“There’s thirteen people who can say ‘no’ to your song,” says Rusty to a group of writers. Rusty’s a publisher. Picture an articulate, cleaned-up, savvy version of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Whose clothes fit. Whose voice is sans Kasem-esque adolescent crack.
“Anybody along the way can shut it down—me, my boss, the producer, his people, the artist’s people, the artist, the record company, the radio programmers. These people have more songs than they can use. They’re looking for a reason to say no. Your song has to be so great that none of them can find anything wrong with it.”
Zoinks, as it were.
This idea of Layers of Approval is not unique to country music, of course, and is not new to me. Try selling an ad campaign to a bank. I’ve seen that process bring grown art directors to their knees—the meetings, the comments, the arbitrary tinkering. Battered concepts rise, wounded, to the next round of so-called ‘approvals,’ to face a new squad of bankers who are slightly higher on the org chart than the previous round. It’s grueling.
Close your eyes. Feel it? It’s happening in America right now, somewhere. An executive trained in finance is looking at an advertising layout, saying, "I’d like to push back on something… "
The layers, the layers.
The sad fact is there aren’t many songs that at least 1/13th of The Music Industry won’t object to for one reason or another. Which is why most songwriters are barred at the publisher’s gate, the station that serves as Music City’s first line of defense against the thousands of us who believe Our Art Should Be Made Available For The People To Enjoy.
One day I dropped off a CD at a publisher’s office, an old mansion somewhere in the maze of streets that are “Music Row.” Before I dared approach, I sat in the car in front for a moment, nervous, deciding whether to tuck or untuck my shirt (I tucked). I ate a mint. I checked my hair in the rearview. I took my CD in my right hand, shut the door with my left hand, and walked up to the old porch. In case someone was looking out a window, I tried to walk confidently and exhibit pluck.
Hesitantly I opened the door—it was a business, so it seemed strange to knock.
Inside it was more office-y than mansion-y: white walls, a few plants, black upholstered waiting chairs, and a table with some music industry magazines. I could hear a guitar being played down the hall. Around a corner I found a young woman at a desk, near a row of offices, the only person in sight. She looked up and smiled, but made it clear this was a neutral, basic-requirement-of-being-a-human sort of smile.
The publisher wasn’t in.
I over explained that I was here to drop off a CD for the publisher, who had once told a friend of mine to drop off CDs of new music, and this friend had told me that I should drop some stuff off, so the publisher wasn’t expecting me, but…
She held out her hand. I gave her the CD. She said, in a pleasantly professional way, that she would make sure he got it.
I said thanks. Clearly it was time for me to go. I said thanks again, walked quickly back to the car, and drove to a Starbucks to decompress from this supercharged experience.
I didn’t expect to hear from the guy, really. I left a voicemail to follow up, but when he never called, I let it go.
If you listen to the radio, it’s pretty obvious that there’s quality control built in at all levels of the Nashville factory. By the time the song widgets are broadcast, they function as dependably as Fords and Chevies.
Quality Control has given each song its authenticated certificate of reliability.
Actually, songs do get recalled like cars sometimes: “Arlington,” for example, a song narrated in the first person by a proud dead soldier on his way to being interred, apparently disturbed many veterans’ families and was pulled.
You’d think at least one of the nabobs would have caught that.
Maybe the artist loved the song so much, he overruled his advisors.
Is that a loophole?
“There’s been a change lately,” Barbara Cloyd told a group of us recently. Barbara runs a series of workshops called “Ready for the Row,” which I’ve attended a few times.
Right now, with the music business in a mess, some singers have gained more control over the songs they play. And they’re co-writing more of their own hits.
Score one for Creativity.
But now I have to change my plan from searching for toeholds in the edifices of Music Row to… to what. To finding Artists on the Brink? I should plan on hitting it off, chumming around, and co-writing with performers who appear to stand a chance of making it?
Well, okay. So now I’ll focus on buddying up with performers. Got it. Only, they’re in Nashville and I live five hours north with a demanding job, a family, and a limited amount of zip.
Still. I’ve come this far. I can’t give up.
Anytime I do, I get another idea for a song.
See, watch: I Give Up.
(a week goes by)
Hey, everybody, I have an idea for a song and I don’t want to give up.
BRIEF SIDEBAR—HERE IS A JOKE BARBARA CLOYD ALWAYS BEGINS HER SESSIONS WITH: “What are the three best songs ever written?” (pause) “‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘Yesterday,’ and the one you just finished.”
It feels so good to complete a song.
Here’s my latest that I think is “done.”
I’ve played it for people in Nashville—critics, other writers, even a couple artists. People tend to like it but also tend to agree it might never get through The Sieve of the System.
In its favor: it musically, structurally, and thematically conforms to Formula; it has specific imagery and details; it’s clear who is talking to whom and why. It’s appropriate for a tough guy, yet features a falsetto part for added sensitivity.
In my opinion, it’s both funny and touching.
NOTA BENE: Neither “Amazing Grace” nor “Yesterday” is funny and touching!
It starts like this: a guy begins low, singing, “I love the way you talk with your hands/Imitate the singers of our favorite bands/I love the look on your face when you decide to dance/And life’s just so good.” He’s smitten, right? Girls like when guys are smitten.
So I’m told.
Okay. Second verse the trouble begins, as he sings, still low and confiding, "I’ve been thinking ‘bout the night we fought/We ruined every meal in that restaurant/When I said, You don’t appreciate what you got/Or treat me like you should… "
He’s so sorry.
Now there’s a “lift” that gets louder, to ‘lift’ the singer toward the big pay off: “Today I’d take that back if I could, ’cause—”
And the pay off, in the chorus: “I suck—”
Here we have the slightest of pauses, a tiny caesura, for listeners to recover a bit from the startling self-recrimination before the singer explains: “—at being your ex.”
Singer ruefully builds up to the falsetto, “Turns out it’s harder than a guy expects/To say goodbye forever/I want us back together/I’m ready for whatever you say I gotta do next—I suck at being your ex.”
… annnnnnd thirteen lights change from green to red.
‘Thank you very much, Mr. Hopper, but… no… ’ I exit the mansion and walk quickly to my car. That’s what I picture.
Yet I have hope—the writers I’ve played it for seem to like it.
Maybe an artist can pull it off. Make it theirs. Own it.
See? Industry change is good.
A little chaos, loosening things up.
Oh, who am I fooling—any artist is going to recognize the potential backfire of singing a love song where the chorus starts with the words “I suck.”
(second, different-sounding sigh)
I think I just became the fourteenth “no.”