Makin’ Stuff Up: Selling The Dream

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In an era of slumping hard-copy sales, diminishing revenues, fewer available publishing deals, declining draws, and increased odds against getting cuts, I can’t fault any songwriter for exploring every avenue possible to keep the pantry stocked. However, not every alternative is on the up and up.

I personally know and genuinely like several of the writers who are milking what has become Music Row’s newest cash cow. However, I do not endorse what they are doing, nor do I feel they are going about their business in a completely forthright manner. It’s not so much that wannabe’s are paying hit writers exorbitant fees for co-writing appointments. (Am I a saint? Surely not. I once received a $50 honorarium from a talent development company for writing with a pretty, young fledgling.) To me, the murky part is the implicit promise that, by writing with a bona fide “hit writer,” a thus-far credit-less dilettante will immediately be welcomed into the exclusive hit-maker club just by having his or her name juxtaposed next to someone who has penned a chart topper or two.

Certainly, all songwriters know it’s to their strategic advantage to “write up,” to seek co-writes with more successful writers. To accomplish that based on one’s genuine talent is a true rite of passage. Under those circumstances, every session is, in essence, an audition. When an up-and-comer shows up for a writing appointment with an established pro, she’d better arrive with some fresh ideas and the capability to contribute her own share. If not, that ambitious lass would be unlikely to get an invitation back. As my pal Kent Blazy says, “I’ll give pretty much anyone a chance. But, if he arrives without a pencil, a piece of paper, a guitar, or an idea, I probably won’t book another appointment.” On the flip side, if that same aspirant has forked over a couple-a Gs for the privilege, the rent-a-pro might look at what the collaborator brings to the table through different eyes. Knowing he’ll be walking away with wad of cash regardless of what they write might just skew the process a little bit, doncha think?

Ultimately, what really rankles me is the mere suggestion that every song co-written with a “hit writer” is destined for chart success. That very implication is in the phone number of the highest-profile purveyor of rent-a-pros, Songwriters Institute (slogan: “Created by hit-writers to create hit-writers”). What does 877-WRITEHITS say? That all you have to do is get in the room with “one of us,” and you’ll be crankin’ out a smash? Having been fortunate enough to achieve the distinction of “hit writer” myself, I only wish that my name actually meant “hit song.” Surely, at any given time, there are a select few whose names glow with a platinum brand. Still, no writer pens a hit every time out. Even hall-of-famers. A top song plugger and close friend was repping the catalog of a fellow who had penned a string of superb chart toppers. “Oh, there are a lotta stinkers in there,” my friend confided, “some real bad ones.”

Now, assuming you have yet to pen a hit, you may want to ask yourself: If I purchased a co-write with one of these rent-a-pros, what motivation would he or she have to even pitch our song? After all, every top tunesmith has oodles of titles co-written with other big names. And, presumably, those big names are partnered with top publishers and pluggers with real industry clout, long-cultivated relationships, and connections. Would it be a solid, strategic move for the pro to stick his neck out for a co-writer without any track record at all? And, since industry decision makers are totally aware of which writers are padding their bank accounts by charging for appointments, whatever song those writers pen with any unknown quantity immediately begs suspicion, doesn’t it?

Regarding the implicit 877-WRITEHITS promise, here’s a quote from a promotional email blast I received from Songwriters Institute in July: “Our last three retreats have brought about very successful results for our attendees: several of the songs co-written at these retreats have been demoed and are being pitched to major recording artists. One of the songs co-written at our Santa Fe retreat is on ‘hold’ for 2011 American Idol runner-up, Lauren Alaina, for her debut album! Please excuse my cynical guffaws. They’ve demoed some songs, pitched some, and got a hold? Yippee! Why not just hire one of Nashville’s many fly-by-night independent pluggers who will pitch any song – as long as he keeps receiving that weekly stipend? And for these kinds of “successful results,” eager, newbie song scribes are literally forking over thousands of their hard-earned dollars for these co-writing appointments.

Admittedly, a whole lot of us are applying our talents in ways we might not have considered 10 or 15 years ago – just to keep roofs over our heads and fill up our gas tanks. Still, to sell a writing appointment to anyone who can afford it does not reflect well on the most prestigious songwriting community since the Brill Building. This practice even has something in common with “the world’s oldest profession.” Not that I harbor any negative, moralistic judgment about those who trade pleasure for cash. I actually purport that prostitution represents a much more honest and equal exchange. A prostitute offers no promise of anything beyond the experience itself. Not so with 877-WRITEHITS.

If burgeoning writers desire to learn “how the pros do it,” I think it’s perfectly justifiable for a genuine hit song-crafter to charge whatever the traffic will bear for coaching. However, with this specious new business model, clients assume they are buying something else above and beyond mentorship: a lifetime membership card to a previously exclusive club. And, simply because they made the investment and showed up, they also assume they’ve purchased something that doesn’t actually exist in reality: a clear path to the top of the charts.

 

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