Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who's Your Daddy And What Does He Do?

David M. Israelite, President & CEO of the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA) has issued a statement to the songwriters and publishers of America regarding the Copyright Review Board's hearing to determine mechanical royalty rates for Internet and traditional licenses of music. The participants are the CRB, the NMPA, the RIAA, and the DiMA. Both the RIAA and DiMA have proposed significant reductions in mechanical royalty rates that would be disastrous for songwriters and music publishers. Isrealite says :
"To give you an example of what is at stake, the current rate for physical phono-records is 9.1 cents. The NMPA is proposing an increase to 12.5 cents per song. The RIAA, however, has proposed slashing the rate to approximately 6 cents a song - a cut of more than one-third the current rate!For permanent digital downloads, NMPA is proposing a rate of 15 cents per track because the costs involved are much less than for physical products. The RIAA has proposed the outrageous rate of approximately 5 - 5.5 cents per track, and DiMA is proposing even less."
Ok, let's dig into this alphabet soup for a moment, shall we? What is the CRB? Who are the RIAA ? Who are the DiMA, the NMPA, and the MPA? I don't mean "what do the initials stand for" I mean what do the organizations stand for and who are the real advocates for songwriters?

The Copyright Review Board (CRB).

"On January 11, 2006, Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington appointed three copyright royalty judges... who oversee the copyright law’s statutory licenses, which permit qualified parties to use multiple copyrighted works without obtaining separate licenses from each copyright owner.

Among other duties, the Judges are responsible for determining and adjusting the rates and terms of the statutory licenses and determining the distribution of royalties from the statutory license royalty pools that the Library of Congress administers.

The current judges are : * William J. Roberts (two-year term) * James Scott Sledge, Chief Judge (six-year term) * Stanley C. Wisniewski (four-year term)"
Constitutionally speaking, this triumvirate should favor protection for copyright owners, who are often songwriters, and they often do. But... sometimes the actual copyright owner is a Publisher or a Record Company, and sometimes there are conflicts between these groups when it comes to rights.

So, the advocate for the Publishers is the National Music Publishers' Association (NMPA)

From the NMPA Mission Statement :

"The National Music Publishers’ Association is the largest U.S. music publishing trade association with over 700 members. Its mission is to protect, promote, and advance the interests of music’s creators. The NMPA is the voice of both small and large music publishers, the leading advocate for publishers and their songwriter partners in the nation’s capital and in every area where publishers do business."
"The interests of music’s creators"...now surely this organization is your daddy right? Not so fast.

Back in December 2005, the NMPA and MPA (Music Publishers' Association) announced they would be targeting websites that traded user-generated guitar chords and tablatures. One copy of a letter sent by a law firm on behalf of the NMPA/MPA was transcribed and posted on Guitar Tabs.com:
"The versions of these publishers' musical works that you post on your website are not exempt under copyright law. In fact, U.S. copyright law specifically provides that the right to make and distribute arrangements, adaptations, abridgements, or transcriptions of copyrighted musical works, including lyrics, belongs exclusively to the copyright owner of that work."
Says Michael Carroll, Associate Law Professor at Villanova University :

"Rather than work with this online community that has formed around the music, by perhaps adopting an advertising-based and value-added approach, the publishers want to disband it and preserve a sales model that would force (consumers) into a passive consumption role."
Consequently the site was shut down.

But are there benefits to the copyright owners who allow their lyrics to be posted for free?

Yes. How many times have you heard part of a song and Googled a phrase or two, and found the lyrics, title and artist listed on a lyric site? And if it was an obscure song it was probably not posted on a sanctioned lyric site. But when you found what you were looking for maybe you went to itunes and bought the song. This scenario happens hundreds if not thousands of times per day.

Like many songwriters I want people to know the words to my songs so they can sing them. When I get requests for lyrics I just email them to people. I don't ask for a dollar. According to my publisher I'm violating his rights.

Similar conflicts of interest arise when published songwriters try to promote their own music with MP3s and videos on the Internet. Recently I did several videos for a company called Blue Comet Cafe.com. The website streams videos as a showcase vehicle for singer-songwriters. The budget was very tight, and I requested a gratis sync license from my publishers. Universal and BMG consented. EMI wanted a hefty $250 per song, which was impossible. Keep in mind, I'm trying to promote songs I wrote that EMI owns administration and publishing rights to. My own publisher, a member of the NMPA, prevented me from promoting my own songs. Ludicrous.

And let's be honest, many songwriters have to audit publishers to get all of their royalties. My catalogs have been bought and sold so many times I'm not even sure who owns them anymore. But, in this particular battle over the future of Mechanical Royalties, ok, we songwriters are in bed with you, NMPA. But we don't trust you, so don't take us for granted.

The MPA (Music Publisher's Association) is a similar organization.
"Founded in 1895, the Music Publishers Association is the oldest music trade organization in the United States, fostering communication among publishers, dealers, music educators, and all ultimate users of music"
Note the emphasis is "users" and "publishers". If you don't publish your own songs, you may at times run into conflicts with this group.

The DiMA (Digital Media Association)

Here is how their website defines the organization :

"DiMA was founded in 1998 by seven leading webcentric companies that agreed on a common principle - that consumers' desire to enjoy digital entertainment should not be hampered by outdated laws, regulations and business models. At the time there were no trade associations representing companies whose core businesses depended on the distribution and streaming of digital entertainment content. The founding companies believed that webcasters, technology companies and online music and video retailers needed a stable legal environment in which to build ideas into industries, and inventions into profits."
Clearly not your Daddy. In fact, as David M. Israelite of the NMPA cites :

"For interactive streaming services, which some analysts believe will be the future of the music industry, NMPA is proposing a rate of the greater of 12.5% of revenue, 27.5% of content costs, or a micro-penny calculation based on usage. The RIAA actually proposed that songwriters and music publishers should get the equivalent of .58% of revenue. This isn't a typo - less than 1%. And DiMA is taking the shocking and offensive position that songwriters' and music publishers' mechanical rights should be zero, because DiMA does not believe we have any such rights!"
This organization exists purely for the purpose of compromising copyright income from the Internet. They want it cheap, they want it all, and songwriters can eat dirt.

The RIAA (Record Industry Association of America)

From their "Who We Are" web page :
"The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry. Its mission is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members' creative and financial vitality. Its members are the record companies that comprise the most vibrant national music industry in the world. RIAA members create, manufacture and/or distribute approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States.

In support of this mission, the RIAA works to protect intellectual property rights worldwide and the First Amendment rights of artists; conducts consumer, industry and technical research; and monitors and reviews state and federal laws, regulations and policies. "
Hmmm... as far as I can tell, the word "songwriter" doesn't even appear anywhere on the website. You'd think they made records out of thin air.

This organization never was and never will be serving the interests of songwriters. Stephen Foster earned $.015 (1.5 cents) for each copy of sheet music he sold. Since there were no records, we can only compare apples to crab apples here. Up until recently (during my career) the mechanical royalty rate was $.0375 per record sold. That's little more than a $.02 earnings increase in a over a hundred years, a period which has seen the price of sheet music go from $.25 to $3.95, or roughly a 1600% increase. No doubt, if there had been records in the mid-1800s, there would've been a similar price hike. We've managed to get the rate up to $.091 and now the RIAA wants to slash it back to 1980s rates? Hey, RIAA, bite me.

Support the NSAI.

They may not be perfect, but they're still the best allies we've got.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

NMW Spotlight : A Conversation With Nathan Bell

From Nathan's Bio:

"Songwriter-singer/guitarist Nathan Bell toured the US and Canada throughout the '80s, playing at clubs, concert halls, and (as a member of the duo, Bell and Shore) most of the premier North American acoustic music festivals, including the Walnut Valley Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and the Mariposa Folk Festival. His work on acoustic, National steel-bodied, and electric guitars was often overshadowed by his songwriting, which is an amalgamation of ideas inspired by writers ranging from Jack London, William Faulkner, and the poet Marvin Bell to Townes Van Zandt and southern short-story master Larry Brown. He stopped touring in 1992, and with the arrival of his first child in 1995 left the business altogether to concentrate on raising a growing family. During the '80s Bell shared the stage with Emmylou Harris, Eddie and Martha Adcock, Stompin' Tom Connors, Townes Van Zandt, Kathy Mattea, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Ricky Skaggs, and a whole cast of scofflaws and gypsies from the folk and bluegrass archipelago. During the early '90s he was a staff writer for Ten Ten Music in Nashville and was regularly featured at Nashville's Bluebird Cafe, often as part of the "writers in the round" series with many notable songwriters, including Grammy-Award winner Don Henry, Craig Bickhardt, and CMA award nominee Angela Kaset. In 1991, he recorded an album of songs with producer/guitarist Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart) that was never released. His first cd release in almost 20 years, "In Tune, On Time, Not Dead," is now available from CDbaby."

Going where many fear to tread lyrically, this tough-voiced rock poet may put some in mind of a more aggressive Richard Shindell or Richard Thompson. There's a heart and soul here that belies the street tough demeanor. For one thing, Bell is willing to sing about fatherhood in a deeply tender way (listen to "The Nest (Go Slow)" next time he posts it on MySpace). When he has a political point to make, he doesn't hedge (listen to "Six Long Years" and "Traitorland"). He may well be the best kept secret on the American indy rock scene.

I recently had the chance to discuss songwriting and artistry with Nathan.

Ninety Mile Wind : Tell us a little about your upbringing. You're a mid-westerner, as are so many great singer-songwriters-- Dylan, of course, Woody Guthrie, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Jimmy Webb. There's an earthiness and an expansiveness of imagery that's distinctly different from southern, west coast, or New England writing. What is it about the mid-west that turns out such great songwriting and how do you think the local color affected you or the memories you draw from?

Nathan Bell : I was raised primarily in Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. My upbringing was decidedly bohemian but in a grounded way. I was expected to work, as are, I think, most Midwesterners. Midwesterners are by and large a realistic bunch. Being realistic tends to set one up to not think too highly of one's prospects, which in turn leads to an art informed by a kind of personal modesty. I think it's interesting that Dylan, the one mid-western songwriter to truly become an international phenomenon, reinvented himself immediately upon his arrival in New York City as somebody more exotic...because it's true that it isn't very "exotic" to be from the middle of the country. I would probably still be living in Iowa if I hadn't decided to follow the songwriting dollars to Nashville and then leave those same dollars on the table and keep going South. I miss the local color of the mid-west a great deal and always consider myself first and foremost an Iowan. We're sneaky...nobody even knows where Iowa is anyway...

The expansiveness comes from the geography, something that's been explored in painting as well. When you can see a long, long way you learn to see very small gradations...a sunset looks different from each corner of a cornfield and from different places in the rolling hills of Eastern Iowa. I'd say growing up there taught me to look very carefully before making up my mind.

Being mid-western means being taken for granted by the rest of the country and not minding all that much! I hope this makes sense. So much of where I grew up just settled in my heart and defies explanation.

NMW : Yes, it makes sense. Another thing that seems to spring from the mid-west is a great, dry wit. This goes back to Twain, of course, who remains one of the funniest writers ever to set pen to paper. You notice it in some of Dylan's, Prine's, Goodman's, and your songs. Great humorous songs are probably the hardest types of songs to write because jokes tend to get stale if they aren't somehow interwoven with pathos, romance, imagery, and intelligent concepts. How did humor intersect your evolution as a songwriter -- what influenced you, did you read Twain, was there humor in your family, or is this type of writing something that's innate ?

NB : My family pretty much laughed all of the time and continues to do so to this day. My favorite media art has always been driven by comedy. I read Twain, of course, and listened to the great comedy albums of my childhood, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Firesign Comedy Theater and everything by the great core group of National Lampoon writers. TV was mostly sports or Monty Python, Bob Newhart, MASH, Barney Miller, and a host of other well-written shows. I was late to the Smothers Brothers but that kind of sly political comedy-- where sooner or later the powers that be figure it out and run you out of town-- also appealed to our clan. I also remember vividly getting Martin Mull's live album and playing it over and over.

Humor has always leavened tragedy and I guess the humor of songs like "Dear Abby" that had an underlying sense of humanity helping to make the song relevant even after the joke was no longer new influenced me a great deal. I think it's interesting that Ghandi had a terrific dry sense of humor that he wielded brilliantly during the darkest hours of the rebellion against the British.

My favorite movie of all time is Slapshot, a Paul Newman/George Roy Hill movie that profanely and beautifully tells the story of a dying minor league hockey franchise in a dying mill town. It is a story of corporate greed, malfeasance, and manipulation told in a way that reduces people to gasping for air.

My other career choice would have been to be a stand-up comic but that's the hardest thing of all and I wasn't that brave.

NMW : I've always been intrigued by your ability to create unique characters in your lyrics-- "Walking Iron" about the Native American steel welder who thrived on the heights of skyscraper construction; "King Of The North" about the kick-ass hockey player; "Johnny El Gato Miguel" about the faded career of a professional barrio boxer. Many songwriters would like to know more about this ability, myself included. How much of this from your imagination, and how much of it is just keen awareness of the world around you?

NB : My father [Marvin Bell] is a poet whose bread and butter was examining the "regular" things around him for irregularities, and writing about the beautiful flaws in our lives. I grew up with an understanding that every moment something was happening and all you had to do was open your eyes. My father is a keen observer of people and I think I have inherited that from him. I often understand the motivations of others almost immediately upon meeting them. "King of the North" comes from that "gift" -- I played a lot of sports and often found myself a member of that group of athletes who may have unique talents on a small scale but find that on the big stage they fall short. This character's defining moment is his realization that it's better to fail at something amazing than to only wonder if you could have succeeded. For me this is the noblest of things, to make your life great and look back only for historical perspective and amusement.

NMW : I think that's the essence of the American Dream-- attempting big vs. the regret of never trying. You and I have talked about your own optimism before, and how it colors your world view. There's even a heroic quality to some of these characters, not Rambo heroics, just the heroism of people who rise to adversity. Very un-superhuman. Is that intentional ?

NB : You'll find that almost all of my characters are fundamentally optimistic and kind when they could easily be bitter and harsh. So I suspect that my characters reflect how I most want to be perceived. My father also insisted that I should experience a lot, so I've worked more jobs than I can even recall -- out in the cold picking up 200 pounds of something, cleaning out drains and grease traps in a restaurant kitchen, working my 75th hour with little sleep, or, as in the last 13 years, managing people with seriously real lives and problems. I didn't go to college, even though I spent one official year at Boston University. This means I spent a lot of years rubbing shoulders with the characters in my songs. I never found my own thoughts about myself anything but a nuisance, a roadblock to living a mindful life. Therefore, in writing about others I avoided boring myself.

NMW : It's interesting that some writers are self-obsessed, Thomas Wolfe for example, who had to medicate with alcohol to keep his memories from driving him crazy. That's what I appreciate about your writing the most-- your ability to inhabit these characters so completely that they come alive and they're different in every song. It sounds like you're somewhat of a student of human nature. This is precisely what great actors do and I suspect to some extent it's the same type of study that produces some great writers. What else do you do to study or observe characters ?

NB : I also read constantly, much of it American fiction, contemporary and otherwise. Some of my favorites are London, Hemingway, Robert Olmstead, Craig Leslie, and Rick Bass -- writers whose characters are often flawed in common ways yet have uncommon approaches to life. The American Dream as it applies to all Americans, all of us immigrants, has been my thesis since I started to write. It helps that I've lived a parallel life with many of these characters. I also read a great deal of sports journalism. Sports Illustrated often has the best non-fiction writing you will find anywhere. Writers like Gary Smith and Frank Deford have introduced me to people who also find their way into my songs.

NMW : Boxing seems to have attracted a number of great writers, and of course Hemingway loved Bull Fighting. Maybe these intensely physical activities are so sensually stimulating that they help distract a writer from his own existence to some extent. Do you find a certain amount of distraction helpful when you're working on a song ?

NB : I am hyper-sensitive to the world around me, often able to fully understand my song ideas only while I'm doing something else, almost like my brain must be diverted enough to allow a free flow of electrons. Most of my writing takes place not on paper but in my head as I drive, or ride a road bike, or walk. I am a slave to my small notepads and micro-recorders. I work very quickly when I do work, but the ideas ferment for as long as it takes. I've found that the songs I record are often almost instantly playable from memory after being committed to paper. I am also a vicious editor, terrified that somebody will find one lazy line. I'm sure that such lines can be found, but before I even write a song down I try to kill as many of those bastards as possible!

NMW : It's good for writers to understand this process of incubation and self-editing . Too many writers believe that a song is just born and that's the end of it. I want to get back to character for a moment because many of us are interested in that aspect of writing. How do you create such authentic characters ?

NB : A wonderful conversation from the movie Good Will Hunting really sums up my approach to writing: Robin Williams' character (Sean Macquire), sharing a bench in Boston Commons with Matt Damon's (Will), acknowledges Will's genius but condemns his lack of experiences. Every character of mine -- even though I obviously didn't fight in Vietnam or weld beams on a skyscraper-- contains a piece of something I have done. If I can't feel what's in the song, or if it's ONLY about something I've read or heard, I won't write it. At the end of the day I write about the people I admire -- the people I still hope to live up to.

NMW : You and I were recently discussing the lack of a leading "voice of social conscience" like Dylan or Seeger or Joan Baez among the major artists of today. Very few of them want to sing about tough issues, but you aren't afraid to do that. Most of the audience seems content with American Idol or else they're half brain-dead when it comes to musical taste. Do you believe a singer-songwriter's role should be to speak truth to power, or rally the disenfranchised, or take on a socio-political cause to sort of wake the sleeping masses ?

NB : An artist has to create based on what is around him/her at the time. When I left the business it was during a time of relative prosperity, when a man could lose his chance at being an NHL hockey player, or in my case, a musician, and reach out, grab the ladder and climb up to something else. So I wrote about specific lives and the positive if sometimes wistful choices the people in those lives had made. Now the choices seem fewer and I've returned to writing at a terrible time for the human animal. If I didn't write about that what would I write about? And almost all of our ills are being caused by a very few wealthy, white men. Men who by all standards of decency and justice could be convicted of war crimes. I never thought that I'd see the day when any governing body or president would even consider that our country would have a civil defense policy with even the smallest amount of allowable torture. And add to that the blatant, brazen use of the tragedy of Sept 11th to make even more money for these men and their friends, eventually leading to the outright murder of Americans trying to nobly serve their country, which is something so hideous, cynical, and impudent that to not call attention to it as best I can would mean I had chosen to ignore it for my own safety and gain.

My father is Jewish. So it's easy for me to remember that silence equals death. And as the son of the son of relatively new immigrants, I believe in what this country stands for. I even carry a pocket constitution. I own property, travel, work and speak my mind freely, protected by the greatest set of laws ever devised. I want the traitors that would use fear and economic pressure to control the populace to be removed from office and sent to prison for their crimes against the good will and faith of the people of the United States. Can I do that with a song? I don't know, Craig, but songs can be damn powerful sometimes so it's worth trying!

NMW : No doubt about it. You've mentioned something that I was actually leading up to. I personally found this courageous, and I know this will interest all of our readers. About 15 years ago, after making a couple of records that received some critical raves, which led to a tenure at a major publishing company in Nashville, you turned your back on the music industry, moved to Chattanooga, and took a day job. Writers ask me all the time if they need to live in Nashville, or if they're washed up if they don't fit in with Nashvegas's idea of music. Talk a little bit about your decision, how it affected you, and also about how it feels to pick up the recording and writing again. You seem genuinely inspired.

NB : My father has always said that writers write. So you write wherever you are about what matters to you. Making a living is something different. William Carlos Williams was a Pediatrician. I actually went back to working day jobs while still in Nashville and then after finding a better and bigger day job followed a great opportunity to Chattanooga in 1997. Although nobody but my close friends who understand how my mind works believe me I didn't pick up the guitar at all for most of those years. I think I played twice for more than a lullaby in all that time. Honestly, I had reached the end of my creative road, or so I thought. I fully intended to never play or write again. I threw myself completely into a corporate job and raising my children. And I wouldn't change a thing. It made enough sense that I'm not sure it took a lot of courage. But I appreciate the compliment.

Don Henry dragged me kicking and screaming on stage in 2006 and in the process of learning a couple of my own songs to play with him at a wonderful little club in Lafayette Georgia called "Music on the Square" I found myself really enjoying the guitar again. I came back from a business trip a short while after to find that my wife, Leslie, had converted a walk-in closet to a guitar room/studio. I recorded "In Tune, On Time, Not Dead" on a Roland BR-600 8 track and then decided to just put it out and see what happens. I've also enjoyed playing all the instruments...I think it's my belated tribute to the first really great JJ Cale album!

When I started playing again I felt more "one" with my self and somehow that has led to this run of songs...I have another CD, "Traitorland" that will be released this spring and upgraded my studio to give myself a little more range while recording. A third CD, tentatively titled "Incendiary" will follow shortly after that. I figure if the Who, The Stones, and all those people could put out 2-3 albums a year I sure as hell can.

NMW : Having left Nashville myself two years ago, I've learned this lesson later in life than you did ! I have one final question for you. The new music "business" has meant, for artists like us, empowerment and liberation. Yet some songwriters seem overwhelmed by it-- the technology, the Internet options, the sheer number of participants in the game. What advice do you have for people who may be hanging back, clinging to the old model, somewhat fearful of taking the plunge into the wacky world of do-it-all-yourself ?

NB : I tell them to listen to "Every Picture Tells a Story" , the radio single version. The tempo is all over the place, the vocals are distorting all over hell, the cymbals eat up all the frequency and who can even tell what the bass player is playing? And it's a great record, one brilliant piece of music from an album filled with noisy, messy songs, each brilliant and imperfect. The one thing nobody should be afraid of is making a mistake...make the right mistakes all together at the same time and you get genius!


Buy The New CD

Nathan's Website

Nathan Bell on MySpace

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

5 "Must Read" Music Business Articles

In a post script to my previous blog entry regarding the cause of the RIAA's troubles, read this comprehensive article posted by Music Row attorney Barry Shrum.

An optimistic view of the New New Music Industry written by Raghav Gupta.

David Brown's wise article entitled Ten Ways To Fix The Music Biz in Spin Magazine

From the BBC : why there can't be a true alliance between the artist/writer and the record label over copyright.

David Byrne's insightful piece about surviving in the new music industry featured in Wired

6 Tips For Surviving A Visit To Music Row

Buy A Trampoline

and get used to bouncing around...that's my daughter in the pink bikini.

Take The Opinions With A Grain Of Salt

You'll hear a mountain of differing opinions in Nashville. It's very easy to get led astray. Remember that all of the breakthrough acts, blockbuster hits, and trend changing events in the music industry were totally unpredictable. Anyone who thinks they understand a demographic or thinks they have a formula for success is proved dead wrong in the end. The most successful people ignore opinions most of the time. They stubbornly believe in what they do and pursue their own path with determination. The confrontational nature of Nashville is designed to put off people who lack self-confidence. You have to decide for yourself whether you have the talent and the goods. Go to Music Row with an open mind but don't expect it all to make sense. Learn to laugh at the absurd contradictions and you'll be healthier.

Understand What The Code Words Mean

"Too safe" - means : "I've heard this idea a thousand times and there's no way you'll ever impress me with it".

"Not right for this artist/record" - means : "I don't like your song right now, but I might be having a bad day so you can bring it back next year".

"You're close" - means : "I've criticized you too much already so I'm trying to be nice and this is the best I can do".

"I'll take a copy" - means : "I don't want to make up my mind about this song right now so I'll put your CD on the floor of my car until I do".

"I'd like to put this on hold" - means : "I don't want anyone else to grab this song before I have a chance to get a second, third, and fourth opinion about it".

"I love it" - probably means : "I'll love it until either the second, third, or fourth opinion tells me they don't".

Leave The Personal Songs At Home

All of us write personal songs sometimes. We experiment and probe our psyches and write cathartic tear jerkers that no one else will ever want to sing. Leave those songs at home. You're only asking for a deep wound if you play them for busy industry people. You may dearly love these songs. They might be like children to you. But if they aren't what Music Row is looking for, you won't feel much love.

Avoid Burnout

Don't try to see too many people and attend too many writers nights. You'll be overwhelmed and probably feel like a drop of water in the ocean. One or two appointments and one show per day will give you plenty to ruminate on. It's a mistake to cram two co-writing appointments into one day, also. This may give you a false sense of accomplishment, but I doubt very much that those songs will get recorded unless you've had several brilliant moments in your day. Most of us are lucky if we have a few brilliant moments in a year.

Stay focused On Your Best Work

Don't come to town with a dozen songs and try to get a reading on all of them. Do some of the screening in advance. Choose 3-4 of your very best commercial songs and concentrate on pitching/playing/critiquing them. You'll get 20 minutes in a meeting, that's all. It's barely enough time to say hello and play 4 songs.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

15 Minutes To Understanding Rythmic Theme And Variation

This is the rhythmic notation for the melody to the song “Summer In The City”. In my notation there are four color coded, repeating patterns. Three are in the verse. One is a series of three sixteenth notes followed by a dotted eighth note indicated by the red lines below the staff. The second is a series of four sixteenth notes indicated where there are blue lines above the staff. Technically these would be called rhythmic motifs because they’re too short to be considered themes. The third pattern is a longer series of sixteenth notes and eighth notes indicated by the green lines that sounds like dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit-dah-dah. This would be considered a theme, made up of two four-note motifs.

Now notice there’s a variation of the green rhythm in bar five where it is shortened to six notes so that it sounds like dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit. The green rhythm is repeated again in measure six so we get this rhythm: dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit, dit-dit-dah-dah-dit-dit. Then there’s an even shorter variation of the green rhythm at the end of bar six where it only goes dit-dit-dah-dah, which is just the four-note motif that the theme is based on.

Now, at bar ten, where the chorus begins we find a new five-note motif that features an eighth note/ sixteenth note combination that sounds like dit-dah dit-dah-dit. This pattern is indicated in yellow. Then notice how the red, green and blue motifs from the verse are woven into the chorus.

Now, this entire melody is only 15 bars long. But in this 15 bar melody the blue rhythm repeats 6 times. The red rhythm repeats 7 times (it’s a continuation in bar 13-14). The green rhythm repeats 6 times with variations, and the pattern in yellow repeats 3 times. That’s four patterns of rhythm repeating a total of 22 times with slight variations in the combinations of all four of them. The themes and motifs move around to different places in the measures. There are also a couple other short minor motifs, but least one of the four MAIN ones appears in nearly every measure.

You can see how this ties the melody together in a very tight way. This is a highly memorable song, and not so much because we’ve all heard it a zillion times, but because it was memorable the first time we heard it. It was easy to capture it in our minds. Of course there are other hook factors in this song that contribute to it being a memorable tune. But Theme and Variation in the rhythm contributes a lot to its catchy quality.

Now here’s another important point: the second cycle of the verse and chorus of “Summer In The City” doesn’t change. It’s exactly the same rhythmic pattern syllable for syllable. In other words, this is a very tightly constructed song. The rhythmic and melodic themes and motifs get pounded into the listener’s head so much that it’s almost impossible to forget this song after hearing it once. That’s the value of rhythmic repetition.

It’s usually much easier to recognize melodic themes that repeat, or repeat with some variation, for example the melody to “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. The first two lines are nearly identical in notes and intervals as well as rhythm. Then the final lines contain an accelerated variation of the rhythm—it doubles up or moves twice as fast—this is called: Diminution. That’s also a trick you can use to unify and strengthen the impact of your melody.

The important thing to remember is that the human brain perceives patterns quickly and interprets them as “order”.
So, try to detect some potential “Theme and Variation” in your melody. Look for repeated patterns in the notes and rhythms. Remove some notes if necessary, add a few notes in certain spots until you hear some repeated phrases and some “echoes” or similar melodic patterns. Be especially conscious of unnecessary clutter that may have gotten into the melody due to a “wordy” lyric. Try to distill the essence of your melody down to simple, pure phrases that all lead to the musical hook.

Even if you only partially simplify your melody the result will be a more memorable song. When you do this, sometimes you’ll see that some of the lyrical clutter is unnecessary, too. In other words you simultaneously compress your lyric and your melody and the song gets tighter which gives it more IMPACT, more immediate Memorablility.

If the melodic or rhythmic theme you’re using is a particularly long one, try repeating or echoing only part of it to see if this leads to some fresh musical variations. The more variations of the hook’s phrasing you can find, the more options you’ll have for the rest of the song’s melody.

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

Thursday, January 10, 2008

5 Essential Contract Clauses For Single Song Agreements

Always consult your attorney before signing any legal document.


In respect of regular vocal and/or instrumental copies of the Composition, WRITER shall be paid a royalty equal to ten percent (10%) of the suggested retail-selling price on each copy sold by PUBLISHER. If copies are sold for a discount of fifty percent (50%) or more from the suggested retail price, PUBLISHER shall pay WRITER a royalty equal to five percent (5%) of the suggested retail-selling price on each copy sold by PUBLISHER.

Note: Some contracts will specify an amount such as "$.09" rather than a percentage. It's important that you get a percentage due to increasing sheet music prices.

Priority : High


In the event PUBLISHER licenses the right to print and sell copies of the Composition in their original setting form, whether in single copies or for use in a songbook, collection, newspaper, magazine or similar publication, WRITER shall be paid a royalty equal to fifty percent (50%) of the net sums received by PUBLISHER pursuant to such licenses.

Note: Again, some contracts specify amounts rather than percentages. Try to insist on a percentage.

Priority : High


WRITER and PUBLISHER shall receive separate public performance payments or royalties directly from the applicable performing rights society, and neither party shall be entitled to share in a portion of such payments or royalties received by the other party nor shall either party make any claim against the other for such royalties.

Note: Some unscrupulous publishers have been trying to recoup writer advances against performance royalties. You should never agree to this.

Priority : Deal Breaker


If the copyright in the Composition is infringed, both parties shall have the right to proceed jointly, and to share the expenses and recoveries of such action equally. Should either party pursue the litigation alone, then the party shall bear the expenses of such action and after recouping the costs of the litigation (including reasonable attorney’s fees) from any recovery, that party shall divide the excess recovery equally with the other party.

Note: Some contracts require the songwriter to automatically assent to any litigation undertaken by the publisher. You should have the right to "opt out" and still benefit from any settlement of a law suit. Law suits are rare, and usually the writer and publisher are in agreement about whether to proceed with action.

Priority : Medium High


Within (one year) from the date hereof, the Composition must have been commercially recorded for either a) intended release for sale to the public on phonograph records, tapes, compact disks or other recorded products; b) synchronization in the soundtrack of a theatrical motion picture intended for exhibition to the public; c) synchronization in the soundtrack of a television program intended for broadcast to the public; or d) synchronization in the soundtrack of a home video program intended for sale to the public. If none of the foregoing recordings have occurred within said time period, all rights conveyed to Publisher hereunder shall revert to Writer upon the giving of ten (10) days written notice by Writer to Publisher.

Note: Typical reversion times vary from one to three years. You should insist on some variation of this clause whenever you sign a single song agreement.

Priority : Deal Breaker

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt

10 Time-Tested Songs

I've put an arbitrary cut off date of pre-1950 on this list, which eliminates Bob Dylan and the Beatles although they will undoubtedly appear on a "Time Tested Songs" list in the future. There are many more songs that could be included, and I might make this a regular repeating feature in the NMW blog. This info comes from the invaluable Wikipedia website (special thanks to all the researchers).

"Hard Times Come Again No More"
- written by Stephen Foster in 1859. According to Robert B. Waltz, it is the most popular Foster song with folk revival singers and wasn't especially popular at the time it was written. However, Stephen Foster himself considered it his own favorite of his songs. It has been recorded by Emmy Lou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Golden Palominos (Syd Straw) and many others.

"It's All in the Game"
- Carl Sigman composed the lyrics in 1951 to fit a 1911 composition entitled "Melody in A Major," written by Charles Dawes, who would later become the Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge. It is thus the only #1 pop single in history to have been co-written by a U.S. Vice President.

"Man of Constant Sorrow"
- a traditional American folk song written originally by Dick Burnett, a blind fiddler from Kentucky. The song was originally recorded by Dick Burnett as "Farewell Song" printed in a Richard Burnett songbook, c. 1913.

"Someone to Watch Over Me" - composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin from the musical Oh, Kay! (1926), where it was introduced by Gertrude Lawrence. It has been performed by numerous artists, such as Frank Sinatra, Linda Rondstadt, and Sting, and is a key work in the Great American Songbook.

"Frankie And Johnny"
- The first published version of the music appeared in 1904, credited to and copyrighted by Hughie Cannon. The familiar "Frankie and Johnny were lovers" lyrics first appeared (as "Frankie and Albert") in On the Trail of Negro Folksongs by Dorothy Scarborough, published in 1925; a similar version with the "Frankie and Johnny" names appeared in 1927 in Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Jack Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke and none other than Elvis.

"Can the (Will The) Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)"
is a well-known country/folk song reworked by A. P. Carter from a hymn by Ada R. Habershon and Charles Gabriel. It first appeared in the 1930s and has been recorded by hundreds of artists including Bill Monroe and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

"This Land Is Your Land"
- The lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 in response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which Guthrie considered unrealistic. Originally called "God Blessed America for Me", Guthrie varied the lyrics over time, sometimes including more overtly political verses than appear in recordings or publications. Guthrie lifted the melody note-for-note from "When the World's on Fire," a Baptist hymn recorded by country legends the Carter Family ten years earlier. However, some sources claim that a Carter Family original, "Little Darlin' Pal of Mine," was the source of the melody for "This Land."

"Rock Island Line"
- Lead Belly (Huttie Ledbetter) and John and Alan Lomax supposedly first heard it from a prison work gang during their travels in 1934/35. Huttie finally settled on a format where he portrayed, in song, a train engineer asking the depot agent to let his train start out on the main line. While it is claimed that the song refers to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, the song is considerably older than the first recording, and from some of the lyrics it can be interpreted that the "railroad" referred-to is actually the Underground Railroad, a slave escape route. It has been recorded by Bobby Darin, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Dan Zanes to name just a few.

"House Of The Rising Sun"
- Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of "The House of the Rising Sun" is uncertain. Folklorist Alan Lomax, author of the seminal 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, wrote that the melody was taken from a traditional English ballad and the lyrics written by a pair of Kentuckians named Georgia Turner and Bert Martin. Other scholars have proposed different explanations, although Lomax's is generally considered most plausible. It has ben recorded by The Animals, Frijid Pink, and Dave Van Ronk to name just a few.

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"
- a traditional Afro-American spiritual. The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back into the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Like many traditional songs, it has many variations and has been recorded widely by artists such as Richie Havens, Van Morrison, Hootie & The Blowfish and others.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

8 Tips For Writing Compelling Lyrics

TIP 1 - Use Strong, Sensually Stimulating Opening Lines. The best time to capture your listener is as soon as the vocal begins. A descriptive image with an emotionally compelling couplet works well :
"Half the moon is shining tonight
And half the moon is pitch black
And I’ve got half a chance that you might
Turn around and come back"
("Half The Moon" by Hugh Prestwood)
TIP 2 - Make The Lyrical Hook or Title Obvious, and Fresh. A hook is your BRAND IDENTITY. If after the first chorus I'm still asking myself ‘What’s this song called?’ There’s an identity problem. Here's a link to 500 songs that shaped Rock And Roll. Go to this site and notice how most of the titles will bring the hook melody to mind immediately.
TIP 3 - Be As Specific As Possible, Yet Target the Universal Audience. Make lines and images more specific, but use specific images that are Universal, not obscure. Notice all the specific imagery in Steve Earle's classic, yet none of it is obscure :
"Gotta keep rockin' while I still can
I got a two pack habit and a motel tan
But when my boots hit the boards I'm a brand new man
With my back to the riser I make my stand"
(Guitar Town by Steve Earle)
TIP 4 - Get the most out your Metaphors and Analogies. Extend your metaphors, clarify them, use them cleverly. This will Unify the lyric.
The roller coaster ride we took
metaphor for an up-and-down relationship
Is nearly at an end
extended by giving the “ride” an “end”
I bought my ticket with my tears
extended with “tickets”
That’s all I’m gonna spend
Extended with price of the tickets= emotional cost
(“Red Rubber Ball” by Paul Simon and Bruce Woodly)
TIP 5 - Use Rhyme And Assonance Cleverly And With Variety. Look for internal rhymes, fresh rhyme endings. Rhyme should fall naturally and conversationally in the lyric. Alter the Rhyme sounds as much as possible. Use masculine and feminine rhyme for more variety. Rhyme creates emphasis, unity and memorability in a lyric.
"I blew out my flip-flop, stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heal, had to cruise on back home
But there’s booze in the blender, and soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on"
(“Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet)
TIP 6 - . Show Action, Rather Than Tell Narrative. Use Action to bring a scene to life and convey your emotion. Notice how in the Example A below we’re reading a lyric that’s more like a storyboard sketch.
She was just a waitress
In a small Ohio town
Feeling trapped and desperate
That job just brought her down
She did the same old routines
And lived from day to day
And dreamed she’d hit the road someday
Now in Example B the action brings the same scene alive. We’re SHOWN the emotion in the scene with action rather than TOLD the information in narrative form.
She poured cups of coffee
In a town where nothing stirred
In quiet desperation
She never breathed a word
She was picking up their quarters
And holding back her dreams
And staring out the window in between
("Dancing With The Wind" by Craig Bickhardt and Jack Sundrud)
TIP 7 - Use devices such as Alliteration and Onomatopoeia to create sound harmonics. Note the "s" sounds at the beginning of many words in the lyric below. That's alliteration (any letter can be used):
"And it's sad when they sing, and hollow ears listen,
Of smoking black roses on the streets of Belfast
And so say your lovers from under the flowers
Every foot of this world needs an inch of Belfast"
("Belfast" by Elton John and Bernie Taupin)
Note the way the following couplet about the waves sounds like crashing waves. That's Onomatopoeia:
"The crashing waves like cymbals clashed
Against the rocks and sands"
("Lay Down Your Weary Tune" by Bob Dylan)
TIP 8 - Use precise language. The exact right word can put a spark in a couplet and make all the difference between a lifeless lyric and a lyric with impact.
"There’s a frost on the wind
As it scours the town"
("Painted Pony" by F. C. Collins and Craig Bickhardt)

"Beneath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp"
("Sounds Of Silence" by Paul Simon)
Happy writing!
copyright 2008 by Craig Bickhardt