*Edited to say that after I posted this, I realized the title made it sound like I was personally “slammed in the face…” It wasn’t my intention. I don’t earn a living making music anymore. I’m a marketing guy these days. This was just a great blog from someone who is still in the game and pushing through. I have respect. Still, the reality of today’s music business is a “slam in the face/wake-up call” to everyone in it.
This was posted on my Facebook friend, Regie Hamm’s wall. It was too good not to share here. I knew him back in the day ’cause his awesome wife Yolanda worked at the label we were signed to at the time. Regie is a bona-fide hit songwriter and his perspective here is a must read for anyone interested in the music buisness.
Visit Regie’s site here: regiehamm.com
MY GLAMOROUS LIFE …
This past weekend I attended one of those music business songwriter award show type events. You know the ones where everyone puts on that dress or suit they reserve for three occasions a year. The one where everyone keeps their belly sucked in for two hours, while trying to sip wine, yell conversations over crowd noise and laugh spontaneously at jokes they only half heard. Then everyone takes a seat at a fancy table where fancy food is served. After that, cool looking awards are given out to talented (and sometimes even famous) people. I’ve been going to these things for 20 years and I have to admit, they’re usually a pretty good time. I enjoy seeing old friends and catching up with folks I only see once a year. I like the fancy tables and fancy food. It’s a nice night out with the mrs.
If that were your only view of the music business, it would seem glamorous and hip. From that per view and in that light, it would seem to be a marvelous way to earn a living. But the real working world of professional songwriting is often anything but that. After enough years in any business, you become all-too-familiar with its dark side …or its mundane side. The functions I get to attend, as a by-product of what I do, are nice. But the professional side of what I actually do, between those events, often looks a little less glamorous and a little more more cold and artless …
If I were to get a call tomorrow to go write songs for the next up and coming pop diva record, the headaches and nausea would start almost immediately. Not because of my excitement or nervousness (I don’t get giddy around superstars, I don’t want anybody’s autograph and I don’t really care to hang out with them), but because of what I know would be the next week (or more) of my life; four-hour flight to LA. Traffic. Hotel. Connect with producer. More traffic. Studio. Pleasantry, pleasantry, pleasantry …”how ya doin? Great to see you! Good to hear it! blah, blah, blah …” Diva/artist is sitting on the couch. She’s stunning at first glance – like a supermodel with more curves. She’s humming a melody to herself and I can hear from across the room that she has a great voice. I can see why a label is placing a seven figure bet on her.
People ask my wife all the time why she doesn’t get jealous of me writing with beautiful, sexy female artists. The reason is she and I have a long-term understanding about this. She knows exactly how I feel about female artists. While I have many beautiful female friends who are great artists (and I love them dearly), nothing is less attractive to me than an artist – male or female. I am one of them and I’ve never had the least bit of interest in being WITH one of them. This is business. I don’t see a girl sitting there …I see a vehicle. She’d better be sexy and stunning with the voice of an angel because everyone in this room is gambling their time and talent on it, including me. If I were going to be attracted to someone (which I’m not – because I’m really into my wife and have no time for such foolishness), it would be the unassuming receptionist in the lobby, reading Kierkegaard and studying for her masters degree. I’m sure a conversation with her would be much more interesting than what I’m about to be talking about for the next three days. Nevertheless, here I am – ready to write about love gone wrong or gone right or …or gone wherever.
The would-be starlet/songbird/sex-kitten is now perpetually texting, primping and talking on the phone with publicists and managers and generally sucking up all the air in the room. She’s expecting me to deliver clever lines (on the spot) that will have the masses singing along with her on their way to work or school or wherever. The pressure has begun. The producer/track writer (who probably gets 40 to 50% of whatever is written, no matter what) will blare the groovy, hypnotic track all day, while I try to pour my middle-aged brain into the world of a 20-something pop star. I’m too old to be writing about this stuff. It feels childish and silly to me. I’m concerned about the current budget debate in congress. I’m waiting on my wife to call me about one of my children’s lab results. I have a friend going through a divorce and he keeps texting me in desperation. I’m really not anywhere near the head space of this girl, at the beginning of her life, trying to get her ex to fall back in love with her through a song. I don’t know the latest lingo in the singles’ scene – I don’t care to know. This girl is young and sheltered and she truly believes the drama of her current break-up is actually deep, meaningful and song-worthy in some way. It is none of those things to me. Still, because I’m a pro, I try to craft these clumsy, sophomoric emotions into words that will resonate with some human truth and turn this incomplete longing she’s trying to express into redemption. That’s a lofty goal I’m fairly certain we will not achieve.
Year after year, this all becomes more meaningless to me, but last year wasn’t a great year. My last hit was three years ago and has played out financially. I only have five gigs on the books. Royalties are down 60%. I need this cut …and I need it to be the single. That’s the only way I’ll ever get paid on this song. “Album cuts” are obsolete. There’s no revenue attached to this unless it becomes THE song. Before I get to that stage, however, I have to sell the artist on it. I need her to fight for it and want to say it – want to sing it 400 times over the next 18 months. I need this young girl, who has a one to three-year shelf-life (if she’s really, really lucky) and who is masking all of her own insecurities with false confidence to think she’s getting pure gold from me. She needs to believe I can craft a song that will be the key to her success. I want to believe it too, but I know too much about my stacks and stacks of failed attepts. She doesn’t need to know or think about that. We have to keep the blinders are on and pretend this song is going to take the world by storm. I’m making it all rhyme and sing right phonetically. It’s hooky as hell, clever, tight and cute in all the right places …but this kind of thing is not why I got into music. This isn’t what I envisioned for myself when I was sitting in my one-room apartment, listening to James Taylor, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan and wanting to shake the world …but it’s the job.
This girl doesn’t know who Bob Dylan is. She doesn’t understand basic A-B-A-B verse construction and I keep having to subtly suggest we use another word at the end of the first verse, so we don’t rhyme “to” and …”too” (although that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone in this room but me). I’ve been in the chair for three hours now. I need a break …and maybe a couple Advil. When I return, they’re all laughing at the latest funny something on youtube. Yeah …this is what I left my family for.
Finally, every line is killing her (at least for the moment). She’s in. The producer’s in. At around nine, she sings a scratch vocal. By now I can’t tell if this thing is good or not. I’ve lost all objectivity …and ALL interest. This can’t be done fast enough for me. I’ve been sitting in the chair all day but I’m completely spent. I feel like I can’t lift my arms. I stand, stretch and hug all the appropriate people …I want to get gone. I have to do this all again tomorrow. They’re going to a club or dinner somewhere. Not me. I’m not sure I can hear one more word coming out of her mouth …or mine for that matter. I feel like I’ve died and gone to high school. I need quiet …and sleep.
I drive back to the hotel with my brain numb and pounding. I walk into the bar and order a drink. I can’t hear anything in my head except that freaking track I’ve been writing to all day. At first it was infectious and fun, now it’s just a maddening pattern of pops and clicks that I’m going to desperately try and drown out before I try to sleep, or else I’ll dream about it all night. I suddenly remember …”oh yeah …this is why I started drinking in the first place …to kill the noise.” I call my wife and kids, say goodnight to them, and go up to my room. I turn on the tv to further escape the kinetic pounding in my head. The news is on and there’s a young senator talking to Wolf Blitzer about national security. He’s five years younger than me and expected to be a vice presidential candidate in the next election. After him is a 20-something computer geek who just sold his company for two billion dollars. No doubt, that company has found new and exciting ways to rip me and my fellow songwriters off with impunity.
Suddenly, it all comes crashing down. What have I done with my life? People younger than me are shaping and re-shaping the world and I’m in a room with a barbie doll, trying to articulate the current break-up with her boyfriend and rhyme the word “sparse”, because she insists on the line “your love is so sparse” in the second verse. I was actually angling into a clever turn with something like ” …parse” but she doesn’t know what “parse” means …so we used “bar” (I hate soft rhymes). Also, I realize no one listening to that song will know what “parse” means either. The truth of the day – of a lot of days – finally hits me like a cold rag in the face. I’m a functionary. A puzzle solver. Not a truth teller, like I wanted to be. Oh sure, I’ve told some truth in my day, and while it may indeed set you free, it doesn’t sell and you can’t dance to it. I have kids to feed and a mortgage to pay. Truth will have to be told on my own time. Hits pay the bills …not art.
I fall asleep with the tv on and dream about my childhood best friend trying to sell me an easy-glider, but I can’t find a bathroom anywhere. He won’t quit with the easy-glider thing and has remarkable knowledge of the details of this machine. I really need to find a bathroom – he keeps selling and I tell him to stop “parsing” his words, then I start singing the song I worked on all day yesterday. He just smiles at me and says, ” just three low payments of $29.99!” I wake with a start. For a minute I don’t know where I am. There’s an easy-glider infomercial blaring way too loud – I get up to go to the bathroom and turn off the tv. Its 5:24 AM and that freaking song is in my head again. I won’t be able to get back to sleep now …and there’s something bothering me about the bridge. I’ll spend the wee hours of the morning ironing it out before heading back to the studio.
After three grueling days of this, I’ll fly back home, having incurred a hefty travel bill but having gained new insight into what all the kids are laughing about on youtube. Then, I wait for the inevitable calls …it usually starts with percentages. People get territorial sometimes, and remember things differently than they actually were. So, the pop diva’s “representatives” hit me up for a larger percentage of the three songs we wrote. I’ll give a little. I need these cuts but I don’t care enough about them to fight for three percent more. Then come the calls I hate the most …”we need re-writes on some things.” The radio guy at the label fancies himself a songwriter and hears that second verse differently. If we can’t “fix it” he has some ideas and he’d be happy to jump in on it …of course he would. These calls continue while the young girl is still considered to be the next (insert pop star name here) by the label. But then, comes the silence …
Apparently, she had a bad couple of shows in Newark. Jay Z was at one of them and tweeted about it …not in a good way. Now the label is scared to put out the single. They’re shelving it till next year. Gonna find more songs …another producer …maybe a fresh take on it. Once I hear that, I know it’s time to move on to the next thing. Chances are she’ll reconcile with that boyfriend and get married before her next round of demos …probably even get pregnant. You see, she isn’t really a born artist …she just wants to be loved. Her daddy is out of money and her management is focussed on something else. I’ve been there as an artist and I know this will all be impossible to overcome. Just like that, it’s over for her. I now have three really well-produced songs on the shelf (sitting next to dozens more just like them) that the world will never hear. For every hit song I’ve ever had, there are a hundred behind it that have died this very death.
The fictitious scenario I’ve just described above plays out, in one way or another, in one genre or another, weekly in the life of every professional songwriter. The art life has always been hard to reconcile. The day Emperor Joseph II told Mozart he had written “too many notes”, we should’ve all gotten the memo …this is a weird way to earn a living. I’ve been doing this 25 years and my best songs have never been heard. They certainly haven’t earned a living for me. Fighting through a lot of days just like the one with the make-believe diva have.
Did I make it as a songwriter? Am I a pro? I suppose I am. Is it worth it? These days, I change my opinion on that from moment to moment. I’m a blessed man in so many ways. But sometimes being a professional at something isn’t what it looks like at fancy parties …