Sunday, October 3, 2010

Songwriters, Publishers & the Music Industry F Word

There's one more quality that you need to bring to bear on your catalog: focus. It's so important that it gets its own chapter.

For some writers, artists, publishers, or entrepreneurs in the music business, the decision to focus their career on a particular genre or subgenre of music is one they hardly remember making. There may be only one style of music with which they really identify, or in which they feel their talent can fit. In many ways, these are the lucky ones. They are specialists without ever having chosen to be so. This doesn't necessarily mean that they don't understand or enjoy music outside of the genre in which they work--but it does mean that they don't feel compelled to personally create or sell every type of music that they enjoy.

And then there are the generalists--blessed with a vast range of musical interests and a confidence to match, sure that their career should encompass everything from jazz to hip-hop, with some country songs and a bit of chamber music just to keep life interesting. You don't need to go very far into a conversation to recognize a generalist...

Music Business Weasel: "So, tell me, what sort of music do you write?"
Songwriter: "Oh geez...that's a tough one, you know. I mean...I can write everything."

Uh-oh. First off, let's get real. Nobody can write "everything." Nobody. Except maybe Prince (or whatever he's called this week). But even the versatility of someone like Prince is based more on his ability to adapt or arrange his songs in a variety of styles, rather than actually altering his own songwriting approach. The song can be put in a number of different contexts--pop, rock, dance, r&b--but it is clearly still a "Prince" song, written in his idiosyncratic style. The same is true of Diane Warren. While she has had hits in virtually every genre, most of these songs are essentially "Diane Warren"-style songs, adapted to fit different markets.

One other thing to notice about Prince and Diane Warren. They didn't start out that way. In the early years of his career, Prince was very much a part of the Minneapolis school of r&b, which he in large part created, but which later included Morris Day and The Time, and of course, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It was only after he achieved superstar status that he began to branch out into more experimental rock and jazz areas. Everybody comes from somewhere; nobody comes from everywhere. You cannot lay a foundation for your publishing company with a catalog that does "everything."

I once heard Monica Lynch, the former president of Tommy Boy Records and a very savvy music business executive, make this point in a forum attended primarily by developing writers and artists. She simply said that she was not interested in meeting with anyone that claimed they could do "everything." This was not well received. A murmur passed through the audience. How dare she seek to limit their creativity, or impose boundaries on their wide-ranging musical tastes? Isn't that exactly what's wrong with the music industry, with its focus on markets, and formats, and target audiences, yada yada yada?

For whatever reason, many musicians, writers, and artists take a misplaced pride in their own versatility. They are so sure that they can play any type of music, sing any song, write in any style, or record an album that covers the entire range of American popular music, that they miss one important thing:

It doesn't matter. No one cares.

Music Business Weasel Rule: Versatility is important only to session musicians, jingle writers, and wedding bands.

Everybody else needs to focus.

What does focus mean to a publisher? It means that as a start-up publishing company, your catalog should be made up primarily of songs in one particular musical genre. This is your focus. A catalog spread over two styles is workable, if the two styles are at least somewhat compatible--for instance, country and pop would be a better combination than country and techno. Within that stylistic focus, variety is both necessary and desirable. You need a selection of songs: up-tempos, ballads, mid-tempos, male songs, female songs, group songs. The idea here is not to limit anyone's creativity--the idea is to harness that creativity and direct it down one specific path.

Of course, there will always be some songs that just fall outside any of your usual musical boundaries. Fine. Have fun with them. The idea of focus in business is no different than the idea of focusing your eye--the point is not to eliminate everything else from your view but simply to direct your eye toward the most important thing. Experimentation is essential and can sometimes lead to the discovery of a new focus, more viable than the previous one. Fine again. Then change your focus--but don't lose it. If someone asks what sort of music you publish and it takes you more than twenty seconds to answer--reread everything I just said. And then continue.
Eric Beall is the Creative Director for Zomba Music Publishing, as well as a songwriter and record producer. In his role at Zomba, Eric has signed and developed top writers, as well as developed material for many Jive Records superstars.

Excerpt from Making Music Make Money: An Insider's Guide to Becoming Your Own Music Publisher 
©2004 Berklee Press Used by Permission

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