If I had one dollar each time that I heard a songwriter saying things like “My songs are better than the ones on the radio” or “I just can’t get anyone to listen to my songs.” I didn’t need to work anymore, and I could retire at age of 30. When I hear these statements, I know that the writer in question doesn’t understand the business side of music.
My first publisher used to say, “I understand the greed in the music business, it’s the stupidity that throws me off.” He would go on to say that he could work with the idea that people in the music business are trying to make money – as much money as possible. After all, it’s their job. They are trying to feed their families, afford a nice place to live and save for retirement, just like everyone else in every other job. He taught me a lot about the way the business works. Understanding how it works allows you to work with it instead of against it. Many writers act as if the music business is their enemy and they don’t want to “sell their soul” or they want to “keep their creativity” and after years of hearing these, I still do not understand why they came in the music industry if they think this way! You will never succeed with that attitude. Never. If you educate yourself on how the person you are talking to makes their money, you will gain insight into how you can best work with them. For example, here are some types of people you might meet with, how they make their money, and how you can work with them best.
Publishers. They only make enough money to stay in business if they get songs on the radio regularly and/or get enough streams that covers the cost and pay some profit. One reason is the royalties from the radio that keep them going and the other reason is that when a song is in radio means the mass public will hear it over and over and get familiar with the song and that means they are getting familiar with the artists, support the artists and that is exactly where the artist and the publisher can make some real money. They can make a little bit of money from album cuts, but not enough to survive. If you want to work with a publisher, you have to be writing songs that are fresh, current and extremely commercial in your genre. By commercial, I mean that you have to have songs that sound like they could be on the radio right now. That 5-minute art piece about your grandma might be the best written song they have ever heard, but it’s not going to help you do business with a publisher. You have to keep in mind that the publishers are the most business oriented in the industry and they don’t even necessarily have any musical education, or they don’t need to be musicians. In many cases the biggest publishers in the industry are coming from backgrounds of being lawyers, managers or marketing people. The other very important factor you need to remember is that they only stay in the business if they get songs on the radio. That’s the ultimate goal for them to survive. If you can help them do that, they want to work with you. If you demonstrate that you don’t know that your songs are not even close to the ones on the radio, they aren’t going to give you the time of day.
PRO Reps (ASCAP, COMPASS, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, etc). The PROs make money by “floating” money. They collect billions of dollars in royalty money and they hold it for three months before they pay out. During that time, they collect interest on those large sums of money. And they keep a small percentage for administrative fees. Again, they make the bulk of their money from radio play – which this big money being generated is one of the two important reason for the publishers to have one thing in mind; to get the songs on the radio – so, who are their top priorities? Writers that are getting cuts on the radio. Those people will get called back immediately. Who are their lowest priorities? People just starting out with no track record. Those people have to be worked in as time allowed. How do you work with that system? You are politely persistent. If they don’t call you back, you wait a week or two and politely try them again. You are conscious of their time. Ask to meet them for 15 minutes. You make sure that you have great songs before you meet with them, so you don’t waste their time. You go to events they hold and introduce yourself so they can put a face with the name. You are polite and professional at every turn. Eventually you can get your foot in the door if you are writing songs that sound like they should be on the radio.
A&R Reps at Labels. These people only make money if their artists succeed. Their artists succeed by getting songs on the radio, which gives them an audience to come to live shows. These A&R reps get hundreds of songs each day. You can’t listen to hundreds of songs in a day in addition to the other responsibilities of your job. So, how would you decide which ones to listen to? You’d listen to the proven hit writers first, correct? Then, you might listen to some from writers that you know and like. Lastly, you’d probably listen to songs whose titles catch your eye. If you have the choice between “My Truck” and “Red Solo Cup”, you’d probably find “Red Solo Cup” more intriguing, so “My Truck” gets left in the pile even though it might be a great song. How do you work with that system? Send them songs with really intriguing titles? Get to know them at music business events so that they recognize your name in their inbox? Make your e-mail address some variation of their name instead of “cuteypoo1990”. All of those things can help you move up into the “listen” group instead of the “ignore” group.
Managers. These people make money from a percentage of everything their artists earn. So, they make more money if their artist writes the song than if you or I write it. So, they are not usually all that interested in songs unless you give them a song that they think could be a career making song for their artist. They would love to be the person who found and delivered that song to their artist. In general, as a songwriter it will be a bit hard for you to work with managers because most of them naturally want their artist to see the things the way that the artist always imagines everything good in the world is coming from their manager. They don’t want you to directly be in touch with the artist and if you get the direct connection, don’t be surprised if you see the manager is trying to cut you off. But, if you give them a song their artist could write on their own, they have financial incentive not to pass your song along.
Producers. They make money if the album they produce sells a lot of copies. That is hard in this day and age of almost no sales, and all free digital streaming. So, they are looking for songs that will sell albums. If you can provide them with a “high impact” song that is going to cause people to purchase it, they are interested. They also usually get bonuses if the song become a radio hit. So, they are looking for both types of songs. You can’t give them something ordinary. Always remember the producers are the most musical people in the industry and naturally they have the sharpest ears in catching the potential of a song. Maybe a publisher or a manager or an A&R person cannot imagine the final product when they hear you singing with your guitar, but the producer is exactly the same person whom when they hear your guitar and your vocal they already know how they must switch this song to something that hottest singers would want to sing it. Because of this thing, they receive a crazy number of demos on a daily basis and they won’t have time to listen to all of them and think about each of the demos and come up with solutions of how to make it better. Therefore, it’s your job to send them something that don’t need them to spend too much time thinking about it. Just hear it and want to start working on it. It has to be awesome or they aren’t interested.
Hopefully, those profiles give you some extra insight into working with the music business instead of against it. If you know how the person you are talking to makes money, you can figure out how to help them make money and you will make money in return. After all, the point of any business is to make money, while doing something meaningful.