With 40 No. 1 hits to his name, Nashville tunesmith Shane McAnally obviously knows how to deliver attention-getting hooks. But the triple Grammy winner, one of Kacey Musgraves’ main collaborators, does it even when he’s just talking about songwriting. During an interview about his latest endeavor, the TV show Songland, he drops this line: “Writing a song is more personal than having sex.
“I mean, you get in there with people and you have to just trust that baring your soul is gonna be okay,” he clarifies. “Songwriters … jump right into intimacy because that’s what it takes every day if you’re gonna collaborate.”
McAnally now gets intimate with soul-baring songwriters in front of millions as one of the show’s three tune wranglers, known as producer/mentors. Unlike The Voice and similar talent competitions, NBC’s Songland focuses on the craft — and magic — of spinning words and melodies into hits. Each episode features four contestants, winnowed from hundreds, vying to have their work recorded by that week’s superstar guest. Three make it to tweaking sessions with McAnally, Ryan Tedder or Ester Dean, where their songs are sometimes radically reshaped to fit the guest artist’s style. By the end of the show, the chosen track is available as a single.
And odds are good that by the next morning, the song’s once-unknown writer has an iTunes hit. The Jonas Brothers’ recording of songwriter Able Heart’s “Greenlight” took only two days to knock Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down” out of the No. 1 spot on iTunes’ Top Songs chart.
Since its May 28 debut, Songland also has released recordings by John Legend, the Black Eyed Peas, Meghan Trainor, Kelsea Ballerini and Aloe Blacc. Charlie Puth, One Republic and Macklemore are among others slated to guest.
Songland comes at a time when artists are struggling harder than ever in a business that’s never been kind to them. But while streaming services fight royalty payment increases and Spotify actually demanded return of alleged overpayments, Billboard has started a songwriters and producers chart; a Tinder-like app designed to help songwriters find collaborators (We Should Write Sometime) is beta-testing; and another TV show, The Song, which will explore the history of various hit songs, will start filming in Nashville in October and begin airing in 2020.
“[It’s] shocking to me that music is so consumed daily by everybody in the world, and yet pretty much most people have no idea how it’s made,” says Audrey Morrissey, an executive producer of Songland and The Voice, who helped musician Dave Stewart develop Songland from his concept. (Voice alum Adam Levine and director Ivan Dudynsky are also executive producers.)
“People are now getting a peek at the incredible brilliance and talents of songwriters and creators, and what goes into making the songs that they love,” she adds. “That will … undoubtedly help in the effort to get songwriters more pieces of pie.”
Songland might be regarded as the logical outgrowth of an entertainment landscape that recently included the TV dramas Nashville and Empire, as well as music-themed films from the latest A Star Is Born remake to fictionalized biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman and the Beatles fantasy Yesterday. But unlike those efforts, Songland really does expose — in a very condensed way — how a song evolves into a potential hit.
Of course, McAnally (whose hit list includes Miranda Lambert, Midland, Thomas Rhett and 2019’s Best Country Song Grammy winner, Musgraves’ “Space Cowboy”), One Republic lead singer Tedder (who’s earned three Album of the year Grammys for his work with Adele and Taylor Swift, and wrote Beyonce’s “Halo”) and Grammy nominee Dean (who’s worked with Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, and on the Pitch Perfect films) make it look easy. They also make it clear that at this stage, soul-baring takes a back seat to cutting and pasting.
“It’s not about whether a song is good or not, because that is so subjective,” McAnally explains. “The goal is not to make your song better. It’s to make it more cuttable. And that is a different thing.”
For those who question whether it’s right to twist that piece of someone’s heart and soul inside out, he says he might agree — “except they came on the show to get their song recorded by a hit artist. And that is something that Ryan, Ester and I know how to do.”
Indeed, having a song recorded by a top-tier talent would be a game-changer for any aspiring artist, even if it bears little resemblance to the original — and even if it means signing away some of what that song might earn in exchange for the opportunity. In a world full of songwriters struggling to be heard, giving up autonomy and potential revenue for a crack at far greater exposure — and connections that could lead to more hits — may seem like a no-brainer. (It’s also, for better or worse, the way the music biz has always worked.) In today’s reality, despite the occasional viral sensation, the odds of that song becoming a moneymaker independently are long, anyway.
Tebby Burrows, who worked with McAnally to shape her song, “We Need Love,” into the one Legend chose, says she initially applied three years ago. At that time, rules stated applicants had to relinquish all song rights. That didn’t concern her.
“I was like, ‘This is gonna be amazing, and if I were to get selected to be on television, it would open up a whole new door that was not previously open to me,’” she says.
The rules were amended after industry website the Wrap called out the faux pas. They now require waivers only for songs used on the air, and specifically for “all uses in conjunction with the show.” Royalties from streams or sales generated by BMG, which distributes recordings on the Songland Records label, presumably are fair game — provided the songwriter belongs to ASCAP, BMI or another performing rights organization.
“The show is a love letter to songwriting and songwriters,” Morrissey insists. “The whole aim is for people to have a sense of their talent and what they do in the process. The show operates like the real world, so the songwriters keep a large percentage of their songs … The model is pro-songwriter.” (It’s also releasing runner-up collaborations, she notes.)
McAnally, who struggled to make it as a recording artist before achieving success as a songwriter, assures, “I would never be a part of something that took someone’s rights away.
“I’ve been in those situations where I’ve felt like, ‘Holy shit. Wait, that was mine.’ So I would never do that. Neither would Ryan; neither would Ester … Dave Stewart has more experience in songs and publishing than any of us there, and he also is the first person, in every regard, to stand up for songwriters.” The writer keeps at least half ownership, he says, but cowriters would get credit anywhere; it’s standard practice at his publishing company, SMACKSongs, which has already signed a couple of Songland contestants. He’s also signed at least one to Monument Records, the imprint he and a partner revived through Sony Music, and written with several others.
“I just have a soft spot for songwriters because, well, for one, I know what it took for them to get there,” McAnally says. For him, Songland is a way to give back by sharing his expertise.
For Able Heart, who had never even performed before appearing on Songland, the most mindblowing part of the experience has been the mentoring he’s received.
“I’ve never seen so many people at the top of what they do care so much about the people who are trying to achieve what they have,” he observes.
In social media posts after her episode aired, Burrows confirmed her hunch, and noted the importance of persevering.
“Ten years ago I auditioned for America’s Got Talent, but I didn’t make it,” she wrote. “Six years ago, I auditioned for The Voice and got a call back, but I didn’t make it. Three years ago I submitted a song for Songland’s pilot episode, but I didn’t hear back. Last year, I submitted a new song that I wrote and I got selected to be on the show … then I won … I got to work with the incredible @shanemcanally and now we have a song recorded by John Legend!? Holy Cow. Please don’t give up. Whatever happens in life. If you feel something in your heart, just keep at it.”
Or, as Morrissey explains it, “This show is about dreams. It’s people daring to dream, and stepping up to the plate.”