Here’s my opinion on songwriter tipsheets, song pluggers and song promotion– Music Producer, Bill Watson
Before we dive into song promotion via tip sheets and pluggers, let’s look at what you’re promoting
Almost-radio-ready is no longer a luxury, it’s the bargaining chip that gets you into the game at all. If the song demo you intend to pitch doesn’t sound like this you’re probably wasting your time.
These days many A & R people want demos they can hit the ground running with, not re-cut. Anything less gets dismissed as amateur or unusable and gets tossed in the trash can.
The musicianship should be superb, the mix professional. Near record quality. That’s not to say you must always have super elaborate demos produced. Many songs do not need a lot of background vocal tracks, three layers of keyboard tracks or whatever to get the song across. Some tunes need as little as a good solid guitar track and a quality lead vocal to achieve that goal.
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But regardless of whether a sparse, or a more elaborate demo path is chosen, all elements must sound professional. That means similar to what you’d hear on the radio.
If you live outside Nashville it’s doubly important that you have a superior quality demo to establish your credibility. Right or wrong, most music industry professionals are more skeptical of anything not created here.
Should you do a full band demo? An all out, spare-no-expense demo? A master? Guitar/vocal? Obviously I make my living producing music so it’s easily argued, possibly with some merit, that I have an inherent conflict of interest. Kicking this question around with songwriter Denise Baldwin, who has no dog in this hunt and is experienced at the Nashville critique/workshops/pitching routine, we arrived at this:
- Most record company A & R don’t have the experience or song sense the old “Tin Pan Alley” music publishers of the 1940’s and 50’s had. Unless you spell out every word, today’s fresh-out-of-college interns assigned to song screening can barely read the book let alone envision it fully illustrated. If they are part of your pitch plan, I recommend at least a basic four piece demo if not a full blown deluxe. Neither option costs that much more than a high quality guitar/vocal. Ditto if you’re pitching directly to an artist.
- A guitar/vocal or piano/vocal may be fine for some music publishers. If so they’ll generally let you know they can “hear it” by requesting a simple guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo. They have the experience to catch the vision and mentally extrapolate your simple demo into a full blown recording.
- Independent releases don’t run the A&R gauntlet; it’s pure art, no gatekeepers, no rules. Simply be sure your song says and does what you want it to, then it’s fine to go straight to a limited release master or full blown master. As I write this, in fact, everything I’m currently working on is limited release or master level. With so many opportunities available for songwriters that didn’t exist prior to the Internet- radio airplay, download sales sites, You Tube revenue, etc.- songwriters are definitely turning more entrepreneurial.
Previous clients of Nashville Trax who later informed us that their song we produced was contracted by a music publisher, was forwarded to a publisher by BMI.. or got a cut, a hold, got a deal, got radio airplay etc., have never had it happen (that we’re aware of) due to simple one instrument demos.
That fact alone doesn’t mean you should go more elaborate, many Billboard hits started as simple one instrument demos. And not all clients feel the need to contact us after the fact so this point is likely based on limited data, and certainly the evidence provided here is somewhat anecdotal, not empirical, take it with a grain of salt.
Regardless of your intent, do rewrite until your song is the best it can be. Then if you intend to pitch the song to Music Row A&R, consider paying for a critique before investing in a demo. You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars only to later hear your song lyric is flawed.
Professional critiques are only as good as the song sense, comprehension of song crafting and knowledge of what’s currently getting outside cuts, of the person doing the critique. Get two “pro critiques” and you may well get two very different perspectives that may even contradict each other on some key points; all critiques are colored by opinion. Get one, but once again, the grain of salt thing applies.
Tipsheets: There are some very good ones but those tend to be extremely expensive $175 to $1,500 per year and the best listings usually restrict submissions to professional song publishers with a track record of hits. Contact info in most is not even listed for the big name pitches, you’re expected to have a relationship, otherwise your songs aren’t welcome. The obvious tactic is to get signed with a music publisher who subscribes to the tips sheets so you don’t need to. Your time is better spent writing songs, not promoting them.
The Song Plugger: Some people around town plug songs they believe in for free hoping to get a cut and a percentage if it’s successful. One of my friends does that and she has had a hand in two Billboard #1 hits, one of which she was totally responsible for taking the song demo from the songwriter (Rodney Crowell) and pitching it to the artist who cut it (Keith Urban). In the other instance she was part of the loop responsible for the biggest hit on the country charts in over 40 years (Cruise by Florida-Georgia line). That’s clearly legit plugging.
Not so clearly ethical is the growing trend of the paid song plugger who, for a large fee, I’ve heard of songwriters paying $250 to $2,000 or more per song pitch, will take your song or “the best of your songs” and claim they’ll be listened to “by the right people.” And perhaps some do as they say. But I suspect that in many. if not most cases, it’s a bit of a scam. If you have money they’ll take your song.
But do they really pitch it? Hmmmmm.
We do pitch songs we believe in. The song has to be great, the hook superb. the lyric as good as it can possibly get. And we don’t charge big money to pitch a song, we do it because we believe in it and because successful songs help our business thrive.
As far as a directly pitching to an artist, every recording artist would love to have a hit song handed to them but not every artist or even every song publisher is eager to hear songs straight from unknown songwriters. Why?
Two basic reasons: Time and fear of lawsuits. The majority of song publishing companies and independent publishers here in Nashville are very small operations, 5 to 10 people total. They have staff writers who are paid to write and crank out a lot of songs. Between managing those writers, managing their song output, performing administrative tasks on previous hit songs and such there’s not much time to wade through 2,000 diamonds in the rough to find that one polished gem.
I read once that Conway Twitty attributed his string of #1 hits to personally screening one thousand or more songs for each record, but today recording artists rightly prefer to focus their time on other things. When they need outside tunes they’d rather check out pre-screened songs from publishers they trust to weed out the unsuitable. It’s far more efficient.
And what happens when a song an artist or publisher who is passed on, coincidentally sounds a lot like a song a staff writer wrote and gets a Billboard hit with? A lawsuit, and it can happen so easily. How many songs were written about 9/11? There are bound to be similarities, maybe even matching lyric lines. But of course an amateur songwriter is going immediately to “they stole my song.”
So, what does a songwriter trying to get heard, caught in the catch 22 of needing a hit to be taken seriously but unable to get one because no one will listen, do? The best song promotion is to move to a city like L.A., New York or Nashville and start networking. Get to know songwriters, music publishers and others. Co-write. Attend writer’s nights, etc. If you have talent, the cream always rises. Always.
If moving is impossible then you need someone on the inside to market your songs for you who believes in them.
Some song publishers and producers do listen. Find them and give them something exceptional to listen to. A pro demo may or may not get you a contract but it will keep the door open for future listens, keep you off the “direct to trash can” list and will start building your reputation. Many of our clients have had great success with getting song publishers to sign demos we’ve produced for them.
Attend concerts where you live and get your songs in the hands of band members. If you have us produce your demo, request that we give a copy to the musicians who worked on your song; most play for major recording artists. If your song is aimed at Blake Shelton wouldn’t it be great to have a copy in his fiddle player’s hands? Come in and record and you can hand her your song. Our musicians play for many different artists and we will be glad to hand finished mixes they played on to them. We have had players pitch songs to the artists they work for, but they only do so if they believe in the song.
Or simply have us cut your pro-level demo. While here at Play It Again Demos we don’t promote “just any song from anyone with money to pay” and we do not operate a song plugging service, we do promote a small portion of the songs we demo to song publishers and recording artists using several proven methods. Why? With few exceptions, by the time we take a song from the rough stage to the polished demo stage we believe in it as much as the songwriter– Bill Watson