Makin’ Stuff Up: The Art Of The Deal

Over the last half-dozen years, I’ve been honored to speak every semester for music business and production classes from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Aside from the deadheaded dolt in every bunch, who dozes through my elucidating, anecdote-filled spiels, the kids are for the most part attentive and eager, with a bright bulb or two in every pack. In fact, some of the brightest aren’t kids at all, but full-fledged grown-ups seeking a second or third stab at a career.  For their final exam, at the end of every term, each student is required to prepare a pitch presentation for a panel of Nashville music-biz pros. It’s a fun but exhausting afternoon of role-playing. The student presenter might choose to play the part of a concert promoter, a manager or producer of a developing act, a newbie singer-songwriter, or a web developer, while the panel in turn might be requested to portray a group of potential investors, advertisers, an A&R or publishing company staff.

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October 31, 2011, the afternoon of Hallows Eve, we gathered once again at Tanglewood, the historic log-cabin hideaway where, back in 1974, Robert Altman shot the notorious political fund-raising scene for his classic spoof, Nashville. The students’ presentations were, for the most part, uncharacteristically unstructured, ill-prepared, and based upon some imagined version of reality. One young fellow, however, definitely took “alternative reality” to an even more alternative level. The aspiring songwriter stood before the panel – we were, on his instructions, acting as a publishing company – and, without playing us a single note of his music, proceeded to dictate the precise terms of the staff-writing contract he intended to sign with us. While the young gent demonstrated an accurate recall of the fundamental parameters of an entry-level pub deal – something many hit writers have yet to learn – the way he went about pitching himself as a writer was as backwards as an Amish ambulance. In other words, he opened with the hoped-for end result. In the real world, the writer/publisher relationship would have developed not unlike a lengthy courtship, one that begins with the publisher getting a crush on his songs – which weren’t horrible, by the way – and would conclude with two attorneys one-upping each other banking billable hours until a contract was finally fully negotiated and signed.

I had to goad the youthful presenter into playing us a tune by informing him in no uncertain terms that, had this been the real world, I would have thrown him out of my office by now. “How dare you walk into my office and dictate the terms of a deal you’ve given me no reason to want to make?” As I proceeded to dress him down in front of his peers, his blushing face and wilting posture told the tale of a lad who’d failed to adequately think things through in advance.

For the last several semesters, one of my fellow panelists has been Dan Keene, a former ASCAP exec, who now teaches at Belmont and gets his creative jollies by fronting a weekend warrior band he has wittily dubbed Dan the Torpedoes. A large, quick-witted, exuberant fellow, Dan is always willing to leap into each role he’s given on the panel. He and I often spar to give the presenters the most constructive tough love. At the conclusion of this particular four-hour session, Dan left the students with some insightful parting words. He explained that he had purposefully played the hard ass and that he hoped the students benefited from his strident tone. Then, he gave the most cogent instruction of the day: “You are not here to tell us what you need. You are here to identify what we need and show us how you can help.” Time and time again, the posture the students took was hat-in-hand. Seldom, if ever, did they take the attitude of “I am here to solve your problem.” Instead, students virtually pleaded for “deals,” asking pretend publishers and record companies to consider developing raw talent and help artists/writers build a fan base, ignoring the reality that today’s labels and publishing companies no longer act in those capacities. (To be perfectly frank, they’ve never been very good at that stuff anyway.)

After Dan passed this succinct nugget of wisdom along to the class, I jockeyed for the last word and added a PPS to his remarks: “Initially, you are not selling your product,” I explained. “You’re selling yourself.” I pointed out that not a single student imagined entering an office, where one would naturally smile, introduce him or herself to each individual, and share some small talk before jumping into that sales pitch. “Nice weather we’re having.” “How ’bout those Titans?” Ah, now everyone is comfy. Now it’s time for your song and dance.

Here’s the truth – no matter what you’re peddling. Salesmanship begins by explaining to potential customers why they need what you’re selling. The buyer has to see intrinsic value in the product. You have to make the customer feel as though, if they don’t move quick, they’re gonna lose out. Manipulation? Maybe. But human nature, for sure. If a publisher knows that you desperately need the deal, he will be less motivated. If you’ve just written with an artist who just got signed, or with a rising-star producer, or your ReverbNation page has had a million hits, or you just packed the Listening Room – or, if another publisher is sincerely interested! – then you’ve created value in yourself and your work.

Hat-in-hand is not the way to launch your career as a hit writer. Writing good songs is not enough. Do the rest of the work, by hook or by crook. Be the pump primer. Develop relationships that count. Create value in your catalogue, and the industry will come to you. Don’t be a beggar. Be a problem solver. And watch out for Dan the Torpedoes!



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