In the heart of Music Row just off 17th Avenue in Nashville, Tenn., sits an exquisite log cabin known to locals as the Music Mill. This is home to the eminent Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).

NSAI was formerly the Music Mill, thus the water wheel. / Photo by Chandler Camp.

NSAI was formerly the Music Mill, thus the water wheel. / Photo by Chandler Camp.

NSAI was established in 1967 when Eddie Miller, Buddy Mize, Bill Brock, Marijohn Wilkin and about half the songwriter community in Nashville set out to make songwriting a better profession. In doing so, they created the NSAI. They spearheaded the fight for songwriter credits to be added to albums. It took a few years, but it happened, and they’ve now been fighting for songwriter’s rights for over 45 years.

I sat down with Bart Herbison and a few members of the staff to get their view on how the NSAI has truly become the songwriter’s best friend in pursuing a career.

NSAI President, hit songwriter Lee Thomas Miller, Willie Nelson, NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison and NSAI Founding-Member Kris Kristofferson at the Bluebird Cafe where NSAI's inaugural "Kris Kristofferson Award" was presented to Nelson in February 2013. / Photo courtesy of NSAI.

NSAI President, hit songwriter Lee Thomas Miller, Willie Nelson, NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison and NSAI Founding-Member Kris Kristofferson at the Bluebird Cafe where NSAI’s inaugural “Kris Kristofferson Award” was presented to Nelson in February 2013. / Photo courtesy of NSAI.

Bart Herbison has been the Executive Director of the NSAI for the past 15 years. According to Herbison, the NSAI has spent a lot of time in Washington trying to “make things happen for songwriters.” They played a part in helping the “Songwriters Capital Gains Tax Equity Act” become law in May 2006. To elaborate, songwriters previously paid ordinary income taxes and self-employment taxes when they sold a song catalogue, which could amount to more than 40 percent of their income from the sale. But now, as a result of this law being implemented, songwriters are now eligible to use the flat 15 percent “Capital Gains” business tax rate.

NSAI was also heavily involved in the 2008 and 2009 legal proceedings with the Copyright Royalty Board, which now stipulates that songwriters are paid a percentage rate for any subscription music. The Internet is one of the largest means of distribution [for subscription music] today via iTunes, Napster and CD Baby, among many others. Since many songwriters build their career via the Net, this is a huge benefit to songwriters.

In 2008, the NSAI became the owner of the world-famous Bluebird Café. The Bluebird Café is one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms and attracts a lot of tourism worldwide, which has an impact on Nashville’s economy. On any given night, you can see tourists and locals alike line up to catch a performance of their favorite songwriter. Sometimes these performers are the heroes behind the hits, performing their own songs that have been recorded by chart-topping artists, and other times they are undiscovered songwriters performing a hit song that has yet to make it to mainstream radio.

Herbison and the Bluebird’s President Erika Wollam Nichols are proud to say nothing has changed since they took over the Bluebird. Herbison claims that he and Nichols both wait in line at the Bluebird Café just like everybody else and that they are not afraid to shush each other if necessary. “It is still the same ol’ songwriters café it has always been,” assures Herbison.  That alone says a lot about the NSAI and its staff.

Past NSAI President and hit songwriter Steve Bogard sits with aspiring professional songwriters offering career advice at NSAI's Nashville headquarters in the "Music Mill" on Music Row. / Photo courtesy of NSAI.

Past NSAI President and hit songwriter Steve Bogard sits with aspiring professional songwriters offering career advice at NSAI’s Nashville headquarters in the “Music Mill” on Music Row. / Photo courtesy of NSAI.

While the Bluebird is a vital part of what the NSAI offers, there’s so much more. Membership Representative Josh Jernigan relates the NSAI to a gym membership. “You get out what you put into it. We offer song evaluations, one-on-one mentoring, and Nashville workshops with a professional songwriter, but members have to take advantage of it.”

Jernigan informs that there are over 130 regional chapters across the United States and in several other countries. “We try to give songwriters across the country that can’t make it to Nashville the same opportunity as the ones here in Music City.” When asked what he felt would improve the NSAI, Jernigan jokingly replied, “The only thing that could use improving is the air conditioning in my office.”

If we were to seek out those with a gift for both hit songwriting and one-on-one mentoring, there would be few more fitting than R.C. Bannon. Bannon’s history includes the roles of signed artist, established songwriter and now NSAI mentor. A lot of songwriters are lost when they approach NSAI, and introducing them to one-on-one mentoring is a way for them to find direction.

Do songwriters really need a “direction?” That they do. Though songwriting is an art that feeds the soul for many different reasons, in today’s heavily competitive market, very few songwriters get to do it for a living. So it is important [for the writer] to find their own best niche. Also important is that they continue to love writing even when things get tough.

A King Charles Cavalier Spaniel…staring at you. Better tighten up that lyric.

A King Charles Cavalier Spaniel…staring at you. Better tighten up that lyric.

That’s what makes the NSAI’s Song Evaluation Service and One-on-One Mentoring services so important early in a songwriter’s career. It can help the writer find that ever-elusive niche and stay focused. And if R.C. Bannon is the assigned mentor, aside from learning how to write a better song and keep their focus, they may also learn a little something from his faithful sidekick, Tex.  Tex is a friendly Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who sits in on many a mentoring session, and we understand he will just stare silently at you when a lyric just “isn’t quite there.”

When asked what he thought could improve the NSAI, Bannon humbly suggests, that “hit songwriters could – and should – lend their advice to up-and-coming songwriters more often. That’s what every up-and-coming songwriter needs is someone in their corner, and with the NSAI they have that. The NSAI is to help songwriters write better songs. A lot of times, songwriters will come into this office looking for something uplifting, and the goal is to help them help themselves,” Bannon states. “We’re here to teach the ins and outs of the music business and of songwriting, in hopes that it will give songwriters a better chance at succeeding.”

The NSAI is also responsible for producing Tin Pan South, the world’s largest songwriter festival that hosts songwriters of varying levels. Thousands of songwriters, musicians and fans flock to Nashville every year to attend, where you’ll find the music industry’s most famed songwriters of the past and present performing in various venues around Music City for several straight nights in a row.  Tin Pan South brings to light the cultural heritage of Nashville and draws attention to the wide variety of songwriters who live and work here today.

The NSAI has been a strong part of the Nashville community for over 45 years, giving songwriters that just got off the bus a place to call home.  They are delighted to be a stepping-stone for songwriters locally and abroad, whether the contribution is great or small.  Herbison summed it up perfectly when he said, “Without the song, you don’t have the record. Without the record, you don’t have the record label or the radio stations, and in turn we do not have the music industry.”  The NSAI’s well-known slogan has never rung more true.  “It all begins with a song.”

For more information on NSAI, please visit www.nashvillesongwriters.com or call (615) 256-3345.