There is an ongoing joke in Nashville that goes something like this… “How do you get a songwriter off your porch? You pay him for the pizza.” Everywhere you turn, you bump into a songwriter. What makes this business of music and songwriting so intriguing that everyone from the age of eight onward wants to be the next Taylor Swift? Perhaps it’s because the glamorous side is displayed first and foremost, and the hard, behind-the-scenes work goes somewhat unobserved. By the time you’ve discovered the back-office business side, you’re already hooked on songwriting and performing – and it’s too late to weasel out!

Songwriter writing at NSAI in Nashville. / Photo by Bill Hobbs

Songwriter writing at NSAI in Nashville. / Photo by Bill Hobbs

Let’s touch briefly on what the new songwriter can look forward to in their career, as we take a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse of this business.

Behind ALMOST every successful songwriter is a successful publisher. Of course, if you’re a great business minded self-promoter, you can always publish your own songs. But the list of reasons many choose not to do so is a lengthy one. Publishers are responsible for many tasks – from “pitching the songs” to major artists and label heads so the song gets “cut,” to handling all the “admin” for the song.

Upon contracting with a songwriter, the publisher handles copyrighting, licensing, monitoring, royalty collection and distribution to the songwriters. This includes mechanical royalties, which are obtained from sale of recorded music and paid to the publisher by the record label, synchronization royalties for any music used in film or television, and performance royalties, which are collected with the help of a performing rights organization (PRO) – like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. PROs monitor radio stations, television, the Internet, jukeboxes, live performance venues and more, and pay the songwriters and publishers when any version of their compositions is performed or broadcasted publicly. A good publisher will audit/review this information to ensure both they and their songwriters get accurately paid.

Being mostly creative types, songwriters typically prefer not to take time away from their creativity to take on what is essentially a full-time job as administrator of their own material.

The recording session. The fun part for any songwriter is putting their words and music down in a sound recording. Hearing out loud what you’ve been hearing in your head all along is a beautiful thing…and addictive.

To begin the recording process, you’ll need a music producer. A producer is someone who books the studio and oversees the recording session – they hire the players and vocalists, they tell each player what to play, and how each song should sound when it is complete. The producer’s job is to explain in clear detail what he is hearing in his head – or what he has learned you are hearing in yours. A great producer can get great sounds from their session players, and many have become famous for it.

A recording engineer is the one who creates the actual recording. Artists and players record on multiple tracks, so the engineer assigns each instrument a track and, at the end of the day, mixes all the tracks together to compile the finished song. In addition to knowing the function of every button on the recording console, the engineer has to have a great ear for hearing pitch. While some engineers do act as producers on occasion, each role is important in the song creation process.

Indeed, being an artist sounds pretty glamorous. But, remember – the artist records the song. If it’s a hit, they sing it night after night for the rest of their career. There are radio tours, interviews, photo shoots, and a required number of albums to record for the label. Don’t forget the actual three or four hours of sleep they might get every night at 75 miles per hour, on the tour bus from one concert destination to the next. The artist? They have it easy…right?

Thank you for going with us on this mega-quick tour of what goes on behind the scenes inside the world of music business. We hope you found it engaging and informative. And the next time you have a pizza delivered, give ‘em a good look. They just may be famous one day!