d.b.a. Songwriters: Making The “Cut”

(Singer-Songwriter Randi Russo. Photo: Derek Richmond)

So, how do I get a song cut these days?

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For the sake of argument let’s say that it actually is impossible to get a cut on a major artist if you’re not on the “inside”, ie. writing with the artist or best friends with the producer, etc. etc.. That may or may not be the case, but let’s pretend it is the case for the next 5 minutes. If it’s actually true, what then? Quit? Take up sailing? Or hang in for another round of abuse, rejection, and discouragement? The ultimate question by every writer in Nashville right now is this: How does one go about getting a cut these days?

A hit songwriter and producer friend of mine went through the tip sheet the other day and said, “There are only about 6-8 major label artists I figure I can pitch to right now.” My eyes widened.

“Only six?” I replied in shock as I looked at the same 25 or 30 names on the same tip sheet he was holding in his hand.

“Well, if you take out all the artists who are writing or co-writing most of their albums, and then take out the artists who cut almost exclusively from within their own publishing affiliates and associates, that leaves between 6 to 8 that I see on the tip sheet this month that I can actually pitch to.” Bear in mind, this is a writer who recently wrote a number one hit and has numerous other charting cuts on majors. You’d think he’d have a big advantage, wouldn’t you? I’m wondering to myself, if he isn’t on the inside, who is?

“I pitched 50 demos last year…killer demos on killer songs,” he adds, “and the only two cuts I got were songs I co-wrote with the artist. The rest? I didn’t even get a response.” For a few minutes I considered taking up sailing. How much will a boat cost? Where will I keep it? Hmmm…. Wait a sec. I’m not ready to give up yet! But man, what a daunting task lies ahead of me if my goal is to get cuts on majors these days.

Fast forward to two days later. A well known producer spoke at my monthly publishers meeting and told us all about a song called “Pray for You” (Jaron and the Long Road to Love) that was recently given birth via a $400 demo at a local Nashville studio, along with a video which was shot by the artist with some help from friends and family for under $3000. The producer asked us to look it up on YouTube. When we found it on someone’s laptop we discovered that it had over 4.2 million plays and somehow it found it’s way onto the Billboard Top 100. Need I mention that Jaron, et al. now have a record deal? “Pray for You” is now all over country radio. In fact my son and I heard it on our way to the skateboard park last night.

Confused? Baffled? I was and still am. You probably should be too. If you aren’t maybe you should pretend to be, just to play it safe. But you should also be very excited. Why? Because you now have hard evidence that during these times of mundane country radio, insider CD jobs, diminishing artists, dwindling record companies, and vanishing opportunities, you actually do have a shot. Do you remember my last post when I suggested that there is no business more fair than the music business? I stated that as a tongue-in-cheek observation more than as a conclusion based on hard evidence. How was I to know it was actually true? This story provides conclusive evidence that everyone, including you, has an equal shot at the brass ring. And it doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, or who you know.

Instead of dropping your songs off at Curb Music and watch them disappear into the black hole of A&R (I’ve yet to meet a mere mortal who has ever received a response from the Curb A&R desk) or dropping off at Starstruck for Reba’s Christmas album, why not try a new angle. After all, if there’s any truth to my opening statement, you may have to.

Before I go on, let me ask shift gears and ask you a question: if you were really great at baseball and you really thought you really had a shot, would you pack your glove and ball and move to Atlanta and walk on at Braves training camp? Probably not. You’d probably try to make a mark in the minors first so you could demonstrate your stuff, wouldn’t you? You’d probably also want to collect a little more data in regard to how well you stack up with the competition before you put yourself in what could turn out to be a rather embarrassing situation. That said, the minors would serve as a learning opportunity for you as well as the scouts.

Why should the music business any different?

I have an alternate suggestion which I offer as a stepping stone to the major leagues of the music business. Why not get up tomorrow and start scouring the internet to find two or three artists who you really believe in, and I mean really believe in; artists who you think in your heart of hearts are jaw dropping phenomenal. Then contact those artists and tell them just that…that you think they’re jaw dropping phenomenal. That would be the easy part because you actually fell in love with them so you’d actually be telling the truth. Your sincerity would come through clear as day. In that exchange you might also mention that you have a couple songs that you think would be a perfect match for them. That would also be easy because you really do believe that you actually do have a couple songs that would be a perfect match for them. Again, the sincerity would ring with the sustain of a ’59 Les Paul. If you’re a writer or a small publisher and you do this in a businesslike and absolutely sincere fashion, I assure you that they’ll be absolutely thrilled to learn that they’ve been discovered…even if only by a single rabid songwriter from Omaha, Nebraska. Who would ever say no to taking a demo after getting a call like that? Would you?

I’d be willing to bet that your chance of Reba hearing your song that you dropped off at her A&R desk would be significantly less than that of this artist listening…an artist who you personally took the time to discover. And I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that, if nothing else, you’ll hear back. Can you say ‘later that day’? Of course this assumes a certain level of song craftsmanship on your part. But hey, you’re pretty sure you have what it takes, right?! Why not find out for sure? If this artist doesn’t work out you can start searching for another one. Have you ever seen how many artists there are on MySpace? And that’s just MySpace.

I’ve said it before as have many others: every major artist who’s on the charts was once an independent artist with great potential. Why not get into someone that you really believe in?

One more question: did you fall over dead from passion and amazement when you heard Reba’s last album? Maybe you did. It was actually a great album. But if you didn’t then why are you so interested in pitching her your songs? Why not pitch them to somebody you really love and truly believe in? We pitch to Reba because we know that if she cuts them we’ll make some money. But you and I know what a long shot that is these days. Why not just play the lottery instead? It may be that you have a better chance of making money betting on Powerball.

If you turn your interest to independent artists that are making a dent…singers who are getting lots of plays on the net, generating a buzz, causing a stir, and you absolutely love their music and feel that artist would benefit from recording your songs, then I’d say pick up the phone or shoot them an email and let them know. They’ll be flattered, honored, and yes, they’ll listen to one or two of your songs. And who knows, maybe many more. If they turn you down you won’t have to blame the politics of the music business. You’ll just know that from their standpoint your song wasn’t right for them. And there are always other artists.

Of course if everyone’s turning you down maybe you need to get some good, honest song critiques and make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. It may be that you still haven’t reached your potential and you could use a little help. No shame in that. That’s why major leaguers start in the minors. Potential isn’t the same as skill and the big leaguers know that. They know they need to be trained so their potential can be fully realized. Potential and skill are definitely related, but they aren’t the same thing, and potential alone won’t do it. In this business, like in MLB, it’s not about what you can do. It’s about what you’ve just done and proven that you can do again.

What do you have to lose? Find a great independent artist, tell them that you think they’ve got what it takes and then show them what you’ve got. Chances are you’ll be feeling a lot more connected to the music business as it exists in reality than you were last night when you were dreaming of Carrie Underwood accepting the award for “Song of the Year” on one of your songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…but hey, maybe consider trying out the minors first instead of trying to walking on as the Yankee’s newest ace reliever. Not only will someone who’s really making a dent in the music business actually learn about you, you just might learn something about yourself that could eventually turn that dream of bragging rights to “Song of the Year” a reality.

Bill Renfrew has an extensive background in teaching songwriting and evaluating songs, and has years of professional experience consulting on songwriting and song rewriting, which he does through his website. He owns and operates Write THIS Music, an independent music publishing company, and Bombshelter Recording Studio, both of which are located in Nashville, TN. For more Renfrew, check out Writethismusic.com.

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