A Six-Figure Song!
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
In my last post I told the story of how I loved playing the guitar, lost the love, and then got it back. Basically it was an illustration of an all-too-common scenario wherein the music business chews you up and spits you out. Luckily I figured things out in time to repair the damage to my psyche, marriage and family.
This post is the story of how I went through the whole process again, this time as a songwriter.
From the beginning I wrote songs - always writing. Later on after I progressed to doing it on a pro level, I formed a record label and publishing company and started registering copyrights. I've written thousands of songs and I have copyrights on well over 300 tunes. Copyrights don't mean much these days but that's the subject of another post.
Anyway, back in the '90's and early 2000's, I was pursuing songwriting as a possible income stream in addition to local gigging and teaching. I had a two-pronged approach; one was to write and record instrumental tracks for use as background music, soundtracks for movies, TV shows etc. and music for jingles, commercials, bumper music - all kinds of broadcast applications. I had a home recording studio from which I was able to produce what they call broadcast-quality tracks. In order to do that I had to learn things that I wasn't particularly interested in. Like the learning curve and keeping up with the technology, functioning as a studio musician, recording engineer and producer, learning how to mix and master a project - the list goes on and on. ("Gosh darnit Jim, I'm a guitar player not a recording engineer!") Usually I played all the instruments and did the drum and percussion programming on those recordings. Occasionally I would call on a buddy to record a part that was beyond my meager abilities on any instrument besides the guitar. Here are a few tracks from this era:
The outlets I had for these kinds of things were mostly in Los Angeles; I worked a lot with Taxi. Taxi is an independent A&R (Artist and Repertoire) company that pitches music from independent songwriters, artists, bands, etc. to people in the industry. Taxi placed a few things for me and I made a little money here and there but a real income stream never resulted. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I don't live in LA and refused to relocate in order to play the game. I had made my decision to stay in Kansas City 10 years before (see previous post). As time moved on through the early 2000's, the rise of the internet, downloading, file-sharing and streaming all seemed to make the likelihood of any kind of residual income for a guy like me less and less. My income from CD sales, downloads and streaming has dwindled to almost nothing from a not-very-high point in roughly 2003.
The second prong of my two-pronged approach was going for the BIG deal; writing a hit song that would be cut by a major artist - one of those could set me up for life. The artist records the song, does the touring and all the work that goes with it, and I sit at home and get checks in the mail. Yeah...something like that. Most of my contacts for that kind of thing were in Nashville. Things get complicated here so what I'm going to do is tell the story of one song out of many that will illustrate the insanity. Names will be changed. I need to set up what happened by giving a simplistic explanation of how things worked; bear with me, as I said, things can get complicated!
As a songwriter, all the monies that accrue to me are divided by half; there's the publishing side, and there's the songwriting side. The publisher cannot get into the songwriters side but the songwriter can give up a percentage or all of the publishing side. There are scenarios where that can make sense - like when a songwriter (like me) lives in fly-over land with little access to the industry infrastructure that exists in Nashville or LA. The songwriter gives the publisher all or part of the publishing in hopes that he can place the tune with a major artist. After all, 50% of something is more than 100% of nothing.
One strategy is that a guy like me signs with a publisher, has a string of hit songs, gets a track record and street cred, establishes his own contacts in the industry, then cuts loose from his publisher and forms his own publishing company. At that point he gets ALL the money! He's given up tons of money from the hits published by someone else but it gets his foot in the door with artists and labels.
Among my contacts in Nashville was an independent song-plugger named "Jim". Jim had access to my whole catalog, thought I was a genius and had access to most of the major publishers and record labels with offices in Nashville. Unbeknownst to me Jim pitched one of my songs to a major publisher named "Gary". The song had been written at the behest of my wife for her parent's 40th wedding anniversary. It's called "Fortunate Few" and is a fine song if I do say so myself!
Gary was a Music-Row Publisher in Nashville. He had placed songs with George Strait and Garth Brooks among others. So he was big-time. I didn't know him and had never heard of him or his publishing company.
Anyway, one day out of the blue I get a phone call from Gary. He says (in a slow southern drawl), "I'm a Music-Row Publisher in Nashville and I've got a demo of your song 'Fortunate Few.' This is at least a six-figure song for everyone involved. I want to sign you to a publishing deal."
"Ok," I said, "I'm listening."
He said, "I want to sign you to a staff writing deal. I will pay you a salary of $500.00 a month and you will guarantee me 2-and-a-half songs a month".
That's right, he said, "...two-and-a-HALF songs..." I have no idea what that half-song is about but I could write 2 songs a day if I wanted too. Not sure how good they would be! BTW - that's $200 per song!
Let me explain what he's doing here; let's say I go for this. He's signed me to a publishing contract and is paying me a salary which means he owns the copyrights to whatever I write and he gets 100% of the publishing royalties. This includes all kinds of income from mechanical royalties (i.e. CD sales & downloads), broadcast royalties (i.e. radio & TV airplay etc.) and licensing fees. My understanding is that I would still get songwriting royalties...minus my salary, which is really an advance against future royalties, but the songwriting royalties are paid THROUGH the publisher. This is one of the ways publishers rip off songwriters; they don't pay them all of what they owe them in songwriting royalties. Now I'm not saying that Gary the publisher was crooked and not paying his songwriters their due, I didn't know. But as a matter of fact, at the time (mid '90's), everyone I knew who lived in Nashville and was in the music business was either suing someone or being sued. The town was a cesspool of litigation, cocaine, money, and a corrupt good-old-boy network. I don't know if it's any different now - I hope so (to be honest - I'm skeptical). I know several musicians working there now - they're good guys and seem to be doing ok.
Anyway, I wasn't necessarily opposed to this deal...per the "getting my foot in the door" strategy - even though this was the first of several "drop trou and bend over" moments. Apparently, I had a "six-figure song." I knew I had others that were just as good, and could always write more. So I said, "Ok."
Then he said, "Oh, by-the-way, we want you to relocate to Nashville."
So what this would mean is that I uproot my family, take my 5 kids away from regular interaction with their grandparents and extended family (my wife and I both come from large extended families), and since $500.00 a month is not near enough to live on I would have to find a place to teach, and find gigs in a town teeming with musicians from all over who were all scrambling for work. In short, I would have to start over in a new town. A smaller fish in a bigger pond than I was presently in, where I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. There's a certain comfort factor there. This was not the only offer I'd had that would require a move to Nashville or LA - I'd had several; an artist development deal, offers for studio work and other kinds of offers - and turned them all down. There were many reasons but the biggest reason was family; how much is it worth for my kids to really know their grandparents? Hmm?
I said, "Why can't I stay here and be on staff?"
Gary: "We want you to collaborate with other writers we have on staff."
Me: "Have your lyrics guy email me some lyrics, I'll write the music, record a demo, attach the demo to an email and send it back to you."
Keep in mind that this was the nineties. The internet was in its infancy, access was still dial-up, but I was already sharing files with other musicians. I was doing recording projects where if I needed a keyboard part on a song I would attach a .wav file to an email and send it to my keyboard guy - there was a keyboard part on Fortunate Few that had been recorded in precisely this way - it might take all night to upload but he would get it, add his track and send it back to me. We all had dedicated phone lines just for this kind of activity. I was trading services and collaborating in this way with other players. And this was occurring amongst unknown, unsigned musicians in fly-over land!
Gary's response to this suggestion was, and I quote, "Waaale, we ain't never dun it that-a-way bee-fore."
I said, "What? I thought this was the big-time! I was told this was the big-time! You said it was the big-time! Are you aware that Whitney Houston recorded her latest record in LA and the band was in New York?"
Gary: Awkward silence.
"Ok," I said. "Relocating to Nashville is a deal-killer. If you still want this song, it will have to be a single-song contract."
He said, "I'm willing to do that."
Sorry, but I should explain what just happened, and the ramifications of it.
A single-song contract is just what it says. The songwriter is not on salary and gets no money upfront from the publisher. He only gets paid if the publisher gets the song cut and monies accrue. Now this sounds like a good deal for me seeing as how I don't really need any upfront money - I'm not that hungry; I'm getting by ok as it is. And I sidestep all the problems of having to relocate and getting contractually tangled up in a staff-writing publishing deal. The problem with a single-song contract is that the publisher has less motivation to pitch the song, because he hasn't invested any money. If he's meeting with the A&R guy at George Strait's record label and has only 5 minutes with the guy then he has time to pitch only one song. He has to choose between pitching my song or one of his staff writer's songs. He'll probably go with the staff writer because he's paying him a monthly salary - he's invested. He's not invested in me. So a single song contract can drastically reduce the chance of success for the song. Furthermore, the publisher owns the copyright to the song and if he doesn't get it recorded right away he moves on to the next thing, forgets about it, and the song sits on the shelf languishing in limbo-land forever, one of hundreds or thousands of songs in the publishers catalog, and the songwriter has, for all intents and purposes, lost the song. I know many people who have lost not just one song but entire catalogs of songs this way. It happens all the time.
So I said, "I'm willing to give you 100% of the publishing but I want a 12-month clause in the contract that says if you don't get the song cut by an artist on one of the 12 major labels that currently have offices in Nashville, I can send you a registered letter and get the copyright back. If you say 'Oh man, I'm in the middle of a big deal with your song right now and need a little more time!' I'll say, 'Ok, 3-month extension.'"
Gary agreed. I told him to send me the contract.
A few days later I get the contract and go, "Wow, man, I don't understand a lot of this, I need a lawyer!"
At the time there were no real music lawyers in Kansas City. So through a system of referrals I wind up on the phone with a music lawyer in - you guessed it - Nashville. I explained my position to the guy and said,
"I want you to look at this contract and tell me whether or not I'm getting what I want and I want all the dirt you got on Gary and his XYZ Publishing Company."
The guy says, "No problem. Send me a copy of the contract, a copy of the song, and 100 bucks."
"Done" I said.
A couple days later I get a call from the lawyer.
"Hey man!" He says, "This is a GREAT song! I want to sign this song to my publishing company!"
I couldn't believe it! I was shocked and pissed! I shouldn't have sent him the song - I should have just sent him the contract; he didn't need to hear the song in order to advise me on the contract. I said,
"You slimey *#@!! Can you say conflict-of-interest? You know what? Keep the hundred dollars and get the &*$#! away from me!"
"What the hell" I thought, "I'm just going to sign the contract. I've got plenty more songs where that one came from if I lose it. Time to take a risk!"
So I signed.
Keep in mind that this is the story of one song. There are other stories about this same song. There are stories of other songs. There are just as many stories that illustrate the same kind of music business insanity concerning my music that was being shopped in LA. But back to the current story - I bet you're wondering what happened! Not to be anti-climactic or anything, but...
Twelve months later nothing had happened. I sent a registered letter and got the copyright back.
Several years later in 2006, I recorded an updated, less countrified version of the song and put it on my own CD, My Ship. If I hadn't had the 12-month clause in that single-song contract, I would have had to get permission from and pay licensing fees to Gary's XYZ Publishing Company - to put MY song, on MY CD, on MY record label, which project I was paying for with MY money!
After about 25 years of this kind of crap I realized I wasn't enjoying writing and recording songs anymore. The same thing that happened 25 years before concerning my guitar playing had now happened with my songwriting. Because of the lessons learned from the previous episode, this time I had avoided doing damage to my wife and kids. So I - again - retreated back to the basics. What for me is always the bottom line;
I LOVE playing the guitar!
P.S. Watch for the next post because I'll tell you about how I'm now doing it again! Round 3 with the music biz coming up! Woo-hoo!
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