Archive | Q&A

Questions and Answers from John’s Book: “The Craft and Business of Songwriting”

Is A Jazz Guitar Degree Worthwhile?

I was just wondering if you could offer any advice to me as an aspiring musician.
Many people have told me that jazz as a popular art form is dead. Some of my biggest influences are jazz guitarists, and I genuinely enjoy playing and listening to jazz. Do you think the skills and technique I learn as jazz guitar player will lend themselves readily to most jobs in the music business? In other words, is a degree in jazz guitar economically valuable outside of the jazz scene?

Generally speaking, a jazz guitar degree isn’t really worth much. How well you actually play , how original you are and how well you can write and arrange are worth a lot. Unless you want to teach in a college, degrees aren’t really important. Most of the opportunities you’ll get professionally, you’ll get from other musicians referring you and you referring them. In other words – NETWORKING. Look for every opportunity you can to jam or gig with other musicians. You learn most by doing it. Learn your theory, harmony, composition and arrangement while you’re in school and have access to the info. After that, as a guƒ¯tarist you need to try to be as versatile as possible so you can take advantage of more opportunities in pop music, rock, funk, R&B, etc and learn something about recording engineering. As a guitarist you’re an entrepreneur and you’ll need to create your own projects, write your own music, find great musicians to play with.

There’s wisdom in not getting too focussed just on jazz. In colleges and universities they tend to focus on jazz and classical almost exclusively and I’ve always felt it was a kind of dead-end trap and an academic exercise. Those restricted genres tend to foster anti-pop bias and snobbery that keeps musicians from freely exploring all styles of music including world music. It’s a global business and you grow most by copping styles, grooves and licks from Ska, African High-Life, Middle Eastern artists, Hip-Hop, country, etc.. We’re blessed with the Net where there’s access to every kind of music. USC just instituted the first pop music department in a state university in the country and they’re swamped with applications. The problem in most colleges is that most faculty comes from jazz and classical and they’re making THEIR living teaching. They rarely really know how to teach you how to make a living as a professional musician and the many opportunities that are available if you’re versatile.


Taxi Road Rally Virgin?

The Annual Taxi Road Rally is a major event that no songwriter should miss. It’s free for Taxi members + one guest, so if you’re not a member, attach yourself to one and get here to L.A. , usually on the first weekend in November. Details at

These are my answers to some questions from a client who lives in New York and was attending his first Taxi Road Rally.


Q -There might be 2000 people at this event. How do you effectively network with the “players” if you’re tripping over 100 other people to try to get to them?
A – Make sure to get there early to sign up for one-on-ones, short 10 minute session with someone of your choice. Those are generally the screeners (obviously all industry pros) so check out the bios of the screeners/A&R staff at the TAXI site and make a list of who you’d like to talk to in the order you want to. There are also many industry pros in addition to the Taxi A&R who participate as mentors. Not guaranteed they’ll all be there or that the hottest sessions won’t fill up before you get there but give it your best shot.

Q – At the lunches, who sits at your table and how is that decided?
A – Generally, the same screeners/A&R staff and other industry pros. We spend about 15 minutes each at several tables. We’re directed to tables by taxi staff or just directed to find another open table that the previous guest has just left. So there’s no way to plan it. Each table will get about 4-5 guests during the dinner and nobody knows who they’ll be. Teachers of the classes who aren’t Taxi Screeners also do the one-on-ones and tables. Rarely do the industry panelists who are major label people and writers participate in those sessions.

Q – How many CDs should I bring/prepare (if any)? How many songs on the CD?
A – Consider that you may want to give them to potential collaborators as well as industry people. Know that the odds of an industry person listening to a CD later are slim. They may walk away with 50 or more of those and they already have a stack back at their offices. So the number is up to you. Maybe 25. There’s always a huge pile of CDs left on tables afterwards and they just get tossed. You may want to pick up CDs from potential collaborators, singers, and others you vibe with during the weekend so you don’t want to be stuck taking back too many of your own.

Q – Can I mix genres or do I have to have separate CDs for each genre/person I’m pitching to?
A – The separation of genres isn’t a bad idea though you can just separate them on your CD and clearly mark them by genre, which will save you cutting new CDs for each genre.

Q – Do you bring typed lyric sheets?
A – Yes

Q – Do I bring business cards as well?
A – DEFINITELY – make sure it has your website/MySpace/Facebook etc. on it where they can hear your songs. E-mail address and phone too. Photo may help people remember you. Be sure that whenever someone gives YOU a card (like that bodacious babe) that you make a quick note on the back of her card. Otherwise, you’ll be amazed how quickly you forget before you transfer the info to your database.

Q – Is smiling a prerequisite or can I just look glum the entire time and no one will say anything?
A – Definitely no-one will say anything. You’ll be totally friendless – except for me.

Do not look depressed, dejected, arrogant or constipated. The mission is to look happy, successful, confident and RELAXED (Remember you’re in LA, not the Big Apple.) There will be a certain amount of tension and confusion on the first day as you get everything sorted out but by the 2nd day, though you’ll still be excited (Let yourself be amazed and thrilled!!) you’ll be more chilled. Smile constantly and be ready to meet everybody. Assume they’re all there to meet YOU! Make sure you have a good 10 second “elevator speech” to introduce yourself. You might want to bring your laptop and a good digital voice recorder that you can take notes on, (You’ll be bombarded with insights you’ll want to remember.) and upload it to your laptop daily. This is “information overload” time so be ready to retrieve it while you can.

Good luck, bro. This can be a life-changing experience if you let it.
Come visit us at our booth. I’ll also be teaching 2 classes, doing mentor sessions, a mentor lunch and booking private one-on one consulting appointments on an hourly basis, so book me early by e-mailing me at (Write “Road Rally Consult” in subject line).

Note: for more info about the Taxi Road Rally, go to the TAXI forum where you’ll find two great threads (First Rally?) that will provide lots of details about what to expect from and prepare for your first Road Rally.


Q&A Pitching to Music Publishers

I have found some of the writers of (hit Country group) tunes. Their publishers are listed with ASCAP. Would it be common practice to contact the publisher of that writer in hopes that they could publish and pitch another tune to the band?

Good work. You’re on the right track. However, sending the songs to publishers, though not a bad idea on the face of it, just puts you another step from the mark. If you pitch to a publisher it should be the publishing company of the writers in the group. This puts them in a position of being a direct financial participant in the publishing income from their recording and that’s a BIG incentive for them. When it comes from an “outside” publisher the group won’t participate in that income at all. In some cases, ownership of the publishing may make the difference between an album cut and a single (from which they’ll make a lot more performance income).

That approach could work but you should also pitch to their A&R representative at their record company, to their producer and manager. At that point you stand a chance, assuming they’re crazy about the song, to keep some of that publishing income (along with your writers share) yourself. The manager, however, since he participates (usually 20% +) in ALL the group’s income, will be motivated to have the group’s publishing company own it. The old adage applies here always “Follow the money!”

Find more practical info in Johns Book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. Buy it here!


Do I Hold Out For Producer Credit?

Here’s a question I answered recently and I thought there might be some among you who could find it useful. I’m paraphrasing the question, which comes from a writer/producer who is not in a major music center and this is potentially his first major label cut.

“My co-writer and I had a song picked up by a well-known producer who wants to produce it on a new artist who’s been signed to a major label. I put a lot of work into arranging and producing a demo in my home studio good enough for him to be interested. I feel it’s only fair that I try to get producer or co-producer credit for the song since, though he might re-record it, he’ll probably use my production ideas. My co-writer says I should chill. Don’t you think I should at least try?”

The question here is not an unusual one and pretty easily answered. NO! First of all, the chance to get a song on a project that a major label is going to put some promotion behind is so rare that you want to do everything possible to make it happen. Since the decision process is so subject to the whims and economic considerations of a variety of people (producer, A&R, promotion department, label executives who are looking at one and a half million in recording and promotion costs to launch a new artist) production credit is not what you should be interested in for this situation.

Arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean production, and a producer is responsible for the entire recording through the mastering process. So if you arranged the song it doesn’t really count. After you’ve had hits you can start working on tracks that people will actually use (record the vocal to those tracks) and at that point it would be important to go for production credits ­ but not before you actually have a foot in the door. At this point the strategy should be to assist the producer in any way you can to make sure this works for his artist (including re-writes if necessarily) and consider yourself fortunate if the artist doesn’t want to “co-write” for a piece of the writer credits and royalties.

If you’re not part of this new artist’s team and thus responsible for delivering a finished product tailored to her style and key or adapted to creating a style for her you may be a producer but you’re not HER producer. There’s a MUCH bigger picture going on here than you’re part of at this point. Your song is, hopefully, part of a vision for the artist that includes all the other songs chosen for her project.

You should be praying that after all the other songs are chosen, yours still fits the vision and doesn’t get dropped, and you can be sure that other pro writers and publishers who are submitting songs for this project will not be insisting on production credits (unless they’re already successful) for fear they’ll lose the cut.

Commonly, many more songs are recorded than actually get released. I just interviewed Carlos Santana who said they recorded more than 30 songs for his new CD, “Shaman,” and 16 made the cut. After interviewing hundreds of writers and producers, I know this is typical. Successful writers’ lists of: 1. Held but not recorded, 2. Recorded but not released, and 3. Released but not charted, are MUCH longer than their list of hits. So my very strong suggestion is that you don’t push for producer credits, EVEN if he uses some of your actual tracks and certainly not if he uses aspects of your arrangement. The reality is that every pro writer prays that the demo arrangement/production is good enough to get the song considered for the project.

The main objective is to get the song recorded and released as a radio single since that’s where your performance royalties are generated and on a big enough selling CD to get some mechanical royalties too. To risk all that by insisting on production credits would be incredibly foolish and naive, to say the least.

Look at the long view of your career and hope that if the producer is impressed with your songs and production and finds you easy to deal with, he’ll give you an opportunity to shine when he gets his own label and you actually bring him your own projects in which you’ve found, written for/with and produced the artist yourself. That’s the long-range payoff you need to be looking at. The gutters of the music biz are strewn with the failed careers of talented artists and producers who made the wrong moves too soon and failed to see the big, long-range picture because their egos got in the way. There’s a time to hold ’em and a time to fold ’em. Your co-writer is right. Fold ’em.


How Do You Know When A Song Is Ready?

When it meets your standards.

Usually, it’s good to have a checklist to go through to make sure every aspect of the song is as good as it can get.

Generally pros have higher standards for themselves than amateurs, but it also depends on what you see as the destination of the song. If you just want to play something for uncritical friends and impress them with how quickly you can throw it together, it’s okay.

But it’s a world away from the writer who wants to write a hit for an established artist.

In that case, the song has to be approved by a producer, record company and the artist who are listening to (possibly) thousands of songs from the best writers they know.

They’ll put a half million to a million dollars into recording and promoting it and it better have everything it needs to entertain that artist’s audience and make them want to buy it.


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!