Industry Insider: Sherrill Blackman

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Sherrill Blackman is a successful music publisher and award-winning independent songplugger based in Nashville.
Photo: Vickie Vaughan

On recording projects for major acts, country music uses more “outside” songs — those not written by the recording artists or producers — than any other genre does. And when a major-label artist in Nashville records an outside song, it has usually been placed due to the efforts of a songplugger. A songplugger is someone who pitches songs for a songwriter or publisher to get them placed with a recording artist or in a film or television project.

A good songplugger won't pitch just any song. The plugger acts like a filter for label A&R staff, producers, managers, and artists by bringing them only the best songs in the catalogs that they represent. Because of their track record for finding hits, veteran songpluggers are heavily relied on by decision-makers and can often arrange meetings to play songs for them in person. As a result, writers who have a songplugger pitching their songs have an advantage over those who are hawking their own wares.

To learn more about songpluggers and how they can turbocharge a songwriter's career, I talked with Sherrill Blackman, owner of sdb music group, a music-publishing and independent songplugging company. Blackman was named Songplugger of the Year by Music Row magazine in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

You're an “independent” songplugger. What exactly does that mean?

There are two different types of songpluggers: in-house and independent. In-house songpluggers work for publishing companies. They're on staff, they get paid a salary, and they work with the writers who are signed to those publishing companies. Independent songpluggers don't really work for a company per se. We have our own companies. We hire ourselves out to writers and publishers to try to get their songs recorded.

How do you pursue getting a song cut?

We use our connections to get the song as close to [the people involved with] a project as we can, pitching directly to the artist, manager, producer, and record company A&R. Or to anyone else that may be connected to the artist: an accountant, hairdresser, housekeeper, or whoever.

What makes you decide to represent a songwriter or publisher's work?

Finding songs I believe in, am passionate about, and feel will fit a certain project. Most independent songpluggers will sift through a whole catalog of songs and cherry-pick out what they feel they can run with and get activity on. Even if the catalog has 200 or 300 songs, they may only come away with ten or 15 or 20 they feel they can run with across the board.

Do independent songpluggers ever work on a single-song basis instead of representing an entire catalog?

It takes a catalog of songs to make [our services] cost-effective. Most of us are going to charge hundreds of dollars per month to represent a writer or a publisher. Representing only one song wouldn't be cost-effective for them. A plugger who is legitimate and honest will not take advantage of a writer or publishing company like that.

That raises another question: How can a songwriter know if a plugger is legitimate and won't just take their money in return for empty promises?

I would ask the plugger what their track record is. More importantly, ask who can they get in to see and play songs for. There are some pluggers who haven't had a lot of success but they can get in to see just about everybody. Access is very important.

I would also be really careful about someone who just hypes and blows smoke. Most legitimate pluggers are going to be pretty humble. [Scammers] hype and drop big names, almost like a carnival barker. That's a red flag.

Can you be more specific about how much songpluggers charge for their services?

The retainer is based on the size of the catalog that's being worked. For a handful of songs, you're probably talking $200 or $300 per month. [For a large catalog,] it would be close to $1,000 per month. It's not cheap to do this. We have expenses to pay: Blank CDs, printing, phone calls, postage, and all the other expenses of running a business come out of our pocket. That's what the monthly retainer helps take care of.

Are there alternatives to paying a monthly retainer?

There may be some pluggers who will consider working in exchange for a percentage of the publishing [income].

Even with a songplugger pitching your songs, there's no guarantee you'll get songs placed. What should a songwriter expect in return for hiring a songplugger?

Most pluggers are going to provide a monthly pitch report that details the song title, the day the song was pitched, who it was pitched to, [what artist] it was pitched for, and the label. Also, any pertinent comments [from the contact]: whether the outcome was a pass, a hold, “close but not quite,” or, “I like this but it doesn't fit any artist right now.” If a plugger isn't willing to provide a report, they may not be the one you're looking for.

Does the songplugger call the shots on which songs will be pitched for a specific project?

We're all open to pitch ideas that come from the writer or the publisher. But I've found that most writers are not good at casting their own material. The bottom line is we still have to use our own judgment on whether the song fits a particular project or not because our reputation is at stake. A good reputation is what grants you access and keeps you in business. That's all we have: our reputation and the quality of the songs we represent.

Do independent songpluggers represent more than one songwriter or publisher at a time?

Absolutely. We have to represent enough catalogs to make a living. But I try not to duplicate catalogs. For example, I've got one catalog that is real traditional, another that's contemporary, and another that's heavily oriented toward female artists. I try to keep catalogs from overlapping as much as I can. I wouldn't want two [very similar] catalogs because one of them might not get worked as much as the other.

I know some writers who are signed to publishing companies that have in-house songpluggers. Yet these writers have also hired an independent songplugger. Why?

A huge company like Sony/ATV or Warner/Chappell has dozens of writers, yet they may have only three or four pluggers. If you're writer #48 [signed to one of those large companies] and you're not getting your songs pitched, you may feel like you need some outside help. So you'd hire an independent plugger to augment what the in-house pluggers are doing.

What about a songwriter who doesn't have a publishing deal? Can they just skip that step and hire a songplugger to pitch their songs?

If you're an [unsigned] writer but you feel you've got material worth pitching, maybe you would consider hiring a plugger. But in my experience, a writer is not ready for that unless they've already been through the system and have a history of cuts and hits. There are some pluggers who will take them on, but I don't work that way. I only represent very successful hit songwriters.

Does anyone offer a list of songpluggers that songwriters can use to shop around?

As far as I know, no plugger list exists. A songwriter is just going to have to do their own research. By asking around, a writer could come up with plenty of names.

Can a songwriter bypass publishers and pluggers and pitch their songs themselves?

They can, but if they're not known, they're not going to get any kind of attention. It's a “people” business. Due to the volume of material that comes in, the producers, managers, and record companies only pay attention to those people and companies they recognize. If it's an unknown writer, [they feel] they're wasting their time. That explains why prominent publishers and songpluggers get the vast majority of cuts.

There are thousands and thousands of writers in Nashville who are self-published. Everyone thinks, “I'm going to beat the system and do it my way.” There's a chance it can happen, but it's very, very remote.

EM contributing editor Michael Cooper owns Michael Cooper Music, a music publishing company. Go to hear some of his songs.