Last week, I attended the third annual ASCAP I Create Music Expo in Hollywood, California. As usual, I had a fabulous time although it was a bit of a whirlwind getting there—I miraculously made it onto a direct 9:15 a.m. flight out of Newark after waking up at 7:30 and learning that the first of two scheduled flights I was booked on to get there, the 11:20 American Airlines flight from LaGuardia to Dallas, was cancelled.
That sudden change of plans and its positive end result—I made it into L.A. four hours earlier and avoided switching planes—proved to be a very telling metaphor for lessons I gleaned from sessions I attended at the Expo. Whether it was a session on writing music for short films, getting a work done on Broadway or in an opera house, big band arranging, or plugging a song in Nashville, the message seemed to be the same: Your biggest calling card is not having a finished composition to hawk to people, but rather an ability to work with people in a situation and be able to be quick-footed enough to change course on a project if necessary.
Michael Korie, librettist for the opera Harvey Milk and lyricist for the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, spelled it out in the opera/musical theatre panel: “A completed opera is not your friend; companies want to collaborate.” He later opined that he’s come to prefer the Broadway process because it allows more opportunities to rethink and revise. “I can’t deal with having no previews in opera. You always get reviewed on opening night. It’s like a battle; you only get one chance to invade.”
Similarly, the legendary arranger Bill Holman admitted that the secret to his success was how to work with the people he was creating music for: “Peggy Lee liked me for what I didn’t write.” And yet, during another session in which a series of scores for two-minute films were critiqued by a panel of film industry professionals, the overly defensive reaction of one of the featured composers, whose music was otherwise quite good, was a sad prediction on how his efforts will probably fare in this highly competitive collaborative idiom if he continues to resist feedback.
Perhaps the most mind opening of all the sessions I attended was a session called “Nashville Reality Check” in which a group of songs were evaluated by Nashville hit brokers Ralph Murphy and Dennis Matkosky. Basically the session was designed to give aspiring songwriters the inside scoop on how to create chart toppers. The secret is realizing that when your song is played on the radio, it’s merely “the filler between jingles.” If what you wrote doesn’t keep them listening from one commercial to the next, it’s off the air. Plain and simple. Or as Jackson Browne put it during an interview with Variety‘s associate editor Phil Gallo: “Music is supposed to sound good. If you’re punishing people for paying attention that’s not gonna work.”
This is all a bit 180 degrees away from the mindset of many folks in the new music community where we tend to value what we create so highly and expect the audience to come to terms with it. Everybody at the Expo projected an alternative musical universe where creators have to come to terms with their potential audience in order to survive. But that’s not to imply that it’s any less sincere. In fact, it’s a constant dialogue between your own muse and a firm understanding of who your audience is; as the Nashville guys put it: it’s about “finding little things that no one shares but that everybody gets.” If not, you’re out of luck since, to quote the words of Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora, “you can’t polish bullshit.”