Ralph Murphy: Vice President for ASCAP Nashville

Interviewed by Michael Laskow
President ASCAP Nashville
You go to more music business seminars and conventions than anybody I know. Is there one mistake that you see aspiring writers making over and over again?

I think that the major mistake is being self-involved, not being open. I think what writers have a tendency to forget is that every song they fell in love with when they were growing up was about them. And most writers want to tell the world—after they've said, "I'm gonna be a writer"—they want to tell the world about them. Well, nobody cares about them. The listeners care about themselves as the writer sees them. They forget that when they were growing up that song was about them. They fell in love to it. They fell out of love to it. They drove their car to it. Whatever they did to it, it was their song.

Inexperienced writers are often so self-involved that they don't stop to listen to critiques of other people's songs; they don't go to the showcases. For instance, at TAXI's Road Rally I will go and sit and listen to people singing songs and you kind of see a thread as to where the song really breaks down — where you lose interest. I call them "wallpaper moments." You're listening to the song, then all of a sudden you're looking around the room going, "Ah, wallpaper... Oh, the song's still playing." But if you go back and look at where you started looking at the wallpaper, you will find why the song broke down, whether it didn't significantly change rhyme scheme, verse to chorus, there wasn't enough detail to engage you or involve you, you didn't hear the big pronoun "you" coming at you. Nothing makes the listener engage with the song more than the pronoun "you."

Also, by not putting in detail, the songs become very superficial. One of the things I do with people when they play me songs that lack detail, I say, "You're going to leave my office, and maybe you're going to be having a drink with someone later on tonight." They'll say, "Oh, Ralph Murphy's office, you went there. What's his office like?" And you'll go, "Oh, it's got a desk and some chairs." Well, you are supposed to be a communicator. What you're supposed to say is, "It's a white marble desk with chrome stanchions holding it up. He has one nasty little tree in the corner in a chrome bucket with spikes. He has a philodendron in the other thing. He has a picture on the wall of a studio." And you're supposed to bring that to life for them. That's your job, and you chose that job. No one sent for you. Your phone didn't ring two years ago and say, "Please come be a writer."

As a communicator and a creator, you communicate and create. So if you don't have detail in your song, you're not engaging the listener. In Chekhov, if you have a loaded gun in Act One, Scene One, you have to have fired it by Act One, Scene Three. So what we do is we create an expectation, we then fulfill it, and we do that in 60 seconds. That's our job, because we're working in a very, very tight time frame.

Our listener is one of the most distracted human beings on the face of this planet. We are dealing with people who are driving. And I always pick the worst possible scenario. I choose women 25 to 40, in a relationship with a man they hate, they've just dropped their kids at daycare, going to a job that they despise, with a boss that they think is an idiot, in a car that's about to break down in the rain. And I've got to hold their attention for three minutes and 30 seconds. How I do that is with humor, irony and detail, detail, detail. Without that, it just doesn't function. If you think of all the commercials now, all the songs have a tremendous amount of detail, huge amounts of irony.

So, when you run into a newbie, a young writer, and he says, "Look, dude, I don't want to write songs in traditional forms and structures. That's formulaic bullshit. I'm a creative artist." How do you respond to that?

Very easy. I have friends here in L.A. that read scripts for big movie houses, professionals. They say that within three to five pages they can tell whether a script will function as a piece of work — introduction of characters, subplots, etc. When you go see a movie, you expect to see it a certain way.

Now you can put any number of big stars in that movie, but if the script didn't function and lead the viewer through appropriately, take them to the next level, connect them to the next piece, the next piece, and the next piece, the viewer is gone. Well it's the same way if you don't lead me properly through your song — there's a disconnect and I'm gone. People can be driving down the road, and halfway through a song they reach over and change stations — the writer failed. The writer failed to engage you and keep you.

There are a whole bunch of things that writers do to cause that to happen. Generally, they write the second verse first. That's just a normal thing. Once you're a professional writer you know you're gonna do it. So you go ahead and write that second verse and move it down, then say, "How do I to invite the listener in with detail? What's the opening line? What's the contrast?"

Picasso and Michelangelo learned exactly the same things. They both spent seven years learning how to size a canvas, hold a palette knife, when to use a camel hairbrush, when to use a horsehair brush. They learned everything the same. When they learned everything the same, they were free to be different.

Can't break the rules if you don't know 'em?

That's exactly right. Once you know 'em, man, that's fun. "This one's gonna be good."

What percentage of all the hits in the Country universe are co-written these days?

Out of 21 #1 records last year, only one was written 100 percent, and that was Allan Jackson. The other 20 were all co-written.

What are some good starting tips for people who've never done a co-write before?

Bring like three or four ideas and be prepared to talk about them. Be open to them. Don't go in and be all fixed in stone because that's a recipe for disaster. I remember one time I went into a co-writing thing with a really good writer, and because I was such a fan of the writer, I'd written the whole thing: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, everything, even the outro. But, I became bored by using all my own melodies. All my own hits I wrote myself. So later on I got into co-writing, in '67, '68. And what I do is "tap" it down, "speak" it down. Because the old adage is "if you can't say it, you can't sing it." It's a great way to get the speed bumps out — the law the singer/songwriters have: if the words don't fit they make [them] fit. They're called speed bumps. It violates a rule called "Rule of Accessibility." How accessible is the song? Every song that you loved when you were growing up you could sing easily, which means you tap it down. So I tapped it down. So that venerable old writer I was such a fan of said, "Second line of that second verse, that's our song." He took that one line out and threw the song away. And he was right. We talked about it and we developed a character. It really worked well.

In my life I've probably written with like 500 people. I've probably had success with 30.

On average, how many songs do you think that the average pro writer in Nashville writes in a given year—somebody who is a legitimate pro writer?

Between 35 to 80.

And how many of those do you think are ultimately pitched?

Well, some of them get pitched, but very few... When I was writing fulltime, I was really a workhorse. I loved it. I just did it morning, noon and night. I would finish almost 100 songs; I'd demo about 40 and average about six cuts, and get rid of the rest.

What would you say to a TAXI member who says, "Hey TAXI, I'm not going to renew my membership because last year I submitted 58 times, I got forwarded 22 times, and not one of those companies called me back"?

Well, there are several things. What you could look at is that maybe structurally you are so close that it just sets the song up, but it isn't quite working in the real world yet.

I had dinner with an old pal of mine last year who had a bunch of hits. Great old writer. I won't give you his name until you turn the tape off. But he had loads of hits 30 years ago. He was just whinin' and pissin' and moanin' and complainin'. And he said, "No one ever cuts my songs. There's nothing of mine on the radio. No one ever does my old tunes." And I said, "I've got to tell ya, pal. You've got the same problem I've got. What I'm gonna have to do when I go back to work out there in the real world is rewrite all my old hits, because in the new climate for Country you have to have new information in the choruses going out; you have to have a bridge or middle eight, unless you have a huge chorus with loads of new information."

People went out to dance when we first started writing. Songs were sold in honky tonks. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers killed honky tonks. There are no more honky tonks. There's nowhere for a young, neophyte act to play four 40-minutes shows a night. There's also nowhere for women who actually buy records. Women physically buy 50 percent of all records and make men buy the other 50 percent. There's nowhere for women to hear a song about a guy [who's] maybe not quite that sweet in a compassionate atmosphere. They'll have a couple of glasses of wine, they're dancing, "Well, honey, I drank a little bit. Maybe I failed ya." Now they're listening to that singer at seven o'clock in the morning driving to work, and they're not happy about that guy havin' a couple of drinks and maybe screwing up. Suddenly he becomes less than cool.

You know, there was only one loser at #1 last year, and that was Keith Urban. And even then it was a funny, detail-laden song. The other 20 were all winners—even George Strait, who had "I Hate Everything." It wasn't George, it was a guy he met at the bar. At the end of the deal he calls up his wife and he's a winner. You have to be a winner. No one's over 30 and no one's a loser at #1. It doesn't happen.

That's interesting, because the preconceived notion about Country is that everything is a heartbreak, a loser.

Nope. A song is a script for someone to stand onstage to look cool to women. And they're going to spend a million bucks on it.

So many aspiring artists and writers I've met over the years seem to think that there's a conspiracy among people in the industry to keep them out. What's your take on that?

What there is not is a willingness to embrace their unhappiness. You've got to remember that the function of a song for most writers is cathartic in nature because all writers are dysfunctional (laughs). I'm up to my ass in orphans and murders and suicide. The basic profile for a great writer is physically, sexually, emotionally abused, from a broken home, with an inability to communicate, and a desperate, desperate, desperate desire to be loved. Pick one or all, and that's my constituency. Matter of fact, I've actually said to people, "You seem kind of (pick one of the above)..." They go pale and say, "How'd you know?" And I go, "You're here. You're a writer. I hope that's you." That's the good news. The bad news is that nobody cares. But what you have been given is a gift called the gift of perception, and that has been forged by the shit you've been through. The only person who's gonna get in your way is you. You've got to get beyond your own dysfunction to become the person that gives the listener themselves as you see them. It's all about the listener, it's not about you.

The only problem most writers have in our industry is themselves. The good news is there are so many people to blame. There's A&R, there's radio, the artist, blah, blah.

There's TAXI.

(Laughs) Sure! Of course you're gonna get your ass kicked.

Everyone a writer or artist goes to see will be an employee of some kind of music business entity. If they sign you and there's red ink at the end of three years, they lose their job, they lose their 401k, they lose their T&E, they lose their health plan. If they sign you and there's red ink, they're history. They're not going to do that. What's gonna convince them to do that is a song that has universal appeal, that is accessible, that has humor, irony, detail, or brings up such a strong powerful emotion. I call it the "Oooh factor"—when you listen you go, "Ooooh." You don't hear that too many times; once in a while. I'll go to publishers and I'll say, "What do you got playin' around?" And they'll bring me all the new stuff, all their new writers, and we'll sit there for an hour or so. And every once in a while I'll hear it. "Ooooh. Oh yeah. Just make me a CD of that one." That's what we're all waiting for, the "Ooooh factor."

I get asked this question all the time: "If everybody in the industry is so astute and looking so desperately for these obvious big honkin' hits, why is there so much crap on the radio?"

Well, there is a lot of crap on the radio, but it's what fulfills a function. The only time you ever hear your song being played is if someone is making money from it. So what may be crap to you at 10 o'clock at night or three in the afternoon at your office, at seven o'clock in the morning it may be just what you need.

The Otis corporation in the '30s developed a thing called Self-Locking Elevators. No one would get on an elevator because elevators used to crash to the ground and kill everybody. So people just wouldn't get on. Well, there was this wonderful invention in Chicago. They went and put speakers in the elevators and played this very calm music, so when the doors closed no one bolted, so you wouldn't panic when the doors closed. They don't give a shit if you were entertained. It's there to keep you and keep Otis Corporation in business.

Jazz — if you hear Jazz in a restaurant [and] look at your menu, you'll pay a third more for food. If you hear classical, you pay a third more for food, have fewer drinks, and leave earlier. Popular music's about the same.

There's a great study by APRA on music in restaurants. The least you will pay for your dining experience is no music. You will eat and you will leave. What was the ultimate that creates the best ambience for the restaurateur? Jazz. So every restaurant you go into, listen to what they're playing. Classical, that's nice, but you're not going to drink a lot and you're gonna leave. But you feel comfortable, you'll be back, but you won't drink a lot. Jazz: "How 'bout that extra cocktail? Let's have another martini."

Which is interesting, because Jazz has such a hard time selling any units.

You're right. But what it does is create a feeling. Whenever you hear your song being played, someone's making money, so the big bucks in radio is drive time — that's where you make the big bucks on big stations. Your job at radio is not being engaging at 10 o'clock at night and creating emotions, it's holding this harried human beings for three minutes and 30 seconds from Ford commercial to the Coke jingle. How you do that is all craft. Get me to the hook. Hold me for 28 weeks, possibly. At Pop, what is it, 22 weeks? But you've got to hold that listener there and engage them and hold them from the Ford commercial to the Coke jingle. And that's how it's done. It's done with these little ditties that set you up, detail-laden, get you hooked in 60 seconds, and wrap you around a second time.

So the people that sit in the audience in my seminar who all raised their hands saying, "Yes, I can't stand what's on radio," aren't aware that...

At seven in the morning it is engaging them.

...and that even though they might not like Britney Spears, the majority of the people out there do.

At seven o'clock in the morning. At 10 o'clock at night they're gonna put on John Hiatt, or they're going to put on Rodney Crowell or Emmylou Harris. At three in the afternoon, it's a different animal. But at seven in the morning, not a chance, pal. If you haven't engaged me in 60 seconds, I'm gone.

Born in England; raised in Canada, the well-travelled Ralph Murphy has worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic during his music career. His first #1 song in Europe was "Call My Name" by James Royal (1966). After several years as an artist and producer, Ralph moved to New York in 1969 to produce the band April Wine (two gold albums; one platinum). In 1971, Ralph had his first Country hit in Nashville with "Good Enough To Be Your Wife," #2 for Jeannie C. Riley. By 1976, Ralph and business partner Roger Cook opened Pic-A-Lic Music in Nashville. During the decade of its existence, the company prospered, more of Ralph's songs became hits ("He Got You" for Ronnie Milsap; "Half The Way" for Crystal Gayle; "Seeds" for Kathy Mattea), and Ralph served as president of NSAI. Ralph is now Vice President for ASCAP Nashville.

Wanna publish this article on your website?  Click here to find out how.

See How TAXI Works

"With help from you guys, the music is pouring out and I'm having such fun! Thanks!"
— Willie McCulloch,
TAXI Member

"TAXI offers bands and songwriters, serious chances, wonderful opportunities, and many, many reasons not to give up on your dreams and that is worth everything."
— Justine Kaye,
TAXI Member

"I'm really enjoying being a Taxi member, and appreciate all the critiques . . . especially the nice ones!"
— Carole Nelson,
TAXI Member

"TAXI not only helps me craft better songs, but it hones my people and business skills, as well. And that's worth a lot more than the price of admission."
— Zupe,
TAXI Member

"I have spent my life playing and singing in bands and this is the most real thing I have ever seen."
— Dwight Nichols,
TAXI Member

"I recently got my first deal as a result of a submission to TAXI! I'm very excited to see that this actually works!"
— George Leverett,
TAXI Member

"Just want to thank you again for the great Road Rally and for all the great work you guys do for us all year long."
— Hunter Payne,
TAXI Member

"TAXI has been nothing but 'gold.' I mean pure gold! I've been a member for about a year and a half now, and TAXI has been the most beneficial tool I have."
— Susanne Elston,
TAXI Member

"You are making an incredible difference in the lives of musicians and artists trying to break into the business!"
— Rob Khurana,
TAXI Member

"My only regret is that I didn't join TAXI years ago — but it's never too late to make up for lost time."
— Richard Scotti,
TAXI Member

"I am enclosing a check for my third year of membership in TAXI. You've got a great thing going, and it's fun being a member."
— Thomas Hipps,
TAXI Member

"My advice to anyone planning to go to the Road Rally for the first time is: Go! It's addictive, it's the best opportunity you'll ever get, and it's fun, friendly and free!"
— Mike Fitzsimons,
TAXI Member

"In this competitive field you need all the help you can get and with TAXI, you've got a friend in the music business."
— Richard Scotti,
TAXI Member

"TAXI provides opportunities to people who otherwise would have no access to the music industry."
— Tom Wasinger,
TAXI Member