Writing a song is, says Garth Brooks, “the most important step in music.”
And yet the advent of the digital age has demolished the profession, cutting the number of full-time songwriters in Nashville by 80 percent, according to the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
The Last Songwriter, a movie that will have its world premiere on April 27 during the Nashville Film Festival, finds some of Nashville’s most effective songwriters mulling the possibility that the golden age for their craft might well be over. There’s a quiver in her voice when Matraca Berg (“Strawberry Wine,” “You and Tequila”) sings “Back When We Were Beautiful,” a song about an aging woman watching her body slowly wither. But that emotion isn’t just about the difficult subject matter in the piece — it’s also directed at an art form she loves that’s likewise crumbling.
“There’s a kind of a movement in the film where Jason Isbell says writers need to get out on the road and perform,” director/co-producer Mark Barger Elliott says. “And Matraca says that in the film, too, where she says, ‘I need to go get some gigs now.’ That’s a new reality for almost all the writers now.”
Much of the storyline in The Last Songwriter will be familiar to most music industry observers. Songwriters’ profession is overseen by copyright laws that were created mostly before the Internet’s existence. While artists and record companies, who hold the rights to the actual sound recordings of songs, have a certain amount of flexibility in negotiating prices and usage of their music, songwriters and publishers have many of their royalties regulated by the government and receive only a fraction of the artists’ rate in many key formats, particularly digital sales and streaming.
Songwriters do quite well when they have hits, thanks to the royalties that radio stations pay to the performance rights organizations — ASCAP, BMI and SESAC — but those same hits generate far fewer earnings for writers through streaming. And since streaming now accounts for more than half the economic activity in the recording business, according to the RIAA’s recap of 2016 revenue, it’s a significant issue for writers and publishers.
Several of the hit writers in The Last Songwriter — Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me,” “I Run to You”), Allen Shamblin (“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Life’s a Dance”), Tony Arata (“The Dance,” “Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open”) and co-producer Marcus Hummon (“Bless the Broken Road,” “Born to Fly”) — are likely in financially sound positions because they had time to develop their craft. But the current model makes it extremely difficult for a publisher to invest in a raw writing talent in a way that allows that young writer to devote full attention to the field.
“Most people don’t come as young men and women in songwriting fully formed,” says Hummon in the film. “There’s an incubation period. Development is real, and one of the great things about Nashville [is] there was enough money where a kid could get a publishing deal and could really focus on the craft and wouldn’t have to wait tables all the time.”
That, however, was in the old system, when album sales were a key part of the publishing equation. A non-hit album track generated the same sales royalty as the hit song, so as writers’ output increased in quality, a cut on a million-selling album might bring in $20,000-$30,000. A couple of similar successes a year enabled them to make a living while they continued to improve, much like an apprentice.
The popular view of the songwriter would hold that songs are gifts of inspiration. But writing a song with the quality of “The Dance” or “The House That Built Me” isn’t something that happens very often for people who aren’t already engrossed in the trade. “More often than not,” notes Isbell on camera, “inspiration strikes when you’re already working.”
Songwriter Jamie Floyd subtly underscores the issue in the picture. She co-wrote “The Blade,” a Grammy-nominated song that served as the title track for a well-regarded Ashley Monroe album. Floyd has yet to write an actual hit, and where the old system practically guaranteed she would have a publisher willing to put her on staff, she has thus far been in and out of publishing deals and has been forced to work as a waitress. That naturally slows down her progress. The physical toll of that kind of job creates a certain attrition in the songwriting field, and that likely means that future generations could lose out on significant, inspiring titles if the economics of the vocation don’t get fixed.
“If Jamie Floyd gives up, is the next song that she was going to write ‘The Dance’ or ‘The House That Built Me?’ ” Elliott asks rhetorically. “We felt it was worth shining a spotlight on that.”
It’s that potential loss of meaningful art that The Last Songwriter addresses, hoping to inspire music fans who care about songs — or, even more ideally, a politician in a position of influence — to take an interest in the issue.
“It sounds simplistic, but it’s true: We don’t have a music industry without songwriters,” says Elliott. “Who’s going to write the soundtrack of our lives, the songs we fall in love to, the songs that we play at a loved one’s funeral, the song that gets us up in the morning? It’s a little dramatic, but that’s what’s at stake.”
That’s why Berg, Shamblin and Douglas took part in The Last Songwriter, sometimes with obvious emotion. Whether songs are feel-good pick-me-ups on the way to work or three-minute soap operas that remind the listener someone else has experienced their pain, they can have a profound impact on the way people view their world.
“Our song ‘The House That Built Me’ has allowed people to get back home, in a sense, metaphorically,” says Douglas in the movie. “Allen [Shamblin] and I want to encourage the next generation. Write that song for us, ’cause Allen and I are going to get lost, and we’re going to need to get back home with your song.”