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In Business and In Craft: Songwriters, Composers and Publishers Unite at 9th Annual ASCAP Expo

Wecreatemusic100yearsBy Diana Hereld of Pathways in Music. Photos by Tonya Wise/PictureGroup.

This weekend marked ASCAP’s 9th annual “I Create Music” Expo, where over 2,500 songwriters, composers and publishers gathered in the Hollywood Loews Hotel to network, receive feedback from industry experts, and build upon their knowledge of what it takes to succeed in creating music. Featuring artist talent such as Ray Parker, Jr., Akon, Amy Grant, and Benjamin Weinman (The Dillinger Escape Plan), the expo played host to a number of influential and instrumental characters in the business. Among the panelists were Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, Desmond Child, and Dr. Luke.

A general theme of which seemed to be given more credence than in previous years, however, was the impassioned urge to unite musicians and songwriters in business and in craft. In effort to spread awareness concerning ASCAP’s newly uncovered Music Advocacy Project, or “MAP,” several panels and events expressed agendas in favor and plea of policy reform.

Day One – A Marriage of Business and Art


Glen Phillips, Ray Parker, Jr., Amy Grant and Richie Sambora at the "I Create Music" Center Stage

Kicking off the annual membership meeting, ASCAP president and chairman Paul Williams provided a heartfelt address geared toward reminding attendees that behind every song, be it one of Dr. Luke’s thirty one chart topping singles, an auto commercial syndication, or independent coffee shop ballad, there persists the heart of a songwriter. No matter the process, notoriety or approach, the self of the vessel forms alike. “It all starts with a blank piece of paper . . . all of the sudden a song comes into the room. How do you describe what that feels like? All of the sudden you’re not alone.”

Williams went on to describe the strange relationship between art and business: For the vast majority of artists, there are far easier ways to make money; yet they persist. It is many times all too easily forgotten that songs are not created by machines; they are created by people, crafting expressions of individuality to be shared by a much wider collective audience. Even so, he reminded, “When businesses thrive off your music, you deserve to thrive as well.”

The expo continued in a number of discussions, panels, and anticipated and impromptu performances. Presented by Variety, the panel “Rocking the Screen: Artists Composing for Film and TV” found Alexander Ebert (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) and Jeff Russo (Tonic) imparting wisdom on the tougher questions of innate talent versus acquired proficiency.

Ebert began by addressing popular conceptions about the mastery of a musical skill. “As far as the ten thousand hours trend, I think that one thing that you have trouble teaching people is how to develop a mad taste for desire so that they want to put in those ten thousand hours.” Russo continued, “Craft is what you can teach. Talent comes from the heart . . . you can teach people how to access that, but you can’t teach talent itself.”

Keeping with themes of heart over head, an important insight wrapped the afternoon in the conversation between ASCAP Executive VP, Membership John Titta and Dr. Luke of Prescription Songs. Joined on the stage by seventeen year old songwriter and artist Becky G, Dr. Luke discussed everything from the importance of being present and honest in all stages in songwriting, to exactly what caught his eye about the young new protégé.

When asked by an audience member just what made the girl with such a humble background stand out, Dr. Luke explained he had seen her YouTube cover of Kanye West and Jay’s Otis. “There was this crazy determination in her eyes – there was no option – she was definitely going to do it. When I met her, I had no idea she could sing as well, and write, so I was just really blown away.”

Day Two – Opportunities in Music Synchronization Expand


Becky G and Dr. Luke onstage during the Dr. Luke and Prescription Songs panel

The next day launched early with the opening panel “From Billboard to Broadway: Hit Songwriters in Musical Theatre.” Joined by songwriting legends Holly Knight, Stephen Gray and Glen Ballad, ASCAP AVP, Musical Theatre & Cabaret and moderator Michael Kerker provided insight on the modern disconnect between the stage and radio, and on the creative challenges of making the transition from the charts to the musical stage.

In pop music, the songwriter brings the artist to the front of the stage for three minutes – no suspended disbelief required. When writing or theatre, however, they must keep in mind the necessary dialogue and conflict to be expressed often by up to eight characters – no small feat. When confronted with songwriting obstacles, Hall of Fame songwriter Holly Knight called attention to one personal parallel across the board: “I just pray to the muse and hope I catch lightening in a bottle.”

Later on, topics turned more DIY/how to with afternoon panel “Where No Music Supervisor Has Gone Before.” Presented by the Guild of Music Supervisors, industry experts came together to address new and unique manners of synchronization. With the growth of streaming programming, internet radio and film trailers, new music licensing openings are being used more and more to augment synch opportunities in traditional film and TV.

For several participants, the panel provided real access to A-Listers and information seldom found in other venues. Many attendees also took advantage of free fifteen minute music critiques from independent A&R service Taxi, presenting artists and producers with a realistic idea of what goes into shopping songs out to music publishers.

Day 3 – Trade Talks Continue


Music Supervisor and Panelist Jeff Gray meets Atara Gottschalk of Plastic Rhino on Day 2 of the ASCAP Expo

The final day commenced with highly attended lecture “Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting.” Combining concepts of neurological consumer behavior, music psychology research and long-term statistics from the industry, author and songwriter Ralph Murphy provided a comprehensive analysis of everything from BPM in specifically social versus resting states to referencing the neuroscience of familiarity (or why vi, IV, I, V is one of the most popular and commonly used chord progressions in the history of pop music).

This year’s expo afforded a great reminder of “why we create music” to the world of creative hats, performers and entrepreneurs alike. From the ASCAP president’s resilient exclamation “When life cracks us open, out comes a song,” to mathcore legend Benjamin Weinman’s humble statement “Music saved my life,” composers, authors and publishers found themselves encouraged in solidarity, perseverance and hope that their efforts to succeed in a sometimes volatile industry are worth the setbacks and uncertainties.

Somewhere, amid the hopeful toil between promise and defeat, at the end of the day, it all begins with that ​blank piece of paper.