What the Heck is a Staff Songwriter?
I’ve spent almost 20 years living my dream as a staff songwriter on Music Row, and I consider myself very blessed to still be doing it today. Due to the decline of physical CD sales and the advent of streaming services that pay songwriters less than a 10th of a cent per stream (basically nothing), the staff songwriting business in Nashville is about 90% smaller than it was when I got here. In celebration of this rare and dying breed of musician, I thought I’d re-post this update of a blog I wrote way back in 1997, along with a new section at the end. Times have changed…but the heart of the music business hasn’t. No matter where the money goes, it still starts with a song.A STAFF SONGWRITER...?
What the heck is that? I've been asked that question many times, because Nashville is one of the only places on earth that you will find this rare breed of musician. Many country artists don't write their own material - or need help doing it - so that's where staff songwriters like me make a living.
When you buy an artist's CD or purchase it for download, you are generating income for the songwriters; these are called "mechanical royalties". Similarly, when a song plays on a major radio station, royalties are also generated for the songwriters; these are called "performance royalties". Typically, radio stations only play a couple of songs off each CD that are released by the record label as "singles".
If you ever tour the world-famous Music Row area, you’ll see a haphazard collection of houses and office buildings. Many of these are publishing company headquarters. Nashville publishers keep a staff of songwriters, ranging in roster from a couple to several dozen, who write songs to pitch to country artists. The publishers provide the writers with a "draw" (an advance against future royalties paid out monthly like a salary). They also pay for the partially recoupable cost of making demonstration recordings ("demos") of the songs, and provide a staff "songplugger" whose job is to pitch the songs to artists in any way possible...via record label staff, artist management staff, producers, hairdressers, makeup artists, personal trainers, dog-walkers, etc... and whenever possible to the artists themselves!
Staff songwriters typically sign a one- to five-year long contract to write exclusively for a publisher and grant them 25 to 50% of the royalties earned on the songs written during that time period. Songwriters only get their own share of the royalties AFTER their publisher reclaims or “recoups” their investment (i.e. your draw and demo costs). Publishers only recoup their investment from writers in the event that royalties are earned; otherwise, they must write it off as a lost expense. So publishing is a risky business!
(Note: because royalties have declined so much since I wrote this blog, a modern twist on the classic staff songwriting contract has evolved. It’s geared towards the still-vibrant touring and merchandise side of the music business, and it’s called the “360 deal”. It requires performing songwriters to sign over a percentage of all potential incomes including royalties, gig pay, CD and merchandise sales to a publishing company that acts as a one-stop booking agent, manager, road manager, publicist, and sometimes even as an indie record label. It's a way to make ends meet for singer/songwriters...but many brilliant writers don't perform, and thus are finding it almost impossible to survive as music shifts to a streaming model.)
HOW DO YOU BECOME A STAFF SONGWRITER...?
Well...here's the basic recipe: after making a few visits to Music City to scope things out, you sell everything that you can't fit into the backseat of your car, drive to Nashville, rent the nicest seedy apartment you can find, and start attending every songwriter performance venue you can...you soak it all in like a sponge...you read every book you can find about the music industry and figure out who's who, what they do, and how it works...you write, write, write...you perform at open-mic nights...you network, network, network...you get a job waiting tables at a greasy spoon and save up enough money to record demos of your best songs...through your networking you finally get some meetings with publishing companies, and you play them your demos...and hopefully you will eventually find someone who believes in you enough to offer you a publishing contract.
If you're lucky enough, and persistent enough, to make it to this point, your work has just begun. Now you start going into the publishing office 5 days a week, collaborating with cowriters you may never have met, and you open your hearts and souls together and write as many great commercial songs as you possibly can (typically 100-250 songs per year.) If your songwriting draw is large enough to live on, you can give up your greasy spoon job and spend all your extra time looking at the world through songwriter glasses in search of the next great idea to add to your book of potential hooks. Every month or so, you book a studio and hire the same world-class musicians listed in the credits on your favorite records to make the best-sounding demos that you can for the songs you have written. From there, you hand the songs over to your publisher…and hopefully, they run with them.
After you've built up a catalog of hundreds of great songs (if your publisher is willing to invest in you for that long and is connected enough to get them in the right hands), maybe some will be put "on hold" for an artist - that's simply a formality meaning your song is being considered for their record. If you're lucky, maybe one of your "holds" will end up being recorded AND make it to the record release stage, without being dropped from the project or without the artist being dropped from the record label. If you're SUPER lucky, your song will be one of the few tracks on the record chosen to be a radio single. And if you're INCREDIBLY lucky, your radio single will climb high enough in the charts that you’ll get to hear it on the radio, see it in a video, watch it performed in concert in front of thousands of people, maybe even walk a red carpet and collect an award for it. If that happens, hopefully you’ll make enough royalties to pay your publisher back what they've invested in you so far, have some left over for yourself…and you can finally move out of that seedy apartment into a decent house! After that, the cycle starts again: your publisher re-invests in you and you hope the next hit will pay them back.
IN RETROSPECT (written in 2015):
I always tell aspiring songwriters that there are three elements to “making it” in the music business: 1) the quality of what you write, 2) networking, and 3) pure luck. To some extent, hard work and dedication can control the first two elements, but you’ll never control the third. For every hit on the radio, there are thousands of songs that are just as good - or better - that you’ll never hear simply because the writer wasn’t lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. In the music business, there’s no correlation between how hard you work and how much money you will make…unless luck co-operates with your hard work along the way. You have to be prepared for that, and you have to be strong enough to measure your success by the fact that you get to do what you love, not by fame or by dollars in the bank.
So far, somehow I’ve managed to keep food on the table for almost 20 years doing this. Those years have been 80-hour weeks of writing, traveling, practicing, touring, recording, networking, blogging, and trying to dream up the idea that will pay for next month’s groceries. I’ve had a few months when ridiculously big checks arrive in the mail, but I’ve also had far more months without checks, so in the end it evens out to a pretty humble living. If you aren’t willing to live like this…or if there’s anything else you can do for a living and be satisfied…then this is not the line of work for you. But if you adore the process of making music enough that you’re willing to ride the rollercoaster, I can’t imagine a more fulfilling life. Personally, I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
Do you have questions about the music business? Post them in the comments below, and I'll answer them the best I can in an upcoming blog post! (And if you're not yet signed up for my mailing list, click here to do that - you'll get a lot more insider info there.)