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HOW DID THAT SONG GET RECORDED?!?!?!?!
By Andrea Stolpe - 10/26/2007 - 04:33 PM EDT

It’s 5 o’clock and you’ve just merged into the flow of freeway traffic after a long days work.  You reach for your MP3 player, only to realize you’ve left it on your desk and will somehow have to survive the evening without it.  So you flip on the radio hoping, to find some musical retreat for the ride home.   As the latest hits from the most talked about artists float on the radio waves, you find yourself coming up against the same old questions, “why do artists record bad songs?” and “why does the radio play them?”  Those questions are soon followed by thoughts like “if I could only get so-and-so to hear my song, I know she’d love it and put it on her next record.”

As commercially viable songwriters and artists, it behooves us to know the current sounds catching the ears and pocketbooks of millions of music lovers.  However, with the changing landscape of the music industry and radio no longer the gate-keeper of success, our view of the business is not limited to the empty-calorie happy meals we’re fed from top-40.  We have access to a rich, all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of original music with just the click of a button and a credit card.

With so many avenues to discover new artists and talented songwriters, why then do we still complain about multi-platinum artists releasing aluminum sounds?  The answer, I think, varies as widely as the experiences and perspectives of those who give them.  For songwriters, the key may revolve somewhere around our ability to weather the industry, network, and hone our craft. 

It’s no secret that the music industry is a people business.  Who we know plays a great deal into the opportunities that come our way.  We may have all the skills and personality necessary to write Beyonce’s next hit, but without access to her circles, we can rationally write off the likelihood of getting on her next record.  This may sound unfair, but consider it from a business point of view.  

Let’s say you’re eating your Wheaties one morning, and as you stare at the box you come up with a great new idea for their marketing campaign.  So you decide to call up the people at General Mills and introduce yourself.  When the 1-800 number on the back of the box doesn’t pan out, you try to leave a few messages with the 22-yr.-old temp in the customer service department.  But the fact is, without a referral it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are.  The creative team has its own agenda and hand-picked staff of brain-stormers who have proven their reliability and worth over years of service. 

So how do we get into the circles of writers and artists who are making the music that sells?  We network.  We go to shows.  We attend music festivals and conventions.  We become a member of our local songwriting groups.  We create and sustain an online presence.  We hand out samples of our music.  We co-write with anyone who believes in our ideas, and above all, we persist against all odds. 

Some of the most successful and most fulfilled writers and artists are those who invest as much in others as they do in themselves.  Focusing on advancing our own careers while also benefiting the careers of our peers is a plan structured for success.  The bigger the circle of writers and artists we’re involved in, the more likely we are to be discovered.  By bringing our art into local circles and creating something notable in our communities, we can start a movement as powerful as the grunge scene of Seattle, the singer-songwriter scene of Atlanta, or the dance scene of Miami.  Discounting the significance of the fans and peers around us is as dead as the idea that a major label contract is the only way to reach millions of listeners.

Who we know is such an important aspect of the industry that it even overshadows talent and skill.  When we hear a major-label release on the radio, what we’re hearing is networking in action.  Imagine for a moment you are J-Lo, Paris, or Christine.  Between touring, public appearances, and keeping up your great skin and hair, you’ve got to find time to write and record.  On your 5-hour layover in NYC, you sit down to write a melody and some lyrics over a track already laid down by the producer and other names your label has paired you up with.  Your first instinct will probably not be, ‘Hey, why don’t we check out some unfamiliar artists online and see if they’d want to fly in to co-write with us?’ 

No, you’ve got your team of proven hit-makers, and you’d like your next record to reliably find success.  Furthermore, you enjoy that you’re able to work with a team who listens to and incorporates your artistic vision into the record.  Finally, after breaking even on the first few records of your contract, you’ve realized that there’s money in publishing.  Artists stand to gain a significant piece of the pie with their hands in the writing of the record. 

The fact of the matter is that many producers and artists strive to write and record their own material rather than lose the writer and publisher share by recording outside material - even if that outside material is right for the record.  Even as I wince at that statement I have to admit I’m guilty of the same.  As an artist with the desire to both express myself and enjoy the financial rewards, I also prefer to write and record my own material. 

Another perspective I’ve had to recognize is that I am an educated listener with educated tastes.  My neighbor, much to my constant frustration, is not.  While she pulls into her driveway with the latest Brittney Spears single pumping out open windows, I’m painfully aware of the chasm that separates us on our musical scales.  What I think is drivel, she bounces to like Christmas morning.  What I think is well-crafted and layered with depth, she finds complicated and boring. 

Interestingly, my neighbor and I differ on another point.  She works in the film industry, and much the way I feel about ‘consumer music’ she feels about ‘consumer film.’  Personally, I can’t get enough of Bruce Willis blowing up a power station while single-handedly saving the world from certain destruction.  Set me in front of a serious art film that’s star-studded and a shoe-in for best picture, and I often check out.  After all, I don’t always want to think.  I just want to be entertained. 

Acknowledgment of my own consumerism makes it easier to understand why some people don’t gravitate towards deep lyrics, or jazz for that matter.  A chef can’t imagine how fast food still exists with the knowledge of how to prepare simple and tasty meals.  An electronics buff can’t understand why anyone would settle for the equivalent of a boom-box when pristine sound is available from Manley Labs.  So the question may be, why does the lowest common denominator of what we value still exist?  Because someone still buys it.

As musicians, we can easily sink into the sludge of cynicism.  After all, how can we compete with the money and power of the commercial industry?  Why do we continue to try to improve our craft when in the end, it seems to be all about our ability to market ourselves?  Because we’re crafts-people.  Because we’re the heartbeat of humanity.  Because we have something to say, and without us, music-lovers all over the world would be left with a vacant shell void of expression.  I’ve never met a songwriter who didn’t experience moments of defeat, cycles of abundance and drought.  My own experience has taught me that unless I create for the pleasure of creating, my art soon loses its soul. 

So next time your favorite diva belts out another rendition of ‘Baby Baby, you know I love you’, take heart.  With belief in your music, a little talent and lots of persistence, you can get your songs heard.  Most importantly, set your sights on forming relationships that last.  If you’re a songwriter, write.  If you’re an artist, perform.  Do what you do as often as you can.  In this industry of music, no two writers follow the same path to success.  We all need to choose the way that will bring us the kind of lifestyle, relationships, and fulfillment we desire. 




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