I. The Debut
I pulled my car into the cramped parking lot next to the Douglas Corner Cafe.
“Tonight is the night,” I thought, as I grabbed my guitar and walked into the open mic.
At the bar, I met an old scraggly man with tears in his beer.
“I wrote a hit song back in the day…” he said, and took a drink.
“I’m here with a new song, I think it could be a hit!” I said.
He looked me up and down, pity in his eyes. “It’s a tough game, kid…you’ll never make it. Do you have any idea how competitive songwriting is in Nashville? Ha-rumph! How many Country artists are on the radio, really, when you look at it? Probably 40? So if there are 40 artists, and if maybe half of them are cutting an album this year, thats 20 albums, times 10 songs on their albums, that’s only 200 outside cuts. For how many songwriters in Nashville? 60,000? 80,000?”
A few heads turned, some fearful, some determined – One man looked intrigued.
He went on. “And how many of those songwriters have publishing deals, with people working for them? Maybe 500? You’ll never make it…” He finished his beer and ordered another.
I thought about what he said. I responded, “thank you for your perspective. I just believe you can’t keep a good song down.”
I got on stage, perched on a stool, and performed the song between three other songwriters. I got lost in the bright lights.
“The wide world’s a’callin’, it’s callin’ out my name…”
There was a round of applause. I came back to reality, and the guy next to me began to sing his song, “she got the best of me, she got the best of me…” Just another thread in the tapestry of Nashville. Twelve other individuals performed original songs that night.
After the show, the intrigued man came over – “I loved your song. Did you write it?”
“Yes, with a woman I met here in town. It was my first co-write here in Nashville.”
Co-writing is a staple in Nashville. Professional songwriters sit down together, say ‘here’s an idea’ and typically have a finished product, a song, within three hours.
“Come to Sony Publishing tomorrow, on Music Row… I want you to play it for my boss,” he said.
II. The Publisher
The next day I played it for Chip Gentz, the boss at Sony.
“Eric, it has potential, but it needs some work,” he said.
“The hook has gotta be the name of the song, and you gotta repeat it more often…How else will people be able to remember the name to buy the song online? Speed it up a little…We want this to be danceable. The intro is too long….People have a short attention span these days. Five seconds max.”
I play it again, making these changes. “Wow, it does sound more commercial.”
“Yeah, we’ve got this stuff down to a science. I think we could find several artists willing to record this song. Let’s cut a demo! Be at Studio C on Wednesday at 10:00.”
III. Cutting The Demo
I got there at 9:40. The bass player was already in the booth tuning up. We introduced ourselves.
“I’ve been here in Nashville for a long time now,” he said. “It’s a great community, with a small town feel. Yet we have the amenities of a bigger city – the sports teams, the universities…30 universities makes this the Athens of the South, you know.
“I lived in LA for a few years. In LA, there are security gates, and buzzers, and someone says ‘why are you here?’ In Nashville, I can walk right into a publishing office and talk to someone about music. It’s also easier to find mentors – older cats here are really looking out for the younger generation. Anyway, I would like to meditate before the session… nice to meet you!”
I walked into the control room.
“Hi, I’m Dave.” said the engineer. “I’m here to man the controls… to make your song sound as good as possible. Fidelity is my game. Here, in Studio C, we’ve got the best microphones, the best preamps, the best acoustics – It’s a shame most people only listen to mp3 quality these days. They don’t know what they are missing!”
Then I met Bob, the producer.
“Let’s talk about the direction of this song,” he said. “Do you know who’s listening to Country music? Females, age 25-40, in their cars, driving to work. Our job is to give them three minutes of joy. Enough joy to make sure they listen through the ads about hamburgers and shampoo.” He laughed. “Any questions? Let’s get down to business…”
Bob led the session like a true pro. The band cut it in three takes, 30 minutes flat. The demo singer nailed the vocal take. Dave mixed it down, and it sounded great.
Bob was satisfied. “Let’s get this track back to Chip over at Sony.”
IV. Pitching the Demo
Chip had been trying to land Natalie Sharp, a beautiful young upcoming artist. He had built his career on long relationships, by finding talent early. Although the song didn’t exactly fit her style, he thought he’d give it a shot and pitch it to her. He got creative, and gave the demo to his daughter to play for Natalie – they were classmates at the time.
Natalie loved the song and decided to cut it on her upcoming album. That was the happiest day of my life.
She recorded the song, but didn’t want me involved in the process at all. I thought that was strange, but no big deal. “I’ll get the checks in the mail,” I thought.
V. The Album Drops
I finally heard the song when it was released on the album. Natalie interpreted my folky love song using heavy electronic dance elements, and it just didn’t work. In fact, it made me sick.
“What happened to my song?” I thought.
In addition, her record company did a poor job with marketing and promotion. The album sold less than 30,000 copies. The recording quickly faded into obscurity.
I went on to write more country songs, but none hit it big. Eventually I met a professor at a coffee shop who gave me advice that changed the course of my work.
He told me, “Music is everywhere. There’s music in supermarkets, there’s music on film and television, there’s music when you go to a restaurant. Focus on other markets for your music. Don’t aim for such a small target.”
After that, I started writing music for film, TV, and videos games, and made a great living. I eventually started producing records for my friends, and I opened my studio for recording sessions. Nashville turned out to be a fantastic place to build a varied musical career.
VI. A Fresh Take
10 years later, another artist heard that old demo, “The Wide World’s a Callin.” He was an older man with a deep, thoughtful voice and a dedicated fan base. He recorded it tastefully, with just an acoustic guitar and a piano. That recording became a hit, and later, a legend. The lyrics suddenly had enhanced meaning, in a time when people were world-traveling more than ever. People would spontaneously sing it at airports and bus depots. As it turns out, timing is everything.
VII. Into the Future
The song’s copyright will last my lifetime, plus 75 years. So, this one song will take care of my family for generations to come. A check comes in the mail every week, pennies every time the song is played or purchased. Thanks ASCAP, for collecting all those royalties. Those pennies add up quick.
150 years later, the song finally entered the public domain. It had been remixed, covered, placed in songbooks, the works. My great great great grandchildren noticed when the checks stopped coming in.
Interestingly, it then became the official song of the human settlement on the Moon. You really can’t keep a good song down!
I hope you enjoyed this fictional tale. Here’s the song if you would like to hear it:
Thank you Dave Tough, Dave Fowler, Clyde Rolston, and Wesley Bulla for your insights.