Shane McAnally has co-written seven chart-topping country music hits in the last three years. He writes for a wide range of artists including Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum. Recently he shared the view from the songwriter's side of taking a song from pen to broadcast. While it's a lot of hard work, once you're at the top of the game certain aspects of the process get a lot easier.
Nashville is a songwriter's town in many respects, at least that's what I hear from folks there. Though I'm usually hearing tales of the struggle from friends like Kurt Fortmeyer, described in 2011 as "one of the top three unsigned Nashville composers," finding out about the process of an incredibly successful songwriter like Shane McAnally is a reminder that it's not an easy thing at any level of the game.
Chris Richards, writing for The Washington Post, interviewed Shane McAnally about each stage of the making of a country radio hit emphasizing what it looks like from the songwriter's perspective:
Writing the Song
Co-writing songs is a big part of songwriting in Nashville. At one point McAnally was writing up to 8 songs a week and he says he couldn't have done it without co-writers:
“I wake up every day thinking, ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ There’s nothing left to say and I’m completely dry...And then I get in the room with somebody and they say the right thing, and I’m on again.”
Recording the Work Tape
McAnally says that work tapes have become studio productions of their own:
“Some songs get recorded on [the strength of] a decent work tape — which is just guitar and vocals...But it’s not that common anymore. Production has become such a part of it. You’re up against things that sound like records.”
So he records in a studio to outshine the competition. I bet that's a serious investment. Interestingly enough, the shift is said to have occurred because of the ubiquity of web tools pushing up DIY production levels.
Find a Plugger
McAnally describes "pluggers" as the "song's agents" who have meetings constantly with A&R people and artists and producers.”
He says publishers will have at least 3 pluggers per song so with two co-writers that could mean at least 9 people pushing your music.
Negotiating the Holds
A "hold" is an "oral commitment that the song is in the pack" and often stretch out to a year. That's cool with McAnally if it's the right artist but he says it does get "messy" when more than one artist is interested which can lead to "intricate, prolonged negotiations" closed with a handshake.
Wow, I can't even imagine settling for a handshake at that point.
Recording the Song
Handshakes are no longer part of the picture when it's time to record. Though he's avoided holds with last minute submissions, I doubt he plans such things. More likely he just has a new song that fits an artist and, since he's a big success, he can get that access.
It's A Hit or Try, Try Again
There's a lot of work from recording to radio but that's out of the songwriter's hands. If the songs makes it, McAnally gets another of those plaques cluttering up his office.
If not, maybe another artist will pick it up and take it all the way.
Because there's always tomorrow.
Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at Flux Research and Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.