SHERRILL BLACKMAN: Adventures in Songplugging

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Everybody in Nashville needs a lucky break. In an über-competitive field like the music business, timing is everything. For songplugger Sherrill Blackman, opportunity knocked to the tune of a country song.

“‘I’ll Get Even with You’ was written by a grandmother from Kentucky, Coweta House,” recalls Blackman, clad in cargo shorts and tennis shoes in his relaxed Music Row office. As a young publisher at Buckhorn Music in the early ‘90s, Blackman’s job was to match songs with the right artists.Everybody in Nashville needs a lucky break. In an über-competitive field like the music business, timing is everything. For songplugger Sherrill Blackman, opportunity knocked to the tune of a country song.

“‘I’ll Get Even with You’ was written by a grandmother from Kentucky, Coweta House,” recalls Blackman, clad in cargo shorts and tennis shoes in his relaxed Music Row office. As a young publisher at Buckhorn Music in the early ‘90s, Blackman’s job was to match songs with the right artists.

He had befriended House through his previous role at the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), and she brought the song to him after he landed at Buckhorn. “There was just something about it that I loved,” he remembers. He encouraged House to fine-tune the melody, and after the revision, Blackman funneled it to a fledgling, unknown artist in Texas who was working on an independent album. LeAnn Rimes.

When Rimes signed her first record deal with Curb two years later, Blackman had three cuts-including House’s composition and one that he secured later as an independent plugger-on Rimes’ six-million unit selling debut, Blue, and her next release, Unchained Melody: The Early Years.

Such was the impetus to begin his own songplugging business, SDB Music Group, which has earned Blackman the distinction of Music Row magazines “Songplugger of the Year” for the last three years.

GETTING STARTED

The likable Blackman is evidence of the old adage: “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  In his office, surrounded by autographed photos of country music giants like Rimes, George Jones, Randy Travis, John Michael Montgomery and other clients, he recalls the moment of enlightenment that prompted his departure from his North Carolina home for Nashville.

“I came across this magazine advertisement for Belmont [University],” hey says. “It was like the voice of God spoke to me at that instance, and I knew this was what I was supposed to do.”

Blackman had dabbled in lyric writing throughout the years, and Belmont became the vehicle for him to learn more about songwriting, artist management, studio engineering and publishing. “I thought I knew what I was doing, and I learned very quickly that I didn’t have a clue,” Blackman says.

After graduating from Belmont in 1982, he secured a variety of part-time and full-time positions in his field of focus.  Time at MCA Music Publishing, NSAI and in radio programming honed Blackman’s songwriting skills and allowed him to forge the valuable relationships with artists, label heads, managers and producers to whom he pitches songs today.

But it was at Buckhorn Music where Blackman gained the razor-sharp song acumen that serves him well today. In 1994 he was hired for a specific purpose: to get Kris Kristofferson’s catalogue in order for a potential sale. Kristofferson resided at the publishing house from 1965-1968, shortly after he landed in Music City. The legendary songwriter logged 75 songs while at Buckhorn, and most of them were not cuttable. “These songs were the ones Kris wrote when he first came to Nashville,” Blackman recalls.
However, with the help of Marijohn Wilkin- Buckhorn’s owner and an award-winning songwriter (“Long Black Veil”)-Kristofferson excelled. “His literary background and songwriting talent came together after three years, and his skill went up to another level,” says Blackman. “That’s when he wrote ‘For The Good Times.'” Blackman notes the moral of the story: “Songwriting is a learning process.”

SONG-SLINGIN’

While Blackman values his experience pitching songs, negotiating licenses and registering copyrights at Buckhorn, it is the wisdom he gained under Wilkin’s tutelage that serves him best. “Marijohn taught me that a song has to hit you emotionally,” he says. And this remains his criteria today.His plugging company, the 13-year-old SDB Music Group, is employed by songwriters with a resume of hits. His current roster includes five songwriters who pay his salary in return for his plugging services. When a cut is secured, the songwriter still owns 100 percent of their copyright.

With the music industry on a downslide-given the slump in CD sales, massive illegal downloading and record label consolidation-Blackman says that to compete, he has to look for songs that have [radio] “single” potential.

“With money being tighter, I can’t think [in terms of] album cuts…If an artist is going to write, they usually write the album cuts and then come to me looking for the singles.”

Blackman says he does sign writers to single-song contracts a few times a year. But it is a supplemental part of his company that, he says, aims to secure cuts in fringe genres like bluegrass, polka and jazz.

Writers affiliated with Blackman often come via a referral from other songwriters. He avoids writers’ nights and does not accept unsolicited material, due to the sheer bulk of songs that he already doesn’t have time to sift through. He explains that the biggest mistake new songwriters make is employing a plugger when traditional publishers have previously passed on their material.

“Most are not ready for a plugger,” Blackman explains, “especially if they don’t live in Nashville or in a music center. Most songwriters think that a songplugger will be their shortcut, but that’s not what we’re about. We’re about representing great songs from great writers.”

He points out the value in starting with a publisher, whose role is to offer constructive criticism, set up appointments with co-writers and shop songs to artists in exchange for a portion of the writer’s copyright.

“Let a publisher groom [you] and get [you] up to the next level, very much like what Marijohn did with Kris Kristofferson,” Blackman urges. “She worked with him for three years before he started making some noise. And that’s Kris Kristofferson!”

He also warns writers to steer away from companies that ask for money up front or that hype a lot of names, and he encourages budding songwriters to join organizations like NSAI and the Songwriters Guild of America, that offer tools to help one hone their craft.

Though the songwriter arena is jammed with competition and the music industry is in a constant state of flux, Blackman sees a silver lining for those who pen and plug-the song remains king.

“Look at the most successful artists who are selling the most records,” Blackman says. He cites artists like Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, George Straight, Faith Hill and Kenny Chesney, though they may have dabbled in songwriting, are not primarily focused on it. “Most of time they are getting songs from songwriters,” Blackman says. If a grandmother from Kentucky can get in the door, there’s hope after all.

8 Comments

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  1. Hello: I wanted to inquire about the possibility of having a known artist who might be interested in doing a cover version of one of my songs. My latest CD has been doing very well on Roots Music Report and you can find much more information about my work on my web site. Please let me know if you think this may be of interest to you. I own all rights to my songs.
    Best Regards,
    Walt Cronin
    http://www.thegousters.com

    I’m pleased to let you know my CD: “Walt Cronin -California I Gotta Run,” is on Roots Music Report
    Top 50 at # 13 (week Dec 3, 2010) Roots/Americana Country Internet Airplay Chart (U.S. & Canada)

    http://www.rootsmusicreport.com/index.php?page=charts&name=int_tradcountry Roots Music Report
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOIQDjBkck8 Music Video of California I Gotta Run
    http://www.musicforte.com/charts/genre/folk/ # 3 Folk song on Music Forte
    http://airplaydirect.com/music/waltcronin/ You may hear songs here from latest CD here

  2. Hey Sherrill, I know Benny Bolling if it helps, but if it don’t I don’t really like him. But, he told me to contact you about some of my songs getting into the right hands. He told me you were very well thought of and have been in the Biz for quite a while. I would really appreciate some advice and direction to take with my songwriting about where to record and how to get them to the right people. I would really appreciate some of your guidance in doing so. Thanks and God Bless

    JB Harrison

  3. Hi Sherrill,
    I am exploring the possibility of getting help with my music.
    Would you acept a solicitation. My latest Cd is in the music store section of my website. garyruemusic.com
    Thank you for your time,Gary.

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