Spotlight: Songwriter & 'And the Writer Is...' Host Ross Golan on Podcasting's Unexpected Consequences, Educating Young Artists
"I am trying to be a better songwriter and actually ask other songwriters about what they've learned about their careers. But, in the process, learning of them being a better songwriter is teaching me to be a better interviewer."
"One thing that people should do in their life is record themselves speaking for one hour every week and then listen back," says songwriter Ross Golan. "It will alter how you communicate from then on."
It's something Golan has found (and been able to do) via his popular And the Writer Is... podcast, where he interviews fellow songwriters on their back stories, craft and opinions on the music industry. Created in partnership with publisher Big Deal Music, writer- and producer-management agency Mega House Music and producer and songwriter Joe London, the third season kicks off Monday (April 30) with interviewee Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic fame. And as the series nears 1 million downloads, Golan is settling into his hosting role with some unexpected consequences.
"You think you know what you sound like," he continues. "But when you have a conversation and you listen to yourself for an hour weekly, you will ask questions differently, you will listen to answers differently and you will become a better conversationalist. In general, my relationships outside of the interview process have improved because I've learned that I might actually care about what other people have to say more than I care about what I have to say. As my grandpa said, 'No one ever learned anything from speaking.'"
He adds, "I sort of wish I started this podcast when I was 13 and I could redo the last 20 plus years, because it is educational -- and quite torturous -- to have to listen to yourself talk to other people."
As more and more listeners tune in to hear Golan and his guests, the key to the 2016 BMI pop songwriter of the year's success in podcasting has been his expertise in and active experience with the subject matter. With credits on genre-spanning chart-toppers ranging from Selena Gomez's "Same Old Love" to Flo Rida's "My House" to Lady Antebellum's "Compass" and more, Golan is friends -- and has worked -- with many of his guests. The show was actually born out of those relationships, meant to imitate the hour or so of conversation songwriters typically share before most writing sessions.
Initially, the intent wasn't widespread popularity; instead, it was simple to document the era and that camaraderie, more or less for its own posterity. But, as it turns out, there's a public interest in pop music's behind-the-scenes goings-on, and And the Writer Is... has thrived. In turn, Golan says hosting the show gives him an opportunity to learn more about his own craft as a songwriter. As it goes, the two roles are sort of intertwined now.
"It's weird -- I'm a songwriter who now has a podcast that people listen to," he says. "All of a sudden it's like, 'I better not just be a songwriter, I better be an interviewer.' But part of being an interviewer that's complicated is that I really care about what songwriters have to say about the songwriting process. And so I think what makes me a good interviewer is that I'm an inquisitive songwriter. I'm not sure which is the one I'm trying to be better at -- I think I am trying to be a better songwriter and actually ask other songwriters about what they've learned about their careers. But, in the process, learning from them [how to be] a better songwriter is teaching me to be a better interviewer."
Golan isn't the only one learning along the way. As the podcast has grown, he says it has become a teaching aid for aspiring songwriters in college programs or just striking out on their own. Knowing he has an interested audience has also had an effect on Golan's interview technique and now he typically ends episodes by asking his subjects what advice they would give to an up-and-coming songwriter. He also often gets requests for more in-depth analysis on song composition -- or "math" as it's called in the industry -- but says that that's for another kind of show. "It's way more interesting to hear how someone has survived long enough to pursue this as a career," he says. "To me, that's the process... Not whether or not somebody has decided to keep the pre-chorus at eight measures versus four measures."
Golan's own journey took him from the suburbs outside Chicago of his youth to Los Angeles, where he studied at the University of Southern California. He released his own music as Ross Golan & the Moleheads and Glacier Hiking, and toured while building relationships in the industry and receiving valuable experience in his failures, be it performing in front of uninterested audiences or getting dropped from major label deals. It's something he touches on with Tedder in the season three premiere of And the Writer Is... and says that kind of perseverance is the "most valuable thing you could teach" a young songwriter.
"It helps when you're an opening artist and no one wants to see you perform," he explains. "You have to learn to go and stand up in front of people who are waiting for the next artist and who won't remember you, so you better write something that's pretty captivating off the top.
"Even before that, when I was in musical theater growing up, it was that same philosophy -- a good musical was written when people could walk away singing the songs because they didn't have recordings of it. Like, how do you write like these classic songs? I didn't know that's what I was doing at the time, but I think that really taught me the value of a good song. But it was many years later that I realized how to write truly commercially-relevant music and I'm still learning it."
Aside from pulling back the curtain on pop music's most prolific hit-makers, with And the Writer Is... Golan has developed a platform to advocate for songwriters' rights. As a member of the National Music Publishers Association and Nashville Songwriters Association International and a former member of the Grammy Board, he has used his position to discuss unionization and performance rights organizations offering healthcare for their writers, as well as traveling to Washington, D.C. to participate in Grammy's On The Hill and generally becoming a go-to spokesperson on the issues facing his community.
In a lot of ways, it's a great time to be a songwriter, Golan explains. He likens it to the "pre-1964" music business, where Brill Building songwriters dominated, before The Beatles broke into the U.S. music market and disrupted the landscape with their self-penned tunes. Currently, "songs matter more than albums," says Golan. "Songs matter more than most artists' brands. The songs are what they build brands off of now."
But as many A-list songwriters as Golan has welcomed on his show -- Benny Blanco, five-time ASCAP songwriter of the year winner Ashley Gorley, Bonnie McKee, Mikkel Eriksen of Stargate and Charlie Puth, to name a few -- he is still concerned about the writers being left out of the current boom. While the current singles culture has offered a boom for many top-tier writers and producers in the music industry, Golan also warns of the consequences it is having on the songwriting "middle class" that is no longer propped up by album sales. So if someone's songs are not selected as singles, he says the income imbalance can become "so disproportionate that it's hard for them to maintain a living wage and be a professional songwriter."
On his new role as songwriter rights advocate, Golan recalls one of his guests asking him why writers are so often willing to put their songs on compilations for other peoples' causes but won't stand up for the songwriting community. "And to me, that's what I'm doing here," Golan says. "This is my 'We Are the World' and I'm doing it with Big Deal and Mega House and Joe London. None of us make money from this... We're doing this specifically because of the service."
He adds, "It moved from, 'I want to help preserve some of my co-writers' legacies,' to, 'This may actually end up helping out the next generation of musicians.'"
The best advice I've received is to take Fountain... I'm half-kidding. That's a famous L.A. joke about getting around town quickly. But there's truth in that. Be on time! Punctuality is the lowest form of accountability.
I knew I was committed to music when I had to choose between selling my dream to live in my condo or selling my condo to live my dream. I risked everything I had. Begged the bank to not evict me. That bought me just enough time. I got a few cuts. Got a publishing deal. And the rest is history.
Something most people don't understand is the music industry is many things. It's many genres. It's multi-cultural and international. It's the album you're recording for $1,000. It's the show you made $150 playing. It's the song that got licensed for free.
Something I never thought is that the top of the charts is not a destination. Music is fleeting. Therefore, ego is stupid and legacy is worse. A successful career in songwriting is about enjoying your life creating with people who challenge you and make you make better music. The chart position won't make you happy, but that session with friends will.
I am learning instincts are where you find magic. But sometimes you've got to trust compositional math more than the magic.
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