If losing teams didn’t get paid, professional football would be much more interesting to watch.
But there would also be many more injuries and fights and probable nervous breakdowns. Every single game would be a brawl to the end. Knowing you only get paid if you win, would create beasts out there, willing to take dangerous chances with themselves and others. It would create an entire population of psychopaths, who know they cannot take a loss if they want their kids to eat. One losing season could put an entire team of people out of business…for good. So, strange alliances would develop and creative new corruption would arise. This player or that one might agree to throw a certain game if he could get a kick-back from the winning coach, hence guaranteeing him a paycheck either way.
The entire game would be more of a Gladiatorial nightmare than it already is. And the people who play it would become mentally warped and damaged. Possibly, beyond repair.
There is a world where that very scenario exists: professional songwriting.
If you are a professional songwriter; feeding your family, paying your mortgage, gassing up your car, you’re either doing it on the future or the past. That means you’re either earning your money off of royalties (the past) or advances (the future). There is only the tiniest of windows for songwriters who haven’t had any success yet, but might getting advance money from a publisher. But those scenarios are almost gone and those days are all but over. No, if you’re affording your life as a “professional songwriter” you’re one of the Gladiators who are winning. There is just no way around it.
I meet screen writers all the time who make money for films that never get shot. They option and punch up and whatever and whatever. And their name may not be on all that many things when you look them up on IMDB but their WGA (Writers Guild of America) fees are set and they can make money here and there. But songwriters get nothing if their songs don’t get recorded and/or become popular. This makes for a chaotic and completely stressed-out work environment.
One of the systemic problems with songwriting is that everybody on earth is absolutely convinced they are a songwriter. They just know they have a great song idea. They are sure they’ve got the next, great hook or the next golden line that will become a cultural catch phrase. And the maddening thing is…they may actually be right.
We all start out making up songs when we’re kids. It’s a natural thing for humans to do. In a sense, songwriting is sacred in that way. Anything kids naturally do, must be something universal to us as a species. Then we grow up and enough people tell us we suck until we hide our talent away inside our work cubicle. We dabble on weekends and go to the occasional workshop. But we stow it away as the potential for a living.
But then there are those of us who don’t hear people telling us we suck. I mean, they’re saying it. We’re just not hearing it. We dive into the pool of professionals and act like we belong there, until one day…we finally do. Maybe we started with talent and a natural ability to make up melodies and lyrics. But through the years we hone something called “the craft.” And the knowledge of “the craft” is the difference between amateurs (with talent) and professionals.
But craft isn’t enough. It just has to be there. The mark of the great song is heart and soul and yearning and speaking a truth we all knew was there but couldn’t put into words before. And sometimes those great songs become “hit songs” or “popular.” And “hits” earn money…or at least they used to. So the coin of the realm for the songwriting Gladiators is the “hit.” It’s how the business sustains itself. But the problem is you can have a “hit” on something not great. You can have a hit on something not even good. This is where chaos ensues. And songwriting becomes a playground for the truly gifted as well as the hack with a good rhyming program. Great work-of-art songs never get heard and languish in hard drives, while mediocre offerings with a big choruses of “na na’s” win the day. And that very thing tilts the nature of the business toward not having any idea what the hell it’s doing most of the time.
I watched the show Songland last night, against the call for a boycott from some of my friends. I found the show compelling …sort of (as compelling as watching songs being written can be). And sure enough, the people who knew the craft (the professionals) were all pretty much on the same page. I found myself yelling out pro critiques as well: “Tighten the verse lyrics – scrap the B section – get to the chorus quicker – your throw-away melody after the chorus is your strongest hook – use it in a more prominent way” – etc, etc. A lot of song craft is understanding the human attention span and understanding some mathematical principles behind melody and meter. But even when you get the craft right, you still might not have that illusive thing called a “hit.”
Some people were outraged that the show had apparently asked the up-and-coming songwriters to waive their royalties in order to appear on the show. I could’t confirm if that story was actually true. Someone closely connected with the show contacted me and said that it was NOT true but that the contracts were a bit complicated to get around licensing and clearance problems. I would imagine licensing something IN PROCESS, that was copyrighted one way walking in, and a totally different way walking out, would be a very sticky scenario for a TV show. Plus, the sync royalties for a prime time TV show performance of only half a song (which is what they were performing – NOT the entire song) might only be around $1500 to $3000 anyway. If the show paid each contestant $5 k to appear, as a talent fee, that would be a better deal for them. (I don’t know if that’s what they did, but it would seem plausible.)
But even if the TV show took ALL the royalties, for every format (even radio) from each song, the trouble with songwriters is there are those out there who would still agree to it. Streaming services have destroyed professional songwriting as an industry and yet there are still legions of music artists lined up to get on those services. Record labels have done cut-rate royalty deals for decades, and songwriters have lined up for the abuse and then offered to shine their shoes if they will give them more abuse. Publishing companies have held royalties and cross-colateralized accounts and gone bankrupt in order to not have to pay writers, and yet there are armies of songwriters banging on the windows to be a part of that system.
Professional songwriters have toyed with the idea of unionizing and going on strike, for decades. But we all know that the minute that happens, there are thousands 24-year-olds, who have been waiting on the old guys (who don’t know what they’re doing anyway) to step aside and let the REAL talent finally get a shot. And if you listen to the radio, you know that nothing will stop. The wheel will still turn and the audience, by and large, won’t know the difference.
I question whether or not Songland can sustain enough interest through a whole season. Watching songs being written is not unlike watching someone do a crossword puzzle or knit. And when you’re watching those at the top of the game do it, it feels like you can do it just as easily as they can. Maybe you can. But if you decide to try it as a life, remember that no other business on earth waits for things to happen. And even if your song is just about to come out on the radio, the mortgage company doesn’t care. The insurance company doesn’t care. The grocery store doesn’t care.
All the people who work in those industries will be home watching Songland, cheering you on, on Tuesday …then calling you on Wednesday, asking why you haven’t paid your bill.
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