Contributed by Katie Jelen, Secret Road Music Services
“I want a pub deal.”
I hear these five words echo throughout the streets of Nashville more than “we should grab coffee sometime.” Ok, maybe not more, but it’s a close second. As a music publisher it’s not only my job to support our existing talent, but I meet with as many as ten songwriters or artists every week. While some are looking for me to sign them to a publishing deal, others are simply looking for guidance on how to prepare for a publishing deal down the road. Many have had cuts with major artists and others are just beginning their songwriting journey. I’ve found that many writers in the latter category come into these meetings with somewhat unrealistic expectations about what it means to sign a publishing deal. Sometimes these expectations stem from a lack of understanding surrounding what a pub deal is, but more often than not it stems from a lack of understanding surrounding who they are, where they are at in the their career and whether they are even ready for a pub deal at all. So, before you ask a publisher for an hour of their time, take an hour of your own and ask yourself the following questions. You’ll be happy you did.
Do you believe in your talent?
Of course it’s great when a publisher/manager/label takes notice of your talent and shows interest in you, but do YOU believe in you. It might sound obvious, but it’s an important question to ask yourself. Pretend you’re in a writing room with two other, more assertive writers. Perhaps they were excited to write alone and you were thrown into the mix at the last minute. They don’t want you there and they shoot down all of your ideas. You leave feeling defeated. Do you believe in yourself enough to go into tomorrow’s writing session with a good attitude and enough confidence to deliver? Now let’s imagine that you’re halfway into your publishing deal and things aren’t going the way you planned. Your creative point of contact moves to another company and you’re left to fend for yourself. Do you believe in your skills enough to push ahead and weather that storm? To convince the new team that you deserve their time and attention? I know. These are not the most pleasant situations, but they are real situations that happen every single day in Nashville and beyond. If you don’t believe in yourself enough to pull yourself through the toughest days then who will?
Do you want it more than every other person in the room?
Back in 2010, Paul Williams stated that “more than 600 people per week are signing up with ASCAP.” 600 people. Each week. To only ONE of the performing rights organizations in the United States alone. Granted not all of those people are pursuing songwriting as a full-time career, but that’s just a hint at how competitive a field music can be. Put yourself in a room with those 600 people. Do you want it more than all of them? Even though there are a seemingly endless number of music publishers, there are far more songwriters than publishing deals to go around.
While each songwriter brings something unique to the table, I’m often tasked with choosing between two very talented topliners, track guys/gals, etc. If I compare their capabilities and see that their skill sets are comparable, but that one wants it more than the other one, can you guess which writer I’m going to choose? I would do just about anything for my writers, but there’s something about them wanting it more than me that gets me out of bed in the morning. It’s your energy and passion that inspires us to pound the pavement and knock down doors for you. If you don’t want it for you, why should we?
Do you have something that sets you apart from everyone else?
One time I asked a singer-songwriter what set him apart from every other singer-songwriter out there. I’ll never forget his answer. “I’m a true romantic,” he said. It took every ounce of my being not to laugh my way out of the conversation. Saying you’re a romantic artist/writer is like saying you’re a breathing human. It’s a great quality to have, but it’s not something that makes you special in the competitive environment of songwriting. Are your melodies strong? Lyrical ideas fresh and original? Maybe your tracks are better than all of the other writers in town? Or maybe you’re just so cool/funny/chill that people want you in the room for your vibes. (This is actually a thing.) Whatever it is, find that one thing and sell yourself as THAT. Be the best THAT. Educate everyone in town that you’re the best at THAT. Even if you’re good at a few or all of those things, focus on one to get yourself noticed and use it as your main selling point. Because when my vibe guy calls in sick (it’s always the vibe guy) and I need someone to jump in at the last minute, I’m going to scroll through my mental rolodex of all of the people I’ve met along the way who stick out in my mind. And you want to make sure that it’s you.
Have you taken yourself as far as you can on your own?
A few years ago I saw Dr. Luke speak at a conference in LA. He said something that made a lot of things click for me as a young publisher. “When we sign writers to a publishing deal, we are not the sole publisher. It’s a co-publishing deal. The writer is their own publisher as well.” It may sound obvious on it’s surface, but so many young writers are looking for someone to step in and carry the weight of their career for them. This is very unappealing for a publisher. Not because we don’t want to do the work (we do), but because we want to be in business with someone who is going to work just as hard (if not harder) than we do. If a writer comes to me with a collection of (hopefully great) songs that they’ve written with many of the active writers in town, from co-writes that they’ve set up on their own, this tells me a few things: 1) they want it 2) they get it 3) they’re willing to do what it takes 4) they don’t expect me to do it all for them 5) they don’t expect me to do it all for them. (Yes, that repetition was intentional.) My point is, be your own publisher for as long as you can before you’re ready to bring on a publishing partner. Yes, partner. We’re in this together.
Are you being realistic in asking a business to hand you $X,000?
I love music. You love music. We all love music. It’s a very romantic notion to focus on how it makes us feel when we write or receive an incredible song, isn’t it? Unfortunately those feels do not pay your rent or my electric bill. At the end of the day, this is the music BUSINESS and I do have a boss who I need to sell not only on your incredible talent for rhyming orange with door hinge, but also the likelihood of your talent resulting in monetary success for both you and our publishing company. I know. It’s very unromantic and you didn’t get into songwriting for the business of it, but that’s just the truth of the matter. Of course we know that a new writer isn’t going to come to the table with a pocket full of hits and a pipeline of residuals, but is your talent, drive or catalog worthy of an often-sizeable investment? Would you pay you thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars? If the answer is no, work towards making yourself more valuable and come back to the table at a later point. Chances are, it’ll pay off down the road.
Do you even need a pub deal in the first place?
Ok, you’ve made it this far. You’re special, believe in yourself, have worked really hard and are ready for someone to show you the money. Sweet. But wait. Do you even need a pub deal? What is it about getting a pub deal that has you chomping at the bit? Do you need the money? Do you need someone to collect your international royalties? Do you want a team to get you into better writing rooms? Do you want to hear your music on Scandal or in a McDonald’s commercial? Consider this. Does a pub deal sound less glamorous to you if I told you that it was in essence just a bank loan with 25% interest and a dice roll of success? (Anyone who tells you that you’re guaranteed anything in this business is either a fortune-teller or a liar.) Are the things that you want things that you could pursue on your own? Do you really just need an admin deal? Or synch representation?
It’s ok to not want or need a pub deal. Or to wait and sign one later once you’ve gained some traction on your own. I know plenty of very talented writers who have forged their own paths through non-traditional approaches or just good old-fashioned hard work and determination.
Because at the end of the day, you are your best advocate
. And perhaps those are the most important five words of all.
This blog post was contributed by Katie Jelen, head of artist relations for Secret Road Music Services. Jelen is also one half of the creative team for Secret Road Music Publishing, handling the Nashville operations for the company. A "recovering singer-songwriter," she is a classically trained vocalist with a degree in Music Industry as well as a law degree from Drexel University with a concentration in intellectual property.
Cold, Hard, Beautiful Truth
Just wanted to take a second to tell you what an unbelievably great read I found this to be! I read a lot, and there are some brilliant minds willing to share their valuable insights, but I don't know that I've ever heard it broken down as succinctly, and factually as you've managed to do here.
With all of the massive changes in the way the business of music is conducted in recent years, it's more important than ever to understand the reality of what you as a publisher are basing your decisions on, and what we as writers can do to make those decisions easier for you.
As fantastic as the community of writers, publishers, PRO reps, and label folks is in Nashville, there are still those who muddy the waters, and lead less informed and less experienced writers astray by not helping them discover the very truths you've shared here. Fortunately, for every one of them, there is a Katie Jelen.
Thank you for that, because at the end of the day, there's nothing more empowering and invaluable as the cold, hard, beautiful truth.
Thanks Katie for your words of wisdom and for working so hard for us songwriters.