Wednesday, January 16, 2008

5 Lies You'll Hear In Nashville


"It's the illegal downloading, stupid."

People are hip to how much it really costs to record and manufacture a great CD (under $20,000). Yet the major record labels continue to dump ridiculous amounts of money into over-hyped acts and then over-charge consumers for their product. Why spend $17 on a CD that sounds like a collection of Clear Channel jingles ? Ask anyone in the Nashville music business if they listen to country music after work and you'll find out they hate country music. If you want a great CD look to the indie labels, which incidentally, are booming and profiting because they don't operate on bloated budgets designed to keep the suits well-fed while the artists do all the work. The Indies are mostly in it for the art. Read the blogs and the comments and you'll find that most consumers are still buying the music they love and they have no problem paying for mp3s. But they do have a problem with paying twice what they ought to pay for crappy CDs, and with the bullying practices of the RIAA.

"We're looking for something really different."


Has anyone noticed how quickly country music assimilates the latest sound into it's sea of sameness? Shania and Mutt put a banjo in a track and now you can't make a record without a banjo in it. I'm not knocking banjos, I'm criticizing producers for their lack of innovation. Most great songs in Nashville never get recorded precisely because they ARE different. Most of the best songwriters that I know have no publisher at the moment. They all write very fresh, wonderful songs. This lie pushes all my buttons.

"It isn't a conflict of interests."

Of course not. Sony publishing and Sony Records don't play favorites with each other. If a producer runs a record label, produces several acts, and owns a publishing company, he can be still be objective about songs. That's why artists like Faith Hill are shocked to discover that great songwriters also live in Massachusetts, because Faith is hearing the best songs her producer wants her to hear, right? Good work, boys.

"You have to live in town."


Intrinsically there's NO reason why anyone has to live in Nashville. Many writers are collaborating over the Internet these days, and lots a great writers such as Hugh Prestwood and Jimmy Webb NEVER lived there. Living in Nashville is fine if you like it there, and I did for a while. But now I get regular emails and comments from writers who say that Nashville is ruining their writing. They can't be spontaneous, it's all done by committee, they fear being criticized for writing anything too artistic, and they must collaborate with artists, many of whom are not songwriters, never will be songwriters, and only show up for the money.

"Don't worry, I can hear the song."

No you can't. If the demo doesn't sound exactly like what's on the radio, forget it. You're a musical illiterate. If I brought you guitar-vocal demos of the next Bob Dylan you'd pass. You useless sack of shit.


copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

16 comments:

Mike said...

I've heard the "your songs are different" line before, along with - great songs, but they're not country." Love that one (still wondering how some of those Bon Jovi songs managed to pass the 'not country' test). Thanks for this, Craig - believe it or not, it's uplifting to read this type of thing from time to time, for a little perspective on reality. Truth is, Nashville doesn't know what Nashville wants - they want something they leard last week, but no single individual wants to be the first person to find that new sound.

chromehead said...

Thanks Mike. Like Washington, they all know it's broken but no one has the guts to fix what's wrong. There's a paralysis created by job insecurity. The reason the corporations are failing is because the status quo is : pretend nothing's wrong, do no harm, try to stay invisible at your desk, question nothing. They were in denial for too long. Innovation is dead. Now, at the indie labels it's entirely different. These entrepreneurs are all about innovation, excitement about the art, co-operation with artists and fair record deals hand-in-hand with fair consumer marketing. No wonder they're kicking the pants off the major labels.

Southern Beale said...

As a former music journalist, I can think of a few others!

* "This album is the most real, honest thing I've ever done." Oh, how tired I got of that old chestnut.

* "I really do wear cowboy hats in real life." Uh-huh.

* "The label has been wonderful to work with, they let me do whatever I wanted. They were really hands-off." Again, uh-huh.

Mike, Nashville knows exactly what it wants. It wants to make money! That's why it's called music business. When that inevitable parade of Taylor Swift clones makes its way up the charts in the next few years, artists need to remember that commerce is for today, art is forever.

chromehead said...

Well put, SB. Art and commerce make strange bedfellows, but what Nashville often seems to forget is that some of it's most successful moments have also been it's most artistic moments. It's this blatant pandering to Clear Channel's idea of what country music should be that makes it so wretched. They move the CMA awards to NYC, why? Because NYC loves country music? No, because they want it to appear that way. Country has "grown up", lost it's hillbilly innocence, become citified and edgy. Yes, but at what cost?

Mike said...

I don't disagree, SB - a business it is. But, as Craig notes, it's best moments have always been when true to the roots. The best financial times have been when traditionalists, or 'outlaws,' gained control after pop excesses leave the field decimated. Art can be very big business - art and commerce can go hand in hand. But, as Craig noted, no one - in this really awful business cycle - wants to be the one to sign Alan or Garth or Randy, or - heaven forbid - Waylon. I agree indies do it better, and more creatively, but its awful hard for indies to break into the clear channel stream; again, no radio station wants to be playing an indie artist when ratings time comes at the expense of a few more plays of Taylor Swift's latest dog whistle record. And, while I'm ranting - NSAI Songwriter of the Year???? Taylor Swift??? What, were Steele, Wiseman, Vassar, Walin, Bickhardt, Annie Roboff, the Jones' boys, Kim Williams, Byron Hill and *everybody* else too busy to accept? Were they voted inelegible because they actually CAN write? And what kind of signal does Swift's *selection* send to all of us hard-working, writers of songs *not country* enough, etc. send? Oh wait, I know - if you're sturggling, have cosmetic surgery to become an anorexic teen, get management to pick great co-writers to actually write the songs, then dress as alluringly as the law allows - then all will come flowing... who needs to worry about melody, lyric development, prosody or anything else - that's what professional co-writers are for. I expect it from radio, from TV and from the suits in Nashville. But not fro NSAI - that was truly horrendous.

chromehead said...

Well, who knows whether Taylor can write songs or not, but we get your point Mike. Recently Dianne Warren publicly criticized a well-known artist for wanting writing credits on a song she didn't write. I've heard similar stories from friends, although I've never had this happen to me, it seems to be the latest trend. Truthfully, the writers are guilty to some degree. If we all stood up and refused to let it happen it would stop. But most writers are so desperate for a cut they'll do just about anything. It's sad. When I went to Nashville in 1983 this was unheard of. It was an unwritten code that a writer's integrity didn't allow for "political" collaboration. If the artist wasn't a good songwriter, no one would write with them. Artists didn't go slumming for co-writers just to get a piece of the copyright. And the quality of the writing was substantially higher than it is today. As for the NSAI, anyone who thinks they're going to be part of the solution is in for a disappointment.

co3 said...

Wisdom abounds! Quite affirming as well! I lived in Nashville in the early/mid nineties, near the end of the first country boom. Someone gave me the "must be present to win" koolaid and I drank the whole pitcher.. I was in my early twenties and very green. I never really plugged into the "scene" and found that selling my soul was no option. So I moved back home and settled back into reality and began to write freely and with great inspiration.. I still go back and forth to Nashville about once a month to do business and cowrite occasionally, but the thought of living there again gives me a pain I can't locate!! I now feel that in order to write timeless, classic, standard hit songs, one must be able to breathe. Unfortunately, the smog of deal making and contrived collabortations makes it nearly impossible to catch a breath....

SY said...

Craig and all,
I love the discussion that I am reading and the opinions on the "Nashville Scene" but I have an honest question to ask. Am I a shallow, non-artistic, phony writer if I write a song that is a commercial country hit today? Seriously, I am wondering if it is a terrible thing to actually write for the market. The music that I have recorded that is my own may or may not find it's way to public ears with me as the performing artist. And this music has come from my soul, no doubt. But I do feel like I might have the talent to bang out other songs for other artists in the country genre. But if one does that, crafts a song for the sole purpose of fitting it into the market...are they, as a songwriter, "selling out?". I am not sure if that is what I am really hearing from you guys who are experienced, but I am kind of feeling ashamed or less of an artist because I would actually love to write a song that is a hit.( I'm just being honest) Help me with my insecurities guys and tell me like it is!!! Am I a bad writer if I write a bridge simply because I KNOW that a bridge is what the listener wants to hear there, not because it may feel right, but because this is the form that works?.etc..etc.....I think you know what I mean. Anyway....I am thrilled to have the opportunity to listen in on these discussions and to participate in some limited way. I have so much respect for songwriters in the music industry and I recognize that they are the ones that have given me my musical "memories" all of these listening years.
Feel free to respond, any of you, or just shake your head at me...I take no offense.

chromehead said...

Welcome to the discussion, co3. In one of my very early journal entries (c. 1983) I noted that a lot of writers who lived in Nashville would leave town to do some "serious writing". They'd woodshed in the Smokies or go down to Muscle Shoals or to the Alabama coast to write where they'd be out from under the influence of Nashville. I got pretty adept at stealing a couple of days per week to stay home in my studio and write songs alone that I wanted to sing. These are the songs I'm out there performing every weekend now. Many were never recorded. I found the co-writing grind good for productivity but bad for creativity. Quality is less important than quantity for many Music Row publishers. The smart people know that you have to be inspired to write a great song, and they also know that great songs don't always get cut easily. If living away from Nashvegas works for you, I think that's great!

chromehead said...

SY : Many writers in Nashville complain that their best songs don't get recorded. In the course of collaborations we sometimes write fun ditties that give us a break from the serious grind. But when those are the only songs from your catalog that see the light of day it can disconcerting. Crafting a song isn't a crime if you craft a great idea into a gem of a commercial song. Examples abound. What I often complain about is the cynical songwriting that seems to make fun of stereotypes and pander to a lower common denominator every year. SY, you aren't a bad writer if you write from the heart, no matter what type of song it is, no matter form it takes. If you can write commercial songs with honesty and integrity, there's no shame in it at all. If you're writing with an attitude like, "I'll write this one just like the crap that's on the radio and maybe somebody else will like it even if I think it sucks", forget it. They can smell that kind of counterfeit a mile away. You've got to love your work and be enthusiastic about your writing.

SY said...

C,
Thanks for the reply and the perspective. I will keep all that you have said in mind. And I will hope that what comes from my heart, can resonate in the hearts of others.
Stephen

Anonymous said...

Love the article and the passion in which it was written...I have seen and lived just about every senario that has been mentioned.I enjoyed most of the comments as well.As a writer/performer/sideman whom has lived in Nashville for over a decade,and is now just acheiving some sucsess in the writing end,it is the same songs that some of the so called experts not only passed on but made me feel like I couldn't write, that are getting me notice and other offers...Sufice to say that anyone who is truley creative, has lived in town for a sugnificant period of time, and got to somewhat know the industry,would probably agree that most exec's in almost every aspect of the music business, (some admitidly so) dont know their musical ass from a hole in the ground...I am not saying this with anger or bitterness, it's just a fact!Label exec's, Program Directors, Managers, Publishers...I guess we shouldn't get so mad at all the people with record deals that cant sing when they are being put in place buy people who cant hear. I don't know whether to thank or curse pro tools or the inventer of vocal tuners.If I have to listen to a bad singer, they might as well be tuned.And if you look at so many of the songs comming out of Nashville, so many are 2 or 3 way co writes...Pretty rare per capita to see a solo write, (not that I have anything against co writes)...Anyway, I have learned alot from the experience and If I could give any advice to SY it would be If you have to play the game a while to get in a position to call your own shots,don't feel bad about yourself.That's not sellin out in my book... Sometimes athletes have to play the coaches game before they can play their own and bring their best to the table.
Thanks

Anonymous said...

Hay Man I like the way you tell it like it is.Nashville may be for some people,but you should not have to live there to be a succesful writer.I believe that today MONEY has spoiled the music that I have loved for years.This is evident in all types of music.Its unfair to the people that buy the material to have to pay so much..Dollars rule the industry today.If you have contacts and dollars you are almost guarented to be successful Fungus

chromehead said...

Sad but true, anonymous. Thanks.

kennywain said...

kennywain says "Wow everyones right on the nose will add more later"

Mojo said...

Summer sun can be strong in IN, yeah, I do wear a cowboy hat and boots, pretty much year 'round. Other than that, the posts here are pretty much in line with my observations. Thank goodness, despite everything, a great song pokes its head up every now and then. It's like the sun came out from behind a cloud.