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Writers of Song Lyrics: Find Your Collaborator

Categories: Songwriting.

To the outside world, the songwriter is often perceived as a solitary gnome, hunched over a battle-scarred piano. The real scenario is this: songwriting today is big business, the fuel of a billion dollar music industry. Successful songs need to be connected: to collaborators, artists, producers, publishers, performing rights organizations, film, television, new media (CD-ROM, CD Interactive), video games and the Internet as well as technology so revolutionary it may well be developed before you even finish reading this sentence.

Successful songwriters possess certain traits: determination, ambition, tenacity, resourcefulness and heart. Most importantly they are individuals whom others wish to see succeed. As a 20+ year veteran of this music business, I deliver this testimonial: every deal I’ve ever seen go down is a direct result of a personal contact. Very early in their careers successful songwriters form crucial collaborative relationships. Their successes are ultimately determined as much through these contacts as through their considerable abilities.

COLLABORATORS
A perusal of the Billboard charts shows the majority of hit songs are written by collaborative teams: two or more writers who create the words and music and often produce the cut.

The first important contact for a beginning songwriter is another songwriter. It is difficult to create in a vacuum without honest feedback, collaborative energy, or emotional support. Only another songwriter truly understands having words and music deep inside you and the overwhelming need to release them through the magic creation of songs. Try explaining to your accountant (or worse, your mother) your penchant to call and sing into your answering machine, or your burnt fingers from using tiny lighters in dark bars to shed light on the words you’re inscribing on a soggy napkin.

How to meet them
You will meet collaborators at expected places: music business events, clubs, open mics and songwriter nights. If you have a computer and an online service, you will discover many websites burgeoning with songwriter information. Just type in the keyword "songwriter" and a new world will open. The unexpected places to find a collaborator are just about everywhere else. Songwriters are very often anonymous. Unlike many other areas of show business, you need not be of a specific age or race or particularly glamorous to be a successful songwriter. If you tell everyone you know and meet you write songs, you may be surprised who shares your avocation.

You need to be realistic in locating collaborators. We’d all love to work with million-selling writers but this is not a practical expectation. As music industry professionals, we need to hone our ears and our instincts to find collaborators who may be the next Diane Warren or Bernie Taupin.

Many of the most beneficial collaborations are derived from working with co-writers who have complementary, not identical, skills. If you’re great at lyrics find collaborators who write wonderful music and vice-versa. Experiment with different styles and textures, listen constantly for new music and sources of musical inspiration. Keep your songwriting fresh. Listen to the radio, write from your heart with an ear for the market. Find writers who excite and energize you, and make sure you give back to them.

MUSIC PUBLISHERS
The role of the music publisher has changed drastically in this last decade. With record companies preferring to sign already-proven talent, music publishers will often take the first crucial steps to develop writer/artists for future deals. Smaller, independent publishers are the most approachable. Do research in directories and trade magazines (you’re holding an incredible source in your hands at this minute). Also read the small print on CD covers to locate publishing information.

How to meet them
Songwriter organizations often invite publishers to screen material at conferences and workshops. Never be afraid to ask a publisher for his/her business card. Learn how to submit a professional package. The Songwriter’s Market Guide to Demo Submission Formats (Writer’s Digest Books) will help you. Remember: the best response a publisher can give you is to ask for more material. Don’t be resistant to suggestions. Even though we feel our songs are our tender babies, they often have to be rewritten, recast and reworked before (hopefully) being recorded.

Most of the serious song business occurs in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles. If you are not currently living in one of these cities and you are serious about your career as a songwriter, I would recommend making periodic sojourns to the music capitals to make (or renew) contacts, to pitch songs, and to network with songwriters and music publishers.

Music professionals are absolutely deluged with material from legitimate sources, yet the irony is they are in constant need of good songs. Many music publishers do not accept unsolicited material because of the legal risk. Two possible results from sending unsolicited tapes to publishers (particularly to a major) are that they will be returned or, worse, placed in the circular file.

How do you go from unsolicited to solicited? By receiving permission in advance to submit songs. In some cases a brief, well-written letter will open the door. If you attend an industry event and make a favorable impression on an industry pro, ask for a business card.

Remember, the way you come in is the way you’re perceived. It is crucial that you understand the protocol of the music business. Don’t be pompous or arrogant, but, on the other hand, don’t be overly humble or obsequious. Be professional and direct. Do your homework; make sure the person to whom you’re submitting songs can actually use them. Know the complete track record of anyone you deal with, their successes, histories and especially their tastes. Music Connection Magazine is a West Coast music trade publication that profiles music publishers and compiles this information in a special "Songwriter/Publisher Issue" that comes out annually in October. It’s an invaluable resource.

ARTISTS
If you’re a non-performing songwriter you’ll need someone to sing your songs. Historically, songwriters including Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry developed artists to perform their songs. Today Babyface, an accomplished producer as well as a gifted writer, follows in this tradition. Recently writer/producer Glen Ballard was connected by his publisher to an unknown songwriter/artist named Alanis Morissette with whom he both co-wrote and produced a debut record. It sold over 16 million copies.

How to meet them
Again, be realistic. Contact bands and singers who are in need of songs. Collaborate locally, go out to clubs and find bands, and become a part of their world with your songs. Work on a local level to develop the music that already exists all around you. Cooperation is the key: singers often need original songs for demos. You have songs, they have a voice. Even the greatest rock bands often need songs and outside collaborators.

There is a point at which we can engage ourselves in other’s careers. Keep your eyes and ears open for emerging artists who have a buzz and whom audiences respond to. Trust your instincts and don’t be shy, introduce and ingratiate yourself. Songwriters succeed when they lead, not follow – so take control.

PRODUCERS
Becoming a successful songwriter means becoming fluent in the language of the studio. Record producers are very often also songwriters. Collaborating with a producer as your songwriting partner means you’ll at least have an opportunity to make a great-sounding demo, and possibly have another avenue to find an artist to record your songs. If you write alone, you’ll need to meet a demo producer, someone who can take the raw ingredients of your songs and turn them into finished demos.

The state of the demo today is very different from ten years ago. Today, many demos sound not unlike finished masters. Because most music industry listeners have very sophisticated ears, they will often respond enthusiastically to production. They are not clairvoyant. Therefore, we cannot expect them to listen to an out-of-tune track recorded in the living room on a cheesy cassette deck and hear the brilliance of the song through the tape hiss.

If you are an accomplished player you may already have the necessary equipment to record stellar demos. Equipment which would have been unattainable in the past is now quite affordable. The ownership and mastery of studio equipment will most certainly increase your desirability quotient to a co-writer.

How to meet them
You can find demo producers through songwriter organization newsletters and publications, but the best hook-up is always a personal referral and recommendation. If you hear a demo you like, find out who produced it and contact them. The same applies to singers, musicians and collaborators you hear on others’ demos.

FILM & TELEVISION MUSIC SUPERVISORS
The trend in the record business is toward artist and producer-driven projects. With the notable exception of country music, the market for outside songs has tightened up considerably. Fortunately new markets have arisen which are voracious consumers of songs: television, film, video and new media (CD-ROM, CD Interactive, the Internet).

The proliferation of cable television systems, and the programming required to fill the blocks of time, is a boon for songwriters. Music supervisors decide what music is used on these shows. Often these decisions, though not made lightly, are made very quickly. In order to have your music considered, all of the rights – mechanical and publishing – must be secure. You must be in full control of both the composition (words and music) and the recorded performance.

Placing a song in a film can lead to tremendous exposure for your material, plus a synchronization fee and, if it’s a major film, mechanical royalties from the sale of the soundtrack.

How to meet them
Film schools and colleges are good places to begin to place songs. Back Stage West, a Los Angeles-based actor’s publication, has a weekly listing of films and videos being made that require songs. Check out production schedules in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and invest in a good reference book, like The A&R Registry, for a listing of music supervisors.

As our world becomes more technologically developed, we all run the risk of becoming more isolated. But developing good people skills will continue to be a key to success, in all endeavors, especially the music business. Keep your sense of humor, be positive, uplifting, and as interested in others as you would like them to be in you. Be a good person, someone others will want to meet and hopefully, help succeed.

Editor’s note: The Organizations, Publications of Interest, and Conferences & Workshops sections of Songwriter’s Market provide more information on these and other song writing-related groups, events and publications.

WHERE TO MEET YOUR FIRST CONTACTS

Songwriter organizations and conferences
Local and national songwriter organizations are wonderful places to develop your career as a songwriter. You’ll meet writers with different skill levels, different musical interests and different perspectives. You’ll have access to information and support. There are a number of seminars, conferences and events for songwriters held annually in the U.S. and Canada. At many of these events, music industry professionals from Los Angeles, New York and Nashville listen to, and evaluate, tapes. There are live shows, classes, panels and workshops on every aspect of the music business.

Be apprised that just paying your dues to an organization, no matter how shiny their reputation, is not enough. You have to use your membership. Many songwriting organizations are strapped for funds, so rather than just attending meetings and workshops, become involved by offering your ideas, energy and organizational skills. Volunteering is a great way to make contacts. Most grassroots songwriter organizations, with their limited budgets, depend on high energy, resourceful people to help plan and execute their events.

National songwriter organizations can be beneficial if you live out of town and need major contacts or advice when visiting New York, Nashville or Los Angeles; The National Academy of Songwriters (NAS), Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) and Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) are based in the major music capitals.

Performing rights organizations
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and SESAC – in order to be properly paid, a songwriter must join one of these three organizations. Which one? To determine which best suits you, call to ask for material and do your homework. Which organizations do your favorite songwriters belong to? Which organization best supports the type of music you write? How friendly is the person who answers the telephone?

Create opportunities to meet representatives of these organization one-on-one at conferences and music industry functions. All of the performing rights organizations sponsor events, showcases and workshops in different regions across the U.S. Remember their concerns are the concerns of their current and future membership. Having a champion at a performing rights organization to make a well-timed call or referral to an industry heavyweight on your behalf can be an invaluable stepping stone in your career.

DAN KIMPEL is a Los Angeles-based personal manager and PR consultant.

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