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Selling Your Songs

Songwriters's Special

Article from Music UK, December 1983

Lorna Read Explains 'How To Sell Your Songs'

The term 'songwriter' covers a multitude of sings (Groan! — Ed.). There are those people who write purely for themselves, an outpouring of their feelings with no concession to current musical trends. There are those who fancy themselves as singer/songwriters and write according to their own vocal skills and limitations. Some people are into a particular type of music and write purely in that style. And, in addition to all the lone songwriters, there are people who are in a band and who write songs for their group.

Sooner or later even the least ambitious writer hears some mediocre record or other, sneers: "Even I could do better than that," and is fired with the ambition to whack their life's work off to... who? The first hurdle in the would-be hit songwriter's path crops up the moment the pen is raised to inscribe the Jiffy-bag.

The Fifties and Sixties were the heyday of 'Tin Pan Alley,' the nickname given to London's Denmark Street, where the ancient, rotting office buildings were honeycombed with grotty little offices, each housing a publisher desperate to make a fast buck out of the new pop music phenomenon. I have spoken to publishers who have assured me that it was possible then for a songwriter to walk in off the street, sit at the piano in the office, bash out some songs and be handed a publishing contract on the spot. It was then the publisher's job to hawk his wares around the record companies and the managers of individual artists.

Of course, rip-off merchants proliferated. Writers were stitched up in contracts they couldn't get out of, whether the publisher did anything with their songs or not, and methods of collecting royalties, particularly from abroad, were haphazard, to say the least. But nobody can deny that the market for songs was much wider then than it is now.

Though the Beatles were by no means the first group to write their own songs, their success certainly brought it home to other recording artists that there was a lot more money to be made out of writing and recording your own material than having to hand over a royalty to another writer. And as everyone financially involved with a performer — and not least the performer him — or herself — quite naturally wanted as large a slice of the financial cake as possible, singers and groups found themselves encouraged to try and write their own songs, not always with brilliant results. In fact, quite a lot of dire numbers crept on to albums which would never have been bought if tendered by unconnected writers.

As the move to do everything 'in-house' snowballed, most record companies started their own publishing off-shoots and gradually the independent publisher found himself being forced out into the cold. By the early Seventies, a lot of the little Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road offices had closed, and the survivors were those with a large 'back catalogue' of standards, such as Chappells.

As the recession started to bite in the mid-Seventies, two things happened. Many of the larger record companies found they had grown top-heavy and unwieldy and a lot of reorganisation went on, with inevitable redundancies, a splitting-off into smaller sections, sellings-off and amalgamations. There was a move back to smaller units who were less inclined to sign writers and acts they were unsure about as they no longer had the money to gamble with. And the New Wave saw the advent of DIY record production. A punk band in, say, Manchester, would find some way of financing their own record, which they'd record in a cheap local studio and release through an independent distributor, rather than signing a contract with a big record company and perhaps giving away more money than they needed. This leaves the present day songwriter in a rather confusing position. It would seem that there are, in a way, more options open to him or her than before, yet the market for songs has shrunk, and record companies and publishers are pickier than ever. The only way to succeed is to be clever, to make a conscious decision as to who or what you are aiming at, and to give your tape some instant appeal, so that it stands out from the dozens of others that arrived on the publisher's desk every week.

The first piece of advice I would give is that, if you belong to the lone songwriter category and are not attached to a band, there is little point in sending your material straight to a record company unless you see yourself as a singer/songwriter act. Unless you are pretty good and actually have a working act which an A&R man can come and see, there is no point in wasting your postage stamps. This may sound a little harsh, but it's better than getting your tapes back time after time and not knowing the reason why.


So, unless you are trying to get your act off the ground as well as your songs, it is always best to approach either an independent music publishing company, or the publishing arm of a record company, though the latter will be more on the lookout for material for the acts on their label, so this must be taken into consideration (more on this subject later).

A few years ago, most publishers preferred to receive a reel-to-reel tape rather than a cassette, as the quality was usually better. Now, cassette quality has greatly improved and every publisher I've spoken to has said that they prefer to receive songs on a cassette as it is much easier simply to slip it into a cassette player and press the button than to have to thread fiddly tape onto a machine that takes up a lot of shelf-space. So, although you may have recorded your song on a home reel-to-reel recorder, or in a studio, it's vital that you transfer your work onto cassette before sending it out. It's easier to post a cassette, too!

Opinion is divided as to how much trouble you should go to over making your tape. Obviously, for a band, it's important to show off your playing, arrangement and production skills, but the lone songwriter may only have a guitar or piano at their disposal. The answer seems to be to dress your songs up as best you can. If your singing voice isn't the best in the world, then be sensible and find someone with a better voice to do your singing for you, and try if you can to find another instrumentalist to add a bit more interest to your number. Even one harmony is better than nothing.

Brenda Brooker, whose expert ears have listened to countless tapes sent into the publishing arm of Mickie Most's RAK Records label, comments: "Many major companies say a tape is no good unless it's of master quality, but Mickie has picked up songs from a very basic tape, and I can tell if a song is good even though the tape itself isn't brilliant."

RAK sometimes receive more than twenty tapes a day from hopeful writers and artists, of which maybe four or five a week are passed on for Mickie's consideration.


Which brings me to another point, that of choosing a company to suit your material. If you are sending your tape to a big publishing company, it doesn't matter quite so much if you're sending punk or funk, but there is little point in sending heavy metal material to a pop label like RAK.

"We're pop orientated, so we're on the lookout for something we can use ourselves, for artists like Kim Wilde or Hot Chocolate — though they do have people writing for them, so it's difficult for unknowns to get through the door," admitted Ms. Brooker.

"One thing I can't understand," she added, "is that everyone has the same opportunity to find out what's happening in music today, all you have to do is turn on the radio, yet so many songwriters ignore what's happening and write the same as they did years ago. We want out and out pop songs, yet thirty percent of the songs we get are about sad love affairs... it's awful! Let's have something happy!"

Having worked with a publisher myself and having listened to a good deal of "off the street" material, I can vouch for this. There are an awful lot of cliched, moon-dune-crooned dirges searching for a Bing Crosby revival!

Richard Zuckerman, Senior Professional Executive at the pop music arm of Chappells, echoed the point that it's very difficult to do anything with an ordinary, straight ballad these days.


"The general standard of songs we get is pretty lousy," he confessed. "It might do writers good to study the U.S. market more. People outside the business seem to have the impression that, as a publishing company, we're dealing with hits all the time, but it's quite the opposite. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff that's sent in is no good. Even the writers we take on have to be developed and pushed."

Richard Zuckerman raised the point that it does help if you have a specific artist in mind for your songs. "What a lot of people forget is that we have many contacts. Our job is to see the relevant producers and try to sell them the song. If I think some of the material on a home demo shows potential, we have our own studio here and we will re-demo the stuff. Many songwriters are good on keyboards and can do very good demos. I don't like to see people spending a lot of money on making demos. My advice is to dress your songs up a bit more than just acoustic guitar and vocal, but don't spend a fortune."

Many people make the mistake of bunging a dozen songs on a tape and expecting a busy publisher to wade through the lot. With the exception of Brenda Brooker, who suggested that three numbers were the maximum for a group, and six to show the versatility of the writer (or else one really great one, she emphasised!), everyone else I spoke to asked for a maximum of three songs. Richard Zuckerman also pointed out that, if a writer has written one really outstanding song and several mediocre ones, it's best just to send in the one exceptional one. "We do a very nice publishing contract for a one-off song," he added. "If we haven't done anything with it within a year, the writer can have the song back and be free to do what they like with it." This sounds to me like a very fair deal. Previously, the shortest contract I'd come across was eighteen months.

Ian Surry, Creative Manager of CBS Songs, suggests that you should initially "send three songs on a cassette with a bit of biography about yourself. We're more interested in new writers and bands than in individual songs," he added, "we get about forty tapes a week and have three people who spend their whole time listening to them. We don't usually give up at the first few bars, either — we listen to at least a verse and a chorus!"

As far as tape quality is concerned, he informed me: "We have signed people from some of the most dreadful sounding demos, but if you have access to a proper studio, it helps to make a good impression."


RCA Records told me: "A songwriter would have to approach us through a publisher, as we listen to acts rather than songs. But our advice is to do a tape of your three best numbers."

The magic number three was also recommended by Tony O'Connor, from Phonogram's A&R department. Again, they don't take songs from songwriters as such — they would pass them to their publishing division — but they will listen to songs from writers who are with a band.

"Make sure one is a good, strong, well sung song and the others show the band as competent musicians and good writers, and do send a photo," he advised. "It's not necessary to go into a top studio — a good act will shine through. Certain record companies have certain ideas of what they want, but we will listen to everything because we believe there's a market for everything. You shouldn't prejudice what you believe in by trying to anticipate trends. Play what you want, and hope it's commercially viable." Other people were more specific about what they were currently looking for. Richard Zuckerman of Chappells: "A good pop song to suit someone like Elkie Brooks, Sheena Easton, Shakin' Stevens, Rod Stewart or Cliff — we have Cliff's current hit song. Think about the stand-up solo artist who depends on covers. It's no good writing songs for Depeche Mode or Madness as they write their own."

Ian Surry of CBS Songs: "The majority of bands use self-penned songs, but there's still a lack of good, fresh songs which is the reason why so many artists record old standards. We're looking for a new Lennon and McCartney!"

Think you've got what it takes? Then pick your three best numbers, try and think who they could be suitable for, make as good a demo as you can without breaking the bank, do a bit of research so that you don't send it to an unsuitable company (my advice is to ring up beforehand to try and find out if they have any particular requirements or bias), and send your tape off together with a stamped, addressed envelope if you want to be sure of getting it back. A list of publishers can be obtained by sending an S.A.E. to the Music Publishers Association, (Contact Details).

Don't forget that the position of the lone songwriter can be strengthened considerably by getting in with a local band and getting them to perform some of your material. Then not only will you have exposure for your songs, and musicians to help you with your demos, but if the band are signed, you'll have an automatic market for your songs. Even if you can only write sad love songs, there's no need to despair! Ian Surry of CBS Songs maintains: "There's nothing wrong in having a lyric about a broken love affair if it moves people." Perhaps Tony O'Connor is right and there really is a market for everything. Perhaps it's time I demoed my song about the gerbil that fell madly in love with the warthog.... (On the other hand... Ed.).

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Publisher: Music UK - Folly Publications

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Music UK - Dec 1983

Feature by Lorna Read

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