At music industry conferences, purely actionable information is sometimes hard to come by. Unless you’re listening to someone who’s in the business of providing interesting stats (Eric Garland, say, or Jim Lucchese), the odds that a panelist will offer up clear tips, useful insights, or anything else resembling a brass tack are kind of long.
But just as there is always one panel where nobody offers up any specifics, there is usually also one that is hugely helpful. And at this year’s inaugural Rethink Music conference, it was at a panel about songwriters.
As moderator Jay Rosenthal explained in his introduction, songwriters are in an especially unenviable position in the evolving new music economy. Plummeting album sales have not only hurt songwriters’ mechanical royalties, they have also pressured artists and labels into trying to get as much out of albums as possible. That means fewer spots on major label records for outside songwriters. According to Rosenthal, the number of spots available is down 50% from where it was 10 years ago.
To make matters worse, all the talk about artists being able to offset their own income losses with increased merch and touring revenues is nothing more than cold comfort; no matter how many t-shirts an artist sells, their songwriters never see a penny of that money.
It’s tough to say whether the panelists’ frankness was the result of their dire situation they’re in. Whatever it was, the audience left with the following nuggets.
Give the Market What It Wants
Maggie Martin, a Berklee grad and a manager at EMI Music Publishing, was the unquestionable star of the panel. It seemed like every time Martin opened her mouth, another concrete insight tumbled out. “There are three requests I get every day,” Martin confided during a segment on syncs and film and TV placements. “The uptempo songs about life, the dramatic thing with the big crescendo, and the non-romantic love song – the song you’d write about your dog.”
Because virtually every mass market piece of film or television has slots for these kinds of songs and sounds, it’s hard to argue with Martin’s logic (If you’re skeptical, turn on your television, tune in to any network station, and just keep it on for an hour). These songs are inescapable. You should at least practice writing them if you want to get some film or TV placements.
Align With Artists In Your Orbit
Many songwriters dream of writing a hit single for a huge star. But you’re not going to have a high batting average if all you do is swing for the fences. Ralph Peer, the founder and CEO of peermusic and a long-time Nashville songwriter, told one attendee to write for artists “within your sphere of influence.
“Find artists that live in your area, and work with them,” Peer said. Doing this not only helps raise songwriters raise their profiles locally, it also gives them the chance to get comfortable writing with and for somebody in the same room, an increasingly rare experience that’s still extremely valuable.
If you’re looking to get signed to a publishing company, you’ve obviously got to have great original compositions to offer. But sometimes one of the best ways to get a publisher’s attention is to rearrange or reimagine some of the gems in their catalog. Martin spent a lot of time talking about how she gets her current crop of writers to engage with EMI classics, challenging them to do things like create gloomy, dark versions of “New York, New York.” A well-conceived cover will show off both your skills as an interpreter and as someone who’s knowledgeable about a particular company’s catalog.
It’s tough to foresee what will happen to songwriting as a profession. But at least the songwriters in attendance at this panel left with a head start.