This week, I went to an enlightening all-day seminar with publisher Bobby Rymer, from Writer’s Den Music Group in Nashville.
Rymer began playing music at a young age, having his parents take him to play clubs by the time he was 14. He later got his masters in social work, but wasn’t happy with that career, and decided to go back and get a degree in the music business. Starting out in the Capitol Records mailroom, he worked his way up to A&R. He moved into publishing, working at Almo-Irving, where he represented songs from artists like Peter Frampton, Bruce Springsteen, and Patty Griffith. After Universal absorbed Almo-Irving, Rymer started his own company, Writer’s Den Music in 2007. He says, “Since then, I haven’t worked a day in my life. I wake up excited to go to work!”
“One of the unique aspects of Writer’s Den is the fact that it was the first publishing deal for the first 5 writers signed to the company. Among the cuts secured, are multiple songs in the TV show “Nashville”, as well as multiple cuts by Alan Jackson (including the 2013 Grammy nominated song, “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”), Lee Ann Womack, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Owen and Joe Nichols, plus the critically acclaimed song (“Not Cause I Wanted To”) on the 2013 Grammy winning album, Slipstream by Bonnie Raitt. In addition, the company has landed a number of cuts in Canada, Europe, South America and Australia.”
Rymer feels songwriters should not only chase their dream, but enjoy the journey along the way. And many of us should set our goals higher. He asked a new staff writer what her goals were. She said to get a Bonnie Raitt cut and a Delbert McClinton cut. Within two and a half years, she had a cut with both of them. She then had to set bigger goals, but he suggests doing that from the beginning.
Once you set your goals higher, write them down and post them on the bathroom mirror or the fridge, so you see them every day. Break those big dreams into smaller, achievable goals- such as writing two songs a week- and begin checking those off. From there, he says, you’re only 3 ½ minutes away from a hit.
In order to get signed to a staff writing deal, you have to act like a staff writer FIRST. In other words, if a staff writer goes to two co-writing appointments a day, you have to do the same thing to have a chance at getting signed. Also, you have to have the goods FIRST: in the past publishers and record labels had time to develop their songwriters and artists- but nowadays, much of the music business is corporate and they look at profit quarterly.
Rymer likes writers who are multi-talented. If a writer engineers their own demos, is a multi-instrumentalist, sings great, and writes lyrics and music, they are more valuable to a publisher because they are a complete package (though he doesn’t necessarily expect to see someone with all of these talents). That being said, he’d rather work with someone who has a strong work ethic and some talent, than the other way around. ‘I’ve worked with way too much talent that didn’t have a work ethic’.
Rymer believes now is the best time for smaller publishers, like himself. There are more great writers out there, so he has the ‘pick of the litter’. Meanwhile, many writers are looking for a ‘boutique’ publishing company that can provide more personal attention.
When choosing songs to pitch, keep in mind that you want to pick ones that can hit the largest targets. For example, 90% of the time, artists are looking for mid to up-tempo songs. So, if you’re playing songs for a publisher, 70-80% of them need to be mid to up-tempo. If you walk in with all ballads, you reduce your chance of getting cut.
To that end, he gives all of his writers a CD of ‘walking beats’- songs that are 90-120 MM (metronome markings) as examples to write towards.
One of his writers was stuck in a rut of writing only ballads. So, the writer went out and bought a $199 drum machine to spark himself creatively towards faster songs. That inspired him to write an uptempo song that got cut by Rascal Flatts.
Also, pay attention to tempo when you are demoing a song. The difference between having a song get cut or not can sometimes be one MM up or down in speed.
Another trick to writing more upbeat songs is to write them on a different instrument than you normally write on. “I dare you to write a sad song on a ukulele.”
He’s a big fan of ‘not spending money unless you have to’ on demos. He doesn’t need to hear a full production, though he acknowledges he’s in the minority. A ‘glorified work demo’ is often the best- voice; a couple of guitars, something for rhythm, and harmonies- as long as he can understand the lyrics and hear the melody.
To prevent your demo from quickly sounding dated, use mostly acoustic instruments and be careful with effects. The electric guitar sound that is hip this year, may not be next year.
So, what’s the secret to becoming a hit songwriter? When someone asked hit songwriter Bob DiPiero, his answer was, “Get up in the morning. Write a song. Go to lunch. Come back and write another song. Repeat.”
© Ron Shaffer 2014