Pitching original music

billboard chart for pitching articleWhen you come to Nashville, if you want to make connections in the music industry, it isn’t effective to just go around handing out CDs of your music.  There is an overload of singers and writers and people in the music business are too busy to listen to something from a total stranger. It won’t be easy to get heard, but it will be a little less difficult if you use the right approach.

How to submit   Where to submit   Getting referrals   Etiquete & helpful hints  Don’t get ripped off

How to submit your music for consideration

1.   Have your presentation ready.

The first thing you need is good demos (short for demonstration recordings).  If you are pitching your songs to publishers as a songwriter, simple guitar/vocal or piano/vocal recordings are fine. Publishers are used to listening to phone recordings from their staff writers and they are judging the writing, not the recording. If you can’t afford a studio recording with a professional vocalist and musician, a home recording is okay. The minimum requirement is that it be in tune, in time and the vocal and chords can be heard easily. If you can’t achieve that on your own, get someone to help you or wait till you are good enough. Don’t add any instruments or harmony unless it sounds professional. Bad tracks are way worse than no tracks.

Have typed lyric sheets available with names of any co-writers and be sure your contact info is on them. Fit them onto one page and lay them out so that the song form is immediately apparent.

If you are pitching yourself as an artist to a label, manager or booking agent, you will do better with professionally produced recordings that show what your sound is like. Top people rarely work with beginners and great recordings will show them that you are serious and working hard on your career. If you aren’t that far along and are looking for co-writers or people to help you progress, use simple recordings that follow the guidelines described above.

Artists should also have at least one great photo and a Facebook artist page and/or a website. A website does not need to be elaborate but it should have your picture, a bio, a way to contact you, some music to listen to or a link your music online, a schedule of any gigs you have and links to your social media.  A strong social media presence is impressive to industry professionals. 

Put your music online. Some people are reluctant to because they worry about their songs being stolen, but the benefit of being heard far outweighs any chance of that. In all my years in Nashville I have never seen it happen and the upload can be evidence that it’s your song in a lawsuit. And if you write songs so good that someone can make money from them, you’ll get a deal quickly. Having music online gives anyone interested in you immediate access to your songs and the easier you make it for them, the better.

Identify your strongest songs. Get some outside opinions on this. We never have an objective view of our own work. If you get an appointment or are asked to send some music, don’t overwhelm the person with a ton of songs. Pick three (five at the most) that represent you at your best. If you have a full length artist CD, suggest the songs you most want them to hear. Don’t try to guess what they like, show them who you are. Artists who aren’t genuine rarely succeed. But bear in mind that uptempo songs are much more in demand than ballads, so if some of your best songs are are uptempos be sure to include them. 

2. Obtain permission first.

Few businesses in Nashville accept unsolicited material. There are too many songwriters and singers trying to get heard and there isn’t enough time to listen to them all. Also, it leaves businesses open to potential lawsuits from writers who believe they have been plagiarized. It’s not impossible to get permission by cold-calling, but most of the time you will need to be referred by someone.

  Where to submit your music

1. Record labels listen to artists and to songs for the artists they have signed. The department at the label that does this is called A&R, which stands for artist and repertoire.

2. Artists listen to material to find songs to record. Unless you have a personal connection to the artist you should go through their record label or management company.

3. Producers listen to potential artists and to songs for the artists they produce.

4. Artist managers listen to artists seeking representation and sometimes screen songs for the artists they represent.

5. Publishers represent songwriters and pitch their songs for them. Record labels, producers and artists prefer to have songs pitched to them by publishers rather than by the writers directly because publishers screen songs to be sure they are well written and appropriate for the artist.

  How to get a referral

If you are unknown in Nashville you must get heard first in order to get a referral to someone in the business. Some of the ways to do this are:

1. Writers nights – there are many open mic and pre-scheduled writers nights in Nashville where writers play their original music. The people in the music industry with the power to sign artists and get songs cut rarely attend these nights, but they are an excellent place to meet other writers and to start getting to know people who might be able to refer you to someone in the industry. Check the “Writers Nights” page on this website for a partial listing. Call the club or go to the writers night and talk to the host to find out the sign-up procedure or how to get scheduled.

2. Workshops – there are many workshops, both in Nashville and across the country, that are taught by people with connections to the music industry. They will help you learn about the craft and business will help you meet people who might eventually refer you to people in the business. Check the Play for Publishers page of this site for ones hosted by Barbara Cloyd.

3. Performance rights organizations – there are three organizations that help writers collect royalty money from radio and TV stations, concert halls and nightclubs. They are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers,) BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) and SESAC. A songwriter can join only one of these organizations, but they each have member representatives who will explain the function of their organization and listen to songs by their members and potential members. They will also refer writers to publishers if they think they are ready. Call to find out how to get an appointment, but be patient because they too are very busy.

4. Personal connections – most people in the industry only listen to new writers or artists because someone whose judgment they trust has recommended them. If you “know people who know people” you might ask if they can make a referral for you. Use every opportunity to be around people in the music business. Go to writers nights, performances by hit songwriters, workshops, seminars, classes, parties and other industry functions. The old saying is true, “It’s all who you know,” so be friendly and spend time getting to know people.

5. Attending original music shows in Nashville or shows in other towns by artists who have ties to Nashville.  You can learn so much from watching hit writers and younger writers who are signed to publishers. And they usually have friends in the industry who come to their shows.

6. Keep showing up – if people in the industry are going to invest their time and money in you, they want to know you are serious about pursuing a career. They might meet you once and really like you. Then they might hear you at a writers night and think, “That person has some talent.” Then they could see you at a workshop where they’re on the panel and they think, “This person is working at their craft.” Then they might hear someone else mention how good you are. And maybe the fifth or tenth or fifteenth time they see you they finally say, “Why don’t you come play me some songs?” Don’t push too hard or you risk pushing people away, but keep showing up.

  Etiquette and helpful hints

1. Don’t be too timid – Your career success will largely depend on your ability to develop strong relationships with people in the music business. If you meet someone, they will never get to know you if you are too timid to talk to them. Nashville is a remarkably friendly town and almost anyone is open to a sincere compliment or a polite question. If a person you’d like to get to know has a series of brief, pleasant encounters with you, that just might plant seeds that grow into a helpful relationship down the line.

2. Don’t be too pushy – When you meet people in the industry, be aware of how many aspiring artists and songwriters want their time and attention. If you want to make a good impression, take an interest in them and don’t monopolize the conversation talking about yourself or trying to impress them. Don’t ask someone to listen to your music or help you until you have built a relationship that makes that appropriate – industry pros are very busy and they may avoid you in the future if you are too pushy and try to impose on them.

3. Don’t ignore people who aren’t successful yet – Make friends with other aspiring singers and writers who impress you with their talent, work ethic and positive attitude. In Nashville it is often said that “you move up with your class.” Build close relationships with success-minded peers. Then you can help each other grow and advance. Success is more about building a career than “being discovered,” and it takes longer than you ever imagine. You’ll need those friends to lean on. And by the time you’re ready for success, they may have advanced enough in their careers to be in a position to help you.

4. Always follow through promptly. If someone makes a referral for you and you don’t call the person they referred you to, that shows that you are not serious about your career. The same is true if someone says “Call me next week” and you wait a month.

5.  Have a positive attitude. No one enjoys a person who is negative, resentful, desperate or self-pitying. Take criticism gracefully. If someone is generous enough with their time to give you feedback or advice, thank them politely even if it stings. There are not enough openings for all the talented writers and artists. The ones who succeed are the ones who work the hardest and are open to improvement. A little talent with a lot of hustle will out-perform great talent every time.

6.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A bad first impression can damage your chances. Before you try to approach record labels, producers or publishers be sure you are ready. Get some feedback from people who know the market and will be honest with you about whether or not your music is strong enough to get a positive response. If you don’t know people who can give you this advice for free use a professional vocal coach or song critique service. You can use Barbara’s consultation service or find recommendations of these on the eResources” page of this website. When professionals agree that you are ready, then invest in a more elaborate demo and use all your networking skills to get it heard by anyone in the you can.

7.Educate yourself. Knowledge is power. The more you know about the business the easier it is for people in the business to work with you.

8.Always present yourself at your best. You only get one chance to make a first impression. You never know who’s watching. You can do a lot of damage with an out of tune guitar or a sloppy recording.

Don’t get ripped off

Copyrighting songs
One thing that beginning writers worry most about is copyrighting their songs so they don’t get stolen. This is truly the least of your worries. It takes a long time and a lot of work to become a great commercial songwriter. The sad truth is that those perfect gems your friends and family swear are better than anything on the radio probably don’t meet the standards or requirements for a radio hit.  If you do write songs so good that someone else could steal them and make money from them, you will have no trouble finding legitimate people in the industry to work with. Legally, you own the song as soon as you complete it.

There are lots of ways to verify that you wrote it without going to the expense of paying to register the copyright with the Library of Congress. Publishers don’t even bother to register the copyright on songs they pitch until they get cut. But if you’re still worried about it, you can register a collection for the same cost as one song, and it can be done online.

Don’t bother mailing them to yourself by registered mail (commonly called a “poor man’s copyright”). That does not hold up in court.  

Legitimate expenses
Many people make a living providing products, services and education to developing songwriters and artists. These can be helpful and important – things like demos, photos, classes, workshops, consultation, publicity and advertising, music lessons, image consultation, social media management and website development. Shop around for the best quality and the best price.  

Questionable practices

1. Paying someone to get you a deal
Legitimate people in the industry who have enough skill, knowledge and clout to get you a deal do not have to advertise for their services – they have secretaries fending off the hordes of talented people trying to get to them. They get paid by taking a percentage of your future income. They make their money off your success and if you don’t succeed, they don’t get paid.

There are services that help writers and artists develop their skills and package their music in the best way to appeal to Music Row. If someone can help you get better at what you do and improve the presentation, it may be wise to pay for their guidance and expertise in this regard. But some people sell you high priced services based on the possibility that they can get you signed by a major label or publishing company. If someone will sell their referrals for a price, people in the industry will know that they do and will not give much weight to their recommendations. These services make their money from clients who pay them. Says Barbara,”In all my years in Nashville I have never known someone to get a writing or publishing deal by paying someone up-front to represent them.”

2. “Publishers” charging for demos

It’s important to understand that getting a song “published” only means giving someone the right to pitch your song in exchange for a portion of any royalties it might earn. A song does not earn any royalties until it is “cut” (recorded for release). Publishers who can spot songs with hit potential and who can get them to the right people at the right time do not need to advertise their services or solicit songs from unsigned writers. They are bombarded daily with songs from hopeful songwriters. If they want to pitch a song and they believe it needs a demo, they pay for half the cost of the demo and advance the other half to the writer.

Sometimes a legitimate publisher may be willing to pitch a song if the songwriter gets a good demo made at his/her own expense, but that money goes to the studio and musicians – not to the publisher.

There are companies who call themselves publishers who advertise for song submissions and then send the same reply to everyone, They rave about how good the song is and what a good chance it has of getting cut. They want to publish it for you but it needs a proper demo which they will provide for a fee. These companies make their money charging writers for demos. It is likely that very few of the songs they “publish” ever get pitched. Sometimes they offer to include your demo on a compilation CD that will be mailed to a long list of people in the industry. Of course, that costs extra. They may very well mail the CDs to everyone they say they will, but it is doubtful they are ever listened to.

3 Unscrupulous independent songpluggers.
A songplugger is someone who pitches songs and tries to get them cut. Publishers employ songpluggers and pay them a salary. There are also independent pluggers who work directly for the writers they represent. Generally they charge a monthly retainer and receive bonuses for songs they get cut but do not get any percentage of the royalties.

There are, without a doubt, honest, hardworking independent pluggers. The most successful ones only represent writers with a track record of success, or who have songs equal to those of established hit writers. They are very hard to get to and they limit the number of clients they represent in order to give each one the amount of attention they need.

There are also independent songpluggers who prey on people’s hopes and dreams and who will offer a contract to writers with songs that have little or no chance of success in the commercial market. Sometimes these independent pluggers have a genuine track record of success in the industry and they may have more legitimate projects they are working on. But they need funding so they sell false hope for anywhere from $100 to $1000 a month to as many writers as they can.

Says Barbara, “I have heard some pretty bad songs that were under contract to an independent plugger. In over twenty-five years of living and working in the Nashville music community I  have never known an unsigned writer who got a cut on a major label by paying an independent songplugger – even an honest one who works hard for his/her clients. I talked about this once with Jason Blume who has worked with a lot more developing writers than even I have, and he also had never know an unsigned writer to get a cut on a major label by paying a plugger.”

If you are determined to hire a plugger, wait ’til people in the industry are telling you your songs are good enough to get cut.  If you’re at that point, the people advising you will be able to tell you who the good ones are. Until that time your money is probably better spent on workshops, classes, and trips to Nashville.