By Steve Buchanan
Executive Producer of NASHVILLE and President, Grand Ole Opry Group
The original creator of the phrase “It all begins with a song” has been endlessly debated in watering holes all over Music City—usually over a beer or five. Whoever it was could have made a pretty penny had they copyrighted their words of wisdom before the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) co-opted it as their slogan not long after they formed in 1967 with 40 founding members. Among them—a just-starting-out Kris Kristofferson and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, who co-wrote “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Rocky Top.”
In the bad old days, Nashville songwriters received little recognition and even less compensation for their craft. Today, though the stars still stand in the spotlight, the singers know that the songs form the foundation of their careers.
The song, of course, begins with the writer—or more often, the co-writers. So how does song get to singer? Though stories of writers, aka servers/valet parkers/bartenders, slipping their demos to a producer while serving/parking/pouring are legion, that rarely gets results. At least not the results a writer is hoping for.
The more professional and typically more successful route is through a song plugger, who is employed by a publishing company, which is the place where aspiring writers aspire to start their careers.
It’s not easy. Most writers spend years holed up at home with pencil, paper and guitar, playing writer’s nights, working day jobs to crib the money together to record a demo to distribute to publishers in the hopes of getting a deal. That’s the stage where we find both Avery and Gunnar. Until one very lucky night when Watty White finds Gunnar and Scarlett on stage trying out their first co-write, “If I Didn’t Know Better” at The Bluebird Café (Episode 1), sees that undefinable something and bankrolls a three-song demo (Episode 3).
In Episode 4, “We Live in Two Different Worlds”, Gunnar and Scarlett realize that dream when they are signed to a deal with Catch This Music, a publisher on Music Row. On the other side of the heavy wood door of CTM, the newly-official writers meet owner Jeanne Buchanan who points out the walls lined with awards her company and writers have collected. (Many of those are being distributed this week in Nashville during the annual SESAC, ASCAP and BMI Country Awards gala dinners, where Nashville cast members have participated and been warmly welcomed into the community. The dinners precede the 46th Annual CMA Awards Thursday night on ABC. )
CTM is an obviously successful independent publishing company. Though no female has yet pushed through the vinyl ceiling to take the top seat at a major Nashville label, publishing companies here have a long tradition of accomplished women at the helm.
So what do Gunnar and Scarlett have to look forward to beyond a fancy celebratory dinner at Watermark restaurant (and a post-dinner romp with Jeanne’s assistant Hailey for Gunnar)?
Besides a refrigerator stocked with yogurt and beverages, writers rooms in publisher’s offices provide an alternative to Scarlett’s living room (and an escape from Avery’s envious eyes). Publishers often team young, new writers with seasoned vets, an arrangement that benefits both parties. Writers with a deal typically receive a weekly or bi-monthly draw—against future royalties—which allows them to spend more time on writing and less time on serving/parking/pouring. Demo tapes are financed by the publisher.
And then it’s up to the plugger to pitch the song to a label A&R rep, a producer or in some cases, the artist themselves. Major publishing companies like Sony, Universal and EMI have pluggers on staff. The smaller indies have to come up with more creative ways to catch the ears of the music makers. I suspect that Jeanne would be a member of one of Music Row’s most high-profile pitching cooperatives—Chicks With Hits. Formed more than a decade ago, Chicks is 15 female independent publishers who pioneered the group pitch concept. Each meeting is geared towards a specific artist’s needs and members are told in advance what the producer is looking for so they can choose the two or three songs they pitch in the group setting best-suited to that project. Usually the pitch is to the producer, but sometimes the artist attends as well and various beverages are consumed.
As the season continues, we’ll see how Gunnar and Scarlett’s pairing progresses from song to producer to artist to record. And whose record their efforts end up on.
Also in Episode 4 a new character is introduced: Peggy, or Margaret as she is now known, is a blast from Teddy’s increasingly shady past, and not one Rayna is particularly happy to see. We were fortunate to find this talented actress literally in our own backyard. Kimberly Williams has lived here since she married Brad Paisley in 2003, and the couple lives with sons Huck and Jasper not far from a fishing hole just outside of town.
In Nashville, and on Nashville, it’s one big family.