Q&A: Mark Bright & Stephen J. Finfer

How to pitch your songs to industry insiders.
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FIG. 1: Mark Bright is one of the most sought-after producers in country music today.

For many songwriters, the business side of music publishing is a curse; they would rather focus on the creative aspects of their jobs and leave the marketing of their songs to the “suits.” But for others, pitching their own songs is empowering. After all, nobody is going to believe in your music and look after your interests as much as you are. So why not take control?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for songwriters trying to gain a foothold in the music-publishing business is obtaining contacts with the industry's decision makers (including record producers and labels' artist and repertoire staff) and learning how to most effectively pitch their songs. To find out how it's done, I interviewed two industry veterans who are in different markets and on opposite sides of the table: one pitches songs, and the other solicits them.

Mark Bright (see Fig. 1) is both a famed record producer and a publishing-company executive. The Nashville-based country-music icon has produced hits for Cowboy Crush, Sara Evans, Rascal Flatts, Lonestar, Jo Dee Messina, Jamie O'Neal, Carrie Underwood, and many others. Formerly the vice president of EMI Music Publishing, Bright went on to cofound Teracel Music (since acquired by Dimensional Music Publishing). He currently owns Mark Bright Productions and My Good Girl Music, the latter of which is a publishing coventure with Sony ATV Music.

Stephen J. Finfer (see Fig. 2) is co-owner and chief operating officer of Hollywood-based Arthouse Entertainment (www.arthouseent.com), a parent company to the Art for Art's Sake (ASCAP) and Art in the Fodder (BMI) music-publishing companies. Arthouse also includes production and management operations. In terms of publishing market share for the pop charts, Arthouse Entertainment ranked in the Top 10 throughout 2006. Finfer previously held prominent positions at TVT Music Publishing, Famous Music Publishing, and Universal Music Publishing.

In the music business, success comes only after making the right connections. How does an unknown songwriter get his or her foot in the door in order to pitch songs to a producer or an A&R person?

Bright: It's really important to focus on affiliations. Our business is built on relationships and networking. It's always going to be more difficult, and in some cases almost impossible, to send an unsolicited song through the mail and have somebody hear it [if for no other reason than] the legal repercussions that can come from that.

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FIG. 2: Stephen J. Finfer manages the day-to-day operations of Arthouse Entertainment, a busy pop publishing company.

Finfer: That stack [of unsolicited songs] builds and builds until they get a truck and throw it out — because that's the lawsuit bin. It's one in a million [great songs] out of that bin; but five out of that million will sue you [on fraudulent copyright-infringement charges]. So it's not a bin, you really want to go into. What you need to do is find a filter, someone who's going to say, “Listen to this guy.” Those people are lawyers, managers, agents, and friends of A&R people. When it comes from a lawyer or agent, I'm going to listen to it.

Are referrals from writer- or publisher-relations staffers at the performing-rights societies (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) helpful?

Finfer: Yes! Any music-industry professional works.

Establishing initial contacts is only half the battle. Considering that most producers and A&R people are too busy to answer many of their phone calls and emails, how do you find out who's looking for songs to record?

Finfer: All major publishers prepare an internal “who's looking” list. If you have a friend who's signed to a major publisher, ask them for a copy of it.

Bright: The information on those sheets is gleaned from personal conversations with A&R people at the top of the pecking order at record labels.

Finfer: There are also many services that you can pay for that will give you briefs [tip sheets] on a weekly or monthly basis. Many new writers use them.

Tip sheets can sometimes be woefully short on details, and artists sometimes change their musical direction from one album to the next. How do you know if the songs you're pitching are on target?

Bright: As a publisher, we got a couple of songs on Faith Hill's Breathe album [Warner Bros., 1999], and the way we did it was by doing homework and trying to look at what she was saying in the press and on fan sites. In interviews that Faith was doing toward the end of the project, she was saying, “I'm going to be more contemporary this time out.” We publishers and songwriters have to be better at the marketing side of being creative. The more-successful songwriters are those that tend to be a lot more savvy at figuring that stuff out. Go to the artist's fan site and blogs and see what they're saying right in that moment.

Finfer: You've got to get the tip sheet [so you aren't] shooting in the dark. Artists these days are changing their colors from record to record. Someone who made a rock record last time could now be making a country record. Was Kelly Clarkson going to make an urban record? She made a rock record. If you can't find anything else, you guess that you need to make the new version of the last record, the contemporized version of what was on the last record.

So if details on the new project's direction aren't available, you should stick closely to the previous album's direction?

Bright: Yes. Don't try to become an A&R person yourself and think [that] maybe they're going to go off in this wild direction. Stick closely to what they've done before. You need to listen to the last album and try to cast the song as best you can. That's extremely important.

MySpace is a great research tool in that way. Even major-label artists post some of their recent songs there.

Bright: It's made it a lot easier, I agree.

Okay, suppose that you pitch your song and the producer or A&R rep passes on it. How many times can you pitch that same song to them, but for a different artist or project, before it wears out its welcome?

Bright: There isn't a statute of limitations. If you've gotten [an] indication that an A&R person or [a] record producer likes that song, and then a new artist comes up and you feel like it's the right pitch, you pitch it. It gets down to casting it well for the next artist and plugging it again. “Bless the Broken Road” megahit for Rascal Flatts] is a case in point. I had pitched that song to eight or nine acts along the way. It took me until Rascal Flatts's third album to finally get that to work.

Finfer: It's really if the A&R person likes it or they don't, not how many times you've pitched it. If they like it, I've had people hold on to songs for years waiting for the right artist. They think it's a hit, but the artist didn't like it or it wasn't the right artist for the song.

But you'd better be sure they liked the song in the first place before pitching it to them again.

Finfer: If you keep coming back to an A&R guy with a song they don't like, you're going to lose your credibility with that person and it's going to overflow to the other things you pitch. You have to not waste their time. You've got to find what they like so you know they're not going, “Uh! Here it is again.” You also don't want to be the guy who's sending the same song all the time. You want to always be coming with something new and fresh.

Any final thoughts?

Finfer: If you get that opportunity to have somebody listen, you better have your production together, not just your song. We're in a world now where everyone has the best gear you can have for very little money. It's a lot to ask people to hear just songs. In my world, people are more likely to react to great productions than to songs these days. You can have a great song and play it on a guitar-vocal or piano-vocal demo — that's going to be tough. If you've got a reactive, dynamic production that screams out at you, you'd be surprised by how things can find their way.

Bright: I don't really care what writer writes the song. I don't ask first who wrote the song, ever. And you'll find that most record producers in this town really don't care who wrote the song. I just came off of a big hit with Carrie Underwood: “Before He Cheats.” It was written by two writers who had never had a hit before.

EM contributing editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Music. Some of his songs are posted atwww.myspace.com/michaelcooperRecording.