Melanie Meriney’s ‘Notes from Nashville’ #8 – My Experience as a Staff Writer for a Music Publisher

Hey everyone! I’ve gotten a couple of messages asking about the songwriting process and what it is like to write as a staff songwriter for a publishing company, so I will do my best to relay the experience! Thank you guys for reaching out and reading these articles! I love getting feedback and questions (that I can hopefully answer!).

Everybody’s journey into songwriting is a little bit different. For me, I started “writing” in third grade after I went to a Shania Twain concert. I didn’t know any instruments, so my early songs were just melodies I made up in my head and pencil on paper, recorded via my karaoke machine which had a built in tape recorder (I’m aging myself a bit!). I’d sing acapella into the mic and accumulated stacks of tapes which got slightly better as time went on. While I attempted to write about love, my experience as an eight year old wasn’t very profound, so many of my songs were about God (I was raised in an Episcopal church) and school relationships. My rhymes and lyrics were rudimentary, but it was part of me learning and honing my skills.

In seventh grade, I had the option in school to take a guitar and keyboard course. While the keyboard never stuck (something I regret now), guitar became my go-to writing tool. I would sit in my room for hours practicing singing to a strum pattern and placing my fingers repeatedly on the strings until they got calluses. At first, my songs centered around two or three chords, but as I improved, my creativity in chord patterns and writing improved.

Nashville was the first opportunity I had to co-write. Cowriting is awesome because it takes you outside of your box and expands your style. I equate it with running. If I run on my own, I do the amount that feels good enough to me. If there’s someone running with me and pacing me, I push myself to be better and to go further than I would on my own. Cowriting gives your collaborator the opportunity to push you by asking: “can we make this melody stronger?” “can we beat this line?” “let’s make the chorus punch more” “what if we take the story in this direction instead?” It gives you a mental workout as well as helps you vary your sound. If I write a bunch of songs on my own, inevitably they end up sounding slightly similar. If I co-write with different people, they sound more unique and individual.

Mentors have advised me to never be the best writer in the room. It’s a learning process and as a young writer, you are a sponge. The harder you have to push yourself to keep up with the level of talent and creativity in the room, the faster you will become better. On the other hand, I’ve also had a hit writer tell me “we are all the same age creatively,” meaning although he has a #1 under his belt and has been doing it for twenty years, I still have a ton to bring to the table. My ideas are young and fresh and maybe have a perspective that hasn’t been considered yet. Therefore, although I still do get a little nervous on big writes, I do my best to not be too intimidated. After all, I have put in years of work and practice to earn my way into the room. I have something to contribute.

In 2016, I signed my first publishing deal with Dune Grass Music in Nashville (their other writers have included Neal Coty, Brian Maher, and Jon Henderson who have had cuts with Blake Shelton, Mark Chestnutt, Craig Morgan, Gretchen Wilson, Taylor Swift, the Judds, Tanya Tucker and others). How I got my foot in the door there was definitely a networking effort. A mutual friend set me up on a write with Neal who in turn liked my writing enough to set me up with the other writers at the company. After a few months of writing with these guys, I asked for a meeting with the publisher, following up the meeting with a hand-written thank you note and a recap of why I would be a good fit. A lot of it is about timing. After not hearing a word back for two months, the owner called and offered me a deal.

While all contracts are different, the basics are generally the same: you sign to a term (usually a year) with the publisher’s option to extend the contract period. During that time, you are expected to write a quota of songs for that term (which varies per contract)- mine was twenty. A song you write by yourself counts as one song. A song which you co-write with one person counts as half a song, and so on. Generally your publisher will help you set up certain co-writes, but you are also responsible for booking your own writes. Most deals have a draw (monthly stipend for living expenses which is recoupable) as well as cover demo recordings (also recoupable). The goal is for the publishing house’s song plugger to pitch your song to A&R at the labels and hopefully get a “cut”, or a song recorded by an artist. It’s a bit like playing the lottery, but once you hit, your chances of hitting again go up. After all, your songs are now a product that have been proven to be successful.

My two years at Dune Grass were a great learning experience. I got in the room with some very talented, accomplished writers who taught me a great deal about the craft. It was also interesting to note the differences in chemistry. Sometimes I’d write with hit writers and not be able to produce anything good, while I’d write a smash with someone still relatively unknown. Writing, like other aspects of the business, is about relationships and vibe. While you can study tip sheets (detailing the kinds of songs artists are searching for) and trends, at the end of the day, you just want to create great music.

A writing session is usually a three-four hour block where you sit in a room with people and try to make magic happen. While writing only when inspired is preferable, you can train yourself to stretch your brain creatively for scheduled writes. Usually, someone has a word, phrase, or melody in their head to get things started. When writing with “track guys”, I like when they create a beat or a rhythm to get a vibe going. We usually can bounce lines and melodies off of each other, but some days are better than others. If nothing happens after two or three hours, I like to call it and try another day. Rarely will anything forced turn out to be groundbreaking.

I’ve gotten some holds with major artists (they will reserve the song temporarily to see if it’s a good fit for their album) and some independent artist cuts. While I have parted ways with Dune Grass, I continue to try and write at least two times a week to keep my chops up and to ready myself for the next thing. Writing is in my blood. The goal is that someday, someone knows the words to my song and that song changes them. That’s all anyone wants to leave, really: a legacy that matters.

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