Categories
Songwriting

Woe the Songwriter: Part 2

As a songwriter, a dream is one or more of my songs being recorded by a big name in the genre for which I am writing. If Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, or Doyle Lawson were to release an album with one of my songs, I could die with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t even have to be the single (although that would be way too cool!), but just the fact that an artist that I admire considers one of my songs good enough to record, that is a great reward.

I have been fortunate that a bluegrass artist did record one of my songs. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike recorded my co-write “Something About A Train” a few years ago for her album Small Town Heroes. To see your name on someone’s CD cover as a writer is a great feeling. I don’t care about the royalties at this time (I will if this becomes more common, of course), but to get recognized is a great thing.

So now what? Yes, I want more, so I send out more demos and queries. Lots of them. No replies. Send follow-ups, no replies. I realize that there are a lot more bluegrass artists writing their own material these days, and even a lot more songwriters clawing for recognition in the genre as well. There are a lot of factors playing against me right now (no longer an IBMA member, Coronavirus pandemic means less live shows to network at, less recording going on in studios), but I still keep trying. I post songs new and old to my music websites ReverbNation (http://www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews) and Songwriting Pro (http://www.songwritingpro.com/members/profile/692), hoping for at least some feedback.

Yes, the bigger-name artists can pick and choose a lot more, and are most likely going to work with established songwriters in Nashville. Many are even stepping outside of the bluegrass fold and recording bluegrassy versions of pop/rock songs. But what about the other bluegrass artists? I am talking about bands that do not have great exposure but are striving for it. They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous. Other than aunts and uncles, who is really going to buy that CD when the original version has been available for years?

Maybe these C- and D-list bluegrass bands don’t want success – they just want to play live once in a while and put out a CD to show that they accomplished something. CDs cost money, even if you record the songs for next to nothing with your brother-in-law’s recording equipment. My advice? Save the money for strings, maybe a better PA system, or a case of beer. You won’t get anywhere in the business selling CDs for $15.00 that contain the umteenth version of “Doin’ My Time” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Play them for jams, occasional live gigs, and for tryouts of new band members.

For new and wannabe successful bluegrass bands, I would like to make a few suggestions. Write some original material. If you have people in the band that just want to play the same 20 or so bluegrass standards and do not want to learn new material, then try to find someone who does want to improve. I stopped working in bluegrass bands locally because of this. I am a songwriter, and I do not want to waste my valuable practice and playing time with musicians who want to stay in the cover-band box. Try writing a good song, you will see how difficult but rewarding it can be.

If you can’t write a song to save your life, then spend some time looking for original material. Check with songwriters in your area at open mics (when they become available again after the pandemic) or surf the internet. Go to pages like ReverbNation or Songwriting Pro and scout out songwriters. Talk to them about performing and recording bluegrass versions of their songs. Most songwriters will be more than flattered that someone is interested in performing their music. I remember one of my first experiences of someone wanting to perform one of my songs. “Built To Crash” was on a compilation CD released by NPR’s show Car Talk. It was an alt-country diddy performed by my old band Gravel Train. A band on the east coast loved it and asked if they could perform and record it. I gave them my blessing. Now that band’s version was a heavy metal-meets-rockabilly, but I was loving it! Totally different, but the fact that someone respected my songwriting enough to want to record it was an absolute honor.

I work with a lot of other songwriters, either through co-writes or just networking, and the consensus we have is that we want to get out work heard. Yes, we would love to have an A-list band record a song, but there are factors such as bands putting songs “on hold” so that they have sole recording rights to the song for months, sometimes years. In the end, the song may never get released, and you are back to Start. It takes a lot of work to get top artists or their management/publishers to lend a songwriter an ear. If a start-up band wants to record your song and you know that they are definitely going to release it, it may be more beneficial in the long run. That CD may get heard by a promoter/manager/artist and think that your song would be a good choice.

In short, as a start-up or struggling bluegrass band, take a step back and see what makes the successful bluegrass bands successful. It is originality, particularly in the choice of songs. Learn, perform, record, and release songs that will make you an original band. Songwriters like me will appreciate it if you use a song of ours. It is totally beneficial for both parties. My songs are available for the picking!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Songwriting

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 (www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews), 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.