Sunday, October 23, 2011

Newcomer musicians open their wallets to avoid paying dues

Musician and Detroit native John Maison is willing to pay his dues to make it in the music business — but he’s also willing to pay in cash.

So the 20-something former commercial loan officer decided to hire Nashville songwriting consultant Marc-Alan Barnette to help him speed along the traditional years-long, dues-paying, school-of-hard-knocks route to Nashville songwriter success.

For a fee, Barnette agreed to impart to Maison some of the music industry wisdom he had learned from nearly a quarter-century as a songwriter, including introducing Maison to the right publishers, booking him in the best songwriter showcase events and serving as a co-writer on some of Maison’s original songs.

“Nashville is a 10-year town,” Maison said. “That’s how long it takes to establish all the relationships and filter through all the garbage of empty promises. But the idea is if you hire someone like Marc you can get your chops down and pay your dues so much faster.”

Barnette is among a growing number of “songwriter service” providers who are making a living by offering aspiring songwriters and singers entrée into the world of Nashville music.

The practice is controversial because it upends the mutual self-help culture that singers and songwriters say has long defined the local music scene — where musicians and writers have moved to town, made friends and been able to navigate the often-complicated music business with informal advice freely traded among fellow artists.

The practice also has drawn outright scam artists, who promise wildly extravagant results — fame, record deals, hit songs — they can’t deliver in return for hefty fees, industry observers say.

But Barnette, who in the past has opened for Charlie Daniels, Garth Brooks and Patty Loveless, is among the consultants who staff at institutions like the Nashville Songwriters Association International recommend.

The music business' shifting landscape

Two seismic shifts in the music industry in the past decade — one cultural, one economic — have driven the phenomenon of songwriting consultant services, said Bart Herbison, NSAI’s executive director.

The first is the economics of the music business. Longtime songwriters are turning to consulting to make a living because their own options for making money have narrowed. Publishers are retaining fewer professional songwriters on staff as well.

What used to be a comfortable middle-class living, even for songwriters without huge hits, has all but evaporated, leading songwriters like Barnette into more entrepreneurial roles.

The second shift is the “American Idol phenomena,” Herbison said. “Everyone wants to be a star overnight. It’s just that moment in our culture. You’ve got the demand for that kind of help.”

Barnette said he also sees a third phenomenon at work: The songwriting community in the digital age is a lot more complicated than it used to be. While there are fewer opportunities to becoming successful, there are many more ways to access them than in the past. He sees his role as a “personal trainer for songwriters and artists.”

Yes, he is charging for a service that teaches people what they can learn on their own, “but you can send someone to downtown New York City and have them figure out how to drive around without a map,” he said. “I provide the map.”

The songwriting scene

Nashville’s songwriting scene includes longstanding institutions that have staff designated specifically to help newcomers. Performing rights organizations such as BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, which collect royalties for songwriters, offer walk-in, free appointments for aspiring songwriters to ask questions or play their music and get constructive feedback.

The Nashville Songwriters Association International offers seminars and workshops — some free and some paid — that attract songwriters from around the world.

It hosts events such as “Pitch to Publishers” nights that give aspiring singer-songwriters an audience with song publishers; or there’s SongPosium, which provides an intense three-day campus-style education in all things one needs to know about the music industry.

Joining the organization for a $150 annual fee gives songwriters access to a host of other events as well as access to songwriting rooms and the comfortable, clubby headquarters.

Increasingly, however, NSAI has had to adapt to different demands by aspiring songwriters looking for quicker payoffs, Herbison said.

The association used to provide five song camps a year that lasted five days. Now they have two, but have added a series of short hourlong seminars.

It’s a sign of the times for songwriters who, because of their desire for quick success or because they can’t financially afford to invest the time, want quicker payoffs for their time, Herbison said.

Lorna Flowers became a songwriting consultant in March after a publishing deal ended.

The longtime pop and country songwriter, who moved to Nashville from Great Britain in 2004, has had three No. 1 hits on the European charts and, in the beginning, was making a comfortable living as a songwriter. Now, she offers consulting services to out-of-towners, many from overseas, as well as booking songwriter nights at two clubs and operating a production company.

“You have to have six jobs to make a living in Nashville at the minute,” Flowers said.

Flowers commuted from England for many years and said she learned the hard way how difficult it was for out-of-towners to navigate the Nashville music landscape. She’d arrive in Nashville, wait around for callbacks and then have to leave before she could accomplish anything.

“I know what it’s like to sit in a Nashville hotel room and try and figure all this out,” Flowers said. “This town runs on rescheduling. It’s hard not to take it personally, and it’s almost impossible to figure things out without someone to give you a hand.”

Flowers’ services range from performance voice coaching to arranging for meetings with publishers, or trips to industry networking events.

Flowers also offers to co-write with her clients or set them up with other co-writers for a fee that ranges between $100 to $500 per session.

Charging for co-writing — something Flowers calls “coach writing” — is among the most controversial practices among music consultants. Songwriters who write together have a longstanding tradition of agreeing to split future royalties, with money only changing hands if the song earns any.

“It is controversial, and I understand that,” Flowers said. “But the truth is that I can help people do their best and I can find other songwriters who will improve their chances of writing a quality song.”

Music industry insiders say the other upside to legitimate consultants is their ability to steer aspiring songwriters and artists away from scams.

Ripoff stories in the Nashville music business are legion, with newcomers paying thousands of dollars for demos that should cost hundreds, high-priced headshots, and CD replication services that return low-quality cuts.

“You see Harvard graduates come to town who lose any business sense,” Barnette said.

Legitimate songwriting consultants, who themselves have learned the hard way who to avoid working with, can steer clients away from bad actors to legitimate service providers.

When does it pay off?

Maison, the Detroit songwriter, said that hiring Barnette as a consultant seems to be paying off.

In the three years since he began working with Barnette, Maison has been able to quit his day job and make a living off music. He was just picked up on an independent label, Big High Five Records. And he plans to keep using Barnette, despite some initial skepticism.

“When I first heard about people charging for this, to be honest I was like, ‘What a joke. That’s a scam. No way,’ ” he said.

“But the music business is like anything else. You get what you pay for.”