Overview: The State of Songwriting in America

Everyone has heard the stories about the Brill Building in New York City and the wonderful creative atmosphere that was prevalent there in the 1950s. In Nashville, folks love to recount how there was a day and time when you could walk up and down the street with guitar in hand, enter just about any building that had a publishing sign on it, and you’d be invited in to sing a few of your songs.Everyone has heard the stories about the Brill Building in New York City and the wonderful creative atmosphere that was prevalent there in the 1950s. In Nashville, folks love to recount how there was a day and time when you could walk up and down the street with guitar in hand, enter just about any building that had a publishing sign on it, and you’d be invited in to sing a few of your songs.

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There are similar stories which circulate about all the other major music towns, and to hear some folks, things just aren’t the same as they were in those “good ole days.” In fact, some folks even claim that the “stuff” you hear today on the radio can’t compete with the songs that once came out of Nashville, Los Angeles, or New York City, and the implication is that the people just don’t appreciate the songwriter anymore. The staff at American Songwriter finds that implication hard to believe, so we decided to find out exactly what the “State of Songwriting in America” is today. I’m happy to report that, for the most part, it seems to be in great shape.

Not since I’ve become involved with and interested in the music communities around the country have I seen such a diverse range of music styles for which to write. Rock n’ Roll, Broadway, Country, pop, Gospel, R&B, Blues, and Classical have all gone through their cycles, with a dose of techno-pop, disco, dance-music and a few other styles mixed in as the cycles came and went. But look at today’s marketplace: Rap & Hip-Hop, Tejano, Grunge, Latin, Western, Bluegrass, Alternative, acoustic, and World Music are all gaining in popularity. Today’s sounds come from all areas of the globe and offer the songwriter the opportunity to hone his craft perhaps a little closer to home.

I spoke with people involved in the music scene in several different cities, and the general consensus is that there has never been a better time to be a songwriter. Not because it’s easier today, but because it is a very exciting time to be in music.

“For a songwriter coming to L.A., there are a lot of professional avenues to pursue,” says Billy Block, creator of the Western Beat Showcase in that town. Block has recently moved to Nashville, so he has the perspective of both cities to consider when he’s talking about the state of songwriting today. “For any new writer coming into any songwriting town, they should immediately affiliate with one of the performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). There are also songwriting organizations that can help you. In Los Angeles, there’s the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase (LASS) and the National Academy of Songwriters (NAS). There is a lot of support from those organizations for the new writers in town.”

Brett W. Perkins, executive director of NAS corroborates Block’s statement. “With the larger publishing companies, because of their size and volume, you need to go through channels. You don’t just drop in and drop off a tape, That’s why organizations like NAS are a good way to make initial contacts. We have a Saturday Publishers Pitches where you can have your songs heard by professionals who are actually looking for material. And LASS has a Tuesday Night Pitch night.”

Block and Pat Alger both agree that Nashville is a good place for songwriters. “Nashville is a full service town, with large and small successful publishing companies, the greatest number of collaborators and labels that are open to new artists,” Alger says. “Nashville is an easier town to network in. I’d have a hard time coming up with a reason not to be here.”

Alger lived in New York City in the 1970s, and he says, for him, that town was too big and too spread out. “You spend so much of your time coping with living in New York that you don’t have as much energy to devote to songwriting. And technically speaking, it’s more of a passing fancy kind of business… whatever the latest fad is, that’s what they are looking for.”

John Zomars moved to New York City from Detroit ten years ago. “It’s definitely a struggle,” he says, continuing “I would not call it easy from any sense. A lot has to do with luck and timing, provided that your songs are good. There are so many people, so much material, and the A&R people and publishers are inundated with material, so they have a real reason to listen to a new writer. You aren’t going to get anywhere if you go unsolicited. Your best bet is to find a lawyer, agent or manager who has the connection and the reputation, and let them administer the material. If you do it yourself, people will be turned off by the fact that they are dealing directly with the person writing the songs.”

Gary Haase is a writer/producer in New York City. He has produced Grover Washington and Chaka Khan and is working with Ramsey Lewis. In addition to writing songs, he’s also a musician, currently working on the Broadway show The Chronicles Of A Death Foretold. He sees NYC as having a good atmosphere for writers, though he admits it may have been more creative in the past. “Now everyone has home studios and everyone is isolated,” he explains. “It seems to be that something is lost in everyone being so isolated. I think when you’re not mixing with other writers, bouncing things off of each other, you lose some of the creative element.”

Zonars plays with a band, Broad, and has placed some of his songs with them, so he has an inside track for getting some of his material cut. He admits it had probably helped him on a business level, but more importantly, on a creative level. “Working with them, seeing how they respond to the way I write, and the arrangements they come up with, inspires me to write more material that works well with them,” he says. “You have to put the info out, get the feedback, and then use that feedback to go on and create something new.”

Getting feedback is what Austin, TX seems to be all about at the moment. Known as a very creative town, musically, for many years, it has become a very hip place to be once again. “Right now, it’s very popular to be writing original music, and Austin allows you to play your original music,” says Marcia Ball, who has lived there since the 1970s. There’s no glory in being a cover band in Austin right now- the glory and the prestige is in doing original material.”

Monte Warden agrees: “Austin has a healthy tradition of songwriters like Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and it’s always been a hotbed for songwriting. The reason I think it’s such a wonderful place is that people are open to all kinds of music and all kinds of ideas. One of the greatest things about Austin is that is has never been about money, but about the music. It always has been and I believe it always will be.”

Current Trends and The Next Big Thing

Nashville has always been thought of as a country music town- so much so that it has been very hard to convince publishers that there are people living there who can write other kinds of music. The recent success of “I Swear” (written by Frank J. Meyers and Gary Baker) and published by MorganActive and Rick Hall Music, all based in Nashville) may do more than anything else has done to prove that point. Not only did it sweep the country awards, but it was just named ASCAP’s Pop Song of the Year.

“There are more opportunities here than just country music,” Alger is quick to point out. “There are pop writers here and contemporary Christian writers. I’m working on a Broadway play with someone from New York City, but we’re doing it here.”

Block, who is an adamant fan of the new acoustic music trend, says Nashville is going to open up for more of that kind of music. “You are starting to see some independent labels addressing music that is a little left of center, like Dead Reckoning, Winter Harvest, Core Entertainment, Almo Sounds and Zoo-Praxis. You’re seeing the same trend in Los Angeles and Austin has always had independent labels that supported its music community. I think the whole country is really starting to see this trend. There are a lot of artists coming to the attention of the community through independently released product.

“If its pop music, Los Angeles is still a strong market,” Block continues. “The thing with L.A. is that you find more producers and artists getting their songs cut, but here in Nashville the publishers and writers still pitch to the artist and producer. There is also a rap community out there, which I know about only through reading about it. And there are all kinds of ethnic backgrounds there which spawn all kinds of ethnic music. But I think the biggest emergence for folks in my age group is the growth of AAA (Adult Alternative Acoustic) and the acoustic pop scene, some of which enters into the alternative country fringe.”

Perkins has noticed the return in popularity of acoustic music in Los Angeles, but he also sees some other trends. “Latin music is a burgeoning market, Country is ever- expanding, and R&B and Hip-Hop are still big areas for songwriters here.” He points out.

Although Zonars cautions that, right now, “the A&R guys at labels want to hear the underground, alternative dark music,” he sees a shifting of emphasis in New York City to the song once again. “In the 80s it was how fast you could play your guitar, and then it was studio tricks and digital processing and the things the great engineers could do,” he says. “As technology gets more and more overwhelming in society, people are going to want to be free from it in their everyday consuming of the arts- they’ll want artists who are doing bare basic songs and music you can hear. It will be slow, but I think it will happen. You can already see it in artists like Cheryl Crow and the success she’s had. Ultimately it always comes back to that.”

Haase says Rap in still coming off the streets in New York, but he hastens to add, “It’s New York, so there’s a little of everything. I’m interested in the West African music, and I write a lot of it and have put a couple of those songs on some of the projects I’ve produced. You have to create your own sound sometimes. A&R people are so busy chasing the latest trend that they are afraid to go with what they like.”

Austin also has a diverse cultural situation, and nearby San Antonio is one of the major is one of the major areas for the Tejano music scene, the blend of country, Tex-Mex, Folk, and Latin whish has spawned Tish Hinjosa, La Diferenzia, Little Joe Y La Familia, and Emilio Navaira. On any given night, the clubs in Austin will be filled with the sounds of everything from Blues to Alternative.

“You might see a Reggae band opening for a Rockabilly band, or a Rockabilly opening for a Blues band,” says Warden. Ball adds to the list, “Folk, Rock & Roll, Alternative, Blues- everybody’s writing their own stuff,” she says. “When I came here there was a strong progressive scene that gave way to Blues, then Punk, and now the songwriting scene. But a lot of things co-exist. We attract people who attracted by the encouragement they get from the Austin music scene.”

The Club Scene

If it’s blues you want, try Antone’s in Austin, or for alternative, head for Liberty Lunch. If you’re in Nashville, The Bluebird Café and Douglas Corner will be filled with plenty of original music. In L.A., try the Troubadour or The Iguana, and in New York, head for The Bottom Line. No matter where you are, if you’re seeking original music, you can find it. And if you hang around long enough and meet the right people, then maybe you can be one of the ones playing it for the patrons of these fine establishments.

“Threadgills has a songwriter’s night on Wednesday with Champ Hood, and Elmo’s definitely has alternative music,” says Ball. “Even on The Strip, where you usually find cover bands, The Black Cats and Joe’s Generic are featuring original music. So there are plenty of places to go to hear the singer/songwriter and original tunes.”

Warden recommends The Continental Club in Austin if you’re new in town. “They have all musical styles, so go and park yourself there for a week,” he advises. “The Cactus Café, down by the University of Texas has folk music, and The Hole in the Wall or Elmo’s has rock ‘n roll. Rutamaya has open mic nights. Those are the places you have to start and get your name known, and hopefully, after a little while you’ll get to play at some of Austin’s bigger clubs.”

In L.A., there are more clubs than ever offering original music. Billy Block’s Western Beat happens the first Thursday of the month at Highland Grounds in Hollywood. NAS does their Acoustic Underground/Writers In The Round at The Troubadour on the second Monday of each month. “The first half showcases up-and-coming songwriters, and the second half features established writers from various genres of music,” says Perkins. “Writers who live outside of L.A. can submit tapes; if they are already here, we try to get out to see them before we book them for the first half of the show.”

Another Los Angeles showcase is New Music Scene Presents, hosted by Alan Naggar. Genghis Cohen Cantina is a good place for pop, acoustic and contemporary sounds, and many of the local coffee houses feature original works.

“The advent of a new radio station with AAA format has been good for the original music scene here,” says Perkins. “They’re playing a lot of singer/songwriters, and while they aren’t playing a lot of independents, they are playing a lot of things we weren’t hearing before.”

“New York’s Bottom Line features a Songwriters-In-The-Round, and Café Sine is an acoustic venue,” Zonars says. “Brownies and the Mercury Lounge are places to hear the alternative sounds.”

The Overview

All things considered, being a songwriter in any of the music towns of America today requires just about the same thing. You might be writing R&B, alternative, rap, or folk, but the end result will depend on the quality of your material, the contacts you have and how willing you are to work at your craft everyday.

“Consider your family first, then consider the fact that the competition is keen and there are a lot of people who arrived here before you,” says Alger. “Like my friend Harlan Howard said, ‘Nobody sent for you!’ You just have to have the commitment deep in your soul to put up with the rejection and the amount of time it will take to get your career going- five years is a safe bet. But I don’t know anybody who’s really talented who’s hung in there who hasn’t achieved some degree of success.”

In New York, people in the industry are jaded,” says Zonars. “Most of the deals and what they’re looking for seem to come down through political channels more often than pure discovery and scouting. As a songwriter coming to try and get heard and get in to see people, I don’t think New York is the optimum place. It’s just hard to find people who are willing to take a chance.”

In Austin, the big publishing house is not the norm. Most songwriters actually maintain ownership of their own publishing company,” Ball agrees. “A few people have banded together to form publishing companies, and Bug Music is very active on the Austin scene. Others go to Nashville for publishing representation and sometimes people come directly to us when they’re looking for songs.”

Warden cautions, “Be sure you’re as good as you think you are before you move on, or Austin can be a rude awakening to a songwriter or band.” But he hastens to add. “This is the healthiest and best music scene I’ve ever known, and I’ve toured the U.S. and beyond.

“I would be lying if I said it was easy, but I don’t mean to sound discouraging,” says Haase. “You have to pound the pavement and make something happen, and believe in what you are doing. Success is a by-product of your effort.”

“I think that more important than where you live is how much work you do on your writing, because ultimately it comes down to the song,” says Perkins. “Keep on working at your writing, wherever you are. There are advantages to living and working in a community of writers. But if you’re a new songwriter and still working on your chops and developing your writing, you can pitch things by mail, and you should be making trips to a musical center. Especially if you’re thinking about moving, make a few preliminary trips, see what kind of feedback you get on your song. It’s challenging… so network early, even when you’re not there.”


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