What’s a Staff Songwriter and How Do You Become One?

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. As you may have noticed if you are a country music fan, many country artists don't write their own material, so that's where staff songwriters like myself make our living.

When you buy an artist's CD, 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 give airplay to the few songs off each CD which are selected by the record label to be released as "singles".

If you visit Nashville and take a tour of the world-famous Music Row area, you will see a haphazard collection of houses and office buildings, many of which are publishing company headquarters. Publishers in Nashville keep a staff of songwriters, ranging anywhere in size from just a couple to several dozen, who write songs to pitch to country artists. The publishers provide the writers with a "draw" (a recoupable salary), 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.

As a songwriter, you sign a contract in return for these services promising to share a portion of your future royalties with your publisher, typically anywhere from a 25% to 50% share. In addition to this, your publisher will recoup their investment (i.e. your draw and demo costs) from your share of the royalties. Publishers only recoup their investment from writers in the event that royalties are earned; otherwise, they write it off as a lost expense.


Well...here's what you do. You wake up one morning and decide you're going to take the plunge, so 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 beating the streets and 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, and write, and write some more...you perform at open-mic nights...you network, and network, and network some more...you get a job waiting tables at the 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 really just begun. Now you start going into the office 4 or 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 songs as you possibly can. If your songwriting advance is large enough to live on, you can give up your greasy spoon job and spend all your spare time walking around with your antenna tuned, constantly looking for that next great idea to add to your book of potential hooks. You go to the studio and work with the same world-class musicians that are listed in the credits on your favorite CDs, and you make the best-sounding demos that you can for the songs you have written. From there, it's pretty much out of your hands.

You work for weeks, months, years...and after you've built up a catalog of hundreds of great songs, maybe a few of them will be put "on hold" for an artist (which means your song is a finalist among the songs being considered for their CD). If you're lucky, maybe one of your "holds" will end up being recorded by an artist. If you're really lucky, maybe your song will actually make it to the CD release stage, without being dropped from the CD or without the artist being dropped from the record label. If you're SUPER lucky, you might someday have a song chosen as a single for radio release. And if you're SUPER DUPER lucky, and the stars all align for you, your single might do well enough in the charts that you have the opportunity to hear it on the radio, see it in a video, or hear it performed in concert in front of thousands of people...and you make enough money from record sales to pay your publisher back what they've invested in you, with some left over for yourself...so you can finally move out of that seedy apartment into a decent house!

That's the dream that we are all chasing as staff writers...the possibility that on one of those hundreds of days when we are sitting at the office with pen and guitar in hand, painstakingly piecing together another song, we might be generating an idea that will reach out to millions of people around the world. That's why we do what we do, and in a nutshell, that's how we do it.


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