons. Writing with producer of an artist, or writing with the artist, are situations often set up by publishers with their staff writers, but are also the result of writers networking and personal relationships. Staff writers may actually be signed based on their existing access to production projects. Many collaborations in the urban genre are based on someone who can create and produce great contemporary tracks working with a lyricist or composer/lyricist. This is because, in successful urban dance oriented music, great tracks are at least as important as melody and lyric.
Publishers like to hear well-produced, master quality demos for immediate access to film and TV projects which often have quick turnaround times for licensing songs and masters. You should be aware of the production values of the genre you’re writing in and produce the demo accordingly. If it’s a style that needs rhythm and energy make sure it’s in the demo. A pop ballad can be done with keyboard and vocal if you’re selling melody and lyric but both have to move you emotionally. There are great demo singers in L.A., use them. MIDI sequenced production works in urban and pop and dance, not in alternative, roots, rock or country.
Get a day job, network at night, write all the time, study the music business and get ready.