For a professional songwriter, Nashville is where it’s at. The city is abuzz with young, commercially-focused writers and artists spending every hour of the day on writing, co-writing and performing. Country music is the city’s beating heart, but there’s a growing pop presence too, with the majors (Universal, Warner, etc) expanding their operations there.
I recently spent a week in Nashville working with some fantastic writers and performers, and learned a lot about how the city and the system works. If you’re thinking of visiting for the first time (and particularly if you’re from outside the US) here are some of my thoughts on how best to prepare yourself for a week in Music City.
Step 1: Choo-choo-choose the right highway exit.
1. Arrange co-writes in advance
A writer’s round is basically a glorified open mic night. Instead of individual sets, a group of performers will be onstage at the same time, taking turns playing their songs. This clip from Elvis Costello’s ‘Spectacle’ is a good example
Realistically, Garth Brooks isn’t going to take the afternoon off to write with you (though there’s no harm in asking). If he says no, seek out other writers/artists at your level whose style you like and ask them if they’d like to write. There’s no shortage of potential cowriters: As nearly every single taxi driver informed me, there’s over 100 people moving to Nashville every day, attracted by the cheap rents and low cost of living. It’s basically what New York was like for folk musicians in the 60s, just without the Aran sweaters.
In terms of finding people, Facebook groups and Meetup.com are good places to start. It’s definitely worth organising at least a couple of sessions before you go, because people you meet over there at writer’s rounds, etc., may have already filled their schedules for the week.
Here are some good places to connect with co-writers:
2. Immerse yourself in the charts
If you want to write commercial country music, listen to the Nashville charts, Spotify country playlists, etc. Find out what’s popular now, because ultimately that’s what publishers are going to want to hear. There’s no point in writing in the old-school style of George Strait when ‘bro country’ is So Hot Right Now. There are lots of popular country subgenres out there, so find ones that you like and can write to. For example, do you excel at heartbreaking ballads? Or are you a country bro at heart? Decide what you like, determine where you fit in, and let this inform who you target for co-writing.
Here’s Spotify’s ‘Hot Country’ playlist to get you started:
3. Contact the Nashville Songwriters Association International
A representative from a publisher will spend an evening in an auditorium playing recordings of songs submitted by those in attendance. The rep will either pass on the track or ‘take a copy’. If attending, make sure to bring a copy of your lyrics too.
As per their website, the NSAI is a “not-for-profit trade association that offers a variety of services to professional and aspiring songwriters.” They’re a friendly and helpful bunch, so don’t be afraid to say hello. They run workshops, pitch-to-publisher evenings and more. Get in touch and ask them what’s on when you’re going to be in town. I did one of their workshops, and found it a great opportunity to network with like-minded songwriters and performers. There are NSAI chapters all over the world, so contact your local rep if you have one.
The two big US royalty collection agencies, ASCAP and BMI, also run events and workshops throughout the year. Get in touch with their Nashville offices to find out what’s on (links below).
4. Don’t forget the basics
Get business cards. You’ll be handing out lots of them at writer’s rounds and networking events (just make sure you order them weeks in advance of your trip so they arrive in time).
Sort out your visa (if you need one). If you’re coming from outside the US, register for your ESTA here.
Getting around Nashville has an OK bus service, but I’d recommend using a ride-sharing app (Uber or Lyft). They work out pretty cheap. And if you’re coming from abroad, it’s worth splashing out on a data package so you’re not reliant on wifi.
Weather. If you go in the summer like I did, brace yourself for a mix of sauna-like heat and thunderstorms.
5. Get cultured
If you want to write country music, read Faulkner and Steinbeck. Watch John Ford movies. Learn the lingo, the language, the cultural references of the American South. No Nashville publisher is going to pick up a song about growing up on a council estate in Manchester, so make sure you know how to write like a cowboy/cowgirl/cowperson.
6. Manage your Nashville expectations
Despite what the TV show Nashville will have you believe, it is highly unlikely you will be spotted by a legendary producer while playing your first writer’s round. Consider this a scouting mission. You’ll learn the lay of the land, get some co-writing done, and learn all about the Nashville method. There’ll always be a next time. The main thing to remember is: no matter what level of prep you’ve put in, you’re going to have fun!
Got questions about Nashville? Ask them in the comments!