Songmine: What A Record Company Needs to Know: Part 2 by John Braheny

A John Braheny Songmine column from the archives…

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Songmine: What A Record Company Needs to Know: Part 2 by John Braheny

I’m going to pretend to be a record company this time, except for a few impartial asides, to explain what’s happening or why.

I’m assuming that you’re looking for your first record deal. I’m asking about things I need to know to make a decision about signing you to my label. I know I’ll need to spend anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 on the recording alone. Then, maybe another $100,000 on promotion to make enough people aware of you that, if they like you enough, they’ll buy your record. If they don’t, I’ll have to eat it. It might take that much again next year, but I’ll spend it if I’m still as excited about the music as I was when I signed you.

Also, I want to see that you’re not sitting on your ass expecting me to make you a star. I want to know that you’re writing and I want to hear new songs. Are you working on your act? The visuals? Arrange-ments? Concepts? I want to know that you’re working to improve your vocal and instrumental chops. I want to know that when I do spend more bucks, both you and your manager know what to do to maximize its effect and return and you’re ready to get out on the road and get those people excited enough to buy that record. We’ll get reviewers out to see you and my ulcer dictates that I be confident that you have your trip together. I can inspire everyone in my company to do their best for you if we know that you’re into it 100% yourself.

Let’s say typically that I received your tape through your attorney, manager, someone in my company, your producer or someone else who’s taste I respect. This is because I’m usually too busy to be out on the street dropping into clubs on the remote chance that I’ll hear something I like. Before I listen to that tape I know what I want to hear: 1) Songs that I think are hits or that will appeal to a large number of people because of your point of view, style, etc (Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell are good examples of writer/artists who don’t write hits but have a large following. They’re known as album artists, and it takes more time and money to market them successfully because hit singles are proven to be the fastest and most cost-effective way to promote an artist.) 2) I’m looking for craftsmanship that tells me that those songs I liked were not just an accident, and that you know exactly what you’re doing and can do it again. 3) I’m looking for identity. After hearing the record once or twice, I want that audience forever after to be able to recognize you. If your voice sounds like a lot of other people, what you do with it stylistically should be unique. If that isn’t happening, I should be hearing an instrumental sound and production concept that’s unique. I should know that you and/or your producer can continue to recreate that sound once the public has grown to love it (Gerry Rafferty and Al Stewart have strong production identities). 4) I want to hear something that has an emotional impact on me. I want to be moved by the way you sing your song. I want to know that you are totally involved with what you’re saying in your song. If you don’t believe it, why should I? If it’s not the kind of music that’s lyrically oriented, I want it to move my body. If you’ve been playing your songs at your lounge gig every night for the last three years, there’s a danger that they’ll sound tired and unenthusiastic. I want to know that you can get into that song every time that you sing it. 5) I expect and assume that what I’m about to hear on this tape is the very best that you can do. It doesn’t have to be a finished product. It could be a piano/vocal, but I have no evidence to believe you’ll ever perform it any better than on the tape, so don’t tell me “That was a bad day for me”, or “It’s just a demo, I’ll do it better on the master.” When I’m spending this companies money, I’m not taking your word for it; I need to know. I can have some influence and control over the technical quality, so I’m not worried about ‘just a demo in a funky studio’ if the performance is there.

Next time–more record company considerations.

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Previously in the Songmine Collection:

About Songmine and Music Connection Magazine:

John Braheny met Eric Bettelli and Michael Dolan right before they were going to publish Music Connection magazine. Eric and Michael wanted to get their publication out to as many songwriters as they could. They had already heard of the LA Songwriters Showcase, and of John and his partner, Len Chandler. John’s goal was to advertise the schedule of guest speakers and performers at the weekly Showcase… so they made a deal. 

They published John’s Songmine column (he had never before written a magazine article!) in their very first edition, in November 1977. Trading out the column for advertising, this arrangement continued for many years. Plus, Eric and Michael came to the Showcase each week and distributed free copies to the songwriters!

Those articles became so popular that (book agent and editor) Ronny Schiff offered John’s articles to F&W Media, where they became the backbone of John’s textbook, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. As a follow-up, Dan Kimpel (author, songwriter, teacher), who had also worked at LASS, took on the Songwriting column at Music Connection magazine which continues to this day! You can subscribe to get either hard copies or online.

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