They Right the Songs
It's Monday night -- prime time -- and Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and other stars glide across a Los Angeles stage, picking up trophies during the American Music Awards broadcast. Out in the audience, small clusters of songwriters become ecstatic with each announcement. In addition to feeling the rush of victory, they know that now they can expect even larger royalty checks for their writing efforts. Landing a song with a big star means big money, especially when the song's a winner.
On the same night in Denver, ten local songwriters -- members of the Denver chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International -- sit in a half-circle, thinking about their own songs. But instead of Garth Brooks's or Shania Twain's glowing thanks, the group's members hear Larry Thompson as his voice drifts across the room. "You gotta show me the furniture," Thompson says to a fellow songwriter, indicating a need for more detailed lyrics. "If you can't show me some furniture, it ain't gonna fly down there." Thompson knows what he's talking about, having spent four years "down there" in Nashville, writing and pitching songs. "I wrote every morning, got drunk every afternoon and socialized every night," he tells the group. "That's the way it worked." Tonight he's here to offer sobering thoughts on the work of his peers -- and to seek feedback on a tune of his own.
Of course, that's what everyone else is here for, too. Each month, the group gathers at the Academy of the Arts, at 455 South Platte River Drive, to discuss the craft and business of songwriting, in the hopes of someday hearing a major-label star call one of their names from the stage. During the sessions, the members play their own songs and critique those of their peers; their material stretches from country-flavored, entry-level offerings from amateur writers to a few radio-worthy selections from more experienced local performers. During the next three hours of Monday's meeting, the group discusses these songs to a degree seldom heard even in rehearsal rooms. Topics of conversation include current practices in Nashville, from song length and subject matter to the preferred time between a song's intro and its first hook. Members split hairs over word choices in lyrics ("Isn't a 'smoldering' fire on the way out?"), titles and whether one writer's bridge effectively connects the verse and the chorus.
"I'm having trouble with this song," says Dave McKnight, before delivering his in-progress tune in a strong voice. It's got a solid melody, a handful of very good lines and a pleasing country-rock feel -- and at least a few pieces of "furniture." He completes the song and then takes his licks from the crowd, whose members acknowledge the song's merits while offering polite criticism on its perceived shortcomings. A few minutes later, Cindy Marotta subjects herself to the same drill. "This is the hardest thing," she says following the group's critique, "because you all are sitting here ripping my songs apart. But if that's what it takes to get better, fine."
Marotta's comment sounds a little like something you'd hear in a group counseling session -- which is what the NSAI meeting feels like at times. It's a sort of self-help gathering for songsmiths, where members offer warmth and encouragement to their musically addicted peers. And while the chances of a hit song rising directly from this circle may be remote, the group seems undaunted in its quest to connect with Music City's song buyers and performers. The group's Denver locale, Thompson reveals, is one of its biggest obstacles. "We can have a good song," Thompson says to his peers, "but it's got to be better than that. It's got to sing, it's got to have it all. Because there's a big difference [between] coming over the bridge from here in [Denver] and coming from Nashville."
Randi Perkins is the founder and leader of Denver's NSAI chapter, and closing the gap between Nashville and Denver is one of his goals. "If we can write songs we believe in and put them together with artists," he tells the group, "we can create our own scene here, and we wouldn't have to crack the Nashville market so much." A local songwriter and publisher, Perkins has been pitching songs in Nashville part-time for about three years. He's also got a pair of songwriting awards under his belt (an honorable-mention nod in the 1997 USA Songwriting Competition and second place in 1998's I Write the Songs contest) and a couple of songs under contract with a Nashville publisher.
A former financial officer with a Denver firm and now a freelance accountant, Perkins doesn't get paid for his NSAI efforts. His compensation comes in the form of free membership in the organization and, hopefully, help in reaching his own songwriting goals. The Denver NSAI chapter includes about thirty active members -- with newcomers showing up at every monthly meeting, some of whom drop in once and never return. "People come in with a song," Perkins says, "and are expecting us to go, 'That's the next hit.' And that never happens, so they don't come back."
Perkins's chapter, started in the spring of 2000, is one of 125 NSAI regional chapters in the United States and Canada, along with branches in England and New Zealand. Worldwide, the organization serves about 5,000 dues-paying NSAI members. For $100 per year, members enjoy everything from complimentary guitar strings and free checking at participating local banks to travel discounts, health insurance and more. However, the group's musical services are clearly its main benefit. NSAI hosts songwriting workshops throughout the year to help aspiring writers improve their craft through feedback from group members and NSAI professionals. The national office also offers a critiquing service, to which members can send up to ten songs per year for evaluation from NSAI staff. If NSAI evaluators deem them ready for pitching, a small number of the tunes are passed along to Nashville publishers. And each year, the group hosts Tin Pan Alley South in Nashville -- perhaps the largest songwriters' gathering in the world. (Get more details on the NSAI at nashvillesongwriters.com.)
According to NSAI president Bart Herbison, the association was formed in 1967 as a lobbying effort by Music City songsmiths who were fighting to have songwriters' names listed on all recordings; prior to the group's efforts, writers were frequently left off of album credits. Today the group works on behalf of songwriters involved in legal and political issues, waging war against copyright infringements and other songwriter abuses. Although it's run by a number of successful writers with current and past hits, most of its members are semi-professionals and newcomers. For these folks, Herbison says, the NSAI offers solid leads and education that help members reach working status while avoiding the predatory services that sometimes feed on wannabe songwriters. "We are not a panacea for anybody, nor do we intend to be," Herbison says. "We're one of your tools -- maybe your most important tool, if you're a beginner."
The lure of making the bigtime with a major hit is indeed a motivating factor for many NSAI members. However, Herbison notes, it requires "luck, perseverance and talent, maybe in that order." And while the overwhelming majority of Music City song scribes never reach that level, it does happen. "All you need is one big hit and you're set for life," Herbison says, citing NSAI member Susan Gibson as an example. Gibson penned the Dixie Chicks' smash "Wide Open Spaces," and the money she'll earn from her efforts is astounding. Herbison estimates the song has sold ten million copies so far, and with the current mechanical royalty rate at about seven and a half cents per song, "Susan is going to make about $750,000 on the record sales," he says, "and probably twice or more than that on the performance royalties from airplay. She never has to work again."
Former Denver-based songwriter Jon Ims falls into the same no-work-required category. As a singer-songwriter for years in Denver in the '80s, he logged numerous nights in bars and venues around the area. Along the way, he won a number of local and national songwriting awards and penned songs for local and regional artists, including the Dixie Chicks when they were a barely hatched Texas act. He joined a now-defunct NSAI group affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Music Association; through connections with that group, he was able to get his songs heard by a Warner Bros. representative -- in a parking lot in Austin, Texas. The impromptu audition landed him a meeting with the brass of the Warner Bros. Nashville offices. Months later, Ims's tune, "She's in Love With the Boy," became Trisha Yearwood's first hit and the winner of numerous songwriting awards, including a 1992 Robert J. Burton Award from BMI, an honor bestowed yearly for the song with the most airplay. Ims also earned Music Row magazine's Breakthrough Writer Award, and the song launched Yearwood's and Ims's careers with a sonic boom. "It's the number-two most-performed, recurring [country] song of all time," Ims says from his home in Nashville. "The only song that's been played more is Garth Brooks's 'Friends in Low Places.'" The song's lyrics, he says, will be enshrined in a Trisha Yearwood exhibit in the soon-to-open Country Music Hall of Fame. "How cool is that?" Ims asks excitedly.
"I don't have to work for the rest of my life," he says with glee, noting another equally cool reality produced by the song's massive appeal. "But I played six, seven nights a week with this dream, then all of a sudden -- boom. When I was chasing the dream, I was going to NSAI meetings in Denver. Through the local chapter, I got turned on to the convention-type things, and I established connections." (Ims's list of hits also includes Reba McEntire's "Falling Out of Love," which battled "She's in Love" for the number-one perch back in 1991.)
Granted, the odds of a songwriter achieving such success are as remote as those of winning the lottery -- especially when one considers the highly subjective corporate, music and market hurdles a song must jump in order to hit the masses. Perkins sat in on "pitch-a-hit sessions" years ago, in which Ims played "She's in Love" for song publishers who all passed on the song, and he understands the long-shot nature of what he's hoping to achieve. "If you look at the odds, it's pretty depressing," Perkins concedes. "But I'm a realistic dreamer. The scary part is the money part, because you have to do this full-time to make it work. And what makes a hit song is something none of us might ever agree on. But if somebody works hard enough, maybe they can write a hit and get it to somebody and wind up with a song on the radio."
For Larry Thompson, scoring a smash song is not the priority it once was. He's in the NSAI chapter to pass along some of what he learned in Nashville, while getting feedback on his songs and discovering tunes for his new publishing company, Destiny in Song. "My whole attitude has changed," he says. "If I get a cut, that's great. But I wrote my first song in 1970, and when you do something like this for thirty years, it's because you love it. It's not for the money. [Songwriting] is like therapy for me."
NSAI member Rayme Caldwell joined the group with a similar attitude and the goal of simply improving her craft and finding musicians to perform with. But her songwriting goals are changing now that one of her tunes (a co-write with her partner, Larry Lagerberg) is set to appear on an indie release from a local country newcomer. "I can now say that somebody has recorded something of mine," she says. "I'm a member of BMI now, and I can get royalties, however small they might be. It's a start." It's also fueling a few fantasies. "I had a dream that Faith Hill heard me singing in a karaoke bar the other night," she says, laughing. "It was the silliest thing, but it kept me up all night."
Meanwhile, Perkins is entertaining similar visions of brushes with the bigtime. "I have no doubt that I will have a song on a record if I continue on this path," he says. "Because I know how it gets done. I also think everybody in these workshops can do the same thing. And if I can do it for myself, I can make it happen a little easier for others." In the meantime, he's fully aware of the hurdles he's facing -- and the potential costs to his wife and eight-year-old child as he devotes less energy to accounting work and spends more time with a different sort of numbers. "I just hope it doesn't hurt them in the short run," he says. "But maybe this is going to be important to them in the long run, that I do what I feel I was put here to do. Standing up for what you believe in is important.
"I feel like I have a calling," Perkins adds. "I want to make money at this, but there's more to it than that. I feel like I can affect other people with my songs and maybe affect other songwriters. Maybe it's futile, I don't know, but it's something I feel I need to do."
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