International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting Selling Your Songs

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Selling Songs

This page, penned by Jim Liddane, is part of a series of twelve short and very simplified articles, designed to help you understand the basics of songwriting and the songwriting business. The series is called "The Knowledge".

At the end of each article you will find a blue button, and by clicking on that, you will move to the next in the series.

So, if you know little or nothing about the industry, might we suggest that you first click on The Knowledge, and continue from there.

The Knowledge

How can I sell my song? Can I sell it to a singer? Can I sell it to a music publisher? Can I sell just words? Can I sell my song online? How much money will I make?

These are the six most common song song promotion questions we receive at International Songwriters Association. So if any of the above interest you - keep reading!

ISA Selling Your Songs

Writers who have never even been to London or Nashville or Hollywood, still manage to make that life-changing initial breakthrough every day of the week.

In other words, you do not have to live at the center of the music world to make it big (although, to be honest, it does help.)

But who should you be trying to contact anyway, in order to get that first leg in the door?

Jim Liddane looks at some of your options.

When you write a novel, you know what to do next - you take it straight to a publisher.

(And yes Virginia, I know all about writers who self-publish their first novels on the internet, but their success rate to date in terms of earning money from their work has been even more dismal than for those who attempt self-publishing in songwriting. And that has been pretty poor by any standards. Honestly!)

So, even though you are well aware that books are manufactured by printers, and sold by booksellers, you are not likely to think of going to the printer or to the bookseller yourself with your manuscript. You realise that you probably need a publisher.

In other words - the route for the aspiring author is clearcut. Authors approach publishers.

However, with a song, it is not quite as straightforward. True, you can go straight to a music publisher and indeed most songwriters still do. But you can as easily go to the record label, or indeed to the performer himself.

But it doesn't stop there because the performer for example, is usually represented by managers of various hues, not to mention producers, sundry agents and lawyers, some or all of whom, may have an input into what finally ends up on record, or are at least in a position to know what has that input.

So from the ever-increasing and ever-impressive list of superstars, corporations, moguls, would-be moguls and hangers-on, who should you approach with your song, if you have a specific artist in mind?

The Performer
A lot of songwriters think that if only they could get to the star himself, they could very easily sell their song.

Hollywood is as much to blame for this fairytale scenario as anything else.

In the classic movie, the songwriter just strolls up to the singer and hands him a CD, or (if the scriptwnter is displaying a little more imagination that week), sings the song to him in the back of a taxi on the way to some airport or other. By nightfall, the song has been recorded in a state-of-the-art studio (which for some reason or other is never already booked out), and by the next morning, it is Number One everywhere.

Oh - and the songwriter gets the girl as well.

The reality is unfortunately, not quite as romantic. One of our subscribers dines well from his hilarious account of how, after weeks of tracking and hunting, he finally waylaid the star of his dreams as he left his hotel.

Pushing everybody else aside, our hero thrust the envelope containing his next hit into the singer's surprised hands.

The stunned superstar made a quick recovery - flashed him his famous winning smile, whipped out his pen, autographed the back of the envelope, and handed it back to the baffled songwriter just as they bundled the singer into his limousine.

Exit one delighted superstar, and one deflated songwriter in a scenario that is, I'm afraid to say, closer to reality than anything Hollywood has dreamt up to date.

Even if you can persuade a performer, hyped up on a heady cocktail of fame and illicit substances, to come down to earth long enough to listen to your CD, you can usually see from that faraway look in his eyes that within minutes of your bidding him good-bye, he will not remember that you were ever there - let alone what he did with your CD.

Stars are different - that's why they're stars, and they're rarely equipped to deal with aspiring songwriters, or indeed, real life. The direct approach has indeed worked outside the movies, but usually, it worked because it was a personal approach from somebody already known to the performer - and somebody who knew the most opportune time to make that approach.

The moral of all this? The International Songwriters Association rarely gives personal addresses for singers, except where the singer has no current label or no current management - and if that's the case, should you be bothering in the first place?

The Record Label
Theoretically, the people at the record label are the only people who should matter, but when it comes to making that crucial decision as to whose song is used, this is not always the case. However, if you send your song to the relevant label, somebody there will at least know what to do with it, or else to whom to send it.

Most of the big labels have UK and US headquarters. Although, it makes sense to send a song for an American singer, to the American office, and a song for a UK singer to the UK office, there is usually nothing lost if you do it in reverse, as most of the larger labels operate courier services between branches anyway, so your CD should find its way home no matter where you send it.

Indeed, one of our subscribers, finding that his attempts to contact an American singer via his New York label, were being constantly frustrated by his CD coming back unopened, marked "unsolicited", sent it to the London office instead, marking it for the attention on the singer. To his amazement, two weeks later, he got a reply from the same New York office which had kept sending back his material heretofore! Apparently, since it now came to them from their UK office, they no longer regarded it as unsolicited!

The International Songwriters Association always gives the UK and US record label addresses for any singer.

The Music Publisher
A word of warning before we proceed. Most American-based publishers refuse to accept "unsolicited" material from songwriters, and insist on returning it unopened.

There are exceptions, but these are becoming few and far between.

Some companies advise that you should write first asking for permission, and if they give it (and in so doing, give you a code to use in your address label), you are free to send the song. The problem we notice is however, that having advised you to write first, they often fail to reply one way or the other to such requests, which puts you back where you started anyway.

Apart from this little problem with American-based firms, the music publisher is not only the best bet if you are pitching your song in no particular direction, but is often also the best bet if you are trying to place your song with a particular star. A letter to any large publisher suggesting a specific singer as a potential outlet for your song, will (if the song has any potential) often elicit a positive response. However, if you wish to be more precise with your promotion, then the last publisher to have a chart entry with that particular performer, is always worth trying first.

International Songwriters Association will usually only name a specific publisher as the best contact. when the publisher has a current hit with the star in question.

The Others
Some singers and acts are represented by just one person or company. Others maintain a battery of representatives, ranging from personal managers, through record producers, legal advisors, booking agents, business managers, public relations managers, general dogsbodies of uncertain status, and the wife's brother, whom nobody else would employ.

Generally speaking, if the International Songwriters Association gives a contact other than a record label, it is either because we believe that that specific person has some input into the choice of material, or because that particular person or organisation, has proved an effective conduit for placing material with that performer in the past.

The Agent
Songwriters often wonder if they should get themselves an "agent" - in other words, somebody who is happy to represent unpublished songwriters purely on a percentage of future income basis.

Their search is usually fruitless.

There are of course agents who represent performing songwriters or singer-songwriters on a percentage of income basis.

In these cases however, there is usually already some current income from live performances, and consequently, a percentage for that agent to earn.

However it is difficult to obtain an agent who will operate on behalf of unpublished non-performing writers on the same basis - namely a percentage of income from the songwriting itself.

From time to time, you will come across advertisements from people who say they are willing to represent unpublished writers. Our experience to date is that they generally want

(a) a fee upfront

and often

(b) a percentage of the writer's income should the songs be eventually published.

But the one constant seems to be that upfront fee.

If you ask them to waive the percentage in return for a bigger fee, many will do so quite happily.

However, if you ask them to waive the upfront fee in exchange for a bigger percentage, they usually will not. They want their upfront fee first.

That lack of confidence in their ability to generate income for you in the future, speaks I think, for itself, and one has to wonder how much effort is likely to be made by an agent who has already been paid in advance anyway.

In reality, music publishers have more or less replaced "songwriters agents" or "songpluggers", and effectively, nowadays represent writers in their dealings with labels and acts.

As a top (agentless) songwriter once told me - "if you cannot persuade a publisher to accept your song, then it is extremely unlikely that a plugger will succeed where you the songwriter failed".

Selling Directly Online
The one thing you will notice about everything I have said so far is this - you need a middleman - whether that be a singer, a music publisher, a record label, or an agent (or a combination of all four!) - to get your song to market.

But how about doing it all yourself by recording the song, putting it on the web, and then selling it directly to your fans?

Sounds great, but can it really be done?

Well the simple answer is - yes it can! But it will be more difficult, and if you end up turning out a really top product, you may still not make as much money as you might have done had you gone down the conventional route, simply because you will probably not sell anywhere as many copies.

And you will have to do a lot of extra work, such as handling sales, securing copyright and other matters that a music publisher wpuld taken care of for you.

But not to worry! We have a special article titled "Putting Your Songs On The Web", as well as features on copyright, promotion etc., on this site, and all you have to do is go to the menu at the top of this page, and click on them!

Some Last Words
Well, now you have decided which route you want to go down, you have to turn your attention to how to get your song into the hands of he who matters.

You can always go down the tried and trusted postal road, or else use an online method such as asking the executive to visit your site or (if the company has such a scheme), send your MP3 to their DropBox.

The main thing is to try and avoid being anonymous.

If you have a name in a record label, music publisher or management office, you should address your submission to that person, even if you're not sure as to the relevance of the name you have.

If your letter is addressed to a named (even if irrelevant) executive, the person who opens it will nearly always re-direct it to the correct executive anyway.

If you have no name - then telephone the company concerned, introduce yourself confidently as though everybody should know who you are, and in your most polite fashion, ask the telephonist for the name of the person to whom your letter should be sent. Even though I am quite sure that most telephonists have been told to be wary about giving out names to people they do not recognise, if you sound confident - you may well get the information anyway.

If you are unable to obtain a name, then address the CD to the star for whom the song is intended. Mail addressed to the star is usually directed to whomsoever handles that performer's affairs, and whoever gets it will hopefully re-direct it to the relevant executive handling choice of material.

Above all, try and avoid addressing the CD simply to the company itself. With no name whatsoever on it, the package will be opened by the lowest staff member around, who may very well not have the slightest idea what to do next with it. Or worse, he may have a blanket instruction to dump anything which is not addressed to a specific executive. With an executive's name (or a star's name) attached, it will travel higher up the ladder, to be dealt with by somebody powerful enough to make decisions, or intelligent enough to refer it to somebody who can.

And as an ISA Member, you can learn how to put the package in the right hands anyway!

Finally, make everything look professional. Typed labels, clean jiffy bags, and a smart appearance, help concentrate the mind of the recipient.

He must never get the impression that this song has been round the block, and rejected by everybody else. It must always appear new - and he must be convinced that he is the first person to hear it.

The Knowledge

ISA International Songwriters Association (1967)