Ian Crombie is the executive director of West Coast Songwriters, a group that offers its members song critiques and networking and performance opportunities.
Courtesy Ian Crombie
“It starts with a song” is a phrase that is often heard in the music business. But writing those songs and surviving as a songwriter is not always an easy task. You face intense competition and a changing market, not to mention the creative challenges that come along with writing music. Luckily for songwriters, support organizations are out there that offer help in a variety of ways. I had the opportunity to speak with Ian Crombie (see Fig. 1), executive director of West Coast Songwriters (westcoastsongwriters.org), a not-for-profit songwriter organization based in California. Crombie talked to me about what WCS and similar groups around the country are doing to help songwriters.
How does WCS support songwriters?
By offering education and connections — those are the two main things. Networking is a pretty cool part of songwriting. Not just the business side of it, but the equally important creative side. You're also networking to find collaborators, because most songs are cowritten.
WCS offers song critiques, or “screenings.” How do those work?
The song screenings are for members only. Members can attend the event and get direct feedback from the industry guest. I have seen members of our group grow significantly by opening themselves up to industry critique. You don't have to agree with everything the guest says, but if you can walk away with one thing that makes your song stronger, it's worthwhile. We've had a number of placements directly from screening.
What other support services does WCS offer for songwriters?
We have Works in Progress, a peer-to-peer song-critique night. We have songwriting classes taught by hit songwriters. In the office, there's reference material including books that members can borrow. We also have a monthly newsletter and a Web site. We send out requests for songs if the industry is looking for them. I am available to answer questions. There are nine performance events a month, from Sacramento to Hollywood. We also have one-off events like the Palo Alto Promenade of Film and Music, where WCS was responsible for the music stages and the Redwood City Plaza performances. Our annual conference, always the second weekend in September, is our largest event. More than 1,200 songs are reviewed, and it's a three-day networking event with many performance opportunities.
How many songwriters attend?
Between 200 and 300 people. On top of that, there are the industry guests, which number around 50.
Are there other organizations like WCS around the country?
There are similar groups across the country, such as the NSAI in Nashville. Ours is one of the most active organizations in the country. If you go on the Web, you could find some other support and networking organizations like ours by region or through sites such as lyricists.com and songwriteruniverse.com.
Has WCS had any success stories that you're willing to share?
Over time, we've had a number of them. TV and film placements have been the strongest successes for us over the years. Members have gotten record deals with independent labels and majors; writers get single and album cuts on recordings; an NCSA [Northern California Songwriters Association] writer just moved to Nashville six months ago and now has a single coming out — all of these writers made their connections through WCS.
Does WCS collect any broker's or finder's fees for generating these connections?
We have no financial ties. We just set up the opportunity, and then it's up to the songwriters themselves to do the rest. Setting up the opportunities is the key thing. We leave the responsibility of follow-up to the writers.
Do you have any tips on how songwriters can use WCS and similar organizations? What's realistic, and what isn't?
You know, sometimes we'll get somebody who calls and says, “I've written a hit song — that's what my mom told me. How much money can I make from this?” Those are the wrong kinds of questions. I think that you have to be in it because you love it, and then pay attention to the craft enough to where you'll get feedback on it. [Then] you can see whether you are writing at the level that you think you are writing at. Writers can pitch the industry through the organization, so the people are right there in front of you to listen to your song and give you feedback immediately. So having that gives the writer an opportunity to build up their network right away.
How have songwriting and the songwriting industry changed in the 20 years you've been working with WCS?
I think that the pop market is now pretty much sewn up; it's difficult to get into. Unless you're the artist or the producer-writer, it's almost impossible.
So becoming one of those is key.
Exactly. So I think that the self-contained artist is the wave of the future. But if you're not an artist, don't try to make yourself an artist — be true to yourself. If you aren't an artist, latch on to an artist who is good but doesn't have good songs. There are a lot of people who are really talented performers but aren't very good songwriters.
How do you recommend finding such people?
I'd go out and look. Go to smaller venues and see artists who are developing. Connect with them and see if you can write a song for that artist — or at least see if they are interested in collaborating.
What's the role of the music publisher now? How has that changed?
Several years ago, the publisher would pay someone as a staff writer. So when the writer's songs would become hits, [the publisher] would recoup the money they were paying out monthly to that writer. Now, there are very few staff writers. Publishers still do have people on staff, but it's just a limited amount of people. The publishers have the connections to set up writing situations with artists, so it's an easier way for writers to get in the door.
Do songwriters do a lot of networking using the Internet?
It's a great way to find new artists. You can do a search within a certain geographical area to get a chance to connect with those people. Look at Journey, which found a new singer through the Internet. It's interesting, isn't it? YouTube and similar sites are a great way to find an artist to work with — as long as it's real. Use every avenue that's open to you. Using the Internet is an incredible tool to find things a lot more easily than we were ever able to. As a DIY artist who knows how to use technology, you've got production tools and sites like YouTube and MySpace available to you. Look at selling your own stuff on CD Baby and other online distributors. For an independent artist, that's a great way to go.
Is the current economic downturn bad for songwriters?
Through adversity usually comes great material. I come from Birmingham [England], which is a pretty industrial area, and people either fight their way out as boxers or they play their way out with music. Even though times may be tough, it's where great material comes from, because adversity tends to make people have an opinion.
How would you describe the kind of songwriter or artist who is best positioned to succeed in today's music business?
I think it's easier if you're a self-contained artist — if you perform and write. It's an easier vehicle to get your songs out there. As a performer-songwriter, you can just go out and perform and you have to connect with your audience immediately. If you're a lyricist or music writer only, you have to find a collaborator to complete your songs and then someone to deliver them.
Any final words of advice for the songwriters and performers out there?
Be true to who you are. People can really see something that's false. If you're trying to pass yourself off as something that you're not, people can really see it. So be true to yourself, perform about things you care about. That's kind of a key thing. Do it because you love it, not because you're looking for money. If you work hard enough at it, you probably will make money.
Michael A. Aczon is a 25-year veteran of the music industry, teaches music-industry courses at two colleges in California, and is the author of The Musician's Legal Companion, second edition (Cengage Publishing, 2008).
West Coast Songwriters
List of songwriters associations
Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSIA)