They’re the keys to a solid business plan: a sound product, an understanding of the target customer, focused marketing and country music.
That’s right — country music. Nashville songwriters have over the last decade amplified a secondary source of revenue by giving more in-the-round performances beyond Music City’s club circuit, particularly for America’s corporate movers and shakers. Sometimes it’s a hometown gig at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe or The Listening Room for 50-75 staffers with a company enjoying an entertainment break during a conference. In other instances, the composers may travel out of town to perform for a dozen senior members of different companies that are engaged in a leadership exercise.
Regardless of a company’s purpose, it gives songwriters — who create their material in small rooms — a chance to see their songs at work in front of an audience and to get paid for the privilege.
“A lot of songwriters are doing it because they’re not making money on getting cuts anymore,” says songwriter Hillary Lindsey (“Blue Ain’t Your Color,” “Jesus, Take the Wheel”). “Even if you get the album cut, if you don’t have a single, you’re not making money. So a lot of people are hustling and getting a lot of these gigs. If you do enough, I think you can make some money.”
The development was not born in a songwriting room. Instead, it came indirectly from the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., which is tasked with marketing Music City as a destination for both vacation and business travel. Songwriters are “a secret weapon of Nashville,” says NCVC CEO Butch Spyridon. Roughly 20 years ago, he rounded up three writers — Brett James (“I Hold On,” “Blessed”), Rivers Rutherford (“Ain’t Nothing ’Bout You,” “Real Good Man”) and Tim Nichols(“Live Like You Were Dying,” “Heads Carolina, Tails California”) — and hit a handful of other markets, attempting to entice convention bookers to plot their events in Middle Tennessee.
“The irony was it was so good, so cool and so special,” Spyridon says. “The client base responded better than if they were seeing the artists. It resonated out of the gate, and so then we just never stopped.”
Around 10 years ago, some of the executives who experienced those songwriter-in-the-round performances started booking them for their own corporate events. The price was much less than booking, say, Tim McGraw, and the event proved more personal and intimate, as attendees heard familiar songs in the vocal-and-guitar format in which they were originally conceived. While prices vary, the typical writer might get $5,000, so a company could conceivably book a four-person event for $20,000 and minimal production costs, far cheaper than a corporate McGraw gig.
“Not only that, you can get the writers that wrote most of the Tim McGraw hits,” says songwriter Rob Hatch (“I Don’t Dance,” “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”), who co-founded a songwriter booking agency, Entersong, with Jerrod Niemann and Indiana-based entrepreneur Steve Stewart this year. The company has over 50 writers on its roster, and bookings can range from appearances at established venues to informal dates at backyard barbecues or house parties.
“COVID-19 created a situation where people couldn’t go out and go to concerts,” Hatch says. “A lot of the private concerts popped up more because they couldn’t go anywhere else.”
Like any other performer, songwriters determine the workload that suits them. Ashley Gorley (“You Proof,” “You Should Probably Leave”) takes out-of-town dates only if they’re with fellow writers who are already friends and/or it’s in a location where he and his wife would like to vacation. Chris DeStefano (“At the End of a Bar,” “Something in the Water”) is more aggressive.
“I try to do as much of it as possible,” he says. “It’s a great way of reaching fans and [a chance to] do some traveling, too, which I go do a lot of times. I get to bring my wife, and that’s always great. It’s working vacations, but also, it’s a way of really communicating directly with fans. And any opportunity I get to do that is some of the best parts of what I do.”
But a number of writers have also found that the shows can become too much of a good thing, as they start eating into their family time or damaging their creativity in the writing room.
“They are good for a songwriter to get some hard cash because our money is so delayed, the way we get paid,” says Jessi Alexander (“Never Say Never,” “I Drive Your Truck”). “If you’re going to pay me to come sing five songs with my friends, I’m going to do it, but I found that it was really starting to disrupt my writing — go play a gig, get home late at night, start all over again.”
Some of the gigs are ideal — Corey Crowder (“Famous Friends,” “Minimum Wage”) did one for Waldorf Astoria Hotels in Hawaii — and others have ranged from a trucking tire company that employed Track45 to a winery that booked Hunter Phelps (“wait in the truck,” “Thinking ’Bout You”). Another songwriter booking agency, Mike Severson’s Songwriter City, lists a bundle of clients — including Morgan Stanley, AT&T and Amazon — on its website.
In the end, the trend is one that takes advantage of the most unique feature of Music City’s creative class, providing an extra income stream to songwriters and setting the community apart in the business world.
“This kind of shows who we are,” Spyridon says. “You clear away all the clutter, and there’s a heart and soul, and it comes from the songwriter.”