Archive | Songwriting Business

Helpful articles about the Business of Songwriting

Casting :: Pitching Your Songs to A-list Singers

Casting: The Right Song For The Right Artist

“Kelly (or Josh, Faith, etc.) could sing this song really great!” This statement, and the ignorance behind it, has been the cause of countless unnecessary rejections of songs. Though it’s certainly not the only cause, it ranks right up there with poorly crafted songs. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s say both the demo and song are excellent. But is it appropriate? It’s not a question of whether they could do it. They could make bus schedule sound good. But from the artist’s point of view it’s about whether they need to record your song.
If you’re writing for yourself in a band or solo artist context and don’t think this information applies to you, don’t stop reading just yet. The history of pop music is filled with songs written by self-contained artists who had no idea their songs could be recorded by other artists. After all, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) probably never would have dreamed that Johnny Cash would cover “Hurt.” Cash covered it because he said it was “the best anti-drug song he ever heard.” Someone had the skills to recognize that those songs were right for those other artists. Wouldn’t it be better to develop these skills yourself rather than reward skillful publishers/managers with a substantial percentage of your income for it?
The skill is called “casting,” knowing which song is appropriate for which artist.

First, there’s a process of elimination. Forget about artists who write their own songs. Not that they wouldn’t ever record a song they didn’t write, but generally speaking, they’re not motivated financially to record “outside” songs (written by someone other than themselves or their producer). With substantial royalties for sales and airplay on a hit, they’d rather fill their CDs with their own songs, for better or worse. Sometimes worse. Record buyers are getting tired of buying an album with only two or three good songs on it. Though “good” is certainly in the ear of the beholder, things are changing now that single tracks can be bought online.

Who Not To Pitch To-Playing the Odds
If you’re playing the odds, you’ll leave self-contained artists until last. First, you’ll read the Billboard magazine charts to find those artists who record outside songs. How can you tell? You look at the “Hot 100” chart and your favorite genre singles chart: “Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs,” “Hot Country Songs” or “Hot Latin Songs.” (The other charts don’t list writers.) You look to the left under the name of the song, and the first name is the producer’s, the second (in parentheses) is the name(s) of the songwriter(s). If the same name is in both places, the producer is the writer. Then, if you see, in the column to the right, that the artist’s name is the same as the writer, you know the odds are bad. You may have a hard time telling who wrote the songs when the artist is a group (although if there are four or more writers listed, you can often assume the group did or they’re using samples of other songs). Check it out by going online to their record companies and look up the artists’ bios. If they wrote the songs they’ll want everybody to know it.

You’ll end up with a list of about 25 percent of the hits on the “Hot 100” on which the artist sings an outside song. About 2/3 of those will be Country. On the “Hot Country” chart about 60-70 percent are outside songs. Check the charts periodically. Record “countdown” radio or cable TV shows (MTV, VH1, BMT, CMT) of current hits so you can listen more than once and analyze them without having to stay tuned all day (Or just go to i-tunes or and buy a few.) Keep your Billboard handy for reference. If you’re an Internet user you can go to Web radio sites like Live365 and pick your genre. Last time I looked there were more than two hundred country Web radio stations playing country songs, and those are divided into subgenres.

Doing the Research
A critical step in casting is to get all the information possible about the artist to save yourself the embarrassment of pitching something totally wrong. Your best move is to buy the CDs of any artist in your style who records outside songs. Listen to each cut on the album with special emphasis on the successful singles and determine the following:

  1. Style. If it’s rock, is it influenced by pop, blues, funk, punk, metal, or world music? If country, is it on the rock, traditional, pop, or Texas swing side? You may find different influences in different songs on any given CD, but they’ll give you some boundaries of style.
  2. Are there any songs the artist did write? Pay particular attention to the style of these. Also try to determine the common factors of the outside songs. Chances are, the artist or producer had some input into those choices.
  3. Lyric message. The shaping of an artist’s image is based largely on their personal philosophies and attitudes about life and love, how they handle disappointments, etc. Those attitudes show up in their song lyrics regardless of who writes them. Read or listen to the lyric of each song and answer the following:

a. Is the lyric positive or negative, up or down? Do the down songs show some hope in the end? Are the songs in first, second, or third person? Are they about winners or losers?
b. Does the lyric have a payoff, a final “moral”? Is it based on a high concept such as Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” (written by Craig Nichols and Tim Wiseman) or is it just a straight ahead love song?
c. Is the artist young, naive, inexperienced, hopeful, or more mature, experienced, a little world-weary, sexy? A song I once heard pitched for a former Gospel artist looking for secular songs was a sex-oriented song that would have worked great for almost anyone but an artist, who didn’t want to lose his Gospel following altogether. You’d know this if you’d read some interviews with the artist. I heard a song that was pitched for an established country star but it was about how he had to return to his little town in defeat because he had not attained his dream of stardom. Remember that a successful artist is singing your song and needs to believe the lyric, and that it has to reflect the artist’s self-image and personal story. Songs that say, “I’m a terrible human being” don’t work unless maybe you’re apologizing to someone you’ve done wrong. Remember the prime audience for country is 25- to 40-year-old women (and they love to hear a man apologize).

  1. Lyrics as vocal platforms. In addition to vocal range, you need to consider whether your lyric allows the artist room to sing. When I see a lyric sheet literally covered with lyric, and hear the words sung so tightly that there’s no space for the singer to style the song in his own unique way, I know it’s going in the reject pile. Great singers love to hold notes (particularly vowels at the ends of lines) and play with them, embellishing the melody. It may be a wonderful story and brilliant lyric but so much a product of your own unique style that it won’t work in their style. A group like Third Eye Blind, for instance, writes unique songs that other artists would have difficulty covering without sounding like them.
  2. Who is the artist’s audience? Pre-teens and early teens are fans of bright, young pop artists who quickly outgrow the style at the same quick rate as their audience. Listeners in their mid-to-late teens generally become more genre-specific (rock, pop, alternative, rap, hip-hop, or country) and tend to fragment along those styles. You’ll need to gear your song and demo to that style or recognize whether or not you write in that style or for that audience.
  3. Vocal range. Listen to the song with the highest and lowest notes and you’ve got the range. Does the artist have a wide vocal range like Celine Dion or Kelly Clarkson, or Josh Groban? Odds are they’ll choose a song that will show it off. If the artist has a limited range, a two-octave stretch won’t work. Also, look for a place in the artist’s range that she favors because there may be a unique quality or timbre there. It’s been referred to as a “sweet spot.” Make sure the song allows them to use that spot.
  4. Structure. Do the artist’s successful songs use a repeated chorus, pre-chorus sections, or classic AABA (verse-verse-bridge-verse a la “Yesterday”)? AABA structures are rarely recorded, except by self-contained artists. It’s easier for a listener to learn a song with a repeating chorus, so verse/chorus songs are seen as being more commercial.

Along with analyzing the song, collect articles about and interviews with the artist from fanzines, trade magazines, and the artist’s personal and fan Web sites. You can find some great clues to the artist’s image and values. Don’t send a recovering alcoholic or drug addict your song about the bottle being your best friend. But the song about getting your life together might work. It may help to know that the artist is a parent, donates money to organizations that help kids, just got divorced, is a womanizer, feels women deserve more respect, feels women should stay at home, is a born-again Christian, etc.

Another level of casting expertise involves projecting, based on past success and artist image, where you feel the artist could go. This is a common strategy of writer/producer/arrangers and publishers who can conjure a vision of the artist’s next step and, in the process, become the artist’s producer, at least on the producer’s own songs. This requires a thorough knowledge of the artist and, in the best case, the ability to produce tracks that would provide the artist with a fresh sound. There is a point in a very successful career where an artist looks for a stretch away from the too familiar and into adventureland. You can either anticipate that move or help to create it.

Regardless of all the homework you do on an artist, you can still strike out, though the odds will be considerably better if you’ve done the research. A major benefit is that you now have a great frame of reference when you talk to the manager, record company A&R representative for the artist, or the new producer who may be taking the artist in a different direction. In my experience, those people speak to and listen to demos from so many writers who are clueless about their artists that they welcome a conversation with someone who knows what makes their artist special. It also gives you a level of confidence in that call or meeting that communicates that you should be taken seriously.


Career Strategies for Lyricists

The situation for lyricists in the marketplace has its positives and negatives. On the plus side, it’s necessary for you to collaborate to have a suitable melody for your words. I know that doesn’t really sound like a plus, but if you’re a prolific lyricist, finding several collaborators represents an opportunity to produce a great number of finished songs. Those who insist on writing both lyrics and music, in my experience, are rarely so prolific. As a lyricist, you can develop your lyric skills in a variety of styles without needing to restrict yourself for marketing purposes as do many writer/performers.

On the minus side, it’s very difficult for you to get a staff-writing deal. You really have to be an extraordinary lyricist with some commercial success under your belt to get an exclusive staff-writing situation. And it’s virtually impossible to make a single-song deal on a lyric with no melody. There are audiovisual firms that commission lyricists to write material for them. Check with local firms to see what their needs are, and find additional contacts listed in Songwriter’s Market.

So, outside of that, what can a lyricist do? Find collaborators. Along with the methods listed in “Collaboration,” (see Chapter 7 in The Craft and Business of Songwriting), pay particular attention to political strategy. Find co-writers who are further ahead in their careers than you and still moving forward (This is called “Writing Up.”). Among collaborators to consider are new bands that are getting some industry attention or at least drawing great audiences locally. Good lead singers and keyboard players are usually worth considering because they’re more likely to write exciting melodies that may need equally exciting lyrics. Find other writers who are starting to get their songs recorded or those who are already on staff at a publishing company. Find writers in strong positions to make contacts with artists, such as studio musicians and recording engineers. With all the above you have the advantage of writing with people who could get good demos made at a reasonable cost, a big plus for you.

If those situations are just not available to you, look for skilled musicians in bands, college music departments, churches, theaters, and so on. If you speak another language fluently, gather samples of your song translations from, and into, the language. Contact publishers both here and in the countries where the language is spoken. They can be found in directories like Songwriter’s Market and Billboard’s International Buyers Guide. The Spanish-speaking market, for example, is enormous.

Make contact with as many potential co-writers as possible, enter lyric writing contests, put notices in music stores, schools, and magazines. Let everyone know what you’re looking for and you’ll find that your opportunities will grow quickly.

Caution: Do not send your lyrics to companies who advertise in magazines for “song poems” and ask you to pay a fee to have them write melodies to your lyrics. No legitimate music industry company will ask you to pay for collaboration or publishing. (See “Avoiding the Songsharks,” in “The Craft and Business of Songwriting.”)


SongBizness: How Your Songs Earn Money

Though relatively few songwriters make a great living on royalties, the possibilities of income from a successful song can be mind-boggling. Remember that the following income streams are only from the songs. Don’t confuse them with the royalties you may receive from a record company as a recording artist.

The four major types of royalties for music are mechanical, performance, synchronization and print. Though there are many other sources including Grand Rights for musical theater and newly emerging sources arising from the Internet transmission of music, these are still the most basic.

Mechanical royalties
It’s easy to think of mechanicals as something you can hold in your hand, like CDs or tapes. This royalty is paid to the publisher by the record company after having signed a mechanical license agreement that describes how often the record company must report sales figures and send checks to the publisher. It also states the amount per unit sold of the composition to be paid. In the U.S. there is an amount set by the Copyright Royalty Tribunal called the statutory mechanical rate which is updated every two years. It is currently (2/03) 8 cents per composition per unit sold or 1.55 cents per minute, whichever is greater. Mechanical licenses can be obtained online from the Harry Fox Agency. This is also a good place to go for more detailed information about mechanical licenses.

A little arithmetic shows that one song on a million-seller CD or single will bring a total of $80,000. (Divided between publisher and writer(s) according to your writer/publisher contract.). When you have a song as a single, you can figure it will be on the CD too. Down the road there are also “Greatest Hits” recordings and TV packages like “The Top Hits of ‘the ’90s” etc. It all adds up.

Performance royalties
Performance royalties can be a major source of income for a writer. They’re not to be confused with the money a performer earns for public appearances. Performance royalties are royalties the copyright owner(s) and songwriter(s) receive when their song is performed publicly. According to the copyright law, nobody can publicly perform a copyrighted song without permission of the copyright owner or the owner’s representative.

The most common uses of music in public performance are radio, network and local TV, jukeboxes, Muzak and live performances (clubs and concert halls, whose owners and promoters pay annual license fees), restaurants, bars. When your songs are played in any of these venues, you, as the writer, and the publisher (whoever owns the copyright) are entitled to get paid for their use.

Performing rights organizations in the U.S., BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and SESAC (no longer using their original title, Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) are the organizations that issue licenses and collect money for public performances of your songs. A writer or publisher may collect from only one of these organizations for the same song. You may belong to only one organization at a time in the U.S. though you may simultaneously belong to PRS (U.K.) or another performing rights organization in Europe.

Each of these organizations has their own method of determining how much you’re paid based on the number of times your songs are played. Performance royalties for a song that gets considerable airplay (which can continue for many, many years on oldies stations) generally will amount to a great deal more than the money earned from mechanical royalties. Over $5 million (before writer/publisher split) for the life of a hit is not uncommon. For more in-depth information on each performing rights organization, go to: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.

Synchronization royalties
Another important area of income for writers and publishers is the licensing of the right to record the music or song in synchronization or “timed relation” to the pictures in a film, TV movie or commercial.

The film or TV producer negotiates the synchronization (or “sync”) license with the copyright owner, which is usually the publisher. There are several companies including Copyright Management Inc. (CMI) in Nashville and the Clearing House in Los Angeles, that negotiate synchronization rights between film producers and publishers. The Harry Fox Agency issues licenses on behalf of publishers who have already negotiated the terms of those agreements.

Synchronization fees are totally negotiable (from nothing to over $50,000) and depend largely on the previous popularity of the song and the way it’s to be used. If the song has already been a hit and it’s a perfect selection for that particular film, it’s worth a lot. If it’s an unknown song and there’s a soundtrack album as well, a lower sync fee might be negotiated because the film’s exposure of the song may benefit record sales, print or other areas. You will, in addition, receive performance royalties when these films are shown on television, in theaters outside the U.S. or if the song is in a TV production.

Music in print
If you write mass appeal songs, particularly adult contemporary, pop, R&B or country, you’ll be able to take advantage of a potentially lucrative print market. With the possible exception of the education print market, though, the songs will have to have been very popular records to make all those piano bar singers, cover bands and other print buyers want them. There are several types of print music publishing: 1. Sheet Music: piano/vocal arrangements, often with chord designations for other instruments. 2. Personality Folio: in which the concept is based on a name artist or writer; “The…Songbook.” 3. Matched Folio: music from a particular album or musical theater show. 4. Mixed Folio: based on concepts like “Easy Piano Tunes,” “Hits of the ’90s” etc., which involve songs from several writers. 5. Educational: included in this category are how-to books (“How to Play Slide Guitar” etc.), arrangements for choruses, marching bands, (concert bands, jazz bands, and orchestras.) These are obviously sold to schools, drill teams, drum and bugle corps etc. It’s not unusual for popular choral writers to net $9,000-$10,000 a year for a composition.

How you get paid
Mechanical, synchronization and print royalties are collected by the publisher who takes his percentage and sends you your percentage, usually semi-annually, though some pay quarterly. The performance royalties are collected by the performing-rights organizations, BMI, ASCAP and SESAC (SESAC also collects mechanical royalties). They will send a quarterly check and statement directly to you and one to your publisher, the amounts divided according to the terms of your publishing contract (usually 50% to you, 50% to the publisher).

These explanations are simplified but at least you¹ll have a basic idea of how your songs can work for you beyond being good therapy. John’s book “The Craft and Business of Songwriting” gives a more in-depth look at these topics.


Peace and Good Will Songs… Donate Them?

We’re seeing a lot of new indie CD projects coming out that pledge to donate a percentage of the income from the CD’s sales to a charitable organization. I think it’s admirable that you want to donate to a good cause. However, I believe you and the charity can get more out of this than doing it that way. You may be selling your CD one at a time and when you stick the money in your pocket it takes some organization to be able to remember to put that money in an account and actually send it to the charity. Then you just end up feeling guilty about forgetting.

Here are some suggestions about how songwriters can get their songs to appropriate charitable organizations, and how those organizations can find appropriate songs for their cause. This is a ‘public relations’ job and takes a little dedication and follow-through.

Basically, it takes time to ‘smile & dial’ for a few days to find which organization you want to donate to. Fortunately, there are many. Then find which person in the organization is responsible for their public relations. Ask when/how their fund-raisers work. If they use music at their events, ask if you can donate your CD (containing not more than ONE or TWO appropriate songs, i.e., ecology songs for the Sierra Club) to be included at their events. Ask if the organization will distribute your one-song CD via their mailings to people who send them a donation.

In one scenario, the only thing you get in return (which is good) is the PR from hundreds/thousands of people getting your CD into their hands w/your info on it, e.g., lyrics, name/e-mail/Web site/yada-yada, how-to-buy-more of your music. This, after all, is a version of DISTRIBUTION. And the charity is getting it to people you can’t reach on your own.

Another scenario is that if a giver donates a certain figure to the cause (above $100, for example) they receive your one-song CD as a premium, and the organization pays you a $1.00. Even if only 100 are sold, you’ve made $100 more than you had before, you’ve covered your hard costs, plus you’ve reached a new audience of future purchasers.

In fact, a charity MIGHT agree to let you have a list of names & addresses of those who got your CD. Naturally, this has to be discussed in advance with the organization.

And last but not least, can you perform your songs ‘live’ for the organization … do they do benefits? Fundraisers? Will they let you sell your CDs at those events?

There are many ways to market your songs. But as with everything else, it’s a job and you may just have to hire someone to do it for you. The idea is to get the word out to as many people as possible, right? Not to mention that you could have a song that becomes an anthem and does us all a world of good.


How to Present Your Demo: 10 Biggest Mistakes Artists Make and How to Avoid Them

Your demo will introduce you to the eyes and ears of many music industry professionals. Take this introduction very seriously — it’s your job interview.

Here is a short checklist that summarizes the biggest mistakes I see new artists make all the time. Avoiding these will maximize your chances of getting heard and respect the demo listener’s time.

1. Sending more than 3 songs (unless specifically requested).
Demo listeners like to watch the “In” pile on their desk shrink and the “Out” pile grow as quickly as possible. If the listener has limited time, which is usually the case, the tendency is to listen to a CD they know they can complete.

So if you send a 12-song demo or a 12 song master, send a note that prioritizes 3 songs they should listen to. If you refer them to a MySpace, ReverbNation or other page where you have a list of songs, do the same.

If you want them to hear a song for a specific artists you think the song is appropriate for, tell them to listen to that specific song. If they like it, they may listen to others.

Most industry people resent getting CDs with 20 songs or a link to a site with 20 songs and a letter that says, “I know you’ll like at least one of these, so just pick out what you want.”

If you’re presenting it via snail mail or in person, they want you to send (or play) them three songs or less that you totally believe in. If you’re not far enough along to be able to decide, you’re not ready. When sending CDs with more than three songs, highlight three you want the listener to focus on first, and include the numbers of the cuts in your cover letter and lyric sheets (so they have a reference while the CD is on their player and they can’t see the label). If they like those, they’ll listen to the others.

Send CDs in standard, hard, jewel cases (not soft, thin vinyl) labeled on the spine so when they stack them they can find them later. And please remove the shrink-wrap!

2. Not placing their best and most commercial song first.
If you have a strong up-tempo song, start with that. If the listener doesn’t like the first one, it may be the only shot you get.

4. Not sending a lyric sheet, neatly typed or printed.
Letterhead is impressive. It says “This is my business and I take it seriously.” Some don’t like to look at lyrics while they listen, but most do. It’s a time saver to be able to see it all at once and to see the structure of the song graphically laid out on the page. If you submit online, attach the lyric sheet so they can look at it.

Lead sheets (with melody and lyric together) are not sent out with demos. They’re bulky to mail, it’s too difficult to follow the lyric and visualize the song’s form, and many industry pros don’t read music anyway. If they want to record the song and ask for one, then send them a lead sheet.

When you type your lyric sheet, separate the sections of the songs with a space and label each one (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) at the upper left side of the section or otherwise differentiate them by indenting or bolding the chorus or typing them in capital letters. If you’re repeating a chorus, note where it goes. Do not type your lyrics in prose fashion. Lay them out with the rhymes at the ends of the lines so the structure and rhyme schemes of the song can be seen immediately.

5. Not Putting on a Copyright Notice
Make sure there’s a copyright notice (© 2011 I.B. Cool, All Rights Reserved) on the bottom of the first page of the lyric sheet and on the tape or CD label. Technically, this isn’t necessary but it alerts everyone that your song is protected, whether it’s registered or not. (See the U.S. Copyright Office Website for info and forms.) Note: DO Register your song at the Copyright Office to be on the safe side.

6. Blowing the Cover Letter
Cover letters should be short and to the point. Let the music speak for itself and avoid hype. A professional presentation will do more to impress someone than “I know these are hit songs because they’re better than anything I’ve ever heard on the radio.” Don’t hype, plead, apologize or show any hint of desperation. It only gives the message that you have no confidence in the ability of the songs to stand on their own.

Here’s what should be in your cover letter:

  • It should be addressed to a specific person in the company.
  • It should state your purpose in sending the demo. Are you looking for a publisher, a producer, a record deal for you as an artist? Do you want the listener to pay special attention to your production, your singing, your band, or just the song? Is the song targeted for a specific artist?
  • List any significant professional credits that apply to the purpose of your submission. If you want your song published, list other published or recorded songs, contests won, etc. If you’re a performer submitting an artist demo, resist the temptation to grab at weak credits: “I played at the same club that (famous star) played.” Tell them what drives you, what inspires you. Keep it short. List real sales figures. Don’t lie.
  • Include any casting ideas you might have if you’re pitching to a publisher.
  • Ask for feedback if you want it. Odds are you won’t get it but give it a shot.
  • List the songs enclosed and writers’ names in the order they appear on the CD/tape. (Lyric sheets should also be enclosed in the same order the songs appear on the demo.)
  • Thank them for their time and attention.

7. Not putting their name, address and phone number, e-mail address and Web site on the CD, the case, and on every lyric sheet.
It seems like such common sense. In fact it would be embarrassing even to suggest that you might forget to do it but I see it happen constantly. The problem on this end is that, between listening sessions at the office, the car, and home, it’s so easy to separate the CD from the case or lyric sheet. Once they’ve gone to the trouble to find your hit song, not finding you is a fate neither of you deserve.

8. Not using adequate postage.
You’d be surprised how often this happens. Take the time to weigh your package at the post office and use the proper postage.

9. Sending CDs in ordinary stationery envelopes.
It’s risky because rough postal handling could force the edge of the case through the envelope. Use a special envelope with an insulated lining.

10. Sending song fragments or intro clips.
Like “a verse and chorus of each song to save their time and give them a taste.” Seems like a good idea if you’ve never been in the listener’s position and really like the verse and chorus, then have to wait until the writer can send you the rest. Frustrating! If I only want to listen to a verse and chorus or less, I’ll just skip to the next song.


There are a couple different procedures for this:

  1. Send an E-mail with the audio file attached. Follow the suggestions listed above for cover letter (Include phone number(s). Also include your Web site address so they can click it and go directly to it. When they get to your site, they’ll hopefully find additional bio material, photos and lyrics.
  2. Just send them an e-mail intriguing enough to get them to go to your site and hear your music there.
  3. Use an Electronic Press Kit (EPK). Sonicbids has been very popular for a few years now, but most artists will use their MySpace page as their EPK. A better choice is creating an “EPK” page on your own personal website and sending people there. (Example:

Indie marketing guru Tim Sweeney suggests that because of the limited amount of time someone may want to spend at any site and the degree of difficulty their online access speeds may present, it’s important to help them decide quickly which of your songs may be of most interest to them. You can help by providing a short description like this one provided on the site of Franklin Spicer and Valerie Ford’s Pegasus Project, a soft jazz, world music group.

“One People”
“The first song Franklin ever heard from Val was a reggae tune she had recorded called One People. He really liked the positive message and the infectious chorus. Franklin talked her into doing a rewrite and making it a Pegasus Project tune. They wanted to share a positive message of how we all are part of one global family. This song was shaped from a number of African musical influences, including the Tuku style. The huge chorus backup vocals were done in two days of recording using seven different singers.”

Note that the description includes information on the style, what it’s about, why it was written and how it was recorded. Their site also includes lyrics to all the songs.

Remember, your demo should look good, have something important to say, and say it well. There are a lot of other applicants for the job. The pros are looking for the best. Be the best!