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Writing Hit Songs, Part 1
(left to right) Jason Blume, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, and Marlin "Hookman" Bonds all listen as Ralph Murphy (second from right) says, "You've got to be present to win."

Hit Songwriters: Jason Blume, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Ralph Murphy, and Marlin “Hookman” Bonds

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Songs from these writers have been cut by and been on records with artists like: Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Jordin Sparks, Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Jason Derulo, Katharine McPhee, Tyler Shaw, Leila Broussard, New Kids on the Block, Koko LaRoo, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Greg Holden, and many, many more chart-topping artists. Our conservative estimate is that their songs have been on more than 300 million records sold!
Ralph, Nashville goes through these evolutionary cycles, probably about every 10 years or so. Shania Twain came to town, and everybody says, “She’s evil. Traditional Country music is being thrown under the bus.” And then she was a huge hit and people started making records like Shania Twain. Current trend: Hick-Hop, which was inevitable. Young kids listening to Hip-Hop and listening to Country music; it’s eventually gonna happen that somebody’s going to put them together and come up with Hick-Hop.

"Nashville has a great expression: You have to be present to win. It’s that simple."
Ralph Murphy

How is Nashville dealing with that from a town that is just so steeped in traditional songwriting culture? Are people learning how to produce tracks to Country records, or are they still sitting there with two acoustic guitars over a cup of coffee?
Ralph: I only know who I’m doing it with. I went down to Key Largo and played a couple of gigs, and I played one night with the old farts—Bob Reagan and Greg Barnhill. We did about an hour and a half. And then the next night I played with John Knight and Amanda Lee, and she was doing a lot of Hip-Hop. John Knight has the current Keith Urban single; he just had an award last year; he’s [showing up] all over. But he really has that Hip-Hop influence, and when I’m studying all the #1 records this year, all the Country airplay, #1s in Billboard, and the Pop #1s, I know I’m going to hate probably 99% of them. But 20 million people loved them, so who’s right? Me, the chump, or 20 million people? I have to defer to 20 million people, so therefore, there is something going on in there musically that I need to know.

A friend of mine, Mike Dekle, about a year ago… He’s my age—a man of a certain age; he had a #1 record with Brantley Gilbert. So I went over to the CMA and hugged on his neck and said, “Hey great, Michael. How are you writing with Brantley Gilbert?” He says, “Man, I’ve got another three back at home. I find them when they’re 15, and then book every month and write and write, and about two to three to four to five years on down the road, they start havin’ hits, and I’m on the album and on the singles.” He just had another #1 record with Brantley Gilbert.

And as I’m looking around the room, there are some people of a certain age and mature people; what you need to be looking for is looking for a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kid. Their technology and their vocabulary, you’ve got to adopt it, you’ve got to embrace it, because that’s the way forward. Vocabulary and technology, the only things that change in my life…

Truer words never spoken on that stage. We hear that every day at TAXI. We hear stuff, and we’re constantly saying to each other, “That could have been a hit in ’85; that could’ve been a hit in ’94. Everything about it is right, but it sounds dated. The melody’s dated, the lyric idea is dated, the way the lyric is formed is dated, the beat is dated. You still have to respect it for good song craft. So Marlin, how do people stay current…? And I’m sure you guys have all heard this, “Don’t write for today’s radio; write for a year and a half from now.” Because any song that somebody decides they’re gonna cut today, it’s gonna take an easy year and a half before that song’s gonna be a household word, so to speak. How do you stay out in front of it?
Marlin: That was an amazing way to say that, and I’m glad that point somehow eventually came up. But I think a couple ways. First, you write with producers that are just killer, and they just know what they have to do to stay ahead. For example, you get in a room with somebody and they’re producing what’s on the radio right now. As a producer, they have to be smart enough to say, “What could be next?” It’s a little bit about telling the future, you know what I mean? Lyrically it’s a little easier, but sonically I’ve had songs—I think we all have had songs—where there might be a great melody and lyric, but the production is just not where it needs to be. So if you’re really thinking about it, you have to be a student of music constantly. You have to be student and I get in the studio all the time, and I go, “OK, this is hot right now; we’ve got about at least three months to start pitching songs in this vein, but after that we’re gonna be dead. So if we’re gonna do this, we need to hurry up and get it done.” And have your pitches ready too, whatever you have. But in my mind I think that’s a production question. Do you agree? To me, with sonics, it’s a production question. And if you want to sonically be ahead of the curve, you have to be intentional about either writing something timeless like a piano ballad, which most of the time will live forever. But if you’re doing some type of production that’s hot yesterday, you’re gonna run into trouble if you’re not thinking about pushing the envelope a little bit. Change it a little bit just to make sure you don’t run out of time with the sound that you just created. Otherwise, like you said…

"A lot of times, people will say to me, ‘My God, how did you ever get to write with Britney Spears?’ Well, I’ll give you a hint—we were signed to the same publishing company, and it never ever would have happened otherwise."
Jason Blume

How do you know when you’ve pushed the envelope too far? That to me is one of the great mysteries of songwriting and production. Everybody says, “Find me something fresh; find me something new.” Then you come up with something fresh and new and people go, “That doesn’t sound like what’s on radio; that’s not gonna work at radio.” But I’ve always subscribed to the theory of 15%. Push the envelope by 15%, because they have to have a certain level of comfort and familiarity, and at the same time go, “That’s never been done quite that way before.” So how do you know? Is it just a visceral thing that you feel?
Marlin: I think being a student, just drowning yourself in the music. A good way that this is happening… Obviously it’s happening in Pop, but in Pop by proven veterans pushing the envelope, and DJs are pushing the envelope in Pop. On the Hip-Hop side, I would say these are kids. When Soulja Boy came out, Soulja Boy wasn’t necessarily thinking about [pushing the envelope]. He used what he had; for him it was amazing, and it just took off. And it’s happening again with Silento and a few other kids—there was another guy—where they are just using the simplest sounds, and somehow making something that feels good in their heart, and when the world gets ahold of it, it just catches fire. So I think some use their instincts, something that feels good in your heart. Unless you can get Max Martin on the phone and his team, you know what I mean?

Which takes me to the next question that I was going to ask you about. What you said earlier to just get yourself hooked up with, writing with great producers, working with great producers. Well, what if you’re nobody? What if you live in Ottawa, Illinois, and nobody knows who you are and you haven’t earned that right? In Nashville, you’ve got to come to town, keep your head low, keep your mouth shut, go to writers’ nights, do all that stuff and kind of pay your dues before they really accept the fact that you’re there and you’re serious. Outside of Nashville, what do you do to find these great producers who are levels above you that will say, “You’ve got something special going on, I want to work with you”? How does that happen?
Marlin: All right, this is a great question. Number one, you put in your 2,000 hours on your own, eventually you’ll get hot. Eventually, if you’re really, really talented, you just stick to it literally for seven or eight years, nonstop, killing yourself, in a good way. Eventually you start to catch fire.

There are shortcuts, though, that cost you. Most of the time, they are going to cost you. Everybody that took a shortcut, that shortcut cost them. They find partnerships, i.e., publishing companies; i.e., production companies; i.e., somehow you run into an executive that’s gonna plug you in to certain opportunities, and if you deliver, it’s great. But they’re gonna take a portion of your income, because they put in their 10 years, and what they’re saying to you is, “I already have these relationships, and if you want to take advantage of these relationships, it’s gonna cost you x, y, z. And sure I’ll give you a shot.”

Other than that, you’ve got to put the time in yourself to build those relationships. Because the people in this room 10 years from now will be somewhere else, so the people that 10 years ago who were where I was—we all worked our asses off—and now they’re somewhere else, and they go, “We’re brothers.” We were a part of the creative community, or the A&R community, and we all know each other now, because we all killed ourselves for the last 10 years. So there was no shortcut except for me to put that 10 years in, and now my friends have positions. Does that make sense? So now they get access. You either do that same process again, you find somebody like these guys or me or some executive who already has friends.

Ralph: Nashville has a great expression: You have to be present to win. It’s that simple. I think all of us basically turned up…and turning up here… This is a great 15th step or 20th step. It’s part of the pattern of just being present. You have to be present to win.

Jason: I want to add that I don’t want people to get the impression that giving away a big chunk of your income is necessarily a terrible thing to do. If you are with the right publisher, that publisher will create opportunities for you that you could never, never create on your own. And I much prefer having 50% of a mega-huge hit than 100% of nothing. A lot of times, people will say to me, “My God, how did you ever get to write with Britney Spears? How did you ever get to write with the Backstreet Boys when they were so hot?” Well, I’ll give you a hint—we were signed to the same publishing company, and it never ever would have happened otherwise. So from my point of view, I think your goal is sign with a publisher. I think that there are unbelievably few instances of anybody really breaking through. I’m not saying going on afterwards without a publisher, but even Diane Warren had a publisher in the beginning, before, so she could establish the credibility I think you have to… There are just rare, rare instances—one or two—of people who got that breakthrough, got to a huge level and stayed there without ever being with a publisher. That’s what [publishers] can do, because in today’s world they are the ones who can hook you up with those right situations, with those artists, those producers, those track people, whatever. It’s very hard to do that on your own.

Marlin: Look at it like corporate job. If you start at like an internship—not a free one, a paid one—or an entry-level position, you work your way up, you get raises over time, so you’re gonna start off… Make sure you have an exit strategy, though, that’s the only thing. No deal is really a bad deal if you can see the exit in the near future. That’s how I look at it. That’s how I look at every deal ever, and I’ve had a lot of deals. Some were really bad, but I go, “Worst case, in three years I’m gonna be out of this. I’ll be free and then I’ll get that portion of my income back, hopefully I’ll be higher up the scale, and… You understand what I mean?

Richard: Where did you say this [fictional] person you used as your example was? My geography of this country is pretty poor, to say the least. But I think you have to be in an area where people that are doing what you’re doing tend to congregate. If you want to be a fisherman, you don’t live in the middle of the desert—you’ve got to go and find sea or some water somewhere to start fishing. So I moved to the States; I moved to Los Angeles. I knew this was the center of the music business. And I sold everything; I just thought, “Screw it, I’m going,” and I just left, and thank God after some low points, like three months at Guitar Center, which nearly killed me… It was not a high point in my career, but it got me and my wife through a tough time. But L.A. was the place to come to, so I had to be around people that I could connect with. You’ve got to be… And it doesn’t mean you have to do it straightaway, but at some point you have to be close to the industry that you want to be involved with. It just increases your chances of success.

I’ve always said, “Use TAXI as your ticket out of town. Use us until you don’t need us.” And then maybe keep coming to the Road Rally so you keep networking after the fact. Look, Lindy Robbins used to be a TAXI member. I remember hearing her stuff probably back in ’93, ’94, ’95, and I called her up one day. She was nobody, and I enthusiastically said, “You’re gonna have a hit. You are writing almost at a hit level. I mean, you’re 3% away in my estimation.” And now she’s a very in-demand writer.
Richard: Yeah, Lindy’s my best female friend, and I spoke to her this morning. But Lindy worked long and hard for a lot of years. She was a theater writer, and she wrote for the circus, and then she made a conscious effort to shift into Pop music. But it was a long haul for her, and she networked. Part of the reason, besides being a great songwriter, she writes with all the track people. She is so in demand as topliner. They are all her friends; she came up with them. But it was not an overnight thing. And now she is one hit after another, because all the people that she’s been working with are all top, top; everything goes right to record.

Now, that’s not going to happen to you, but you may be sitting next to a producer who ends up being a hot producer, or you may end up sitting next to a person who is an artist and who is a great singer, and she becomes a recording artist and you happen to write some songs with her, and she’s gonna take you along.

But I have to reiterate, there’s a chance that you can get famous quick, but for the most part it’s gonna take steps and levels to get higher and higher; then one day something clicks.

"If you want to be a fisherman, you don’t live in the middle of the desert."
Richard Harris

Marlin: Lindy was a friend of mine. I love Lindy—she’s amazing. I agree with what you said about her circle, I think to simplify it even more, it’s like going to school with the same group of people. Because your peers eventually grow into being very important people. Or like if you’re around it… Like Richard said, you get around it you’re in like a frat almost, like you’re in college with a group of people. Everybody’s starving and everybody’s trying to work on it and build it. And then over years of time you are part of this really cool community. Some of them become A&R people. So it’s really not overnight unless you sign with a publisher, a production company or… And even then…

You’ve got to be good enough for them to want to sign you.
Marlin: If you look at it like I want to be a part of the songwriting community, then you can kind of realize that, “Oh, I actually do have to show up; I do actually do have to make friends; I actually have to be really good.” So slowly people will know your name, and the next thing you know, boom!

There’s a great book called Startup Nation. It’s the story of how the little tiny nation of Israel has more inventions, patents, booming companies, all this great stuff that we didn’t realize, like Intel—Israel; WAZE, the navigation app—Israel; all this stuff. And you know where it comes from? The Israeli Army! Everybody in Israel has to go through two or three years in the army, and that’s where they build their “fraternities.” Some of the guys are plumbers, some are electricians, some of them are chip designers, some are software code guys, some of them are entrepreneurs, and some of them become investment bankers. But they’ve all come from this fraternity where they became a band of brothers, and then it translates into business relationships down the road. That’s exactly what you’re talking about with songwriting—how Lindy came up with that group of people. And that’s what goes on in Nashville. Same thing. It’s “rising tide floats all boats,” but if you’re not present, as Ralph says, and you’re not in the boat on the water in the pond that Richard’s talking about, it ain’t gonna happen.

Don’t miss the final installment, Part 4, of this incredible interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!