Friday, October 01, 2004

The Writer's Room

A lot of you have asked for sound clips of "Home To You" and wanted to know the stages it went through in getting recorded. So we thought we'd use "Home To You" as an example of the typical stages a song may go through from the writer's room to the radio.

The Work Tape - After a song is written, the professional songwriter(s), make what is known as a "work tape" to play for their publisher(s). This is usually a rough recording, often done on a boom box in the room with just guitar/vocal or piano/vocal. Sometimes, if there's handy access to a 4-track recorder, a slightly better recording may be made (with maybe some harmonies). The publisher(s) will listen to the work tape and decide whether or not the song warrants a demo. Generally speaking, unless you have an established relationship with a publisher, A&R person or producer, it is better to play a fully produced demo rather than a work tape.

Example: The work tape of "Home To You" is simply Sara's co-writer, Arlos Smith singing and playing into a boom box in the writer's room.

To view the lyric sheet to "Home To You" click here
To listen to a sample of the work tape of "Home To You" click here

The Demo - If the publisher decides that a song is marketable or pitchable, a demo session is scheduled. Often the demo session occurs several months after the song is written since the publisher will usually wait until there are at least 4-5 songs that can be scheduled on the "session". This helps to keep the costs down. Some publishers have in-house studios and simply hire in the players and singers. Other publishers go to a studio. The typical demo generally consists of the following instruments: bass, drums, keyboards, guitars. Often in country demos, a pedal steel or fiddle is added for effect. Occasionally, a stripped down demo is done for ballads. The general cost of a demo in Nashville runs anywhere from $300-$800 per song. If you are a songwriter not currently working with a publisher, try to get professional feedback on your song BEFORE investing in a demo. Also, make sure you get a copy of just the instrumental tracks once the demo is done in addition to the instrument/vocal version. This will help save a lot of time and effort in the studio in case you rewrite the lyric and want to re-demo the song.

Example: The demo of "Home To You" was one of five songs scheduled during the demo session, and includes both pedal steel and fiddle and came out to around $600.

To listen to the complete demo of "Home To You" click here

Pitching The Song - Once the demo is completed, the songplugger at the publishing company hits the streets with the song hoping to get it recorded by an artist. They generally look at the pitch/tip sheets they have of who's looking for material and who's going to be recording in the near future. They then try to schedule meetings with someone connected to the project. These meetings may be with any number of people connected to the artist, including: the producer, someone in A&R at the record label, the artist's manager, or even the artist themselves. Hopefully at one of these meetings, someone will like the song well enough to put it on "hold" (see below). Some songs go on hold right away while other songs, take months or years. Many never make it to the hold stage.

Example: "Home To You" was pitched to head of A&R at Atlantic Records sometime in November. He liked the song and said that he would send it to John Michael Montgomery who was on the road at the time. This is what he did with any songs he thought John Michael might be interested in recording. He did not however ask for a "hold" of the song. We didn't get overly excited at this stage, since there was still a long way to go.

The Hold - A hold can be very confusing. Generally speaking, a hold is simply a verbal agreement that the publisher grants to someone connected to the artist's project. The general understanding is that the publisher agrees not to pitch the song to anyone else. This gives the person who put the song on hold time to determine whether or not the artist is interested in recording this song. No money is exchanged but rather, it is a good faith agreement. Some songs are on hold for a few days, some for several months. Often the publisher will request a time limit on the hold so the song is not tied up in limbo for a long period of time. Depending on how closely connected the person who put the song on hold is to the project, people often speak of "soft" holds (maybe an A&R person) versus a "strong" hold (the artist's producer or the artist). Sometimes hundreds of songs are put on hold for an album that ultimately will end up with only 10 songs on it. Other times only a handful of songs are put on hold. Most professional songwriters are pleased but not overly excited when their songs go on hold since, unfortunately, they often don't get recorded.

Example: During the first week of December, John Michael Montgomery called the publishing company and requested a hold on "Home To You". He said he was going in to the studio the following week and was going to record 3-4 songs. He wasn't sure whether he would record "Home To You", but he was definitely considering it. We all started getting a little excited at this point since this was a strong hold, but we weren't buying champagne just yet.