Bruce Burch: Creative Director,
EMI Music Publishing

Interview by Doug Minnick
Creative Director EMI Publishing
Where did you grow up?

Down in Gainesville, Georgia, basically from second grade on. It's the chicken capitol of the world. We're the only town I know of that has a monument with a chicken on top of it.

How did you get started in the music business?

I heard a Kris Kristofferson album, and that turned me on to Country music for the first time. Growing up, I had listened to Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Beatles, Elvis, and everybody like that. I never particularly liked Country until I heard Kristofferson. I bought the album and the songbook. I got my brother's old guitar and was learning all of those songs within two weeks of hearing it. Then within the next month or two, I had written my first song. That was the first time that I really knew what a songwriter was.

You've had some success as a songwriter. Tell us about that.

I had two #1's with Reba—"Rumor Has It" and "It's Your Call." I had cuts with Faith Hill, George Jones, Aaron Tippin, T. Graham Brown, Billy Joe Royal, Wayne Newton, the Oak Ridge Boys, John Anderson... and those are the bigger names.

How long did it take you to get your first cut in Nashville?

Almost five years to the day. My first cut was with Slim Pickens. I was freelancing at Combine Music—which is now part of EMI—which is where Kristofferson's catalog was. The odd thing was, they cut one of my songs, and they cut one of Kristofferson's songs. Even though the record never got released, I took that as an omen that I should stick it out. I got kicked in the teeth right off my first cut. I knew then that I was in for a rough time.

After starting to get some cuts, then what happened?

I got on draw (Nashville-ese for "being paid in advance"—ed.) and signed with Famous Music. I stayed there for five years. During that time, I had started writing with artists quite a bit and pitching a lot of my own songs, so I decided to start my own company. I had some pretty decent success on my own. Then I got offered this job down here. I had gotten to be known almost as much as a song plugger as a writer. I was one of the few people that did it. Most writers have a hard time pitching their own songs. I've always thought I was a better song plugger than I was a writer. Most writers don't have thick enough skin. I got to the point where I just treated it like a product. If you want a piece of steak, I'll give you a steak. If you want bologna, I'll give you that. I just kind of distanced myself from it emotionally once I got a song written. It didn't hurt my feelings. If they didn't like it, I had another one for 'em.

Who are some of the writers you work with, and what are some of the cuts EMI has had recently?

We have a lot of artist-writers, like Brad Paisley, Darryl Worley, and Joe Nichols—he's probably our newest writer-artist out there. As far as writers, we've got Dennis Linde, Tony Joe White is still with us, Kelley Lovelace—who has had several #1s with Brad Paisley and wrote "The Impossible" for Joe Nichols—Shaye Smith who has had a lot of success lately, Jennifer Kimball, Connie Harrington, and Jason Matthews.

You guys sure get a lot of big cuts.

Yeah, the biggest thing we've got going right now is the Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett duet. It's the first big cut for one of our writers named Jim Brown. Where do you go from there? It's going to be one of the biggest records of the year. It will probably win at the CMA awards.

How many writers do you guys have on staff?

Right now, I'd say we're down to 20 day-to-day writers. We have a few joint ventures that have maybe a handful of writers on each one. We have writer-artists too, like I mentioned. I'd say we have anywhere from 35 to 40 total. We've cut back so much since I first got here that it's been sort of hard to keep up with.

As a publisher, what are your duties and responsibilities? How do you spend your day?

Mainly I pitch songs. I started here pitching older catalog, but now I've sort of segued into signing newer writers too. I've signed a couple of writer-artists and a couple of writers. But just because we signed them doesn't mean they are the only ones we pitch. We work everybody's songs. I step back and work a lot of the catalog too. I've been here seven years, and right now I'm the plugger that has been here the longest. I know the catalog for the last seven years better than everybody else. We still get 30 or 40 new songs turned in every week, one way or the other. We constantly try to put compilations together for the newer pluggers to turn them onto all the songs. My day is spent mostly listening to songs, trying to find songs for certain artists, and meeting with A&R people. I try to get to managers and to booking agents too. I pitch to everybody. When the Oak Ridge Boys were hot, I pitched to their gardener one time. I've done it every way you can pitch.

What do publishers look for in a staff writer these days?

First of all, we look for somebody that already has the snowball rolling. In other words, they already have some writing relationships going with established writers, and maybe even have a cut. In fact, the last person I signed had a Diamond Rio cut already. I happened to catch him at the Bluebird Café one night. The cut had happened just recently, and it turns out it is now going to be the fourth single. That's going to be a good signing because he came in with something that is going to be making money within the first year or so that he's here. That's good. You don't have time to develop writers at any of the companies anymore because it takes so long to get your money in. If you got a cut today, in the best case scenario, on average it's probably going to take a year to get it out there. Then it might take a year for it to start selling, and then another year for your money to start coming in. Basically, you've got a three-year plan, so you need to keep income flow coming into the pot, so to speak. There is really not a lot of development of writers at any of the companies here now. You have to pretty much be developed when you come in the door at a publishing company in Nashville right now.

Do you think the same is true for smaller publishers?

Yes. Well, the smart ones. It's kind of like in the Eighties when I went into Combine. Publishing is kind of back to where it was then. Back then, I was a developing writer. I would love to come in the door and write with their writers, but even some of them that were getting cuts were only getting $50 or $100 a week. The economics are such now with downloading and slow record sales and all that stuff, that if you sell a million albums—even if you're the sole writer—the publisher's share is only $40,000 that we recoup against. And if it's split two ways, and you're recouping 2-cents on every record sold, even if it sells a million copies, you're only getting $20,000. It's harder to recoup because we don't have as many artists going multi-platinum like in the early Nineties when we had maybe 30 artists. Now we've got maybe a dozen—Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and those guys. Alan cuts some outside songs, but Toby pretty much is the sole 100-percent writer. Shania Twain writes all of her own songs with Mutt Lange. Tim McGraw cuts outside songs, and Faith cuts outside songs. George Strait cuts outside songs. The Dixie Chicks are starting to write a fair amount of their songs. That's pretty much the number of big artists that are going platinum and multi-platinum these days.

How have your views on song plugging changed over the years you've been doing it?

Well, it's a lot harder right now in Nashville. First of all, we're down from 20-something labels during the boom period of the early-to-mid Nineties to about six or so labels now. On top of that, it is taking longer for the songs to go up the charts. It's taking 30 weeks for a song to get to #1, so you don't get but a couple of singles out a year. They're not cutting as many albums either, so there are fewer cuts. Now not only are we competing with ourselves in Nashville, but people from L.A. and New York are coming here too.

I always like to say that Nashville is the last bastion of the pure songwriter. In L.A. and New York, it seems to me you have to be a producer, or an artist, or an established writer, but here you can still be a pure songwriter and make a living at it, and not necessarily have to be a producer or anything as well.

Do you recommend collaboration to your writers?

It depends on the writer. I would never encourage someone like Dennis Linde to collaborate, because Dennis would have never written "Goodbye Earl" as a co-writer. A co-writer probably wouldn't have gone there. There are certain writers I think that to their detriment co-write. In some cases, like in my case, I'm more of a lyricist. I can still bang away on a guitar, but I stopped learning it after about two weeks. I thought, well hell, I can play every Hank Williams and every Kristofferson song—I'm done. That's kind of where my chord progressions ended. I was never interested in the musicianship of it as much as the lyric side of it. We discussed how hard it is these days to get cuts in Nashville. You said you get about 30 songs a week from your writers. You have to figure most of the writers on your staff are established writers who have had cuts or hits already.

What percentage of those 30 songs per week, end up getting cut?

That's a hard one. The majority doesn't get cut. Maybe it's ten-percent or even five-percent. And we're a pretty hot company, too. When you're competing with the writer-artist thing, the slots are so few. You're also competing with every writer and every company in this town and also with the top New York and L.A. writers now. Pink had a cut on Faith Hill's new album. The only other cut we got on there was out of our New York office, because she made a more progressive album. The competition is stepped up even more than it has ever been because there are less artists, less songs being recorded, and more writers coming here than ever before.

Is it harder for new or unknown writers to get cuts than it is for writers who have already had hits?

I think so. It has always been hard, but especially now. It's easier if you have a name. If an A&R person is trying to play the artist or producer a song, they're going to say, "Hey this is a new Shaye Smith song", or whoever. All of a sudden, their ears perk up because this is somebody who has had some proven success. It makes it tougher on new writers because of that. You're unproven.

So in a sense, a new writer's songs have to be better than the established writers?

If someone says, "Well I think my songs are as good as what I hear on the radio." I always say there are two things to think about. First of all, your song has got to be as good as the best song on the radio. The second thing is, the first cut you get is going to be the hardest cut you get. Once you have a little credibility, that door will open a little more for you for co-writes and other things. Not that it can't happen for new writers. Like this guy Jim Brown who got the Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett cut. He's a musician. He played with Dan Seals on the road, and he plays in the studio, but he always wrote on the side. We signed him, and this Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffet thing is his first cut. That's like, boom, the doors are probably going to open. He's got a bunch of other great songs too, and this one is going to be so huge, people are going to be digging through his catalog now.

What are the most important aspects of a hit Country song in your opinion?

I still think for Country, it's got to have a great lyric, probably more so than the melody. Country is now a lot more melodic than maybe it used to be, but a three-chord Country song can still be a hit. It happens in rock & roll, too, but I think lyrics are what people really listen for more in country than any other part of the song. The lyric is still king here.

What makes a great lyric?

It's something that is a new way of saying something. Take Kris Kristofferson, for instance. "Make It Through the Night" was a pretty sensual type of song for that particular era. "Sunday Morning Coming Down" talks about being stoned. That might have to be changed to get on radio today. I think at the time, those were different lyrics. I think that's what still stands out now. There is a line, for example, in "I Hope You Dance" that to me is always the line that grabs you: "I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean." That is the kind of line in a Country song that just reaches out and grabs you.

What is your response to people who complain that there is a "Nashville formula" for writing songs?

It's like every kind of music. The songwriters that really become known are what I call career writers. They have hits over a long period of time, say 20 or 30 years. They're the ones that break that formula—Willie Nelson, or Kristofferson, or Dennis Linde, or presently Jeffrey Steele, or we have this kid Jason Matthews. He's writing really different kinds of songs. He's had three songs that have been on the charts over the last year or so. They're all really different. They're not like anything I've ever heard. I think originality is key. Yeah, there is a formula, but I think the ones that consistently have hits are the ones that break through that formula.

It seems there are more songwriting "rules" in Nashville than there are elsewhere. Does that necessarily mean it's easy to write a hit song?

No. Part of knowing what not to do is knowing what to do. To break the rules, you've got to know what the rules are. I've heard some great formula songs. Some people have made a great living writing those songs, but I think that the songs that you'll be singing 20 years from now are ones that break that formula. I've always figured it's harder to write a hit song within the confines of a formula because you've got more limitations.

I don't know how a guy like Jimmy Webb ever wrote some of those things. They're just unlike anything you've ever heard before or since. Kristofferson too. People don't understand that for "For the Good Times," he wrote 15 verses to that song and picked out the best two. That was over a long period of time, too, not just cranking out a verse an hour. If you really look at them, they're intricate pieces, like Swiss watches. They have inner rhymes, and every single syllable matches the one in the next verse. It's like poetry. He was one of the first poets of Country music. Hank Williams was probably the first, but Kris brought it into a whole new era.

What are some good ways to break into the music business in Nashville for an aspiring writer?

Well, you've got to get out and hustle. You can't sit home and write songs all the time. You've got to get out and meet people. Fifty-percent of it is writing the song and the other fifty-percent is getting it into the hands of the right person. That's why I think a lot of times co-writing comes in too. A lot of times when somebody is learning, they can write with somebody who is a little more established. I call it writing 'up'. Write with somebody who has had some success, and when you do that, you sort of rise to their level. It helps you learn. You say, "Oh, I see what he's doing." When I first got here, I used to staccato write—like a machine gun. I sat down with a guy named Gene Dobbins who had had a lot of hits. We wrote for hours and hours and hours. He'd sit there and smoke a cigarette and look out the window, and I thought, "What the hell is he thinking?" I'd be spouting lines out, and he'd just sit there and say, (slowly) "Naw, I don't think so." At the end of the day, we'd have maybe a couple of lines. It was exhausting. But that's the way I write now. People get exhausted with me! Bob McDill is probably the most consistently successful Country songwriter. He's had 31 #1s—basically a #1 for every year he was in the business. He thought if he got one great line a day, he felt like it was a successful day.

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