Michael Laskow, Moderator

Sherrill BlackmanMusic Row Magazine's Song plugger of the Year for 2004, 2005 and 2006. He's a three-term past president of the Nashville Publishers Network, co-founder of the Independent Pluggers Association and the 2002 recipient of the Tennessee Songwriter Association Award for Lifetime Contributions to the Music Business.

Tony Ferguson – VP, A&R, A&M/Geffen/Interscope. Discovered and signed No Doubt. 25 million CDs sold.

Richard Harris, a songwriter/producer, signed to Peer Music Publishing. He is currently writing for artists on Atlantic, Universal, Motown, and EMI Records. He has had great success with TV placements and commercials. Recent placements include One Tree Hill, The Closer and Cold Case. Richard has also been a TAXI member and recently joined our A&R team.

Brian Howes – Award-winning songwriter, Grammy-nominated producer, record label executive and publisher. Right now his co-write of "Light On," David Cook's first single, is burning up the charts. Rev Theory, the first signing on Brian's joint venture with Interscope, Van Howes Records, is making waves and starting to break. He also produced Hinder's multi-platinum-selling debut, Extreme Behavior, as well as their highly anticipated sophomore release, which is just about to hit stores.

Darius Jones – Senior director of A&R, Capitol Records, Los Angeles. He's worked with the likes of Ice Cube, T.I., Chris Brown, Snoop Dog, Fabolous, Ne-Yo and Faith Evans, among many others. His credits include J. Holiday, Dem Franchise Boys, Chingy, Mims, LeToya Luckett, Coach Carter, Lil Zane and Javier.

Good morning to all.

Sherrill, there's probably not a person who writes Country music in this room who wouldn't give up a body part to have a song plugger with your reputation and clout represent them. You've been Nashville Plugger of the Year for several years running; you represent just a handful of the very very top writers in Nashville. How hard is it to get a cut with a top-shelf major label County artist—for anybody to get a cut? Even though your clients are the creme de la creme, how hard is it to get a cut?

Sherrill: It's tough. It's always been tough, but in the end the great songs are always going to win out. I think the thing that frustrates my writers and me, is just how long it's taking. Most of the cuts I'm getting are songs that are five and six, seven, eight years old. But they are fabulously great songs and that's what makes people want to record them. A lot of the time it's about market timing. Sometimes I think that writers have trouble comprehending the market cycles and how songs fit into timing and cycles and that sort of thing. The thing that I do is that I'm able to remember a lot of facts—songs that are old-you know, 10, 15 years old-so that when the time comes up and somebody requests something specific, I've got it tucked away in my brain, I pull it out, pitch it and, hopefully, get it cut.

How many writers do you represent at any one point in time?

Sherrill: I keep my roster real small and exclusive. No more than six writers, and they're all very high-profile hit writers. They've all written tons of #1s, with gold and platinum albums. That's what it takes for me to be able to walk in and be taken seriously. Now, that's not to say I don't work with unknown writers. Usually what I do when I'm working with an unknown writer—not as a plugger but as a publisher—I will slide their stuff for the people that I'm playin' songs for.

What percentage of the songwriters who move to Nashville and have become pros have had real cuts before they got off the bus? What percentage of the big-time writers get at least two cuts a year?

Sherrill: Well, you've got some guys at the top end, like a Craig Wiseman or a Rivers Rutherford and some of those guys, are probably getting tons of cuts a year—anywhere from 10 to 15 to 20 cuts a year. Then, some people aren't getting any cuts a year. It's hard to give to a percentage.

Tony, with the major labels just getting decimated by illegal downloading; how many less artists are getting signed by percentage? How much has the major label rock side of the industry shrunk because of illegal downloading?

Tony: Well, definitely all the major labels are signing less now because—a little bit of mirroring of what Sherrill is saying—it costs so much more money and takes so much longer time to break artists. The setup for the record [release date, marketing plan, touring, TV appearances] is very important, and the old-fashioned adage of what major labels had, which followed the Atlantic/WEA doctrine, which was if you sign enough acts, you throw them up against the wall, and the one that sticks is the one you all go for. We've done this analogy before. It's like a kids' soccer team—wherever the ball is, the kids go. It's very hard for the major labels now to make the next transition into this brave new world, the new paradigm that we have with music now, which I wish someone could explain to me, because I don't really know myself. So we're signing probably around, I'd say, 35% to 45% less a year.

Wow. I remember not that long ago—maybe seven or eight years ago—where the majors would have maybe 150 artists or more on their rosters.

Tony: Oh yeah. And that would probably not be the major label groups. That would be just the independent labels. For instance, with Geffen and A&M—which we have—when we took them over, they probably had around about 176 or 180 artists on each label. So, when you combine the three labels—Interscope, Geffen and A&M—you're up to 500 to 600 artists. But that was when we did the conglomerate amalgamation. Now over the years, that's been slowly chopped away, and with this new economy coming in, it's even worse for the major labels. See, the biggest mistake that happened—and it's easy to play Monday morning quarterback—but when the conglomerates came in and saw the amount of money that was being made during the '80s and the early '90s, with CDs being transferred from vinyl to tape, then into CDs, they saw the amount of money the industry was making because everybody had their record collections and updated them to the new mode of CDs, which were supposed to be unbreakable. You could scratch them, you could use them as Frisbees, they would always play—and we know that was a crock of shit, right? [laughter] Wall Street saw the amount of money, the cash flow—because it is a big cash flow business, the music business—and they said, "We want some of that," and they bought into that. Now, once people got their record collections, and at the same time you had Napster and the MP3 coming in, the industry tanked right into the ground, and that's what you're living with now. So I blame the labels for.. Well, you can't blame them. I mean, David Geffen, Jerry Moss, they made millions of dollars. When you're offered $600 million dollars for your label back in the 1980s, I mean, what are you gonna do? Say no? So the best time now is to be independent. The independent labels are the best labels.

How can the independents... how can anybody break through anymore? Because the minute that an artist is gonna hit the public's radar, everybody is just going to go steal it. It's unfair to songwriters, it's unfair to artists. And nobody feels sorry for the labels, because they think that you guys are all a bunch of overpaid jerks that are trying to keep them out of the industry. Or, from the consumer perspective, you're a bunch of overpaid jerks; the artists are overpaid jerks flying around in private jets. Nobody feels sorry. It's like, "OK, I'm going to download the song," and then Madonna will make $1.50 less on one album than she made before. I don't see how it's possible for the major label system to stay alive, yet I don't see anything else really replacing it.

Tony: Well, that's the problem. I would venture to guess—it's kind of a blanket statement—but I would say that every major label around the world, no label is making any money selling CDs. Nothing. In fact, digital downloads are now outstripping and outselling CDs—legal downloads—in most cases, at the top end. It's all about branding and marketing now. You brand your artist with Mountain Dew, with a carpet salesman, with some cinema down the street, with a new movie you try and get songs in. It's a lateral movement that going on. It's not a movement that's moving forward, it's kind of inching forward. That's why everyone's waiting for this magic pill that will solve everything. It's just not going to happen.

It's tough for the major labels. And I'd venture to guess that the major labels in present form—which has changed since their last form about five years ago—will probably not exist. And with everything that we do, we look at independent production companies, independent labels, independent writers. We look at everything now, which makes it doubly hard And going back to your original question: how come we're not signing as much? It's because we look at everything. We were talking earlier on that there is so much out there, more than ever before, with the Internet. It's like standing on a shoreline looking at a sea of artists and songwriters and music and bands, and who knows what else, and trying to pick the one you think could be worth the millions of dollars it's going to take to try and break them. It's a long process.

In a few minutes I want to come back to you and talk about the investments that a label makes in an artist, because that gives perspective to the audience so they can understand what you guys are risking every time you do.

Brian, you've been exactly who our members are. What did you believe back in the day—five, six, seven years ago when you could have been in the audience—what did you believe back then, that you know better than now? Is there anything you could pass along to these guys to shorten their time span?

Brian: For me, I had no other option. It was either be in the music industry or busk by the shore in Australia, smoking weed or something. Yeah, I wasn't gonna give up. I was gonna do whatever it took to get my foot in the door. And I knew once I had my foot in the door, I would keep going. And that's the thing—all it takes is one little crack in the door. When I first started out, I played in two bands that were signed. My first band was a good experience because it introduced me to the music industry and the ins and outs. It's such an important thing, relationships, especially when you make them in the beginning, and then you grow with the industry people as they grow. It was really helpful to me. Just never giving up, never be satisfied with a song or my production or something like that—just digging, digging and never stopping, and never taking no for an answer.

How did you deal with rejection early on when you would bring a song to your band or bring a song with the band to a label? You are such a positive, upbeat guy. How do you deal with rejection?

Brian: Well, of course you get the defensive posture. At first you start swearing, "What do they know?" Then I kind of settle back and go, "Well, maybe they're right." You just take it with a grain of salt. You listen to all the opinions, then you evaluate them, and then you throw in yours. I always listened to what everybody had to say, not necessarily believing that was the gospel truth or whatever. But, you know, there's always a little bit of truth, or whatever. Where there's smoke, there's fire. My rule is if two or three people that I trust are saying it, it's probably true. Like that chorus probably isn't hooky enough, even though I think it is. And the biggest thing for bands and writers too is testing yourself with people who love you, because they're gonna lie. They are not going to tell you the truth, and you need people that are going to give you the truth on things. That's the #1 thing: don't believe the hype. Get people that are gonna be independently unbiased, so you get the truth, and you'll get better that way.

Darius, is it possible for an urban artist to get signed without being a producer? Everybody seems to be a producer, or they're partnered with a producer. Is it possible for a just straight-up artist who is talented, attractive and has that star quality, or do you have to be hooked up with a producer?

Darius: I think if you're talking about R&B music it's possible, because when I signed J. Holiday he wasn't attached to a producer. But, for hip-hop, I would definitely say you have to be either attached to a producer or already have some type of movement going on.

What kind of movement, and where does that come from?

Darius: Your song is already playing at radio, you have pretty much saturated whatever market that you're from and everyone in that market knows you and supports you. I have friends in every market who are people that look out for me. If I call them, I ask them who is the hottest artist in their market, and if a particular artist keeps coming up, then I'll act on that.

That's pretty much like the modern rock model of A&R, finding people. I'm sure everybody up here has feelers out in every market. I'm surprised to hear you say that about the urban market. How is it that urban artists can break out in a market and get on radio, because it's damn near impossible to get anything on radio even if you're a major label and making the wheels turn to get stuff on radio. How does an independent artist with no label support get stuff on radio so they can bust out in a market?

Darius: For hip-hop it's about mixtapes. Everything starts in the streets when it comes to hip-hop. You have local clubs, club DJs support local acts. If there's a particular song that everyone in that particular region just loves, the local DJs keep playin' it. A lot of the DJs who are playin' the clubs are also mix-show DJs at the radio station, so they have their ear to the street, they know what's hot and what's goin' on in the local clubs. So nine times out of 10 they'll play the hottest local act that's being played in the clubs at mix shows, so it kind of bubbles up from there.

Frankly, I had no idea, and I'm really glad to hear that that's the case. Sherrill, we get this question every day. It's one of those "if I had a dollar, I'd be on an island somewhere, not hangin' out with you guys today" questions. Everybody says to us, "Why is TAXI so picky? Why does everything in my song need to be so perfect? Why don't you just send it to the people in the industry and let them decide?"

Audience, am I telling the truth? How many of you guys in the audience have ever had that thought that TAXI is too picky? C'mon, let's see some hands. [Lots of hands] Our members ask us, "Why don't you guys just send it to the industry people and let them decide, and if it's not just perfect for them, can't they just fix it? Why can't they take a B-plus song and just fix it if they don't like a verse or they don't like the bridge melody?"

Sherrill: Well, I can't speak on behalf of how TAXI approaches it, but, for myself personally, I get beat up every single day. I'm on the front line pitching songs to artists, producers, managers, A&R people, and I get beat up like you would not believe, because if the song ain't there - click - "What else you got?" is what I hear.

And you're dealing with the top Country writers on the planet Earth, and you still get beat up.

Sherrill: Yeah. In fact, a lot of the comments I get, I don't pass them on to my writers. [laughter]

Give us some examples of things that you get beat up for, because this is great information for our members. You know, when we tell them that the song needs a bridge, or the bridge melody doesn't work, or "I don't understand if this is first-person, third-person..."

Sherrill: Same feedback. "The chorus doesn't sound enough like a chorus." Kind of like what Brian was saying, the chorus needs to be more dynamic or whatever, jump out of the speakers and just grab the listener. I've even had producers cut songs off in the intro because they didn't feel like the intro—for whatever reason—fit the direction of that project. So I always tell writers that we've got to create and provide music that keeps them from having a reason to say "no," and that's why you've got to do your homework far enough in advance so they don't have a reason to say "no." That's why you've got to do research; you've got to learn and get feedback and apply what works for you, and make it work and move forward. But some of the comments I've gotten were like—and some of them were valid comments—"It's a good song. It just doesn't fit this project at this time"—which may be an easy cop out. Or, even as harsh as, "You gotta be kiddin' me."