Last night I attended a workshop at the Summerlin Guitar Center featuring Rick Barker and Clay Mills. In case you missed the event, the whole evening was captured on periscope here. (In case you are wondering, yes the nerdy guy asking all the legal questions is me!)
Rick Barker is the founder of Music Industry Blueprint and a 25 year music industry veteran who makes his living teaching artists how to grow their careers. He is best known as the manager who helped launch the career of Taylor Swift, and he clearly knows what he is talking about. His website, rickbarker.com, is an excellent source of material for any aspiring artist.
Clay Mills is a songwriter who has written or co-written such hits as Darius Rucker’s “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” Diamond Rio’s “Beautiful Mess,” and Kimberley Locke’s “Fall.” His songs have been nominated for Grammy awards, and he has co-written with many other recording artists including Trisha Yearwood, Babyface, Lady Antebellum, Easton Corbin, Bill Gaither, Reba McEntire, Clay Walker, and Joe Nichols (to name a few). He is also one of the contributors to Songtown.com, an online community for songwriters and publishers.
The evening started with Clay playing two of his biggest hits- “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” and “Beautiful Mess,” before he explained the songwriting process and took a few questions from the crowd. He played his songs through a beat-up looking Epiphone acoustic that just screamed “country music songwriter”, and the guitar and his voice sounded fantastic. His two most important tips to remember are that 1) music is a conversation and 2) you should always “be real”. He described the songwriting process as a “conversation”, with the songwriter talking to the audience who in turn “gets” it. As such, songwriters should always write with the audience in mind. In his opinion the most important tip to remember is to “always allow for the listener to put their own feelings into the equation”. Secondly, he emphasized the need to “be real”, meaning that you should put untrue statements into your work. He played some humorous examples of lines that were not “real” for the audience, which in turn will mean that they will not connect with a song.
During the Q and A session, Clay emphasized that the music business is about relationships. In this regard it is no different than any other career. He suggested that if you are a songwriter hoping to get your songs heard by Country artists you should join his group Songtown, as it is a large community of songwriters and artists. He specifically mentioned Amanda Cirotto, a music publisher with S.W.A.T. Music, who helped some of the Songtown songwriters pitch their music to Rascal Flatts. He stated that co-writing is the most important step you can take. In fact, he emphasized that many labels and publisher will NOT open a letter, email, etc. containing an unsolicited song as there are legal issues that may prevent them from doing so. (An important point to remember next time you start spamming A&R reps with your demos).
I asked Clay about the co-writing process as it relates to copyright, and he said that “99% of the time” when he co-writes, he does so with equal shares of co-writing. He suggested that you discuss this arrangement with your co-writer BEFORE you begin writing any songs together and “don’t make a big deal about it.” Rick Barker was quick to add his agreement, stating you should absolutely come to an agreement regarding co-writing “before you leave the room”. I agree with both of them about the equal share scenario, as you don’t want potential legal implications to stifle the creative process. An equal share arrangement allows the co-writers to just work together and prevents trivial arguments in the future over “who wrote what line”, etc.
One particular issue he noted (which I can explore in a later post) is one in which a pop producer or recording engineer may take co-songwriting credit. Remember to copyright your demo BEFORE you enter the studio!
Finally Clay mentioned that Songtown is holding the SunSet Songwriting Festival on October 9, 10, and 11 at the Sunset Station Hotel and Casino. You can sign up here. In addition to songwriters and publishers there will also be music supervisors present looking to find music to place on TV and film. (Read my blog post about Film and TV music licensing here). He mentioned that some of the music supervisors that will be at the event include Frankie Pine, the music supervisor for the TV show Nashville, and Jonathan Watkins of EA Sports.
After two songs and a few questions Clay had to leave for his show at the Sunset Station Casino to play the Nashville Unplugged show with Aaron Benward (sorry Aaron can’t find a website) and Travis Howard. As an aside, if you enjoy country music and haven’t checked out the Nashville Unplugged series you definitely should. It features acoustic performances by the songwriters who have penned some of Country music’s biggest hits.
Rick Barker’s talk focused primarily on growing an artist’s career, especially through social media and merchandise sales. Whether you view social media as a necessary evil or a fun distraction there is no denying that it is an essential part of the music industry today. For an independent musician especially, it can mean the difference between having a career or not.
Rick shared some interesting tips for growing a fan base, even if you are just a beginner. For instance, if you are playing at a bar, take a moment before the show to shake everyone in the bar’s hand and introduce yourself. Also, if you have a merchandise table (and you should), make sure it is well lit and noticeable. Further, before your last song make sure you tell everyone it’s the last song and mention where you will be when the show is over so that fans can interact with you and purchase merchandise if they wish to. Never force anything upon fans, but rather if you make great music and establish a genuine relationship with your fans they will want to support you. Rick’s offered great advice which in hindsight may seem like common sense, but many artists either don’t follow this advice or ignore it. To prove this point he told a humorous anecdote about an on stage joke Taylor Swift used to make at her shows which resulted in her selling approximately 200+ albums per night. This was early in her career when she was an opening act for country music icons George Strait and Ronnie Milsap. Eventually Milsap, an industry veteran and country music legend himself, started using the joke on stage and saw his own merchandise sales begin to skyrocket! This was the beauty of Rick’s advice and approach to the music industry-he brings a very common sense, no frills approach which is grounded on developing personal relationships, nurturing those relationships, and having meaningful interactions with everyone you meet. Social media is simply another tool in the arsenal of developing relationships, and he discussed great techniques for using social media to engage your fan base and create hype, rather than just post meaningless content (as he joked at one point, nobody cares what you ate for breakfast).
An important point that Rick raised with regards to legal issues was never to “hide” your music. Many artists are afraid to post songs online for fear that another artist may “steal” their music. While song theft happens, he noted that your work is copyrighted as soon as you record it. (See my previous post about songwriting and copyrighting—remember your original composition is technically copyrighted as soon as it is fixed in any tangible medium of expression). He noted that with email, you can send a song to yourself and have a time-stamped copy indicating when the song was written. This is the modern version of the old “poor man’s copyright”, wherein artists used to mail cassette tapes to themselves. While I officially wouldn’t suggest relying upon a “poor man’s copyright” in the event of litigation (especially when you can copyright songs yourself at http://copyright.gov/eco/), I agree with Rick in that an email with a song attached is better than nothing. The bottom line is that there are easily available means to copyright a work that leave no excuse for “hiding” a song, and with so many good songs out there nobody will ever have success if they don’t promote their song. This was an overall theme to Rick’s talk-that all of the tools to be successful in the music industry are readily available to anyone, and the only reason a person cannot be successful is because of excuses or other self-limiting reasons. In this regard Rick’s talk was both informative and motivational.
I asked Rick what legal problems he sees most with aspiring artists, and he joked that they often sign bad contracts. So….just a reminder than if you are beginning your career and you are offered a contract to sign, make sure you read it thoroughly. Ask for time to take it home and review it, and have an attorney, family member, and/or friend you trust to read it over with you. Ask questions if necessary and don’t be afraid to negotiate terms and change the contract. If someone is unwilling to negotiate with you or change contract terms then you probably should be weary of doing business with them. (Google “adhesion contract” and/or “unconscionability” and you’ll see why).
The sponsors of the evening were Guitar Center and Bose. Clay’s performance and Rick’s talk were both broadcast through a Bose L1 portable PA system. Full disclosure here, I am not paid by Guitar Center or Bose, or sponsored by them in any way. I did work at a Guitar Center store briefly about 10 years ago, but I am not affiliated with them in any way now. Further, I am not much of a “gearhead”, so I won’t say much about the Bose L1 PA system beyond the fact that it sounded great. (You can hear it yourself in the periscope video). Overall it was an interesting and informative evening, and if you are interested in either songwriting or artist development I would recommend you watch the periscope video, which is approximately 2 hours in length.