International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting Song Promotion
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ISA Song Promotion

This is one of a series of short and very simplified articles, designed to improve your understanding of the songwriting business. If you know little or nothing about the industry, might we suggest that you first click on the Songwriting The Basics button at the top of this page, and continue on from there?

And remember, if having read this or any other article, you have a query, simply email us HERE and we will be more than happy to respond.

ISA Song Promotion

Promoting your songs for the first time? Despite what you may read, there are no "magic bullets" - no secret methods. Most promotion remains hit or miss, and what impresses one outlet may have the opposite effect on the next.

But Jim Liddane has put together some tried and trusted guidelines.

Postal promotion versus online
In the "good old days" (around 2005 - remember then?), 90% of promotion was done via the trusty postal service. Nowadays, the figure is closer to 30% - but since online promotion is usually a matter of trying to direct the publisher or label to a website where your work is available, and as that is dealt with on another section of this site under "Putting Your Songs On The Web", this article will deal mainly with non-online promotion.

So why should I not go straight to that article?
For two reasons. First, the web is wonderful but as far as song promotion goes, it is not necessarily the best method.

For a start, there are several million unpublished songs already online, and it is not easy to make your tune (no matter how brilliant), stand out above the rest. Consequently, you have to be able to drag the publisher or label executive to your particular slot on that cloud, usually by sending an email invitation.

Believe it or not, some executives receive hundreds of emails ever single day inviting them to go to and you can well imagine how few of these requests get any sort of hearing at all.

The best way still of getting somebody to listen to your song is to put it into their hands, one way or another - not to make them go and seek it out.

The second reason this article might be worth continuing with is this. Even if you decide to go the online route, some firms will not visit a link, although they will accept an MP3 sent to their DropBox, and this article contains a lot of points which apply equally to both postal and online promotion.

Forget postal, ignore online. Do any writers just drop into a publisher's office nowadays?
Ah that takes me back - the way it used to be done in the 1960s!

Oddly enough, some writers do still try cold-calling selected offices in London, but frankly it must be a most dispiriting stroll nowadays.

However, back in the 1970s, the ISA actually paid a writer to travel to England, stay overnight in a (modest) hotel, and then spend the next working day cold-calling as many music publishers in London as he could, without disclosing that he was with ISA.

Our intrepid explorer walked a route of his own designing, starting off in Denmark Street, moving into Charing Cross Road, and finally into Soho Square, personally visiting each chosen office enroute, with the objective of handing in a demo.

Believe it or not, he was refused entry into only one premises, and although two more declined to take the demo off him, he still managed to leave a tape in seventeen offices, and even got to speak personally to an "important person" in seven of them (even if only for a few minutes in some cases).

His ensuing article was unbelievably detailed, (even if that begrudger back here reviewing the expense claim did note that he had still managed to fit in two very lavish meals during a single day's work, ignoring the obvious fact that walking and talking is - as he pointed out on his return "bloody hard work on an empty stomach").

Nonetheless, it had to be admitted that he had got to exactly twenty offices in the space of an eight hour walk even allowing for the fact that in those days, more than sixty publishers occupied one square mile in London's West End. (As apparently did those two allegedly lavish restaurants.)

In the end, it was agreed that had he dined more modestly, it would have been a far cheaper method of delivering seventeen demos than using the postal service. Not to mention the health benefits (blisters apart) from all that walking.

Well, that legendary Grand Tour itself could still be undertaken, although given the current scattered locations of the top offices, you might be lucky nowadays to get to even peer in the windows of of ten music publishers all in the same day before moving on quickly to the next one.

And to be honest, getting past that (usually locked) front door into reception itself without resorting to subterfuge (or a crowbar), would be far more difficult than it used to be back in the seventies!

And as for obtaining personal meetings with A&R men....well the mind boggles. Nowadays, they talk only to God, and even then only by appointment.

(Incidentally, on a nostalgic note, armed with the original article we published all those years ago, I decided to re-walk the exact same route in November 2009. Sadly by then, most of the publishers listed had either moved on or had long since closed down and Denmark Street, the original "Tin Pan Alley" was now a music publishing ghost town. Even those two infamous restaurants had disappeared. Still, despite an obvious lack of fitness, I managed to retrace the original pilgrimage in just under three hours, so it could still be done, but nowadays more as an exercise in nostalgia than anything else I'm afraid!)

But anyway - no matter which method of promotion you eventually decide upon - postal, online, or even a personal visitation - you will need a demo or demonstration recording of your song.

Make sure that the demo is as good as you can make it
Nowadays, many demos are as good as masters, and some are better! If your song is as good as you think it is, do not spoil it with a bad demo.

For a slow ballad, you can possibly get away with one voice and piano, if both the voice and piano are of a high standard. For country material, you can often get away with one vocal and guitar, although most country demos nowadays have vocal, guitar, bass and drums, at a minimum. For uptempo pop/rock, you will usually need a fairly full production, vocals (including backing vocals if required), keyboards, guitars, drums etc.

If the song is intended for a male singer, it should be demoed by a male singer and if intended for a female singer, it should be demoed by a female singer.

Having said that, a good demo will not make a bad song a hit, but it can incline a publisher to ask for more material, if you sound like a serious player.

And do not advertise your neanderthal status by sending a cassette tape! (Believe it or not, people still do that but what we want to know is where do they lay hands on those things?). Anyway, doing that is a dead giveaway that you lost contact with the real world around 1986.

On the other hand, do not be too adventurous. MP3 CDs for example, still do not play properly in all CD players (and why not we ask?), so for the time being anyway, stick to the common-or-garden music CD. At least, that still works.

If the demo lets the song down, do not waste your money sending it.
Plenty of top-quality demos still get rejected, so there is little hope for a below-standard demo. But remember, in the end, the song is what really matters - not the demo.

Don't expect to get the demo back
To you, it is a work of art. To the music executive, it is just another demo, and he may (or may not) bother to return it.

Sad though it may seem, your work was unsolicited so the company has no obligation to listen to it, or to return it.

Keep everything looking fresh
Make sure that the demo itself looks new, and that the label is clean. Make sure that the lyric sheet is a new copy. No publisher is going to want to see a song that looks as though it was written five years ago, and has been rejected by every other publisher since.

In this respect, if you are a member of the International Songwriters Association, you will have received CD labels, letterheadings etc., printed with your name, address and contact information. Use these. If not a member, it is not difficult to get an artistic friend to work a bit of magic for you.

Make sure that your letter looks professional
It should be sent on printed letterheading which should be neat and well-printed. If the letterheading is printed, you may - if you cannot use a computer - write the letter. If the letterheading is not printed, the letter should definitely be typed.

In the letter, be very brief but friendly
Keep it simple, like a professional songwriter would. Just say that you are sending the song (state title) for their consideration, and leave it at that. If you have a particular singer in mind, by all means say that the song would suit that singer.

If you are not happy with the song or the demo, do not announce this. There is no point in prejudicing them against the song before they've heard it. Anyway, a professional songwriter would not be apologising, he would be making a better demo, or constructing a better song.

If you have other songs online on your own website, mention this briefly
Even if he cannot use the actual song you sent, he might well click to hear some more if the first demo is reasonably interesting.

However, even though most publishers claim they will go to a website to audition further material, in our experience very few actually do unless you have made a real impression on them first time out.

And as for sending in nothing at all, but instead writing a letter or email asking the publisher to go to a website to hear your work - our experience is that you are unlikely to get any response to such requests unless your letter/email is so brilliantly composed that not even a man with a heart of stone (such as a music publisher), could refuse.

[That remark is meant as a joke. Some of our best friends are music publishers]

[Come to think of it, that last remark is also a joke]

Use a new light-weight Jiffy or Arofol bag
Size four is best. Affix a good-quality (if possible, printed) label on the front. Get a contact name inside the company. Without a name, you may not get beyond the guy who opens the mail, so try and get a name. If you cannot, then you can address it to the A & R Department of the company but be prepared for disappointment. And make sure that your own name and address are printed clearly on the rear.

Enclose a second smaller Jiffy or Arofol bag
Size three is best, with your own name and address on it. Put sufficient stamps on this to allow for return postage but do not expect to get it back. But do it anyway, as who knows - they might return it. Even a negative reply lets you know that they are a company who does accept unsolicited material.

If promoting overseas, enclose a bank note
If you really want to get the demo back, enclose a bank note of the country in question to prepay return postage. You can generally obtain foreign bank notes at most large banks. IRC's, which are recommended by postal services for prepaying foreign postage, are generally useless.

However, do remember - most companies do not bother to return material they did not request in the first place, and return postage may amount to far more than the CD is worth.

Set up a Promotion File for the song
ISA supplies a Promotion File Sheet to its members, which can be got from the Members Site, but if you are not an ISA member, you can always make one up yourself.

On the Promotion File, write in the details of the song in the box at the top, and when you are going to post the packet, complete the Parcel Post receipt. The Post Office will stamp this, thus giving you a Certificate of Posting in the unlikely event of a copyright dispute ever arising.

If responding to a tip
If you are responding to a tip, read carefully exactly what the company is looking for - style of song, type of demo etc.

They will get only a few packages with exactly what they requested, and those demos will get listened to. They will get hundreds of packages with everything but what they requested. They'll get dumped.

What is all this talk about "unsolicited"?
Many UK, and most American companies, refuse what they call "unsolicited" material. This means that if they have not received material through a lawyer or a manager, or a source known to them, they will automatically refuse it.

This is done (they say) in an attempt to protect them against copyright infringement claims, but is frequently used to avoid large number of bands sending in CDs when the label or publisher already has sufficient work on hands.

You can generally take it that the largest firms are not all that interested in nurturing new songwriters - many of these companies are seeking only to purchase catalogues, and are not interested in developing talent. As an executive once told me when I remonstrated that he had lost the chance of handling a very promising songwriter who had subsequently signed with a small indie publisher - "That's fine. They'll develop him and in a few years, we'll buy him".

Any solutions?
(1) You can of course, write them a letter asking for permission to send in material, whereupon they may give you a special name or code which you can write on the envelope to identify that it has been "solicited".

This does occasionally work, but frequently, even though they suggest you should write asking for permission - they fail to reply to this request also.

You can also simply phone up and ask for permission, and this can often work. So can cold-calling personally to their office, although you need a thick skin and hard neck for this.

(2) You can attempt to place the material through an act's manager (many of these do not have a hard and fast rule about unsolicited), or an act's producer (again, many of these do not have as strict policies).

(3) You can, as you have done, place the songs on a site, and direct the publisher/label to it. This overcomes the "unsolicited" argument in that you have exposed your own material online and copyright is not as great an issue for the publisher.

However, the problem here is that in spite of what they may say in interviews, our own survey taken in 2009, showed that only a minority of publishers would actually follow a link purely on the strength of being asked to so do.

(4) You can try and get representation from a lawyer who is involved in the music industry, and through whom a number of submissions arrive.

However, this can be a matter of pot luck. One of our members got representation on his first attempt but most find it a much slower process.

(5) You can do what a lot of writers do, namely get a name inside the company, and address your package to that person. It should still be regarded as unsolicited, but in many cases, it will at least get as far as your so-called "contact".

Of course he may still follow company policy anyway and dump it, but then again he might not, particularly if he is a very busy executive dealing with multiple contacts on a daily basis, and accordingly unsure as to whether he might have had dealings with you before or not.

OK - that is a bit dishonest, but all is fair in love and war. And take it from me, promotion is a lot closer to war than to love.

When will you hear back?
Usually, if you are going to hear at all, you will get a reply from a company within 60 days. Not all firms are prompt, and anyway most will probably never reply, nor return your demo.

Remember it was unsolicited - they didn't invite you to send it, so there is absolutely nothing you or anybody else can do about this. Abusing people about your missing CD will achieve nothing much apart from ensuring that they will definitely throw your next one in the bin. It is annoying to lose a demo, but it is a fact of life. If you don't like the rules - don't get in the game.

Once you've posted it - forget it
Immediately the song is in the post, start work on the next one. Most successful writers have a dozen or so songs on the circuit at any one time. Do not wait around for a reply, and do NOT chase the submission up. It looks amateurish, and you are not an amateur - are you?

So what could happen next?
There are a number of possibilities.

(a) You may get no reply at all, in which case, knock that firm off your list of potential publishers. They may have a closed door policy - they may be simply inefficient.

(b) You may get the parcel returned marked "unsolicited". This is still relatively unusual in the UK (although not in the USA). Just knock that firm off your list of potential publishers.

(c) You may get a rejection slip, in which case, check to see if there is a contact name given on it. The next time you send a song to that firm, use the contact name.

(d) You may get a letter returning the CD, but requesting more material. This is a very positive outcome.

However, there is no hurry about replying. Believe it or not, they won't be sitting there on tenterhooks waiting for your next song! Simply reply telling them when you hope to send in your next song. Then when you have something better ready, photocopy the original letter they sent you, and send it in along with your new demo.

Do not - repeat, do not send in something inferior simply because you are in a hurry. They are in no hurry but if you rush back something worse than the last song, you will have blown that contact for good.

(e) You may get a contract in the post, or an offer of one. Contact your lawyer, or the ISA, to have it vetted.

Some final thoughts
Songwriting is a business - nothing more, nothing less.

If your package looks professional and sounds professional, you are in with a chance - but that is all.

If it looks amateurish and sounds amateurish, you might as well put your money on a healthy horse.

[Incidentally, we have made a few bob over the years backing two horses, one called Songwriter, and the other called Singer-Songwriter. Any other similarly-themed tips welcome!]

The ISA has been there since 1967, and in our experience, writers who persevere, eventually get at least a contract offer.

But it is literally, 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration.

The Knowledge

ISA International Songwriters Association (1967) Ltd
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International Songwriters Association Limited
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