Down in the wildwood, sittin’ on a log

Chris JonesLast week we reran a column of mine about aggressive song-pitching, and I got this email:

Hi Chris,

I’m a songwriter who just moved to Nashville, and so far I can’t complain. I’ve gotten a song recorded by the bluegrass band Melon Rydge, and on the country side of things I have one John Schneider hold. Still, I’m not signed to a publishing company and I’d like to be better at plugging my own songs. Your article, I’m sorry to say, was no help at all. I’m just not the aggressive or pushy  type, and your suggestion of  getting people to record your songs by making them feel guilty or ashamed just isn’t me. Surely you can do better for more mild-mannered types like me. No offense.


No offense taken, Hal, and you make a good point. The old “selling songs through intimidation” technique isn’t for everyone, so perhaps a follow-up is in order. I’ll do what I can. Is John Schneider recording again?

So for Hal and other songwriters that don’t like to needle, interrupt, or just irritate the living heck out of people, I offer a few alternatives, and a few common pitfalls to avoid.

Let me caution you again that I’m as unqualified to offer advice on this as your local mail carrier is (and if you live in the Nashville area, that person is more than likely a songwriter too). I’m a terrible pitcher of songs. People that come right up and ask for songs from me frequently don’t get them, and it’s not because I’m playing hard-to-get. I’m just shy that way, and I just tend to record them myself first. Country singer Blake Shelton, for example, asked if I had any songs available, and I replied “who wants to know?” I just made that story up—welcome to the internet.

I guess what I’m saying is that I relate to Hal, except that I don’t even have a Melon Rydge cut to my credit.

Having dispensed with the disclaimers, there are three methods that I can think of to pitch a song to an artist and yet still feel like you’ll be invited to said artist’s pickin’ party next fall:

Play Hard to Get (exactly what I said I wasn’t doing): when chatting with a recording artist, begin with some small talk, and when the conversation eventually gets around to what you’re doing these days (if this is a recording artist with a big ego, the conversation could take a very long time to get to that point, so be patient), you say something like, “oh, I’ve been busy writing songs, getting various artists to record them. It’s been going really well.” End of sentence. The fact that this didn’t lead into a pitch will be so disorienting to the artist, he or she may be speechless for a moment and may even feel slightly dizzy. After the pause, the curiosity will be too much, and then the thought will slowly sink in, “wait a minute! This guy is pitching songs to other people and not me? What’s the matter with me? I want to hear these songs too!” This artist is now completely at your mercy and you might get him or her to record almost any song of yours, even your slow and sensitive sequel to the Salty Dog Blues (A Salty Dog’s Lament).

Touchy-feely: I mean this literally, too. Hold both these artists’ hands in yours and listen intently to their tales of musical angst, and the story about how they were  stood up on their 18th birthday (that’s actually my story, so don’t be stealing it). Then say, with all the warmth and caring you can muster (tearing up slightly is a plus), “I think I have a song that perfectly fits the condition of your heart right now.”

Or, go all out and give the artist a massage, with candlelight, incense, and the Jimmy Martin’s Poor Little Bullfrog playing softly in the background. When your artist is in a complete state of relaxed bliss, whisper softly, “I have a great song for you that’s a sequel to the Salty Dog Blues.

This could possibly get weird, but so can other forms of song-pitching. If this doesn’t work, you can always go back to the aggressive strategy and turn this into a painful deep-tissue, Rolfing kind of massage. Offer to stop when a commitment to record one of your songs is finally given.

Did I say three methods? I guess that was really only two and a half. Sorry, Hal.

Finally, no matter whether you opt for hard-sell or soft-sell techniques, here are some tips for avoiding these common song-pitching errors:

  • Don’t use the artist’s first name if you’re not sure what it actually is.
  • When name-dropping about your previous cuts by other artists, make sure it’s a name they’ll recognize. “Jim has three of my songs on his latest album” is just confusing.
  • Don’t insult artists by suggesting that they have lousy material and therefore need yours, or worse, suggest that their originals aren’t any good and that they need outside writers like you, even if you believe this to be true.
  • When pitching songs, keep a minimum of 12 inches (30 cm) of distance and never step on the artist’s feet.

Next week: a prequel to the Salty Dog Blues.