What You Want to Know: Top 5 Questions About Nashville

I seem to do a lot of mentoring and coaching of other artists. This isn’t because I feel like I have this all figured out in building a music career, not even close. It’s mostly because I know how hard it is, first hand. I’ve been on this road for 17 years now. And, I also know how frustrating it can be to not have any help as an indie artist when you are trying to figure out the next step.

When I get asked questions from young artists, or artists new to Nashville, I can guarantee I will be asked at least one of these questions. So, I wanted to share the answers for those who might be wondering the same things. In fact, I might just send a link to this blog instead of sitting down for coffee with people from now on. 😉

1. I’ve written some lyrics, could you put them to music?

Usually about twice a month someone asks me to write music for lyrics they’ve written (or lyrics for music). The short answer is “no.” Why the answer is no is that I already have a great group of professional songwriters that I co-write with. We write some really good songs, and we also have some connections to further promote the songs we write- so it’s a win-win for us all. Yes, it is a harsh reality, but it’s also true for me too. For example, I haven’t had 20 #1 hits so I would never walk up to someone who has and ask them to write with me. It’s just one of the unwritten rules in Nashville.

Having said this, some professional songwriters will do paid co-writes with people who have never written a song. It’s one way they monetize their skill. I know a songwriter who does about five of these paid writes a month, and it’s a main source of income for them. And, you can also look for collaborators who are local to where you live too through local songwriting clubs like NSAI.

2. I’ve written a song that would be great for (insert famous person’s name here), how can I get it to them?

First of all, good for you! And, honestly, you have a very slim chance of even getting to the artist with that song and some MAJOR competition. The reason is that most artists write for themselves because they don’t want to lose money in songwriting and publishing royalties. Here’s the real deal…

On every given major artist’s country album, there are usually only about 2 songs that will come from outside the artist’s camp. The artist’s camp is comprised of their producer, publisher and songwriters they know. A good example of this is Luke Bryan. Luke has close-knit group of hit songwriting friends: Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip (known as the Peach Pickers) who write songs with and for him. Dallas and Luke were roommates when they moved to Nashville and have been friends forever. So, unless you are a Peach Picker or writing with one of them somehow, you have a very slim chance of getting Luke to record your song.

So what about the other two songs on the record that weren’t written by the artist or someone in the artist’s camp?

The first place the label is going to go is to their catalog. For example, if Brad Paisley is looking for songs he didn’t write, Sony will go to their publishing company Sony/ATV and they will look through literally thousands of songs they have. The reason is that they have invested money in those songs because they paid staff songwriters (songwriters with publishing deals at Sony) to write them. They want to make their money back, and it makes total business sense they would want to keep that money in the Sony family.

The last place the artist/label is going to look for songs is from a song plugger (someone paid to pitch your songs for you, like an agent) or another publisher. Let me just say that there are a lot of sharks in the water in this world. If you want to try this route and are just starting, use a service like TheSongTuner.com because they actually work with reputable song pluggers and you only pay if you really have a song that fits what are looking for instead of a monthly fee. They also give you constructive feedback on the song.

3. How do you get your songs into film and TV?

Read this blog to answer that one.

4.How do you make money in music?

Ah, the big one. There are lots of ways to make money, but making a living is a whole other story. Let me give you a couple of real examples from my career.

About six years ago, I had my first song cut and released to country radio as a single. The artist spent around $1,200 recording it and $8,000 to promote it, and we were all really excited. The song climbed the charts into the top 60 or so, and got airplay on hundreds of stations. People were sending me emails about how I had ‘arrived.’ It was awesome, and it still is! But, financially from that song, we all made about $30 each on the songwriter/publisher side. Yes, that is all.

Here’s another real-life one. In my experience, indie films pay about $200 to license a song. Recently, I placed a song in an indie film for $75. This was because one of my cowriters really wanted their first film credit, and the story/actors looked reputable. We spent $350 on the demo of that song; we lost $275.

I wish I could say I make a full living doing music. But, I don’t yet. I have a full time day job to fund my music career. And the reality is that most people in Nashville do as well, or they have a bread-winning spouse, parents or an investor. And these economic realities are not only at my career level. I had a friend who was nominated for a Grammy this year, and they couldn’t afford to go to LA to the awards. They are obviously at the top of their game as a Grammy nominee, and they are also someone who has to pay the bills. Just like the rest of us.

5. Have you written any songs I would know?

If you watched Hart of Dixie then the answer is ‘maybe’ because I had some songs on the show. But more than likely, no.

So are you depressed yet?!?! Please keep reading…

Look, I don’t want to give you or anyone else the reality smack down. At the same time, I really don’t want you to have wildly unrealistic expectations of the experience and the economics of pursuing a career in music.

If you truly love writing and performing, and are willing to face the realities above, then move here and do it! It’s like I always say, dreams are free but hustle (and hard work) is sold separately.

  • Sarah Jane Burke

    The music business is the problem with the music business. it’s ruled by mediocrity and cowardice. I say mediocrity for obvious reasons I would think. I say cowardice, because it’s all about money. The chances of another timeless, unique act, like Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Bowie, Beatles, etc., are nil, because anything that sounds truly creative and unique gets shit-canned.If it doesn’t sound cliché, nobody in “the business” knows what to do with it, so the true artists out there are on their own, which is probably good, but it’s a hell of a lot harder, and the chances of breaking through are slim.

    The music business has always sucked for the same reasons, but somehow in the ’60s, into the’70s, there was a massive breakthrough. Just look at the variety, creativity, and timelessness of many of the artists during that era who dominated the airwaves and the charts. Now greed has taken over, just like most business, and all you need is youth, and hot body, and a few dance moves. It helps to be able to sing, but with autotune now a recording industry standard, that’s not even necessary.

    Bah! I write songs for me, songs that I would like to hear. If other people like it, and they usually do, that’s a bonus. But I gave up trying to make real money at it a long time ago. That approach just sucks you into the vortex of predictable, boring, pop. I suppose it would help if we restored music programs to our schools as a priority over football, but the lowest common denominator rules, as in every other aspect of American life.

    • Shantell Ogden

      You go girl! 🙂 Great thoughts!

  • Eric John Kaiser

    In the end isn’t the joy of writting songs and making art that keeps us going and the artistic and musical heritage we create ? Great honest post. “Merci beaucoup” for sharing.

    • Shantell Ogden

      Yes you’re right! It is the joy for sure. 🙂 Thanks for your comment and keep making art!

  • timbrandt

    Great article. Thanks for shearing your insights. I’ve always wondered what it was like being a songwriter in Nashville. Question: I understand very few people are making a full-time living in music. However I always see indie artists who are able to go on tour for months at a time. How can they afford to do it? Is it a flexible day job situation or at they getting paid enough on these tours to pay the bills?

    • Shantell Ogden

      Good question. I would ask those artists directly for the most reliable info. Some find paying gigs, that they ‘anchor’ a tour around. For example, we are getting $1000 to play in Denver, so let’s tour in other parts of Colorado/Utah while we are there. I do know that staying with friends and family along the way saves money, and house concerts (where you can usually stay with the host) are a good way to make $ on an off night.

  • Unlike Shantell, I haven’t spent 16 years more-or-less beating my head against the wall in heart of the music industry, but I was aware of these formulas a very long time ago. That’s why I have had a “day job” since about 1973.

    That said, it’s a whole lot of fun for a creative person to be doing creative things with other creative people. Can you adjust to the notion that the END game for you will probably not be blazing success, but living on that edge as long as you can before you have to come back and work for your father’s insurance company or whatever? Because that frightens you and you want to avoid it as long as you can, you work hard and take care of yourself. The last thing you need is to crash and burn early because of some stupid reason like chemical addiction. And you will learn the hard way to have no expectations of the people you have given a “leg up.” And you’ll learn to bear them no bitterness, because you see most of them again on their way back down anyway. And you try to get your foot in the door just often enough to keep the dream alive for as long as you can.

    If that life sounds just like what you want, go for it. If it scares you, get a good day job while you can. 🙂

    La Vie Bohème, Nashvile style.

    • Shantell Ogden

      Thanks Paul. This post is ‘bitterly’ honest about one side of the equation. But it’s not why I got into music and why I keep doing it. It’s not about the money, that’s why I’ve been at it for so long. 🙂 Having said that, it takes more than great songs and a willingness to work hard in this town to ‘make it.’ You’ve maybe heard the old joke- “How do you make a million dollars in the music industry?” “Spend 2 million.” Unfortunately there is an economic investment needed to build a brand as an artist, even if you are doing it all yourself and keeping costs low. I chose to juggle a day job and pursuing music- not give up music to just work a day job. Everyone’s journey is different though. 🙂

      • True, I wasn’t saying it wasn’t worth it, just to count the cost. 🙂

        • Shantell Ogden

          of course! good point!