Woe, the Songwriter: Part 1

“It all starts with a song.”

This statement is all too overused in the music industry, particularly in Nashville. It seems that every association that is related to songwriting in Music City waves those six words like a patriotic flag. It is a good statement, but in my years of working as a songwriter, it seems that an extra word needs to be put in – “polished song.”

By “polished” I mean that it seems that no publisher, song shopper, artist, producer, or manager will listen to a song demo unless it is presented as a pro-studio demo recording. A quick but complete recording of vocals backed by guitar or piano is unheard of these days. No, it must include a basic backing band (guitar/piano, bass, drums, lead instrument), backing vocals, professional arrangement, and all done at a reputable studio.

That cost money. We are talking hundreds of dollars. Hundreds of dollars on one song. Hundreds of dollars that a starving songwriter doesn’t have. In the music industry food chain, when it comes to payment, the songwriters are the last to get their share, and most times, the share comes way late and is way less than promised (if anything at all).

As far as publishers and those people in search of songs for artists, they have become less of song listeners and more of production listeners. They aren’t listening to the actual song what story is coming across, where are the lyrical hooks, or how the words work with the rhythm and tempo of the song. No, they have to have something polished. They are looking for production creativity, perhaps to give the actual artist and/or producer so that they can take credit for the “sound.”

This is happening even in the field of bluegrass. While established songwriters can get away with basic demos, those starting out in bluegrass songwriting are orphaned unless they have some expensive recording to present. This is not just for presenting to artists and publishers, this is also true for simple songwriting contests and auditions. I stopped entering my solo writing compositions into such contests a while back (if I do a co-write, and my partners want to enter, I won’t hold them back) due to this situation. I do not want to spend money on a demo that may not go anywhere instead of paying my utility bill.

It comes down to “how much are you willing to invest in this song financially” rather than “how much you are willing to invest in this song mentally/emotionally/spiritually.” Song hunters and publishers become lazy, expecting the songwriters to do much of their work. These hunters and publishers are doing less listening to songs. Why? Because it’s easier, with less investment from their end.

I have had a few songs that have become notable. I’m more successful than many, but not that successful. I still have to keep my day job. However, I have reached a point that I cannot keep investing in recording professional demos in order to get my foot in the door. I will continue to write and co-write, put rough demos on my ReverbNation page (, and hand over one of my demos to someone who I think may appreciate it and perhaps move it forward.

I hope to blog more on how songwriters get screwed over in the music industry, especially now with streaming and the fall of the CD. That is in the future. In the meantime, chew on this and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s