Nashville's music business is just that, a business. And like any other business, there is a casual sort of protocol, however laid back the vibe of the place might be. Violating certain unspoken rules can mark you as anything from an outsider to a full-blown beginner who hasn't done his homework. After working in the industry for twenty-five years, I have compiled a mental list of Nashville no-nos and hopefully they will save you from making a few of the mistakes that many make.
Nashville's Music Row, the Country Music capitol of the world, comes across as a welcoming place, but is actually quite cliquish in the inner circles. The way a certain music biz higher-up perceives you the first time he or she meets you may very well stick like an albatross around your neck, and that definitely gets in the way of one's guitar! By arming yourself with a little knowledge as to how the town works can save you a lot of time in terms of your progress in this difficult business.
Rule #1 - Do Not Be Arrogant
Nashville is a whole 'nother animal with its own set of rules.
Many a singer songwriter rides into town with a head considerably larger than their minimal family fan base. Perhaps they won their hometown songwriting contest. Maybe Mama insists that Toby doesn't hold a candle to her Sonny-boy. Maybe Suzy-Q's high school voice teacher is crying, "Move over, Taylor!" Maybe you even got a boot in the door in another music center such as Los Angeles. Leave it at home. Nashville is a whole 'nother animal with its own set of rules. Taking on Music Row for the first time is like a small town, high school quarterback running onto an NFL field mid-game. Scary, not to mention dangerous for the self-esteem.
There is no quicker way to get yourself snickered right out of Mr. Somebody's office than to start proclaiming your song a hit, and then following that up with your concept for the video. Music Row is crawling with hits. There are hundreds of highly skilled staff writers churning out cuttable songs on a daily basis. The large stable of top demo singers in Nashville are all radio worthy to boot. You may well have the talent and charisma to carve a niche for yourself on venerable old Sixteenth Avenue, but be humble and count on it taking awhile.
Rule #2 - Do Not Be A Walking Cliche
Music Row moves in its alleys. You will seldom see a person carrying a guitar case walking down the street. Show me a stereotypical cowboy complete with hat, boots, and a fringed guitar case strolling down the sidewalk, and I'll show you a wannabe who just arrived from New Jersey with a pocketful of dreams. The vest and briefcase look is another visage often seen entering a publisher's office for the first time.
Country Music strives to be about all things genuine.
If you dress that way every day, fine, but if a t-shirt and jeans is your normal attire, you are going to fit into the scene much more readily. Don't be a slob but remember that Music Row is an extremely casual place. Smooth is out just a bit for your first meetings but definitely do not overdress or try too hard to achieve an image. The local music attorneys have the businesslike thing covered and they look great, but that is not your agenda. Country Music strives to be about all things genuine and the way you attire yourself is a good place to start. You are who you are and that should come across in you personage as much as in your music.
Rule #3 - Do Not Pester People Out Of Your League
There are newbies and there are gurms... and there is a difference.
THOU SHALT NOT GURM. (Pronounced with a hard G.) It may not be one of the more familiar commandments but it's a biggie in the music business. There are newbies and there are gurms... and there is a difference. You don't want to earn the reputation of being the latter because it will stick to you like super glue.
While you are learning the proverbial ropes, stand back and be an observer for a while. Soak in the vibe. Recognize that the very talented and established people that you will encounter are not even remotely interested in writing with the brand new likes of you, no matter how nice they might be. Play some lesser venues. Learn from the best, and ultimately prove yourself over time. Who knows, one of them just might approach you and request a writing date, but don't hold your success-hungry breath.
Would you walk up to the best attorney in town and say, "Hey, dude. Let's try a case together?" Probably not and the metaphor is not exaggerated.
Rule #4 - Do Not Get Eaten By Sharks
They are a dreadful breed with sharp teeth and greedy pockets.
In Nashville, the sharks swim between 16th and 18th Avenues rather than in the murky waters of the Cumberland River that wraps around the city. They are a dreadful breed with sharp teeth and greedy pockets.
These are the phonies who flatter and cajole unsuspecting beginner songwriters into wasting their money on premature, poorly made demos, with promises of getting them to all the right people. These folks don't have a thing to do with the right people and neither would recognize the other on the street. They only have one real goal and that is to hornswaggle you out of your hard earned dollars.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Don't pay anybody to write with you or publish your songs. Legitimate demo studios will demo any song that walks through the door for a price, but they are not pushing you to demo. That is the difference.
Ask around before you have dealings with an individual or company. SESAC, BMI, ASCAP. And the Nashville Songwriters Association are all great places to ask your inevitable ‘dumb but necessary' questions.
Rule #5 - Do Not Rush It
You have to write a lot of dogs before you get to the good songs.
Whether you're wondering if your songs are good enough to demo or wondering if it's time to seek out a publishing deal, be extremely cautious. Demos are very expensive when you don't have a staff writing deal and are paying for your own. You can waste thousands of dollars on over-produced, amateurish songs.
A saying goes around Nashville that you have to write a lot of dogs before you get to the good songs. Be patient. Listen to the pros at writers' nights and try to honestly compare your songs. Get opinions from those in the know, particularly the performing rights organizations (PROs). It is their job to listen and advise you as long as you don't drive them nuts with constant appointments.
When you are certain that you have one really good song with a great melody, catchy title, contagious hook, and fresh approach, get ready to hunker down and write your way towards another…..and eventually another. They can be infuriatingly far apart in the beginning. When you have three or four, you can consider a demo session. If you can put the songs across yourself and have decent recording equipment, by all means do. Do remember though, that simple is one thing while crummy is quite another.
A mediocre voice is far more acceptable than lousy guitar playing that is poorly recorded, with your dog barking in the background.
A good rule of thumb is to go more simply on ballads, when cost is a consideration. Splurge a little more on your mid and uptempos where a bass and drum brings the groove to life. Save the really pricey productions for a time when your someday publisher is footing the bill!
With a handful of shiny songs that you are now rightfully proud of, go ahead and try to make appointments with legitimate publishers. Just don't expect them to jump up and down. They hear great songs all the time!
Rule #6 - Do Not Ally Yourself With Never-Will-Bes
It is a harsh reality but a reality just the same.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should be nice to every human being on the planet. On the professional side of your career however, you are the company you keep. If you routinely surround yourself with people far less talented than you, writing songs with them, and doing nights-in-the-round with them, you, in the eyes of Music Row ARE them. When it comes to your professional persona, be professional, and spend your talent on those worthy of it. It is a harsh reality but a reality just the same.
Rule #7 - Do Not Present a Corny Package
Music Row has its own unique standards of the industry.
Nashville's Music Row has a casual, dressed-down ambience, but it still has its own unique standards of the industry. Whether you are pitching a song to an artist, or preparing a demo package for a publishing meeting, follow the norms.
For a publishing package, go with simple white labels, neatly typed. This is no place for a photograph of yourself, artfully but sensatively posed, with your guitar under a willow tree. If you are including lyric sheets, use simple white paper neatly typed and appropriately formatted.
A pitch to an artist or record label can be a bit more elaborate being that you are acting as your own publisher in that situation. Still, keep your photo off of it unless you are repping your own artist package.
Rule #8 - Do Not Offend
You never know who you are talking to.
The sweet young thing (or cute young hunk) manning the desk at any given company may make minimum wage, but she or he has something you don't: access. These gatekeepers can get carried away with their own perceived power occasionally, but they have long memories and the CD you hand to the one you were just rude to will likely land squarely in file 13. The receptionist you just hung up on might well return the favor the next time you call Mr. Publisher. Be nice. You never know who you are talking to or who is related to whom.
Rule #9 - Do Not Disrespect Your Fellow Songwriter
Particularly at the venerable Bluebird Café in Nashville's Green Hills area, the songwriter is king. Regardless of your level of enjoyment, be quiet and respectful in these ‘listening rooms' that Nashville is world famous for. Whispering and making snide comments during a performance is very unprofessional not to mention unkind.
Think of yourself as a student on a campus. There are green-as-grass freshmen as well as PHDs walking the same streets and visiting the same venues. Everyone is entitled to be at his or her own phase of the journey.
Rule #10 - Do Not Count On Not Having a Day Job
Nashville used to be termed a five year town but now it is more like ten, and all too often never. Under the best of circumstances, making your living off of songwriting takes a long time. Have a plan in place before you make the big move to Music City. Many a star waited tables and bagged groceries in order to support themselves while pursuing the dream. Actually, some great connections are made while waiting tables in any of the many Music Row watering holes.
It is much harder making the move with a family in tow but most goals require sacrifices and you just might have to work two jobs. How bad do you want it?
Saving up enough to last you six months and telling yourself you will be rich by then is the stuff of fairy tales.
If you are lucky and talented enough to MAKE IT in Nashville, you will, no doubt, look back on the "getting there" as the best part of the journey.