Once More with Feeling: the State of Publishing

I’m currently reading The B-Side, by Ben Yagoda, about the death of Tin Pan Alley and the American Song. I’ve learned a great deal from this book, some of it (of course) about music, but a lot of it about publishing.

The B-SideFor instance, in the very early 20th century, almost all money made in the music industry was made by selling sheet music. People had no recording equipment, no way of reproducing what they heard at the vaudeville show other than to play it themselves. This dictated that sheet music be sold, and that most people learn to play a little piano, and (interestingly to me) that the music itself be quite simple, especially in the left hand. Otherwise, how could people play it?

Then the radio and the phonograph exploded onto the American scene, and sales of sheet music cratered. But the new media thrived, and different fortunes were made. This time the length of the song was dictated, because the phonograph record was only so long. Some of the great hits we all know are actually a good deal longer in their original than we believe, because we only know the chorus to the song. The verse (they were not writing in verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus yet) was cut for time considerations. Thus songs like “God Bless America”, “Night and Day”, and “Over the Rainbow” you can occasionally hear in their entirety, but almost none of us know the verses. We never heard them. I didn’t know “God Bless America” had a verse until 9/11, when it became the national anthem of remembrance.

Anyway, one by one the innovations lost their luster, and new ones supplanted them. Every time, music survived, and grew, and developed. If a songwriter didn’t change, or a bandleader, or a singer, then she starved.

But there were always those that changed. Big band died after WWII, and sweet ballads and “bop” took over, but the songwriters that made a name for themselves moved to theater, to the movies and the stage. The key then, as always, was writing well, and writing a lot.

At the bedside of her dying father, Carolyn Leigh penned the lyrics to a tune written by carolyn-leighJohnny Richards, a young unknown who couldn’t sell his jazz arrangements. That song became “Young at Heart”, but it didn’t go anywhere until an over-the-hill singer, fresh from the death of his career at Columbia Records, was looking for something to sing for Capitol Records, a small label needing a breakout hit. The singer was Frank Sinatra. The Capitol sessions are some of the great music ever recorded.

You can’t predict this stuff. But you can’t get it to happen for you without being in the place where it comes together, and that means you have to show up and do the work. Leigh went on to write the lyrics for Kismet and Peter Pan, but she spent a long time slogging before that happened.

Here’s Carolyn Leigh in a letter to a young girl looking for advice about how to get into songwriting:

If you have a legitimate talent, have studied and read a great deal and were willing to go on studying and reading for the rest of your life, are financially able to support yourself for at least three to five years, and can in general, cheerfully be able to give up…in short, your whole life–why then pack and take the first plane to New York. But be prepared to find that all these conditions fulfilled do not necessarily mean success for you. There is an intangible: luck. Without it all you do is to no avail. I have had overwhelmingly large quantities of that intangible. I cannot guarantee you will, but I wish it to you with all my heart.

As they say these days: THIS ^^^^^^^

Most of us writers do not have to give up everything in our lives to make a career out of this, but I can say that if the number of people that have eight children is small, the number of people with eight children who write for a living is a tiny fraction of that. Kids are expensive. I’m very fortunate to have been able to make a living doing something on the livable side of soul-crushing for the last twenty years. The attempt to move into writing as a main source of income has only just begun, and maybe it will fail, but it has to be tried.

The modern era makes that possible. As hard as it is to break into the game–I’m a modest failure so far–it could be far harder. The rules are the same as they were in 1910, and 1935, and 1947, for singers and songwriters. Study, work, improve. Keep working. And one day, maybe you’ll get lucky.

Here’s hoping.

But more than that, you can see the revolutions coming, and try things that might work. I wrote over the last couple weeks about not being able to get the kind of feedback on my writing that would give me a better chance to improve, because the contests where that kind of feedback was happening, I’m not winning. Okay, well, there are other ways to go about it.

Once, a songwriter would take a song to the Brill Building (publishing’s equivalent is the New York literary agencies), start at the top of the stairs and work down, hoping that someone would open the door, listen to the song, and agree to publish it (that is, find someone to perform and record it. And once, if that didn’t happen, you were out of luck. But then songwriters started going directly to recording artists, getting their music recorded directly, and flogging it to deejays. More than one hit was made that way.

What’s the publishing equivalent? Patreon, for one. Inkshares. Or more aggressively, Wattpad and its ilk. There are ways. It takes creative thinking, and violent action. And yes, absolutely, luck. But if you have one chance in twenty, as, for instance, PitchWars, don’t you want to take twenty shots?

I do, anyway. I might miss them all. But I’m here anyway, so why not fire all of my guns at once and explode into space?

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