Steve Bloch
Steve Bloch

Steve Bloch strangles hit songwriter Jerry Vandiver for omitting a bridge.

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Did you grow up in L.A.?

I did. We use the words "grow up" very loosely here.

How did you get started in the music business?

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.

I 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.

One 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 the time.

The 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 song—from 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 someone else.

What are some of the elements that make a song great to you?

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.

I 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 competitive here.

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.

And 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.

However, 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 listener—in this case A&R people and producers—of 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 these days.

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 point—and I've seen writers who make this great leap forward with their songwriting—of 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 listener—it's just human nature—to 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.

Many 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.

Additionally, 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.

I 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."

It's 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.

They're just made up of people, though, so enjoy the process.

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