Tough to ‘hold’

The un­writ­ten rules of the coun­try mu­sic in­dus­try are long-stand­ing but com­plex

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR

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.”

ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

RICK DI­A­MOND/GETTY IM­AGES FOR COUN­TRY THUN­DER

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