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Nashville’s songwriters fall on hard times

Radio homogenization, corporate mergers and music piracy have brought tough times to music industry.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nashville songwriters don’t have far to look for inspiration these days.

In a town famous for churning out sad country songs about heartache and despair, radio homogenization, corporate mergers and music piracy have made it tough for songwriters to earn a living.

“We’ve lost more than half of America’s professional songwriters over the past decade,” said Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. “The ones staying alive have really had to adapt.”

Thousands of songwriters and fans have descended on Nashville this week for the association’s Tin Pan South festival, which runs through Saturday.

“Most of the songwriters who are making a living are stretching out,” Herbison said. “They’re writing musical scores, producing and turning to television work. You can no longer depend on pitching songs, having two or three hits and making a living that way.”

Unlike pop and R&B, which often rely on the genius of a brilliant producer, the soul of country music has traditionally been the lyrics and melodies of its songwriters. Country artists also rely more heavily than others on outside songwriters.

On a recent night at the Bluebird Cafe, a place where Nashville’s songwriters come to hear and be heard, Jim Kimball picked a funky rhythm on his guitar as he sang a tune called “Cold Turkey.” Afterward, he and his wife, Christian songwriter Stephanie Lewis, said things are harder than even a few years ago, when the recession and file-sharing knocked the bottom out of the music industry.

“It feels like in the past the situations that could turn into opportunities were more plentiful,” said Kimball, who has lived here a dozen years. “This is a time when the business is shrinking.”

Kimball has had to adapt. He plays guitar in Reba McEntire’s band, writes songs for movies and television and performs at clubs.

“I don’t think the music industry is going down the tubes,” he said. “I see more artists relying on live performances because that is still the bread and butter for a lot of them.”

Radio, radioHerbison puts much of the blame on “radio consolidation,” their term for stations playing a narrow variety of artists, fewer songs and relying on cookie-cutter programming. These factors have made it tougher to get airplay and the royalties that come with it, Herbison says.

“Three people program 85 percent of all country stations in America,” Herbison said. “They sit in office towers and don’t know George Jones from George Clooney.”

Songwriter royalties from CD sales are about 8.5 cents per song; that’s usually split between the writer and the publisher. Often, the songwriters’ cut is even less because he has to share it with a co-writer.

The big money for most successful songwriters is from performance royalties, which are paid when a song is played on the radio.

“The biggest lick a writer can make is having a single that does good on radio,” said Fred Knobloch, who has written songs for Faith Hill, George Strait, Ray Charles and Trisha Yearwood. “You want singles, and you want them bad.”

A No. 1 single can generate $600,000 to $700,000 in royalties over the first two years of release, Knobloch said. That money typically is split between the writer and the publisher. A song that becomes a classic will continue to generate revenue for years to come, though much less than when it was new.

Songwriters also have had to contend with the consolidation of major record labels. A series of mergers has left only five major music companies: Universal, Warner Bros. and EMI, plus Sony and BMG, which are planning to merge. Many in the industry — writers, producers, musicians, publicists — have lost their jobs in the shuffle.

“I get at least a call a week, sometimes two, from people who had jobs in this business a year ago that are looking for work,” Knobloch said.

As an established writer, Knobloch is able to work as an independent. But many professional songwriters are employed by publishing companies. Knobloch started that way too. He said the publishing company he once worked for had more than 100 staff writers in 1993, a little more than 50 in 1997 and fewer than 30 today.

The problem, he said, is that sales are off the pace set during country’s commercial peak in the early and mid ’90s. Revenue from the sale of country music albums quadrupled between 1989 and 1995 to about $2 billion. But in recent years sales have stalled.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, country music sales fell nearly 10 percent last year, outpacing a decline of less than 1 percent by the industry overall. Country album sales fell from 76.9 million in 2002 to 69.3 million units.

“We’re not seeing that secondary buy as much now,” Knobloch said. “If you go into a record store and your income is stretched or there is competing technology, you buy one CD and not two.”

As for music piracy, or downloading music for free from the Internet, everyone believes it’s a problem, but not the worst one. Ultimately, many predict, the technology will help songwriters and performers more than hurt them. The challenge now, they say, is for the record companies to catch up to changing technology and consumer demand.

“They’ve been using the same business models for 50 years,” said David Cook, president of Belmont University’s Copyright Society in the School of Music Business. “I think if they embrace different business models that are more consumer friendly, the songwriters will see more money.”