strangles hit songwriter Jerry Vandiver for omitting
grow up in L.A.?
I did. We use the words "grow up" very loosely here.
How did you get started in the music
I met somebody who had a small booking agency who was looking
to get out. I spent a month with him, gave him some money
for some introductions and some files, and I started from
there. I started booking acts in the '80s. I found my niche
in hotel lounges. I was responsible for live entertainment
for all of the Hyatts, and many Sheratons, and Holiday Inns
in Southern California. But I always knew I'd segue into publishing
so I could work with writers.
saw the writing on the wall with what was happening in Nashville.
So I started with one songwriter, Phil Swann, who was working
through my agency as a piano player. Phil opened the office
in Southern California. After a year of going back and forth
between Nashville from Los Angeles, I started to take seriously
what people were saying in Nashville, which was: you've got
to be here to make it work. I did conclude that that was probably
a way to save three or four years of effort. I picked up and
moved to Nashville in 1993.
Tell us more about your company since
the move to Nashville.
I started as a true independent song publishing company, which
means that I have funded myself. I got an office on Music
Row, and by that time, I had actually signed four writers
to my company. I was paying a draw to four writers, as I was
trying to make my presence known here. The good news was it
was tough to get meetings at first, which meant that I didn't
get to play a whole lot of songs for people. That was good
because over time my ears have actually become much more capable
here in this community. I kind of learned the standard practices
of this community as I went along. It could be said that I
didn't waste too many people's time early on because I didn't
have a lot of opportunity to do that. I've been plugging and
pitching songs ever since, though.
thing that did happen as far as paying the rent, is I began
to plug independently for writers who had deals with other
companies. What that means is that I might work for a monthly
stipend and get a bonus on the back end of songs that I was
responsible for taking to meetings. But it also allowed me
to work with songwriters who were better known than I. We
always say here that we represent songs, but in fact, songs
represent us. I managed to gain entry by putting forth the
names of some of the larger writers that I worked with at
question could be asked, why would they want to work with
me? Well, I don't know a songwriter in Nashville who is satisfied
that he is getting enough attention from his publishing company.
Everybody tries every angle. If somebody worked with me, it
meant that they were of the belief that I was hard working,
and that I had access, and that I had good ears. Though I
can make a living as an independent song plugger, I also like
having my own company as a publisher. I like working intimately
with the writers at every phase of the songfrom the germination
of an idea, to the development of that idea, to helping edit
it, and then taking the song into the studio and trying to
make the magic there.
Is that one of the criteria for the writers that you sign?
Do they have to be willing to work with you closely on the
writing of the songs?
That's a really good question. I've actually recently had
the experience with someone that I was independently plugging
who thought I was taking my opinions too seriously. The answer
to your question is that if somebody is going to write for
my company, there has to be a comfortable and willing partnership
in terms of each of us needing to be heard and needing to
contribute. I'm really passionate about songs, and I can't
not have my opinions. Now, a songwriter doesn't have to ultimately
accept my opinions, but the other side of that is that I may
not be as enthusiastic about the song. If I'm not passionate
about the song, I'm not going to be the most effective representative
of that song. A song deserves more than that. But thus far
with the writers that I'm working with currently, we have
that understanding that I'm going to have my two cents because
I care. I'll put it forth, and sometimes the writer can see
the sense in it, and sometimes they can turn my head around
and I can see the sense in their point of view. Good working
relationships in my company matter to me a great deal. If
it looks like we're going to have a hard time respecting each
other and appreciating each other, I'd just as soon work with
What are some of the elements that make a song great to
The song has to hit me in my cells. I have to have an emotional
response to a song. That generally lives in the music of the
song. Lyrically, if it's a story song, I need to care about
the characters. I like to know who to root for and who to
root against in the song. The truth is, a lot of the elements
of a movie live in a song. My favorite songs are the ones
we call "3-minute movies." We see some characters that are
vividly portrayed. A song has to have a reason to keep the
listener listening. Many songs break down in the second verse
if the story is not advanced. The song has to have a chorus
that hits you the first time and is pretty memorable and easy
to tap your foot to and sing along with. Songs need to resolve
in the end if they are story songs.
talk to my writers about the fact that we're privileged that
people give us the generosity of their listening. In return,
we need to fill that 3 minutes with a little gift, a contribution
that fills up that much time. Two-thirds of the song may be
great, that's not enough. That's not going to cut it, especially
when this is called the music "business." Business is very
How good do demos have to be these days?
That's an interesting question, because when I first came
to town, I had some demos that we made in L.A., and it was
not considered a good thing that people could recognize that
those were not Nashville demos.
then there came a time here where demos were so elaborate,
and part of the reason is that there are some producers who
will cop the demo on their recordings so they don't have to
produce. They are so busy with so many other things.
now what I'm finding is a reverse trend. A good clean guitar-vocal
can go a long way, I think, because it reminds people that
if the song is there, the song is there. A good clean guitar-vocal
can actually, I think, remind the listenerin this case A&R
people and producersof what brought them here in the first
place. It was the love of the song. Now those types of guitar-vocal
songs are standing out in contrast and will get a good listen
Do good writers ever write bad songs?
Good writers will write bad songs, but most often they'll
wind up letting those things go. They absolutely do get stuck,
though. They can also write something that maybe they love
that no one else does. They may write something based on an
experience that acts more as therapy for the writer than it's
going to have commercial value for an audience. The answer
is yes, good writers write bad songs. But the really good
writers get to a pointand I've seen writers who make this
great leap forward with their songwritingof gaining this
ability to see early on in the process that this thing is
not going to happen. It doesn't work, and they drop it. As
a general rule, they know the difference between a really
good song and something other than that.
Of the good songs that a hit writer writes, what percentage
end up getting cut? Do they all get cut?
Oh no, no. There are certain names that are hot, where the
name will matter. You'll want the person you're playing the
song for to know that this happens to be one of these hit
writer's songs. There will often be a predisposition on the
part of the listenerit's just human natureto think, 'oh
this must already be good.' But that's simply not always the
case, certainly. A hit is very hard to come by. Getting a
cut is very hard to come by. With baseball batting averages,
you're successful by failing seven out of ten times as a hitter.
As a songwriter, nobody bats 300. It's tough for any songwriter
to continue a stream of success.
Do the good songs that get cut always get cut right away,
or does it involve some repeated pitching?
I'd say there are four or five songs in my catalog that I
love that I've pitched over a hundred times each. One of them
just got cut for the second time. The first time it was cut,
however, the album never wound up coming out, which happens
from time to time. People may listen to between 2,000 and
3,000 songs for a project, which is not uncommon. We've all
had the experience of making it maybe to the last 12 to 16
songs that are recorded, because that's generally the amount
an artist might cut, and then ultimately take the ten that
they feel work the best for the album. So you can actually
be one of those songs from number 11 to 16 that doesn't make
the album. That can be very frustrating, but that's the reality
too. Even when you get that far, there are no guarantees.
Writers often complain to us that they hear poor quality
songs on Country radio or on album cuts on Country albums.
Do you agree that there are some bad songs that get cut, and
if so, how come?
I do agree that there are some bad songs that get cut, and
I don't think I'm alone in that assessment. I think a lot
of other music professionals in Nashville would share that
opinion. I think it happens for a few reasons. I think greed
is one reason. There are many, many songs that have a much
greater advantage of being cut just because it could be written
by the artist himself who has some clout and wants the song
on the record.
producers in town are songwriters as well. Many producers
in town have their own publishing companies, so they can dip
into their own catalogs and have a payoff that way as a publisher
as well. The record labels all have publishing arms. So we're
all up against that.
it's pretty much done by committee as well. We had a song
that a band wanted to cut, and the band leader said it was
going to be a tough process because 13 people had to agree
on the song. It really pretty much only takes one person to
say no. It took 13 people in this case to say yes, from the
band members, to the label, promotion, A&R, and producer.
That makes things tough.
think that often the reason that we hear songs on the radio
that we may not be passionate about is because there are many
songs where it's hard to say no because they're safe and bland.
You really can't put your finger on something that is really
wrong unless you can conclude that it's safe and bland, which
I think is reason enough to 86 a song. The songs that I happen
to love and get passionate about might have a point of view
in the song that might be controversial. There might be emotions
shared in a song that may not be comfortable for someone.
They may be even a little too intelligent sometimes. We're
always told to write for the lowest common denominator. I
don't always agree with that. I would rather have somebody
say, "I hate that song," than that it's bland, or safe, or
doesn't impact the listener. I do want reactions from our
songs. On the other hand, those are in most cases tougher
songs to get cut.
What do you say to people who think that writing Country
music is easy because there is a "formula?"
Whoever says that isn't a successful Country writer. It's
somebody who hasn't really had success. It may be easy for
them, but their songs aren't getting cut.
How do new writers break into the Country market?
They break in by writing, and by makingÖ I'm going to call
them partnerships. They break in by finding writers who maybe
have more clout who can sort of wave their banner with a new
writer. If there is a new writer that comes to this community
that people are excited about, the community gets to learn
that person's name really pretty quickly. If you come to this
town for a visit, you'll hear, "You've got to move here,"
and then they'll add, "Unless you're Hugh Presswood or Steve
Seskin." The writer that I began with, Phil Swann, lives in
Los Angeles and has always lived in Los Angeles since we began.
It's my intention, in fact, to have my writers' names put
in that grouping. Is it tougher to not be here? I'd say absolutely.
On the other hand, the benefit is in some ways you can keep
fresher, and you can keep away from formula and the common
ideas here, which might be an advantage. But you've got to
be here enough, or have somebody who is your cheerleader,
like I am for Phil. You do have to keep people's names alive,
because there is always somebody already standing here ready
to take your place.
How do you deal with rejection?
As a song plugger or a publisher, and this sounds ironic,
I have to be an easy person to say "no" to, because most times
we're going to be told "no." What I can't do is argue about
that and defend myself. I don't want to be a patsy, but on
the other hand, I have to be respectful, and I have to understand
that when somebody in A&R, or a producer, is saying "no" to
me, in a sense they're really doing me a favor. What I hear
is, "Steve, we still respect you. I appreciate the work you
do, but I'm not going to advance the commercial life of this
particular song with this particular artist at this particular
point in time." If we as song pluggers and publishers can
hear a "no" as that, it gives us a lot of dignity and a lot
of strength to persevere. A lot of people who do what I do
drop out because they fall into this trap of hearing a "no"
as rejection. It's not rejection, it's somebody who is giving
you their take on what's best for their concerns. To me, it's
"thank you," and I know what not to play next, and I might
know what to play next. I'll get some information out of the
songs they're saying "no" about and also know where to take
that song next. There may be another artist to try. I think
the primary attribute of a good song plugger is one who is
present in the moment and has an ability to listen to the
concerns of the person on the other side of the desk. What
our job is about is simplifying their jobs and to address
their concerns effectively. That's the only reason we exist.
From time to time, we manage to do just that.
Wouldn't virtually everything you just said also apply
to the writers themselves, about learning how to take rejection
and meeting the needs of the industry?
I'd say so. I'd say there is a belief from producers and A&R
people here that writers, as a rule, don't quite take "rejection"
as well as the hardened song plugger or publisher. That may
or may not be true. In truth I guess, it is probably easier,
since I'm not the songwriter, for me to hear the word "no."
My guess is that if I were presenting my own work, I might
have more of an emotional response. There are writers that
are very effective at plugging their own songs, though. I
encourage it. I think any which way we can get a song cut
is good. It takes a village to get a song cut. (laughter)
Co-writing is pretty much the standard practice here, and
generally at my small company, my writers will be writing
with writers from other companies. I like to enroll the song
plugger from the other company and keep a dialogue going so
that that song is not forgotten. At the other larger companies
where they have more writers, more songs are turned in, and
so the song gets pitched for a lesser period of time before
it gets put on the shelf and forgotten. I want the other company's
support in getting these things cut.
Collaboration is such a widely-accepted practice in Nashville.
That's got to be good for new writers. They seem to always
find it easy to find somebody to write with.
Yeah, and we as publishers can speculate on who might be good
match-ups. On the other hand, the experience of two writers
getting together is really going to show the writers themselves
if it's something they'll want to do again or not. There are
definitely some great little teams of writers here who will
put in their books, "Every Monday at 10 a.m., I write with
this particular person."
a very social town. I like my writers to be, and this might
sound trite, but I like them to be good people and considerate
of other people. That's not just for the basic reasons, but
politically, it's going to keep them in the game longer. This
is a town of the "business," and the "system," and all of
those words that we have for these institutions.
just made up of people, though, so enjoy the process.
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