We asked the members of Tunesmith.net and subscribers of the Nashville Rant e-zine for questions they'd like to have answered on the music industry, and put them to an all-star professional panel.
The panel consisted of:
Don Wayne: Hall of Fame writer of timeless classics like “Saginaw Michigan” and “Country Bumpkin.” Winner of Song of the Year honors from the CMA, ACM, and NSAI, as well as NSAI Songwriter of the Year. His mantel is home to three BMI awards and one ASCAP award. He has cuts with Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, Lefty Frizzel, Hank Williams Jr., Cal Smith, Tex Ritter, and a host of others. Don also has one of the best country voices in Nashville.
Scott Gunter: As Creative Director at Almo-Irving Music, Scott helps shape the careers of some of the best songwriters in the world. A very abridged list of songwriters he has worked with includes Anthony Smith (Mercury recording artist and co-writer of the George Strait #1 “Run”), Annie Roboff (“This Kiss,” “Unbroken”), Craig Wiseman (eleven #1 hits and counting), and Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Gillian Welch. All this and he's still one of the most humble, down-to-earth guys you'll ever meet.
Steve Fox: One of the hottest young artists in Canada, Steve struck songwriting gold in the United States with the Montgomery Gentry single “Daddy Won't Sell the Farm.” Further credits include an ASCAP award, Song of the Year from SOCAN (ASCAP's neighbor to the North), and Juno award nominations including Best New Country Artist and Best Male Vocalist. Steve has written twenty Canadian Top Twenty hits and once had four songs in the Top Twenty at one time. His son, Jack Henry, will rule the world one day.
Jimmy Payne: Another “Hall O' Famer,” Jimmy was originally a recording artist on Epic. His recording career was eventually overshadowed by his success as a songwriter. From pop hits “Woman, Woman, Have You Got Cheating on Your Mind,” which helped the Union Gap outsell The Beatles the year following its release, to country gems like the Charley Pride hit “My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You,” and cuts with Dottie West, Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette, Grandpa Jones, and countless others, he's proven to be as versatile as he is enduring. His current project, “Three Chord Heroes,” is an album recorded with friends Don Wayne, Danny Dill (“The Long Black Veil,” “Detroit City”), and Dick Feller (“Some Days Are Diamonds” and “Eastbound and Down”). Jimmy is also the nicest songwriting legend you'll ever meet.
Bart Herbison: Bart is Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriter's Organization International, the largest organization of its kind. A quick Internet search will turn up Bart's name all over the place, usually in connection with songwriters' rights and legislative efforts. He's also a veritable treasure trove of songwriting history.
Here are the results.
What are the biggest mistakes inexperienced writers make?
Jimmy: They write them too long. They demo them too long. I came up in the sixties and seventies when they said, “Why, it's already two minutes!” Radio won't play it. New writers also write things from too much of a personal perspective. It needs to be more general.
Don: It's inevitable that a new writer is going to make mistakes. A lot is trial and error. Write something and sing it and see how people respond. Don't worry about making mistakes if you're new in the game. I would sure advise songwriters to stay away from drugs and drinking. I've seen a lot of talent go to waste, not taking care of business, home, and families. It's sad to see brilliant people with it all laid out there waiting for them just for the taking….
Steve: You know, speaking strictly lyrically, the most common thing that I find is complicated ideas. When I see really inexperienced writing I see a thread … lofty concepts that you need several listens to get. Clarity is really a mandate in the country market. Also, too many verses, too long a song.
Scott: Editing themselves, not putting what they feel on paper. And for another thing, I don't like people to sell me on what they do. I just want to hear the song. Let that speak for itself.
Bart: Amateur songwriters that want to come here and do it? I get a lot of [complaints of] problems about co-writing. When you start to write a song with someone else, there's a tacit 50 percent agreement when you do that. The other person owns half the song. Then that other person has the right, even if it was your idea, if they don't like the way it happened, to take the song to someone else and rewrite it again. Then you're a third owner on your song that they turned into something different. You need to know these basic elements before you get too far down the road.
Do you feel that your PRO does a good job of getting you royalties and protecting your rights?
Jimmy: I think BMI has done a wonderful job. I like their method of collecting and how they come to certain figures from actual logs of song played. I favor BMI.
Don: I'm with BMI. I think they are definitely trying to do all that.
Steve: Yes. I'm with SOCAN in Canada and ASCAP in the States. They sure have taken care of me. I'm guilty of not knowing a lot of the nuances of bills passed in government but, on a personal level, I've needed back up and they've come through for me. They've made me a believer.
Scott: They all do the same job. ASCAP has sent more writers to me than BMI, so that's my experience with it. ASCAP and BMI have two radically different personalities. We have writers at both of them. You have to walk in the building and see which one works for you. One thing I do love about ASCAP is that songwriters run it.
Are you politically active about songwriters' issues like piracy and copyright extension?
Jimmy: I'm behind it, but I don't keep up with it right now.
Don: Back in the seventies when I was working with NSAI on the new copyright bill [which we got in 1976], we worked with the NY songwriter's guild. I recently went with NSAI to Washington to represent songwriters.
Steve: No, but I'm embarrassed to say it.
Scott: I'm not but I need to be. First, you just try to pay the bills. You have to get a little farther along, make a little more money to have the time and resources to invest in that part of your protection. Hit songwriters are the most active in this because they have the most to protect.
How important do you think the Internet will be in the future of the music business?
Jimmy: It's already playing a big part. It works both ways, though. It's easy to download illegally, but on the other hand it's much easier to communicate overseas and cross-country.
Don: That's a gimmie. I think it'll get ironed out, and the good will outweigh the bad.
Steve: This is stating the obvious, but we're in the Dark Ages in terms of the Internet. Nobody really knows what's going on in terms of how it's all going to play out. But I think we know that songwriters are not being paid what they should and too much music is going out there for free. Everybody out there knows that we can't rely on people dropping twenty dollars on a CD anymore. The Internet is here to stay. It's the primary way to sell anything.
Scott: Radically important. It'll be that we'll have to find other ways to make money from copyrights outside of sales … sync licenses, airplay, computer games … any way you can make money outside of sales.
How many songs do you write in a year?
Jimmy: Truthfully, last year I just wrote one. In my busiest time though I wrote about a song a week and maybe started another one. Some nights me and Glaser would start two or three songs. We wrote on Tuesday nights. We'd go play pinball at what was the Burger Boy on 19th and Broadway ‘til we got loosened up. It was nothing to see Kristofferson or Waylon over there playing pinball.
Don: I used to write forty to fifty songs a year, but not all any good. If you're writing seriously, a song a week is a good thing to shoot for particularly if you co-write. I don't write so many now. Those were the years of my “Not So Magnificent Obsession” (grins). Now I write ten to twelve songs a year.
Steve: I've had a couple of years where I've written a hundred songs. I'd say that on average, sixty to a hundred. I don't know how many are any good … history will say.
Scott: I don't think there is a blueprint, but the writers that seem to do the best write more songs. It's a numbers game. As productive as you can be, the better you'll be. It can be the worst song you wrote that got cut. Don Schlitz says he writes [a] lot of songs because he only feels like he's great 10 percent of the time.
Do you [or did you] have a support group of people to bounce new songs off of and get feedback? Do you think that's an important thing for a songwriter to have?
Jimmy: I really do think that's important. I don't have that right now like I'd like to. It's tricky to bounce an idea off of another writer that I don't write with. They can subconsciously remember an idea and even use it before they realize it. You have to be careful.
Don: I think it's extremely important. Especially starting out. Even for any of us. That's one of the good things about picking parties.
Steve: I do now. Songwriting can be altogether way too insular. You can gain so much by having the right person listen. Often it's a spouse or someone who is not in the business. My wife is such a good listener. She's listening while she's doing all the things that your listeners do … washing the dishes, preparing dinner, living life. I also have a song plugger who gives great input. If there are local songwriting groups in a town, that is great too. Songwriting is about emotionally affecting other people. I don't know how people can do that without feedback at some point.
Scott: It's good to get feedback. Writing is such an insecure art that you need support. Writing support and emotional support. It's good to have someone to talk to who is coming from where you are coming from.
Do you play an instrument?
Jimmy: I play harmonica and guitar.
Don: I play
Steve: I play guitar, piano a bit, and bass. I write mostly on guitar, about 95 percent of the time.
Scott: Nope, I was a singer.
Where do you find ideas for songs?
Jimmy: Everywhere…. In people's conversations. You tune into when something's said different. Good phrases trigger your imagination. People tell you stuff if you listen. Writers talk in song titles. They give themselves away. Once you say it, it's public domain.
Don: Just anywhere and everywhere … reading, driving (but don't get to seeing too many images and drive off the road), listening, meditating, and thinking.
Steve: I love writing from a title. It's old-fashioned, but it's a great way to start. A title can give you options. Some of the most enjoyable co-writing I've done is spending half a day talking about what a song is. A song of mine is “Where was I?” It can mean different things depending on the emphasis. It can be “Where was I before you came along?” Or it can be, “Where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?” Lot of times I'll start with a guitar chord riff or melody, but less often. The title ends up being the absolute essence of a great song, even a story song.
Scott: Hit songwriters find ideas in movies, books — everywhere.
What's the secret of longevity in the music business?
Jimmy: Be talented and lucky at the same time.
Don: I wish I knew for sure. I haven't had it, at least not consistently. Some are consistent for twenty-five or thirty years, like Bob McDill. He's been writing hits since around 1971. He hasn't missed a year in a thirty-year run of having a song do well.
Steve: Some degree of success. If you're making a living at it, that's success. Some years it's not much of a living, but to be doing it has kept me going. Since I was twenty years old I've carved out some living in the music business. Wow, my bills are paid and all because I make music! Also, talent and perseverance. Clichés are clichés because they are true.
Scott: Hard work and persistence.
What advice do you have for a writer who's just starting out?
Jimmy: Obviously, let somebody that has a background in the music business hear your songs. There are a lot of people that will tell you whether you're on the right track without getting into a big producer's office.
Don: Regardless of where a writer is living, he's probably fairly close to a chapter of the NSAI. They provide a priceless service to new writers. The camaraderie is worth something. You might find a co-writer. Definitely look for a support group.
Steve: Keep writing … try to keep your antennae and your energy up. Sometimes it's when I'm doing something else that I have ideas for great songs. Keep your mind on it, whatever your doing.
Scott: Work hard in every aspect — network, pay attention business-wise. You better move to Nashville if you're not already here. Even songwriters on staff do better when they're in town. When a songwriter is in the building more I see their face and I have more opportunities to ask them for ideas and give them input. I keep lists and lists of people and songs but somebody walking through the door will spark an idea of a song to pitch. I even ask songwriters about pitching ideas. If they aren't here I can't ask them.
Bart: Do your business homework is my first piece of advice. I recently had a fella standing in the lobby and he was beaming. He was in his sixties and he was just so contagious with his glee. I said, “What is up with you?” … and he said, “I've just recorded my first CD” and to hear him talk about it, I thought he's gotten a record deal. Somebody had charged him $36,000 to do six demos. They just raped him. Now, this guy was smart, ran a business. He would never have purchased a car, bought a house, or even a magazine subscription without knowing all the details but, because he was trying to pursue a dream and buy into that dream, he came up here and made the idiot's mistake of not making two or three phone calls.
On average, how much editing and rewriting would you say you do? What about when you were starting out?
Jimmy: Quite a bit now. It depends on who I'm writing with. When I first started calling myself a songwriter I did not do a lot of editing, but the more I learned about writing, the longer it took.
Don: I edit and rewrite as much now as when I started out. I do quite a bit. When you write slow, you have less to do. If you try to knock it out in a day's time, then you'll need to revisit it.
Steve: They are two different things to me. I'm a big editor. I often think we don't need this or that. If a song is over three and a half minutes, I think it's problematic. Rewriting is more rewriting of what is already there. I am usually excited to move on to the next song. That's why I write so many.
Scott: Different writers work different ways. Anthony does so much editing in his head before he plays it. That's why he works slow. It's harder for him to rewrite because he's already thought through a lot of options already. Craig [Wiseman] is the opposite. He writes a song in a day, then goes back and revisits it. I do hear songs that I don't think are really finished, but some of them are hit songs. There's really not a right or wrong. There's just making money or not making money.
Bart: How bad do you want it? There's a guy from my hometown named “George” who may be the best basketball player I ever saw in my life. He's Jordanesque. Now, why is George not playing in the NBA? He didn't want it bad enough! He wasn't disciplined enough to play on the high school team and go to practice and get a college scholarship and do what it took to get in the NBA. Same thing with songwriting; to be in that handful that are multiple hit songwriters, the odds are about the same as (being in the starting lineup) in the NBA. How bad do you want it? You have to ask yourself that question and be willing to make the sacrifices that you'd make in any other occupation.
Steve: It's not impossible. Don't tell yourself it can't happen.