Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Everyone knows that Nashville is Music City.
Recently more and more people are coming here from all over the world thanks to the ABC/CMT Nashville TV show, the steady and growing popularity of country music, and the fact that Nashvillians are so friendly and supportive of their music community.
The humble center of all this activity is the thing that makes everything possible – the song. Even more humble than the song in most cases is the one who wrote it, the songwriter, whose popularity is always eclipsed by the fame of his or her creation.
So, what’s it really like to be a songwriter in Nashville?
At first, songwriters come to Nashville to get their songs heard. They want to learn the ropes, find a publisher, get some songs cut, and hopefully make some money eventually.
Performing songwriters (as opposed to songwriters who don’t perform their songs) come to town ready to sign up with a record company for their shot at fame and glory, and really just to prove it to the folks back home that they’ve got what it takes to make it in the Big City.
Early press clipping of my dad Kim Williams
After the initial excitement wears off, the realities of what it takes to be a professional songwriter starts to become apparent. It takes more than just having great songs and talent to get your foot in the door with the Nashville music scene.
Writers often ask, “How do I get my songs to the right people? How can I get heard?”
The answer is not as obvious as it might seem.
Even hit songwriters struggle with the question of how to get their songs “through the system” and into the hands of artists and producers who are actively looking for great original song material for their recording projects.
It used to be that almost all the songs you saw on the charts came from well-established publishing companies, but now, there are more and more examples of independent songwriters and publishers getting their songs out there in alternative ways.
So how does it happen? How do songwriters in Nashville and in the greater songwriting community around the world get their songs on to the radio, into film and television, and onto the charts?
The simple answer is hard work and planning.
Diagram of how to pitch songs in Nashville from Illustrated Guide to Pitching Songs
If you want people to notice your songs, first of all, those songs have to be excellent. You’re not going to get any attention in Nashville with songs that aren’t top notch. The problem with this criteria is that even hit songwriters don’t always know which ones their songs are good, so let’s keep going on this train of thought.
Most of us think that we just need to find someone who gets us. We need that magic champion who swoops in and takes us to stardom. Keep dreaming on this one. It doesn’t exist. You have to prove your worth before people will “get you.”
So how do you do that? By getting someone to like you? No. You have to look harder than that. It’s not enough for people to like you.
What is it then?
The goal of the professional songwriter is to treat their songwriting passion like a business so that it can actually become a moneymaker that can support them and their families.
This involves keeping your books, getting indie cuts in film and television and with indie artists, organizing your catalog, making smart buying decisions, keeping up with industry trends and lots more business type stuff. It does NOT involve chasing after industry people trying to get them to help you.
Treating your songwriting like a business might sound like drudgery to some people. Every day in Nashville, you’ll hear a songwriter say, “I don’t want to do the business part, I just want to write songs and get someone else to help me do everything else.”
The fact is that the notion of writing songs all the time and letting someone else handle the business is just not the way it’s going to happen for 99.99% of professional songwriters today.
In Nashville Everybody is a Songwriter
There are lots of reasons why this is the case, but the biggest one is that publishers don’t have time to work with writers who haven’t established themselves yet, and who have no interest in taking care of their own business initially. They figure that if a writer is really talented, they’ll rise up through the ranks on their own, and eventually they’ll hear about them.
New people to Nashville always get a glazed look on their faces when you tell them not to worry about getting signed or getting meetings with publishers and record companies right away. You can see them thinking, “Well, if I’m not supposed to tell people about myself and get meetings, then how will I ever get anywhere?”
They don’t understand because they don’t know Nashville yet.
Despite its size and stature, Nashville is really nothing more than a great big small town. The small town is the music business part. If you’ve been in town for a few years, you literally can go anywhere music industry related and see somebody you know.
Why is that? Because people who have things in common do the same things. That’s going to put you in the same room as people who have similar interests, goals, and friends in common.
In a town where songwriting reigns supreme, the biggest currency you can have here is a great story. Story telling comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between. The bottom line is that if you have a story, you can get someone to listen to it in Nashville.
With that in mind, what do songwriter and music business people do when they get together? The answer is that they tell each other stories about what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been writing, and who they’ve been watching.
Guess what? If you’re really good at what you’re doing, or on the flip side, if you’re screwing people over or being obnoxious, you’re going to be getting talked about in Nashville, and you’d better count on it.
It can be disconcerting at first, having lots of people you barely know knowing your business, but if you’re willing to play the game, you’d better be willing to pay the cost. If you kicked butt at the writers’ night on Saturday, people will be talking about it the following week whenever someone asks them what they did last weekend.
When I got to write with my A-list songwriting/artist mentor a few months ago, guess what he asked me just as I was leaving, “Who have you been listening to?”
Everyone wants to know who’s good and who’s upcoming. That’s how Nashville creates a buzz around a new artist or writer, and that’s how people get recognized here.
After you get the buzz going, you have to able to back it up. You don’t want to get the buzz going and have the industry people come out to your show, only to find you having an off night. There are no off nights in Nashville.
If you’re playing out, you’d better be ready to put on your best show. If you’re not doing that, or if you still have the occasional off night, you’re not ready for the big leagues yet, and you’d be better off spending your time practicing, writing better songs, and playing low key gigs before you start sticking your head up to be noticed.
So what can you do in the meantime? Do you just sit in your room, writing and practicing and being lonely?
Not at all. Nashville is all about community. While you’re honing your chops and songs, you should start building your network of friends and co-writers who will be part of your “class.” Nashville has classes of songwriters that come up together in the same peer group, and work side by side until a whole bunch of them start having success at the same time.
The one everyone still talks about is the Class of ’89, which was championed by artists like Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Joe Diffie and Garth Brooks. Those artists were all demo singers at that time until they broke out into the main stream.
l to r Kim Williams (Dad), Garth Brooks, and Larry Williams (Uncle)
If you’re going to thrive and be happy, you’ll need to find your peers and start working with them as soon as possible.
Now, this doesn’t mean trying to attach yourself to a group of people who are way ahead of you on their journey. If they see you playing somewhere and think you’re awesome, they’ll be friendly and invite you to join them. But most likely, you’ll be better off finding people who are at your same experience level and sticking close with them, working together to improve your chops.
Also, don’t get sucked into being cliquey. Just because you have a “Class” doesn’t mean you have to exclude people who aren’t right there with you. That’s where the community part comes in. You learn from those ahead of you, work with those around your same level, and lead or mentor the ones who are behind. That’s how it works.
And while we’re on the subject of Nashville socializing, be sure not to fall into the trap of becoming a party fiend. You can’t imagine how many songwriters and artists fail to achieve their full potential because they became drug addicts or alcoholics and fell short of their goals.
It’s easy to see why creative people, with their prerequisite pain and insecurity and sensitivity could easily be drawn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope and feel more comfortable in social situations.
But take it from one whose family has seen the dark side of drug and alcohol addiction, and don’t fall into that mistake. Don’t feel like you have to keep up with the hard drinking hit songwriters at the music row bars in order to get in with the music scene. There are plenty of other options, and they’re way healthier and more sustainable.
So, how can you make it as a songwriter in Nashville?
Set your goals.
Study your mentors.
Work with your peers.
Take care of your song catalog.
Learn about the music biz from a songwriter’s point of view.
Start getting indie cuts, film/TV placements and building your clout.
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This is a piece originally published on July 26, 2014 on the Songwriting and Music Business Blog. It's still as relevant today as it was then.
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