Welcome back to Part 4 of the interview with Michael Peterson. Here he talks about entering a new season, where the industry isn’t listening to him like they used to. He elaborates on how he handled it and why his songwriting is as important to him as ever.
Peterson: Some of that is pretty hard to put your finger on and explain. You try to make sense of it all. The bottom line at the end of the day is, you’re writing your tail off- you and a thousand other professionally paid songwriters are writing great songs that are not getting cut. It’s not always about the quality of the song. More often than not, it’s about other things than that: relationships; how interested people are in your work. It’s amazing what happens when you write a big hit. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to most writers I’ve known who have had success. You write a couple of big hits and suddenly songs that were passed over before- people finally hear them. They say, ‘Wow, that’s a great song!’
Some of my most recent cuts that I’ve had were songs that I wrote 15 years ago! And, when I wrote them 15 years ago, nobody paid attention. But now that I’ve had some success in my career and because of some of the relationships I’ve had, I got to co-produce The Imperials album a couple of years ago. They recorded my first number one single as a writer. So, it’s fun, all these years later, to be producing them. I found myself helping them find songs. I pitched them gospel songs of mine. And I hadn’t been writing gospel songs anymore. The only gospel songs I had were ones I had written back in the 80’s and early 90’s. So, I pitched them songs that were literally 15, 20 years old! But I didn’t tell them they were 15 or 20 old, because a song is a song. It doesn’t have a shelf life unless there are words that are out of date, or whatever. They loved them and I ended up with the title track on their last record, as well as several other cuts on the record. It’s just funny to me, what helps a song get on a record. But, that’s a different thing than the writing thing. You write because you want to write. You write because you have something to say. You write because you’re shooting at a target. The quality of your work is not inevitably measured by whether or not you get recorded.
To circle back to your question: I realized that the listening to my songwriting, as far as country music went for a season, wasn’t there the way it used to be. Writers are emotional beasts, for the most part. Part of why I moved was I felt I needed a change of pace, a change of scenery, a time to reconnect with why I wanted to do it for me. I needed to put myself in a position to get the reward that I found when I first started to love writing songs. So, whether or not those songs that I’m writing now ever get cut by another artist- I hope they do… Historically for me, it’ll be about another 10 years before somebody discovers them (laughs). When I was wearing a professional songwriter’s hat in Nashville, getting paid as a staff writer by some publisher, I felt bad when my songs didn’t get cut because I was getting a salary. If you’re not getting cuts and you’re getting paid, you can scratch your head and say, God, what am I doing wrong. On some level, it starts not being so much fun. For me, I always had fun writing, I always did. But the underlying feeling behind it didn’t have as much of a reward. So, sometimes you’ve got to shake it up.
So I’m in a new season now. I’m really excited about the work I’m doing and really grateful that I had a chance over the last 15 years to move from being an apprentice songwriter to being a journeyman songwriter. I’m grateful for all the teachers that helped me so much, and grateful for those tools. And even though I said it’s full circle, it’s not completely a full circle because I have more tools in my toolbox than I had 20 years ago.
HitSongTips.com: It sounds like it became a lot of pressure to come up with a hit, as opposed to a great song.
Peterson: You know what- that pressure is there because of the money. Let’s take the five- year period from ’95 to 2000. I’m going to make this up because I don’t know the exact figures, but it’ll give you a sense of what I’m trying to say. Let’s just say that there were five major publishers in Nashville- Universal, Warner Bros., EMI, Sony, and BMG. Every one of those publishers had a hundred or more writers. Every one of those writers, for the most part, had a fulfillment obligation of anywhere from six to 12 to 18 full copyrights per year. If you did co-writes and you had to do 18 full copyrights (each co-write would only count as ½ of a song), that might be 35 to 40 songs. So let’s just make this easy and assume each songwriter had to turn 20 songs in a year (10 full copyrights or 20 co-writes). Multiply that times 100 staff writers, for just one publisher, that’s 2,000 new songs a year coming in for one publisher. Multiply that times five major publishers. Now you have 10,000 new copyrights being created a year, at the major publisher level. Then add in all of your independent publishers beyond that.
Generally speaking, 20% of the artists sell 80% of the records- at least in that era. So, 20% of the artists would have been maybe the top five, six, or seven artists. They’re making a record every year to 18 months and most of them are also writers. Just on a basic level, if there are 10 songs on a record, and you have six top selling artists that year, and they wrote a third of the songs themselves- with over 10,000 songs competing, the odds are astronomical.
HitSongTips.com: You have room for only 30-40 songs ‘outside’ songs (songs not written by the artist, their producer, their girlfriend, etc) on the big releases each year!
Peterson: Right! Now that’s 10,000 songs this year. Every one of those publishers is sitting on catalogues that are 20, 30, 40 years old. The sheer volume alone- the odds are just daunting.
Continued next week…