Tough to ‘hold’
The unwritten rules of the country music industry are long-standing but complex
A few years ago, country singer Tyler Farr was out listening to live music at a bar in Nashville when he heard hit songwriter Jonathan Singleton play a catchy ballad called “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.”
Intrigued, Farr walked up to Singleton afterward. “Man, that’s a hit song,” he said. His next question: Does anyone have the song on hold? Meaning, did any other artist have plans to record it?
Singleton wasn’t sure, so he introduced Farr to his publisher, who was also at the bar. Farr requested to put the song on hold.
But as it turned out, “The Voice” superstar Blake Shelton’s label had already heard a demo recording of “A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” and executives liked it so much that they also put it on hold. And Shelton wasn’t thrilled to learn that Farr, a relatively new performer, was suddenly in the mix.
Welcome to a side of country music that fans don’t usually see: Many of their favorite hits started out with a different artist. In an insular place like Nashville, where every deal is contingent on relationships, figuring out which songs should go to which singer can be a delicate issue.
The country music songwriting community is competitive but uniquely close; a tightknit, supportive, fiercely loyal family. At the same time, everyone wants to get their hands on that next big song, especially as streaming services eat away at profits.
The “hold” policy in song publishing has been around for decades, though it has become more complex as Nashville writing rooms evolve. While country songs used to be written by one or two people, now the norm is three, even four. If the songwriters are contracted by different publishing companies, who all technically own the rights to the same song and split royalties, there might be six or more people pitching the same tune around town.
At the same time, the financial stakes are higher than ever. These days, the best way to make a living as a songwriter or publisher is with a radio single,
which earns money per spin and helps rack up sales. Fewer albums are being released, and most country artists prefer to co-write their material; unless you’re collaborating with the singer, the chances of getting a cut on an album, let alone a single, are getting smaller.
“In our heyday, we probably had about 3,000 to 4,000 songwriters making a living on getting songs pitched. Most of those songwriters made a living on a volume of album cuts. The radio singles were a luxury,” said Bart Herbison, executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association International. “Today, album cuts are insignificant; really, they contribute almost nothing to your income.”
Plus, most of the industry operates within a few blocks on Nashville’s Music Row — so if there is tension over who will record a song, you could run into your competitor that same day. In fact, you may have to talk to them about a different business matter tomorrow. Sometimes, they’re one of your closest friends.
“Nashville is still a very small town,” said Cris Lacy, vice president of artists and repertoire (A&R) at Warner Music Nashville. In the publishing and pitching world, this can mean complications. “It works well 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent of the time, the human element shows up, and stuff happens.”
Here’s what some country singers, songwriters and publishers say when asked to describe putting a song on “hold.”
“It means somebody likes a song.” “A verbal handshake.” “This mythical, word-of-mouth thing.”
“A polite ‘Don’t play anybody else this song until I’ve had a chance to get a response from whoever I’m holding for.’ ”
“There’s no protocol. There’s no real definite answer. It’s just, ‘Please don’t play this for other people.’ ”
Wires are bound to get crossed, particularly because there are so many ways to pitch songs. After writers finish a song, they email a recording to their publishing company’s song pluggers, whose job it is to consider singers who might be a good fit. If they don’t know the artist personally, they’ll contact label A&R representatives, managers or producers. They get creative.
“I will pitch to anybody — the bus driver, best friend, band member, wife — once I can figure out who to go to,” said Mike Molinar, general manager of Big Machine Music.
Back in the day, an artist or rep had to travel to an office to hear a cassette recording of a potential song. Now, audio files zip around at lightning speed. Once, singer Craig Campbell was accidentally sent an email with a track called “Outta My Head.” Campbell texted one of the writers, saying he loved it. “You’re not supposed to have that song,” the writer texted back, because it was already on hold for “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery. Too late.
Campbell appealed to McCreery, who agreed to let the song go. Campbell’s “Outta My Head” eventually went to No. 15 on the radio.
Sometimes, after several writers collaborate, all of their publishers will send out a version of the song and instantly get multiple messages back: “Can I put that on hold?” When that occurs, everyone agrees, the key is quick, direct and honest communication.
“Normally what happens is we all know each other, and it’s such a small community, we can all get on the phone and talk,” said Beth Laird, who co-owns Creative Nation publishing company with her husband, hit songwriter Luke Laird. It can come down to the timestamp on emails or texts to figure out who has claim to a song, she said. Publishers also tend to prefer the artist who’s recording an album first.
An immediate solution isn’t always realistic. For “A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” when Farr approached Singleton (who wrote the song with Melissa Peirce and Brad Tursi) no one at the bar knew another publisher had already pitched it to Warner Music, where Shelton is signed. After they found out, then came the waiting process: Did Shelton actually want to cut it? Or was just his label interested? The eventual answer: Shelton really liked the song. More waiting. Farr continued to fight for the tune and recorded it himself. When he bumped into Shelton on tour, Farr asked him to listen to his version.
Though Shelton called him a “song-stealer,” as Farr told Country Countdown USA, he relented when he heard Farr’s passion for the track. The two became friends after the incident, even as Farr took the song to No. 1. (It helped that Shelton isn’t exactly hurting for hits.)
“Rarely does anything like that get ugly,” Molinar said. “Sure, people get a little disappointed. But I think everyone hopes that wherever a song ends up, it’s supposed to for a reason.”
The hold process is filled with unwritten but respected rules: If an artist writes a song, it’s understood they have dibs. On radio personality Bobby Bones’s podcast, Lee Thomas Miller talked about “In Color,” the Grammy-nominated smash hit he co-wrote with Jamey Johnson and James Otto. Though it was the biggest hit of Johnson’s career, the ballad was originally recorded by Trace Adkins. Everyone was surprised when Johnson decided to take the song back for his own album, but Adkins had no choice.
After the “In Color” writers won song of the year at the 2008 Academy of Country Music Awards, Miller recalled, Adkins called him over and put him in a headlock. “He screams with vulgarities, ‘That’s my f---ing song!’ ” Miller said. “And I remember, I’m standing in a headlock looking at Kid Rock, who’s watching me be beat up by Trace Adkins.” Then Adkins started laughing and congratulated Miller. After all, it wasn’t his fault.
“Writers are creative people, and I think most of us are better staying out of the song politics game,” Miller said. “That’s where tension and problems can arrive.”
Songwriter Heather Morgan joked that she never thought she would use the word “strategize” in her line of work — yet when she sends a new song to her publisher, they “put together a plan” about who it could fit. That doesn’t mean writers have control: One of her recent co-writes, “Reckless,” bounced from Keith Urban to Lady Antebellum to maybe Carrie Underwood to, ultimately, Martina McBride for her latest album. All the writers can do is watch.
One common conflict is when a young songwriter pens a killer song that they’re determined to hold on to as their potential first single. Yet if an established singer hears it first and expresses interest, all bets are off — the “writer’s dibs” courtesy doesn’t always hold firm.
In 2014, one instance played out publicly with Urban’s “Cop Car,” co-written by Sam Hunt, Zach Crowell and Matt Jenkins. At the time, Hunt hadn’t released his first album and wanted “Cop Car,” inspired by a story from his life, for his record. A publisher gave it to Urban, and Hunt was upset. “Everything I poured into that song was stolen from me. I unfortunately can’t celebrate it being on the Grammys,” he tweeted when Urban performed it at the awards ceremony.
As you may expect, publishers aren’t keen to keep a surefire hit for an unknown artist. Sure, there’s always the chance they could become a superstar, like Hunt, who included “Cop Car” on his debut album anyway. In the meantime, one hit single from a popular artist — worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — could make or break a publishing company’s year.
Though new writers are not always happy with this result, a high-profile No. 1 can open many doors, from bigger co-writes to attention from labels.
“If your name gets out there as a hit songwriter before you are introduced as an artist, that can only help your journey,” said Jody Williams, vice president of writerpublisher relations at BMI.
Newcomer Michael Tyler cowrote Dierks Bentley’s recent No. 1 “Somewhere On a Beach.” When Tyler’s manager heard the song, he told Tyler, “We’re going to lock that down for you” and pointed at the four other writers: “I’m emailing all your publishers right now; nobody pitch this song.” Guess what happened.
“Well, it slipped out through somebody,” Tyler said. “I couldn’t be more happy that it did. I have zero regrets: The song is a smash, and I love Dierks for recording it.”
At a No. 1 party for Urban’s 2016 hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” in Nashville this spring, co-writer Steven Lee Olsen’s publisher explained to the crowd how Olsen wanted to save it for himself — unless, by some chance, they could pitch it to Urban. Lo and behold, Urban loved it, and Olsen got himself a Grammy nomination for best country song.
“I think that’s a writer-artist’s greatest struggle is when they’ve written a song, do they keep it for themselves? Or let someone else record it?” Urban said in an interview. “It happens a lot. But I was so moved that they put their trust in me with that song.”
Olsen, who was inspired to move to Nashville because of Urban, was thrilled. “It was the best thing I could have done for my career. Who knows, maybe that song would have died in the 30s for a new artist,” Olsen said later. “And I got to take my mom to the Grammys.”
While the rules help hold the system together, sometimes the process devolves.
“One song plugger used to say, ‘I’ll define a hold for you this way: Whoever cuts it first has the hold,’ ” said Troy Tomlinson, president of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. “Back then, our town was more of a gunslinger kind of town. There were fewer opportunities to secure great songs.”
Some problems remain. Publishers will promise to not pitch a song, then do it anyway. Sometimes artists and management abuse the process, keeping hundreds of songs on hold, or a possible big hit locked down for years, which can cripple a small publishing company if the songs are not released.
“I’ve been in Nashville since 1990, and it has been a pretty intense topic the entire time I’ve been here,” said producer Frank Liddell, who owns Carnival Music publishing. “There’s been a lot of discussion of, ‘How do you remedy. . . the problem caused by holds?’ ”
From the label perspective, Warner Music’s Lacy said she has been burned by publishers and writers who take songs back. At the same time, she knows they can’t wait forever for a singer to make a decision.
“If I can’t get an answer from the artist, it’s not fair of me to prevent someone else from making money,” Lacy said. “Most of the artists recognize that the songs are their lifeblood. The artists that are most successful. . . are great at responding quickly.”
Dennis Lord, executive vice president of SESAC, heard about a publisher who got a request from a producer who was notorious for holding more songs than he could ever record. The publisher told the producer, sure, he could have the hold — in return for a $50,000 check. If he used the song, the publisher would hand it back. If not, he would cash it.
“Not every publisher can do that, because some publishers might fear they’re going to upset the producer and the producer will never talk to them again,” Lord said. “But sometimes, you have to make that point.” (The producer decided to use the song.)
Shane McAnally, one of Nashville’s most sought-after writer-producers and president of the publishing company Smack Songs, said he has joked — but is kind of serious — that people should have to pay a $10,000 advance to put a song on hold. While he has enough power now to directly ask a star whether they actually plan on recording his music, midlevel writers have to rely on the vague word of gatekeepers.
“Many artists came from the songwriting world, so they’re very respectful of, “I don’t want to keep your song tied down,’ ” McAnally said. “But a lot of times, the people around them are protective of it, like ‘No, we want to hold this song,’ basically saying, ‘We don’t know for sure that we want it, but we don’t want anyone else to have it.’ It’s a concept that I feel is outdated. And it’s not really fair to songwriters.”
Still, Nashville’s unique community has advantages. Clay Myers, creative director of MV2 Entertainment, calls the town “competitive-collaborative,” pointing to song plugger groups, where people from rival publishing companies get together to brainstorm and share information. Music publishers from other formats are stunned when they hear this exists.
Luke Laird, of Creative Nation, credits Nashville’s small-town feel as why many people in the country industry try to be as respectful as possible.
“If you have a poor attitude about stuff or you start trying to be shady, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. There are just too many talented people in this town,” he said. “If you do something unethical, people just quit working with you.”
Sam Hunt, above, co-wrote “Cop Car” based on his life, but Keith Urban, top, was the one who recorded it first because a publisher gave him the song. Hunt ended up including it on his debut album anyway.