Michael Laskow, Moderator

Hit Songwriter Panel. From left to right: Kara Dioguardi, Michael Laskow (panel moderator), Tia Sillers, Barry DeVorzon, Ron Miller, and Mark Selby.

Kara Dioguardi – cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
Mark Selby – cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
Tia Sillers – cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
Barry DeVorzon – cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Ron Miller – cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.

Barry, how important is socialization and networking? Let's go to the business side. You're one of the most affable people I know. You seem to know everybody in the whole wide world. How has that benefited your career?

BD: Well, I think people skills and connections are very important. If people like you, obviously they like to see you succeed. However, it ends right there. It still rests on the song, and I've never had a song recorded because they like me. They liked the song. But certainly, having people skills, having connections, networking and never giving up works. I think success in songwriting is a combination of talent and of being a dedicated songwriter. In the end, I think a lot of people lose because they give up too soon. You have to accept the fact that if you want to be a songwriter, you better get ready for about 95% rejection and disappointment, because those really are the odds. This is a business where you're surrounded by rejection, and it takes a pretty strong constitution to stand up to that. Rejection and disappointment works on everything you have going for you—your confidence, your enthusiasm, all the things you need to succeed. So, wear a raincoat, don't let it get to you, and use everything you can use to get there. And I really believe it's not any one thing.

I'd like to make one comment. I have this company MasterWriter. It's songwriting software. A lot of people say, "Well, gee, I don't want to let that in there. I want to just keep it pure." And I respect that. I think that inspiration, that God-given ability to tap into whatever that gives that emotional ingredient in a melody or a lyric that touches others. That only comes from inspiration. But the problem with a lot of songwriters is they fall in love with that baby of creation, and the muse rarely leaves us with a perfect song. Once you have that, I really believe craft and dedication to your art has to come in, and you have to work that and massage that, and make that good song a great song, or make that great song an even greater song. Because if you can up your odds even 5%, I'll take it. This is a very competitive business.

KD: I agree with that. I've always thought that the perfect song is where inspiration meets craft, where you're inspired to say something. And once you have it down and have said it, you need to look at it, scrutinize it, and make sure that you didn't go left instead of right at the chorus. I find that a lot of songwriters coming up, they're scared to go straight ahead because they feel they're selling out, or it's too Pop-y or whatever. I say, "go straight," you can always pull back. But I have so many songwriter friends that were in the verse, and they get to the chorus and they want to be cred or Indie. I always try to pull them back. At the same time, listeners want to be able to grab on to that melody. You could imagine when they're in the car driving, they have their mortgage to pay, work and all these things. They just want to be able to hear the chorus once and pick it up. It can't be that confusing. It'll be too hard for them to get.

Kara Dioguardi - cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
I couldn't agree more with you. I see it a hundred times a month. People think that the chorus is a life-changing statement and their time to rise above all other songwriters and be the super-creative person. They get so creative that they've stolen the ability away from the listener to tap their foot and remember the melody.

KD: If they're thinking about that while they're writing, that's wrong. You can't be thinking about trying to be this amazing… A song is a song. It's a moment in time. Go with it. Don't over-think it so much. Just go with it. That's the problem—they start thinking something is too this or too that.

TS: What you just said is something I've stumbled on this summer and I'm stickin' with it. All these wonderful people, I see so many great faces out here, and they're like, "What should I do next?" The truth is what Kara's saying, what we're all saying, is, write another song! Essentially, I think that becoming a songwriter comes when you truly internalize it and you know what you should do. It's like the equivalent of becoming fluent in a second language. Songwriting is my second language. I'm fluent in songwriting, and it took me years of studying it. You know if you're trying to learn Spanish forever, you're translating in your head, you're conjugating verbs. You're thinking you might be able to order wine, but you can't have an argument in politics. Well, you have to become fluent in songwriting, and you cannot doubt yourself because you're so fluent in it. You know when you start going down that journey whether it's a really Pop record, or it's an Indie record, or a really soulful record. Whatever it is, you can't doubt yourself because you're so fluent. You're not translating it. [applause]

KD: To add to that, there are a few people that send me songs to listen to, and they keep sending me the same song, and they're written it five million times. And it's like, "Go on." It took me like four, five, six years of writing crap songs to get to where I could write that other song.

MS: I think with a lot of beginning songwriters every song is a little too precious. So write it and move on. Either Ron or Barry said something about being honest with yourself. That's so important. Keep in mind that for some people the craft side of songwriting comes more naturally to them, just like any skill. For some people they just kind of soak it up by osmosis from listening to a couple of Beatles records or whatever. But for other people it's something you really have to spend time studying and learning. Just be honest and figure out where you stand there and what your strengths and weaknesses are and keep moving forward.

Barry DeVorzon - cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Ron, what's your process? Do you start with lyrics? Do you start with melody? Do you collaborate?

RM: I'm not a poet. I write words to music. I've never written a lyric without a melody. I always write to the music. Very often I'll get an idea and I'll keep that in my head and somewhere when I get a melody, it will fit. That's how I write. That's the only way I write. I've collaborated on most of the things I've written. I've always written the lyrics. Sometimes I write the music, but I always write the lyrics.

Do you find strength in collaboration?

RM: Oh yeah. Because emotionally you always have someone giving you a melody, and intellectually you have someone giving you a lyric. They come from two different sources, and the fact that they mesh is what makes it beautiful. It's like people. Why do two different people fall in love? Because there are obviously things in them that are genuinely the same and things that are different. And when they come together, it's fabulous.

I'm a control freak. You guys are obviously phenomenally talented people. It seems difficult for me... When I have an idea, I want to control it beginning to end to make sure it comes out. How do you give up that control as a songwriter? When you sit down and write with another person, isn't it like taking a piece of your heart, throwing it on the floor and stomping on it?

RM: See, you're approaching it wrong. You don't give up anything. You don't give up control. You share, that's all. If you wrote a melody that I wanted to put a lyric too, obviously I would respect it enough to want to put a lyric to it. I wouldn't want to infringe on that melody, I would try and make it better. When I start writing the lyric, I would think that you would take the same attitude. And that's what happens. That's why collaboration is so beautiful. If people can't get over that, then they shouldn't be collaborators. Because you're not important, the song is important.

Ostensibly it's you, and ostensibly it's me, but in fact it's both of us. You don't make those kinds of barriers for yourself. You don't say, "Well, I'm not going to let him mess up my lyric. I'm not going to let him mess up my melody." You approach it from a totally different level.

MS: I would like to add something about co-writing. If you haven't ever co-written, one of the beautiful secrets about it is that it's just like being able to be up there with these incredibly talented people. It's getting to hear how their minds work. I find it utterly and unendingly fascinating to be in a room with a great songwriter, or just sitting listening to people talk about songs like this, and hearing how people's minds works. I mean, I'd love to climb in John Prine's head someday to see what's going on in there.

BD: If you're looking for songs that didn't make it, I've got a trunk full. [laughter] I just really want to underline what everyone here on the panel has really been saying. The only school of songwriting is writing, #1. But, hopefully, as you write, you get an objectivity that I think is very important to have. And with this objectivity, you have the courage to see when you're going down the wrong path, or that something isn't really touching you emotionally. Don't buy it. Keep trying until something touches you. It's really been the only rule I've gone by. I figure if it emotionally affects me, I have a shot. If it doesn't emotionally affect me, if it has a good beat and it doesn't touch me, I usually don't pursue it. I'll just hang out on the piano until something does.

Tia Sillers - cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
I once asked Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees what was his key to songwriting. He just looked at me and said one word: "Emotion," and then turned around and walked out of the room.

TS: Sam Phillips—who's the guy who started Sun Records—he said that feel is his John 3:16. So there you go.

If you're pitching to a female artist, is it necessary to pitch the demo with a female demo singer on it? If the singer has a limited range, should you make the demo be in the key that they're most comfortable with? Are those things that are most practical and beyond maybe the craft, but things that are helpful in getting an artist to like the song?

RM: I think just the opposite. I think if you pitch it away from the obvious, then in their mind that gives them something to do with it.

MS: I do believe in Nashville right now female singers can hear a male vocal on a demo better than vice versa. I think you'll have a chance of getting a female artist to cut a song when the demo has a male vocal. But the other end of that equation is that it's really hard to get a guy to hear a song with a female vocal—for most of these manly-men singers. But I would completely agree with Ron, when it's a real artist who has a record contract, then I completely agree with what he just said.


KD: I'm keepin' quiet.

Come on, Kara. This is why I asked you here—you're spunky.

KD: We're talking about two different things. Artists like Trisha Yearwood, yeah; Britney Spears, no. It better sound like a Britney Spears hit; it better sound like Gwen Stefani. Really, there are two different industries up here on this panel in some ways. That's not to say when I write a song for Santana, or I when write with Jewel, they can hear past it. It really has to do with who you're working with. It's all very specific. You can't just generalize.

MS: And I know that for Tia and me and our publishers, it's something that they're trying to figure out all the time. They're trying to be creative with their pitches and they're always experimenting with that as they pitch songs.

KD: And that's interesting too because your publishers have more of a role. I've never even had a publisher. I am my publisher. In the Pop market, I'm trying to figure out what publishers do now because really the market is controlled by producers. Publishing has now become a really big bank loan at 25% to 40%. That's what you are loaned your money at. Whereas in Nashville, it seems like they still really do have a role, they do pitch things.

BD: I have offices in Nashville, and one of the reasons I go there is that I love Nashville. It's the last frontier. When I was in the business—I like to think I'm still in the business—when I was very active in the trenches, we had a wonderful music community in Los Angeles and in New York—the Brill Building, at Selma and Argyle—there were publishers and writers. It was a golden period. That kind of community is over for L.A. and New York, and yet Nashville has managed to hang on to it. In Nashville, the publisher who subsidized the writer, who goes out and gets cuts for the writer, is still alive and well. That's why it's a wonderful music community and I pray it doesn't go away.

It can't go away. It would seem impossible for it to go away.

Mark Selby - cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
Kara, you're one of the stronger people I've met in the industry. I can tell that about you. What has made your palms sweat? Has there been somebody that you sat down to co-write with that has given you a racy heart of a sweaty palm since you been in this business?

KD:I mean, every day I go, "What the hell am I gonna write today? What do I say today? Will I ever run out of things to say?" Music for me is therapy, whether I'm writing about my emotions as a 34-year-old woman or as what I felt as a 16-year-old. I want to feel like I'm gonna throw-up every time I walk in the room. I want to feel like, "What the hell am I gonna do today?"

Because when you lose that, there's not much left. Then it's just craft. And I hope that I will know the day to exit. I won't be one of those people who just hangs on for the hit and that thing. I'm a pretty good at knowing when it's time to leave, I leave. But for now, I'm so cool with it. I love my job and I'm lucky.

That's the best.

Mark, what profound piece of advice would you like to leave our members with?

MS: The thing I like to remember is to revisit what made me want to start doing this to begin with. There's that Zen concept of Beginner's Mind. You have so much energy and just growth when you first begin something new—especially when it really comes from your heart like songwriting does. So revisit the place that got you started, especially when you're in a difficult time.


TS: Well, I just want to say that when I first started out I really thought I was great. And then it took me a couple years and a hundred songs to realize that I was great. I spent a lot of time learning the craft, and while I spent all that time learning the craft, I felt like I lost a little bit of my heart and what first got me started as a songwriter. Then, eventually, as years went on—and notice I'm saying years—I realized that the heart came back, and I suddenly had heart and craft. Like Kara said, there's not a day that I don't wake up nervous and excited—I get to write with legends now. I went to the Songwriter Hall of Fame dinner a couple of weeks ago and just cried the whole night. And I think that that's what it has to be about. But first you have to shed thinking, "I rock," then get down in the trenches and write a hundred songs or two hundred songs or three hundred songs. It's a lot of songs you have to write and get beyond, and let go and keep going on to the next one. And I think that'll get you down the road. [applause]

Ron Miller - cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.
Barry, your turn.

BD: You're looking for a profound message? Go into real estate. [applause]

That's not joke. Barry took the first dime he ever made on a song, bought a piece of real estate on the most expensive block in America in Montecito, California. He's lives down the street from Oprah's $50 million house, and he's got a piece of property where you walk through the main house, which is gorgeous, you walk through a meadow, come upon a lake or a pond with swans on it and there's a little cottage that looks like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are gonna come out of there. And I've got a fair idea of what something like that costs up there, and I said, "Barry, how did you get this?" And he said, "I took the first dime I made from a hit song and put it in real estate." That's pretty profound advice.

BD: I was telling Tia that that's what I did all through my career. I was so involved in music, I didn't know much about anything else, so I figured if I had some extra money, at least putting it into real estate gave me a feeling of safety. And I guessed right.

But, on a more serious note, I would just say stay true to your heart and your emotions. Work on being objective and never give up. And even then I can't give you any guarantees, but that's how to do it if you have a chance at it. [applause]

Ron, I'm giving you the last word, buddy.

RM: Most of the problems in the world—between nations, between people—is lack of communication. We're all the same; we all go to the bathroom; we all have to eat; we have to love; we all have to be loved. It's just when people don't communicate that they run into problems. We all have the same feelings, we just don't always express them right. And I have no rules as to how to write a song. I will just tell you one thing—if you have the ability to write a song—good, bad, or indifferent—then you're communicating, and you are damn lucky, so work it.

Thanks, Ron. Thank you to Kara, Mark, Tia, Barry, and Ron. You guys were great!

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