Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Obvious and Hidden Glitch

     I’ve had the great joy and privilege of knocking around Nashville’s Music Row for 35 years. I have made dear friends and also experienced hard times. It is the way of the world, not only in the music business but in this life, as well. It used to be that the hard times were, more often than not, traced directly to my own laziness or lack of focus. That is also a universal truth. However, in recent years I contend that there are other reasons for this current and prolonged season of hard times. 
     This is not a tale of sour grapes. I have loved my time in this great city and have been blessed with lots of wonderful opportunities along the way. I have some regrets: poor decisions, bad timing, spending too much money and putting my professional life on coast from time-to-time. Nonetheless, it’s been a fulfilling experience and I would change very little, except for this: the plummeting caliber of the country song and my suspicion about why this is so. 
     The grand old truth about Nashville’s enduring success as a music center is not simply generations of wonderful singers and entertainers, The Opry, WSM Radio or The Hall of Fame. The broad shoulders of Nashville’s music industry is music publishing—the companies, both large and small, that own (publish), exploit and collect revenues from the thousands of songs you and I have enjoyed over the past 80+ years. That’s where the real money is. Did Eddy Arnold, Dolly Parton, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks and Alabama (to name just a few) make lots of money in their careers? Yes, of course. However, with few exceptions, artists’ incomes cannot compare to the money earned by owning copyrights like “The Gambler,” “Always On My Mind” and “I Will Always Love You” (again, to name just a few). 
     Perhaps a not-so-subtle question is appropriate here: Where did these songs come from? The answer: everywhere. The songwriters, composers and lyricists that created this remarkable body of work lack definitive description but for one common characteristic: they had the gift—intrinsic, God-endowed and unstoppable. And here is where this tale takes a turn, both sad and despicable. Guess what? It has to do with greed. 
     The music industry has unraveled and is in, as it were, the tank. There are many reasons, not the least of which is the arrogance of the Big Boys—the (formerly) Big Five corporate giants EMI, WEA, BMG, SONY and UNI that have been compressed and merged, in recent years, into the Big Three, more or less. One extreme managerial conclusion to “stop the bleeding” in the Nashville sector of the music industry was to sign every new recording artist to a contract that includes revenue participation in every conceivable component of their activities: live performance, record sales, merchandise sales (as in t-shirts and bumper sticker) and, yes, you guessed it, their songwriting and publishing efforts. So, it is now incumbent upon any record label executive to manufacture ways to ensure that Johnny-Come-Lately becomes a songwriter. Fiscally wise, culturally abysmal.
     Johnny-Come-Lately may be devoid of any inclination or talent to write a song.  That doesn’t matter. The bottom line is now in control. Left to his own devices, J-C-L will likely fail at this endeavor, unless, of course, he does have a gift. If he does not have the gift he will sit in a room with a songwriter that does and pretend to participate in the process of composing a song. During this period of time it is likely that he will receive phone calls from his manager, agent, record label, spouse and stylist. He will text with old friends and family members and, if he is paying attention, will make more coffee for the professional songwriter with whom he is not engaged. He may say things like “J-C-L would never say that,” “Are you hungry” or “Is there any way we can mention Skoal in this song? My peeps would really relate to that.” 
     There you have it. No matter how great or awful the song turns out to be, the executive at the label will demand that it be recorded because, after all, the company will participate in the revenue stream. How small, how unthinking, how culturally demeaning is this circumstance? Take a brief excursion through your musical memory. Yes, there have always been awful songs that have done well. But my goodness, we can do better than this.

2 Comments:

Blogger Shantell Ogden said...

Wow Thom! Thank you for expressing your thoughts on this...it is indeed a tricky situation for writers. On one hand, you want to have cuts, especially if you're building your career. But, at the same time, it can be frustrating to work with artists who really aren't writers and try to create something.

June 24, 2012 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger BUDDY said...

My main human is a struggling songwriter but not a blogger, while I'm just the opposite. He wanted me to pass his comment on to you:

"Thanks, Thom. This post explains a lot about why the music business is so tough, not just to break into, but to thrive at. I guess the days are long over when an unknown Sadie Vimmerstedt can write a letter to a Johnny Mercer suggesting a lyric like 'I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart...' and wind up with half-ownership of the famous result.

"Oh, well. Regardless of what record company greed and consolidation have done to the Nashville music scene, '16th Avenue' will always be a favorite song of mine."

--Mike Boyd

March 12, 2013 at 11:45 AM  

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