Getting Cuts, the Old School
April 4, 2013
Getting Cuts the Old School Way
By Amanda Williams
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the jargon, to a songwriter, getting a cut is when someone records your song and makes it available for people to hear and purchase.
If you want to read more about songwriter jargon and the basics, click here. Otherwise, we’re going to assume you are familiar with the fundamental principles of what we’re talking about.
Getting cuts. So, that’s the name of the game, how does one go about getting cuts?
There are tons of ways of getting your songs cut in today’s music market. It depends on what you are looking to do with your songs and how you choose to market your material.
The Old School
When we first moved to Nashville back in the mid 80s, the Country Music market was doing pretty well, but pop was still king. The major music publisher on Music Row was a company called Tree International owned by Alabama music man, Buddy Killen. When Dad signed on there for his first publishing deal, he worked closely with then President, Donna Hilley who took an interest in him early in his career.
Dad signed to Tree under the tutelage of Don “Dirt” Lanier. Dirt, as everybody called him, had been in a band called the Rhythm Orchids with Buddy Knox back in the day, and as a respected song man, had been given a co-publishing venture under the Tree Publishing umbrella. He picked Dad as one of his team of writers on a hunch, and boy did it pay off.
Dirt’s team consisted of Kendal Franceschi & Quentin Powers, the writing duo who penned the Reba McEntire hit, Whoever’s in New England, Royce Porter an established writer, David Lewis, an artist/writer who specialized in Texas swing, and Dad, the unknown newbie.
Dirt’s pal from his Rhythm Orchid days, Jimmy Bowen had gone from teen star to music mogul and was producing half the top acts in Nashville through the 1980s such as: Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, The Oak Ridge Boys, and George Strait.
Dirt signed Dad thinking that he could get some of the songs he and L. David Lewis were writing cut by George Strait.
In a round about way, it was identification between Dad’s songs & George Strait tunes that led to Dad’s success. Earlier on, Dad had been working with a lady named Peggy Bradley, owner of Bradley Music Management, an admin company. He had been writing with one of her signed writers named Richard Fagan, and getting small independent cuts here and there. Peggy really believed in Dad’s writing and was trying to help him get more recognition for his hard work.
One day, Peggy was standing in line at the post office when she ran into Bob Doyle. When Peggy asked Bob what he’d been up to, he told her he had left his position at ASCAP to manage a new artist he really believed in named Garth Brooks, who he described as similar to George Strait. Peggy perked up at the news, because she knew Bob well enough to know that he wouldn’t have quit his job and taken out a second mortgage on his home if he didn’t intend to put his all into launching this new artist.
“I’ve got a writer who writes in that vein. His name is Kim Williams. We should get them together.”
Garth and Dad did get together and started writing every Monday. Their earliest collaborations were in Dad’s “roach motel” apartment in one of the alleys of Music Row. Dad tells the story about writing Papa Loved Mama with Garth in that apartment.
“They had just sprayed for roaches, and all it did was just piss them off,” he says. “They were everywhere. All over the walls, the floor, I mean everywhere. “
“I found the lines ‘Papa loved mama, mama loved men, mama’s in the graveyard, papa’s in the pen’ in a poetry book as a quote and it was attributed to Carl Sandburg. Garth asked me before we started on the idea how we would deal with the issue of crediting Sandburg, and we figured we’d just write the song for fun and figure out the legal stuff if it turned out to be any good.”
“So we started out thinking Papa was going to be an engineer, but we couldn’t wrap our heads around how he was going to kill off Mama. When we finally decided Papa should be a truck driver and run over Mama with the truck, we were rolling in the floor with the roached laughing our asses off.”
“I really liked the song, but I never dreamed that Garth would cut it. We just wrote it for the fun of it. I think Garth even said, “We just wrote a song nobody will ever cut.””
“He changed his mind and decided to give it one shot in the studio. He called me up one day and asked me to come over to the studio where they were tracking and bring the lyric sheet to Papa Loved Mama. He told me not to get excited, because he was just going to run through it one time with the musicians, and then track it. If they got something, great, but if they didn’t, he wasn’t going to waste a lot of time trying to cut it.”
“I started looking around for the lyric sheet at my apartment, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally, I just threw my briefcase in the car and drove over to Jack’s Tracks [the studio where Garth cut his records] thinking that maybe the two of us could put our heads together and remember most of the words. Lucky for me, I found the lyric sheet stuffed in the back pocket of my briefcase when I got over there. Lucky for me, too, the musicians cut the hell out of the song, and it ended up being a single on the record.”
Just from reading that little bit about Dad’s history, you can pull a lot of valuable lessons about how to get cuts in Nashville.
Lesson #1 – Listen to your hunches.
Many of the great success stories of all time begin when some visionary gets an idea and instead of ignoring it, as most of us do 99% of the time, they acted on it.
A hunch is your intuition talking to you. For lack of a better way of describing it, your intuition is your direct line to Divinity. Many times, we’re afraid to answer because we doubt our selves and our ability to know the difference between some foolish fleeting notion, and a stroke of genius. Sometimes, we habitually doubt ourselves so much that we don’t even notice these hunches as they wash over us and dissipate through the course of our every day living. But when we slow down and listen to what we’re really saying to ourselves, it can be startling how quickly our lives can change.
If Dirt hadn’t listened to his hunch to sign Dad as a writer, his writing team and thus his co-publishing venture with Tree Publishing would have failed. Kendall & Francheschi never had another huge big hit under Dirt. L. David had a few minor cuts that he wrote with Dad, but then he disappeared off the face of the earth (literally) and no one around Nashville even knows what happened to him. Dad was the only one of Dirt’s group that had any hits, and he was signed because of a hunch.
Bob Doyle can tell you a thing or two about following your intuition. A former pilot and Lt. Col. with the Tennessee Air National Guard, Bob quit his job as the Director of Membership Relations at ASCAP to manage Garth. There was no security in that decision. There was no scientific evidence to support him in doing what he did. He followed his gut, and it led him straight to his destiny – to manage the career of the biggest selling artist of the 20th century.
What about Dad’s grabbing his briefcase at the last minute as he was running out of his apartment? A small hunch compared to these others we’ve just seen, but a hunch nonetheless that carried him one step closer to his goal of being a hit songwriter in Nashville.
Lesson #2 – Networking is King
Why did Dirt decide to sign Dad to his first publishing deal? Yes, it was a hunch, but it was based on the fact that he thought he could get Dad’s songs cut. Why? Because of his connections and network of friends, Dirt knew that he had a good shot at getting Dad’s songs placed with artists who would record them.
Dirt was a great networker, but I’m positive he didn’t think about it as “networking.” He was golfing and hanging with the boys – a group of guys he’d known since the 1950s.
If Dad hadn’t been writing with Richard Fagan, he might never have met Peggy Bradley. If he hadn’t met Peggy, she wouldn’t have known to tell Bob Doyle about his songwriting in the post office line that day. If Garth hadn’t followed friends’ advice and gone to visit Bob Doyle at ASCAP, he might have never found his manager. If Garth hadn’t met Bob, Dad and Garth might never have met. And so forth and so on.
Notice here, that there is no “networking” going on. When you hear people talking about networking, they’re usually talking about going out to places simply to see who you can meet. Sometimes people will tell you to go out and meet people for the sole purpose of networking with them. To me, that’s got it all wrong. Networking is not about going out of your way to meet somebody. It’s about going about the daily course of your business as you normally would, but instead of walking around with your head in the clouds (or your nose up someone’s rear end) you pay attention to the people around you and engage with them in conversation. If you genuinely show interest in others and what they’re doing, you’ll be amazed at the results. They will start to show genuine interest in what you’re doing as well. You didn’t “network” them into it. It just simply happens naturally as a result of common decency and a concern for ones fellow man.
This may sound utopian, or naïve, but when you consider that most people meet their potential romantic partners through friends of friends, you will see the truth in what I’m getting at. You don’t meet people who are compatible with you by going out of your way and doing things you don’t like to do. You don’t meet compatible people by going out to meet compatible people, either. You meet compatible people because you’re out doing what you like to be doing, and they’re doing that same thing because they like to do that thing, too.
That’s why people eventually realize that there’s a lot of insincerity going on out “in the scene”. Many people in Nashville develop drug and alcohol habits because they’re trying to fit in with a crowd of folks who hang out in bars “networking.” Trust me when I say that your mother was right when she told you “nothing good ever happens after midnight.” Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re “working” when you’re really out partying. You might be the life of the party for a minute or two, but those relationships fade fast, and you’ll be left wondering what happened to the time you wasted.
Also notice about networking that these folks weren’t running around tooting their own horns. Each was fulfilling his or her job description, and it all worked out for the best.
Often times in Nashville, when people first come to town, they’ll run around handing out CDs to anyone who will take them and trying to get people to help them, or to at least pay them some attention. Even if you really are the best thing to hit Nashville since Garth Brooks, you’re probably not going to convince anyone of that by telling them so yourself. All you’re going to do is turn people away because you’re acting like an amateur or an egotist.
Nashville is a finicky town, and it’s a small town. Nashville has its own way of doing business, and you’re not going to change that overnight, especially if you come in here thinking that’s what you’re going to do. Yes, Nashville has its faults just like every other town, but nobody knows that better than us locals, and we don’t really need to hear it from a newbie who doesn’t really understand anything yet. The only way to change anything is to do it slowly and with great care and understanding, not to come in pointing fingers, throwing accusations, and claiming to know all the answers to the age-old dilemma of monetizing art. So, keep your grand notions to yourself, tucked neatly away in your notebook, and just watch and listen. It’ll be hard not to proclaim yourself the second coming of Willie Nelson, but you’ll have to try.
Nashville likes to figure things out for itself. It doesn’t want you to tell it how great you are, or how much better it is in Austin. It doesn’t need your advice about how to solve its problems or hear you tell it what it should have done when Napster came along. Yes, there are problems. Yes, we are aware that everything is changing, and yes, you may even be the one to fix the system, but we doubt it, and frankly, we don’t want to hear about it unless you have some evidence to back it up.
Why is this the case? Do you think you’re the first person to come to town flashing pearly whites and wads of money talking about your plans to change everything about the music business to everyone at the bar? Sorry, friend. That one’s been written a few times before.
So if you really are the great savior of the music business, do yourself a favor, and don’t tell anybody. You’ll be a lot more believable if you just start showing up and keeping your mouth shut. If you’re smart, you’ll eventually get your chance to change things, but I’ll bet it won’t be how you thought it would be before you got here and saw it from the inside.
Lesson #3 - Repetition
Notice above, did Dad and Garth only write one time? No. They wrote every Monday.
Did Garth get a record deal the first time he moved to Nashville? No, he moved here a few times and then settled in to work and routine before he made it.
Often times, getting a song cut is depending on repetition. Dad says it’s a numbers game. The more songs you have, the better they are likely to be, and the greater chance you have of getting them cut. The same goes for pitching. Many songs were pitched (and rejected) all over town before finally getting cut and becoming big hits.
If you really want to learn something, keep doing it. Repetition is the best friend of learning. And what are you doing if you’re repeating? You’re doing, not talking, and that’s what it takes to make it in Nashville or anywhere else.
This series on “Getting Cuts” is continued in the next installment called "The New School Way to Get Cuts in the Songwriting and Music Publishing Business."
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