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Getting Heard In A "No Unsolicited Material" World

by John Braheny

Once you've written that great song or completed your writer/artist masters or demos, you face the prospect of getting heard by the music industry. You take off your creative songwriter hat and put on your marketing hat. For some of you, this is an exciting challenge. For others, it runs a close second to major surgery.

Like anything else, though, it gets much less daunting when you have some practical information. Let's start by understanding the barriers you may encounter when trying to get through the doors of the music industry.

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO GET THROUGH THE DOORS?

To be able to deal with this problem effectively, we need look at it from the point of view of the publishers, producers, record company A&R representatives or managers who are your most prominent "targets." They have two major concerns: finding great talent/songs in the most time and cost-efficient way possible, and protecting themselves from lawsuits.

In the first case, if they have an open-door policy, most companies are deluged with tapes. In fact, even with "no unsolicited material" policies, they're still deluged with solicited tapes (those referred by other writers or industry people they respect).

The biggest problem for those with open-door policies, particularly for producers and record companies looking for songs for specific projects, is that most of the songs they receive are totally inappropriate for their needs. Usually this is because writers who are sending in tapes haven't taken the time to do their homework on the project (more about this later).

Consequently, those listening to tapes already know that more than ninety percent of their time will be wasted. Pretty bad odds for someone who may have only one or two assistants who can screen tapes.

Time is another barrier keeping industry professionals from listening to unsolicited tapes. Music publishers who may just be looking for great songs or writer/artists for development will have a broader scope of material they're seeking, and it may take more time to evaluate the songs they receive because they're listening for more than whether the song will work for a current project. They're also looking for writers who have potential for future success who they can work with and develop.

The legal barrier is also a formidable door-closer, as most companies' legal departments advise them against accepting unsolicited material in fear of potential copyright infringement suits. A key factor in determining infringement is proof of "access." In other words, if a copyright infringement suit goes to court, the prosecution has to prove that the accused has had the opportunity to have heard the material.

Proving that someone at the company has opened the package containing your tape is, of course, proof of access. You may wonder why an infringement lawsuit can't result from solicited material. Of course it can, but the odds are much lower because industry people already know that most infringement suits are brought by writers who are not seriously pursuing a career as a songwriter (they know those writers are unlikely to sue if they ever want to get another tape heard again).

These are referred to as "nuisance suits" in which, on scant evidence and understanding of copyright law, a writer says "I wrote a song called 'I Love You' that contains the line 'I love you more than life itself' and that new hit by Joe Rock contained the same line and I can prove I sent it to his publisher-producer-A&R rep last year so I'm suing you."

This is an oversimplification, but not by much. The hitch is that Joe Rock could have heard that line in a song while he was still in the womb and in many other songs thereafter. He didn't have to hear it from a tape in his publisher's office. Since a suit has to be dealt with by the company's legal department, it uses up valuable time and resources.

Is this fear of lawsuits why many companies ask you to have an attorney submit a demo tape for you? No. Certainly, your attorney could document very definitely the publisher's "access" to your tape. But most industry pros do not believe that submission of a tape by someone with a law degree guarantees its artistic and commercial quality.

Not that there aren't entertainment attorneys whose musical tastes are respected, but it isn't the law degree that insures it. So why is it that they ask you to do it? After pursuing this question for years and asking a lot of questions of a lot of industry people, I've come to one conclusion: they want to know that you're serious.

On countless occasions I've heard industry people say things like "I don't accept unsolicited material but if someone is really worth hearing, they'll find a way to get to me or I'll hear about them." This is sort of a "survival of the fittest" philosophy that, like it or not, has some merit. They figure that, if you're serious enough to pay a couple of hundred dollars an hour to have an attorney shop your tape, you're serious enough for them to listen to.

GETTING THROUGH THE DOORS
Showing the industry you're serious is the key. One of the most important things you need to do is research. Become aware of the industry people involved in your style of music. Read the credits on the recordings of your favorite artists--find out who produced them, who wrote and published the songs, the record label and possibly even the record company A&R representative who works with that artist. If the A&R rep's name isn't on the package, call the record company's artist relations department or A&R coordinator and get his name.

You can also get the phone and fax numbers of the artist's producer and manager. You should also study the artist in order to "cast" the right song so you can be reasonably confident it will be appropriate. Casting involves knowing the artist's style and, if it's an established artist, being familiar with the artist's most successful recordings. Know their vocal range. Artists will often have a special place in their range that highlights the uniqueness of their vocal sound or style. It's referred to as their "sweet spot;" give them something in that place to enhance their style.

Try to determine what it is that makes the artist's music successful and make sure you have that quality in your writing. Is their attitude positive, negative or spiritual? Do they sing about lost love or hopeful love? Are they victim songs, songs of strength, rebellion, sarcasm, cynicism or alienation? Look as much for the absence of these as you do for their presence.

Another thing to remember in casting is that there may be a couple of years before an artist's next album so you don't need to copy their current production style or your demo will be dated. Try to imagine how you'd like to hear the artist develop in their next album and produce your demo accordingly. This is tricky, but creative.

RESEARCH THE INDUSTRY:

Whenever possible, try to find out from the artist's producer, manager or record company if there's a change in the artist's direction. If you're pitching for a new artist, get information from those same sources or find a tip sheet.

If you're pitching yourself to record companies as a self-contained artist or group, it's more complex.

The same no-unsolicited-material policies exist here too. You're much better off if you have some performing experience. All the better if you've got good reviews, have been on the road and are used to traveling. Record companies want a band or performer to have been field-tested, if not test-marketed regionally with some success. If they're going to risk (in the case of the major labels) at least half a million dollars to record and market you nationally, they want to know you can handle it.

In this situation too, you need to research the names of companies, producers, managers and A&R reps who know how to market the artists/groups in your musical style. You need to know their names and who they've worked with.

By far, the best advice about doing your research is to read the trade magazines such as Billboard, Hits, Radio and Records, College Music Journal, Music Connection, The Hollywood Reporter (especially if you're interested in film music) and any industry trades that relate to your own musical style.

Call the biggest newsstand in town to find these publications. If they don't carry them, call your local library. If they don't have them, gather a group of others to formally petition the library to subscribe. They may not be getting the music trades because they don't think anyone is interested. Most are weekly magazines and they're very expensive ($250-$300 per year), but if you feel you're ready to begin your assault on the industry, they're one of your best investments.

Trade magazines can provide valuable information such as what records are on the charts in every genre of music and who performed, wrote, produced, published, released and distributed them. For those who want to write songs for others to record, the most valuable information available from the charts is whether or not an artist records "outside" songs.

BE SPECIFIC IN YOUR SEARCH:

Are the songs supplied by the artist and/or the producer? If so, you have a pretty good idea, though not a certainty, that sending songs to this artist is a waste of time. Those few songs you'll see on the Billboard Hot 100 charts with writer names that differ from the artist and producers' names are the ones to analyze for casting purposes.

You'll find more of these opportunities on the Country and R&B charts. This information alone gives you a savvy-sounding opener for your industry calls.

Here's a hypothetical example: In Billboard you see Bonnie Raitt's name on the charts with a new single. You don't have any of her CDs yet (you'll buy them today) but you've heard her on the radio and think you might have something for her. You've also read an article about her in which she talks about the songs on her new project, where she got them, who wrote them and about working with her new producers.

Though you've also seen their names listed as writers under the song title on the chart , you've also noticed other writers' names so you know she's open to "outside" songs. You also learn she's on Capitol Records. So you call Capitol and ask for the A&R coordinator. "Hi! This is so-and-so at This and That Music.

Will the same producers be working on Bonnie Raitt's next album? Do you have a numbers for their companies? Who's doing A&R on the project?" Get those names down quick. If you ask them to spell it for you, you're already another step away from credibility with them. They figure that if you're the pro you seem to be, you'll already be familiar with the names. (Look to directories such as the A&R Registry (SRS Publishing) or the Recording Industry Sourcebook to help you out.)

Once you have the name of the A&R person at Capitol or someone in the producers' offices, call them directly and ask about the musical direction of Bonnie's next album and how to go about submitting songs for it. It's a good idea to ask if there's a code you should use on the package. They often use a personal code so their secretaries or mail room personnel know that it's actually been "solicited."

All the trades publish special-focus issues which will contain a treasure of information on specialized areas of the industry. Among them are children's music, classical, heavy metal, alternative, folk, music publishing, Latin, Celtic and film music. They may focus on cities and countries that are emerging as music centers such as Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, Ireland, etc. You'll get information on the movers and shakers in those genres or places, the record labels, publishers, producers, managers, radio stations, booking agents and artists, along with stories about who signed whom and their career strategies.

Following music industry trends is also important. Industry legend Russ Regan, now CEO of Starbound Records, gave me a great bit of advice once. He not only looks at what's on the charts now but what isn't there. Looking at it that way, we shouldn't have been surprised a few years ago when, on a chart full of drum machines and sterile, sequenced tracks, an acoustic-based record called "Fast Car" by a new artist named Tracy Chapman broke through like a breath of fresh air. It's the business of the trades to help the industry predict and follow trends.

Technology is also a predictor of trends, and you can find some useful information in the trades about how new technology will affect the industry. Here are a few examples.

The Billboard Sound-Scan technology revolutionized the industry by providing accurate retail sales and airplay information showing country music to be selling much more than was thought to be true. It's now showing several new country artists on the "Hot 100" pop chart.

CD-ROM projects have opened a new market for songwriters and performers. Live radio over the Internet has opened a new avenue for exposing and selling music though monitoring these performance has presented the performing rights organizations with a new challenge.

YOUR LOCAL RECORD STORE:

Think of your local record store as a research center. Record stores can be great sources of information. They usually have a list of current hits in your favorite style. Familiarize yourself with them and find the albums in the record bins. Many stores have listening posts where you can spend some time listening to new releases and reading the CD covers for information on the artists.

Some stores even have information kiosks where you can bring up artist information on a monitor and look up past albums, reviews, etc. If you have an Internet connection, look to see if the artist has a worldwide web site you can contact. You can also look at an Internet directory under "music" and find web sites for record companies too.

Part 2: MAKING THE CALLS ! ! !

 

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