ASCAP officers (far left) Beth Matthews and (far right) Paul Williams and John Titta flanking recording artist MILCK and the members of the band Portugal. The Man.

Crafters of Song

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It takes more than talent. You need to know the right people, work hard and be lucky. Just ask the attendees of ASCAP’s “I Create Music” EXPO in Los Angeles.

ASCAP officers (far left) Beth Matthews and (far right) Paul Williams and John Titta flanking recording artist MILCK and the members of the band Portugal. The Man.
ASCAP officers (far left) Beth Matthews and (far right) Paul Williams and John Titta flanking recording artist MILCK and the members of the band Portugal. The Man.

Artists are an odd breed. Our expressions take many forms. Some are sculptors, some storytellers…and those of us who happen to be blessed (or cursed) with hearing tunes running through our heads all day long, become songwriters. That’s me.

From the time I first heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul pouring out of my sister’s stereo, I was mesmerized by the power of music. It wasn’t just the sound of their instruments or their voices; it was the songs themselves – the compositions. The words and music, crafted so beautifully, so skillfully, they touched me to my core and transformed me in ways mere words could never do. To this day, when I’m moved by a great song, my first thought isn’t, “Wow, who is that singer?” It’s usually, “Wow, who wrote that song?”

I have enjoyed modest success as a songwriter and artist. In 1998, I wrote and recorded a song called Email Female, an amusing little anthem to the then-new phenomenon of online dating. It captured the zeitgeist of those early days of the Internet, and in the parlance of today, “blew up” on Napster, even spawning its own country line dance created by a choreographer in Scotland. Another song of mine, Mr. Next-Best-Thing, also got its fair share of attention. It was named Song of the Week on RealJukebox and was a Featured Song on MP3.COM, two of the premier music sites of the late 90s. Yet, in spite of these successes, most of my songs have gone unnoticed, never properly “exploited for their full commercial potential.”

Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty common sentiment among songwriters. “My songs are way better than most of what you hear on the radio or TV! How do I bust down the doors and claim my piece of the pie?” That was the inner narrative running through the minds of most of the songwriters, composers, lyricists, producers, and other musical creatives who gathered at Loews Hollywood Hotel for the 14th ASCAP ‘I Create Music’ Expo. This annual event purports to help aspiring or even established music professionals find their niche in the music industry.

Artist/songwriter Priscilla Renea
Artist/songwriter Priscilla Renea talks about the process.

ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, is the oldest performing rights organization in the United States. It protects the copyrights of its members by tracking the public performances of their music and then distributes performance royalties accordingly. Once a year, ASCAP holds an Expo, one in New York City and the other in Los Angeles, to bring together experts in the music industry to advise, mentor, and inspire those attending.

My first thought upon arrival was whether anything much had changed in the 10 years or so since my last visit to a music industry expo. In terms of the “Big Picture” the answer was no, not really. It’s still about becoming the best songwriter you can be and then learning how to make yourself “visible”, which really means building relationships that get you past the “gate keepers” so you can reach the inner circle. However, in terms of the specifics, with all the new tools and resources available to songwriters nowadays, it’s a whole new world!

The Expo began with an ASCAP membership meeting in which three executive officers gave a generally upbeat “state of the industry” report on the ongoing progress being made in advancing the interests of their members. This was followed by rousing musical performances by Atlantic Records recording artist MILCK and then by the band Portugal. The Man, winners of the 2018 ASCAP Vanguard Award, fresh off their No. 1 hits Live in the Moment and the quadruple-platinum Feel It Still — reminders that, when all is said and done, it’s still about the music.

As for the rest of the Expo, there was something for everyone. For the uninitiated, there were workshops on the music industry itself. What do publishers do? What do producers do? What do music supervisors do? How do the various players fit into the overall scheme? Then, of course, numerous workshops on how to write better songs – crucial, because for a song to be cut nowadays, it can’t just be good; it has to be spectacular.

There were also workshops on how to utilize the new technologies—how to record your own demos, how to use scoring software, how to conduct collaborative writing sessions with remote co-writers over the Internet – all tools today’s aspiring songwriters need to know about.

Portugal. The Man in concert at the Expo Songwriters Expo in Los Angeles.
Portugal. The Man in concert at the ASCAP Songwriters EXPO in Los Angeles.

There were panel discussions on what’s happening right now in specific music markets—the Latin market, the Country market, Gospel, Hip hop, you name it.  There were sessions on legal issues, copyright law, collecting foreign royalties and more, all given by experts in the field.

But bottom line, it’s still all about networking. That was the real buzz word for the weekend. So I networked with my fellow attendees and learned that everyone had a slightly different reasons for being there.

I asked Michelle Perron, an earnest and likeable songwriter from Brooklyn, what she hoped to get out of the Expo. She said she wanted expert feedback on her songs, which she did get. She was also hoping to find new co-writers to collaborate with, a highly recommended practice for breaking into new songwriting circles.

Remi, a songwriter/artist with exotic dreadlocks and a well-produced catalog of songs that hover somewhere between R&B, Funk, and World music said she was there to find out how to get her songs placed in commercials and film. For an extra $35, in addition to the $299 regular admission price, she had scheduled a one-on-one mentoring session with an industry insider, who, she said, was able to supply her with precisely the information she needed. She felt exhilarated at her success.

“There’s a certain euphoria that comes with the whole Expo experience—it’s the energy of being in the presence of creative hearts and souls with a love for music,” Remi said. “This is my second year and I always leave the Expo energized and excited about making music!”

Ryan Press, President of A&R for Warner/Chappell Music greets attendees after his panel session
Ryan Press, President of A&R for Warner/Chappell Music greets attendees after his panel session.

My personal intention was to find a savvy publisher who would believe in my songs enough to actively pitch them to the markets where they could most likely succeed. I admit I don’t have the connections to properly pursue that on my own, so a publisher who does is the obvious solution.

There was also a very specific project I had in mind: I have an old song I want to re-record with a hip new arrangement, and then pitch to Victoria’s Secret as the cornerstone for a whole new ad campaign (yes, it would be perfect!). A capable young producer, with a good studio who could give the song the fresh new sound it deserves, would be the key. Over the course of the weekend, just by talking to various other participants, I got a list of producers who might fit the bill. I plan to call them in the next few weeks to discuss the project. I also came away with a list of publishers I can check out as well. So for me, I’d say the Expo actually worked out pretty well too.

The overriding lesson was something I already knew: the music industry is not a meritocracy. That was the subtext in all the workshops, panel discussions, and conversations in the hallway. It still has a lot to do with “who you know.” If you can’t get your song directly to Lyle Lovett or Ariana Grande, you need to get to the people who can. As with all businesses, the music business is built on relationships. And if you’re willing to network, to cultivate connections and patiently build those relationships, you can bump your music career up to the next level. In the words of a veteran I spoke to who goes back year after year, “If you’re willing to work the Expo, the Expo will work for you!”

Garret Swayne
Garret Swayne is a Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist.  His engaging songs have earned him fans from coast to coast and indeed scattered (sparsely!) across the globe!  To hear some of his music, search ‘Garret Swayne’ on YouTube.

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