Interview with STEPHANIE SALZMAN, songwriter for 3LW (Platinum), Toshi, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (TV) - Oct 2, 2001
”The biggest mistake is banking everything you’ve got on one song.”
New York born and bred songwriter Stephanie Salzman has published her own works since 1993 through her company Power Pitch Music. Recordings include Epic/Sony Platinum act 3LW, Sony/Japan artist Toshi, Carl Anderson on GRP, Jan Werner on Polygram/Norway, etc., and songs in film and TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Jack & Jill. Here she tells us about her experiences from songwriting and own publishing.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route so far?
I come from a musical family. I started piano lessons when I was five and began writing songs so I could avoid practicing! As an undergraduate student, I studied and wrote chamber music. I did my graduate work at the NYU Musical Theatre programme for composers, lyricists and librettists and, until 1992, concentrated on writing musical theatre.
I had an opportunity to get into the jingle business, but went back to my songwriting instead. I did not shop the songs until I felt confident of the demos. Then in 1993, through a 'blind' pitch, I got my first recording on a release of Carl Anderson on GRP Records.
Which artists have released songs by you?
My current song releases are ”I’m Gonna Make You Miss Me” with US platinum selling act 3LW, ‘I Wish’ by a five-girl pop group called Innosense (sic) - who come from the same camp as N’Sync and Backstreet Boys – ‘From Now On’ on a Mikki Howard release called ‘Three Wishes’ and ‘It’s All About You’ by Anna Fegi on BMG/Philippines. Other pending releases include ‘It Don’t Work Like That’ which will be the first single/video for an East/West Germany artist named Inessa.
Which styles do you write in?
I write in any and all styles and am usually working on as many as 20 songs at a time in various stages of completion. My main recordings right now are in pop and pop/R&B styles. I look to the R&B producers that I work with to pull me into the R&B swing of things and they look to me to ”popify” their tracks.
Depending on the situation I write the music, lyrics or both. I am more in demand as a lyricist/melodist since there are much fewer good lyricists around and the people who write tracks are looking for people who do melody and lyrics. So, in writing situations, I almost always do lyrics and melody and then, if necessary, the chords and harmonic structure. In other words, I can adapt to any writing situation and make a contribution.
Do you write specifically for artists or write in general?
Both. The closer I can be to a project the better. If I can write with an artist who is already signed to a record label or with a producer who is close to a project then that is the best scenario.
I also write - as I always have - on my own, because that keeps me sane. Right now, the girl group and boy group pop thing is very strong, so I might write songs generally aimed for the, say, five or 10 groups that are looking for that kind of song.
However, sometimes the songs you write for yourself are the best ones. I wrote a very special song with the recording artist Peter Andre after we had talked and gotten to know each other and we wrote what was in our hearts. With artists, I get to approach the song in the way I do for musical theatre in that I can write what is in the characters’ head.
What kind of advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of songwriting itself?
If you say to yourself ”I’m gonna have a hit in two years or I’m leaving the business”, you might as well quit now. Everybody wants success and money, but if your reason for writing is internal, I think you’ll survive longer. So keep songwriting a personal experience, even when you’re writing with and for other people.
Don’t try to second-guess the record companies. It’s not bad to get an idea of what the market is looking for, but in the end your song needs to have your individual stamp on it. Listen to what people on the street say and the way they say it. A songwriter needs to find a way to express what he/she feels in the vernacular. It’s also very important to be around your peers and to listen to feedback...with reservations, of course.
The biggest mistake is banking everything you’ve got on one song. Sometimes beginners spend a lot of money on that one demo thinking, this is gonna be it! That great song you wrote might be the one that doesn’t get recorded, and your worst song might be the one that ends up a hit.
A major mistake that songwriters make is to emulate songs that are already out there just because a record company says it is looking for another song ”just like that one”. Most of the time the records companies are looking for a song that is like that one but a little different.
Sometimes a hit song is the one that comes out of nowhere from a songwriter with absolutely no experience. The reason it is a hit is because the writer wrote something that didn’t comply with the rules and so maybe it was crazy different.
Some songwriters make a contact in the business and then expect instant action and, if nothing happens, they get mad. When you’re developing relationships you have to think long term, and it’s very important to keep up with your business relationships.
Which instruments do you play?
Piano. I studied piano and voice starting from when I was at the High School of Music and Art. I studied voice not because I wanted to be a singer, but because I was interested in writing for the voice.
Do you have your own studio?
No, but if a writer has a technical bent, he/she should have at least a home studio. I ended up making a choice, I could either spend my time on production - which is time consuming and not my talent - or I could spend the time exploring what my real abilities are.
At this point, I do a lot of collaborating with producers with studios. Professionally, I do vocal production (I am currently working on vocal production for a group called Raine signed to Divine Mill), arrangements and, if I am paying someone to do a demo, then I am with them in the studio producing the demos with the engineer pushing the buttons.
At which point did you decide to publish yourself?
1993. I decided that the demos I had were of professional quality and I could start getting them to the labels, managers, etc. myself.
Which experiences led you to take that decision?
I wanted control and felt I was capable of doing what was necessary to be a publisher. When you have your publishing you have negotiation power.
The song is made up of two parts: the writer’s share and the publishers’ share (50% each in the US. In Europe 66.6/33.4 – Ed). The more you are in control, the more bargaining power you have. If a major selling artist - or their representation - asked me to give away publishing, I might do it and I would want as much to bargain with as possible. Having said that, there is no reason a manager, artist or a record company should ask for your publishing, but this is not a business with rules. There are always situations in which you might want to cut a deal and the more you own, the better.
Are you totally independent or do you have a partner deal with another publisher?
BOK Music/Monica Benson works about 40 songs from my catalogue. We have a co-publishing/co-administration deal that means that they handle administration for their part of the publishing, and I am in charge of administration for mine. I needed someone to work with me because I had, and still have, a very big catalogue. I began working with this publisher on a song-by-song basis.
How many people work within your company?
At this point, Power Pitch Music only publishes my songs and I have an administrator who handles the catalogue.
How do you work as a publisher, what do you do?
I make CD or tape copies to send (I sometimes hire help to do that if I can); I do the PR end of it, which includes providing a discography and package that looks professional and interesting. And I do lots of schmoozing, a very important part of a publishers’ job! My administrator handles my sub-publishing deals worldwide, registering songs with ASCAP, submitting licenses for recordings and collecting mechanicals on my and Power Pitch Music’s behalf.
Which territories do you work on?
All of them. My songs are released in the USA and all over the world.
Which are the pros and cons of own publishing?
1) It is time consuming
2) If you’re not organised you won’t do it right
3) If you’re not doing it nobody else is
1) You maintain control and money
2) You retain copyright
3) In the long term, if the song does well, and you’ve maintained your own publishing, you get more money.
Publishing is a challenge because you need to understand - at least in a cursory way - how mechanicals work, how the law works (i.e. right of refusal on the first recording). You need to understand contracts and how to get paid, and, even if you work with an administrator looking out for you, you need to understand length of contract and how to make deals. It is a constant learning process and you need to be a little bit lawyer, a little bit hustler, and a lot creative!
How did you go about to establish your publishing company?
I have built up contacts who will open a package that comes from Power Pitch Music. I often call ahead to get permission to submit and to alert them to look out for the packet. Frankly, if it all looks really good, even if they don’t know me, they might open it anyway.
How did you build your network?
Relationships! My relationships with other songwriters are among the most important ones I have and these relationships often turn out to be the long term ones. Find out who your friends are at the record companies, managers, etc. and stay in contact. You should go to music events - Songwriters’ Circle at the Bitter End, ASCAP’s Song to Song, etc. - where new songs are presented and attend new artists showcases because you never know who you might meet where. There are pitch sheets - such as SongLink - which tell you what artists are looking for what songs and who the contacts are. Once you have one recording, contacts are easier to make.
How important is it to know people like managers and A&Rs?
Very important. Although I have gotten songs recorded blind through pitch sheets or in other ways where I did not know anybody, those kinds of contacts are still very important. One manager can be a total waste of time, but another can turn out to be very important. Sometimes someone will hear your song through a friend of a friend, or remember you as a writer and though they didn’t go for the last song, they might think, oh this person gave me a good song once … let me hear what they’re doing now.
Which are your most useful contacts?
I had an A&R contact at Mercury/Polygram who heard some of my ‘flawed’ early songs. Still, he thought I was talented, so we kept in contact. Later on he went to another label and I couldn’t even get him to call me back. Then I sent him two tapes when he went over to Epic/Sony and I still didn’t hear anything. My publisher wanted to work one of the songs on the tape and I agreed to sign.
Two weeks later I got a call from the office of my A&R contact at Epic who told me that they wanted that particular song for 3LW. Sometimes they say they want it but they don’t do it. In this case, they recorded it and put it on the record. Since then, I have met with my contact, but at that point I hadn’t spoken to the guy for years. Can I say that he is one of my most useful contacts, absolutely!
Do you also publish other writers?
Not at the present time. I am a writer who has decided to publish as opposed to a publisher who has decided to start writing.
How do you divide the time between writing and publishing work?
About 60% Writing, 40% publishing. Right now, I have a new baby, so whatever work time I have is spent more on the creative side.
How is it like to do both?
I’d rather be writing all the time, but I do like the contact with people that goes along with the business side. On the other hand I do not like dealing with contracts, administrative, and legal stuff, etc.
What would your advice be to an aspiring songwriter who wants to showcase his material to the music biz, how should he/she proceed?
Even if you’re not programming your own demos you should be very much in control of producing them. In other words, go to the studio and be involved. Be the producer, arrange and play parts to make it the demo that you hear in your head. The best way to get the ears of the business people is to have a great song, but a professional sounding demo is very important. That doesn’t mean it has to be a master, but it needs to sound ”in the pocket”.
Be well informed. Don’t offer an A&R person a song that they don’t have an artist for unless you say, ”Hey! I met you at this event and I’d love to play this song for you. I know you don’t have an artist for it, but I’d love to get your take on it.”
Act smart. Know which artists are looking for songs and pitch an appropriate song. Don’t waste their - or your - time. Don’t go and see them unless you really have something they’ll appreciate. Also, A&R people - who are besieged by writers trying to get to them - are less on the spot when they are approached via e-mail rather than by telephone.
Every song is important but you need to think ”next”. Keep this kind of attitude in writing and business. Maybe they don’t like this song, but they might like the next song. Also, the answer ‘No’ could mean the right person didn’t hear the song, or the tape got lost, or a hundred other reasons. Try re-sending songs occasionally if you think it didn’t get heard. Don’t take things personally and move on. Keep the long-term perspective on your career.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to start with own publishing?
It’s time consuming so do it only if you think you have the time and the ability.
Talk to other writer/publishers and pick their brains. When you’re starting out, go to a couple of people that you trust and ask them what they think of your work - before you make an appointment with the president of Sony. When it comes to somebody important, you usually just get one shot.
As a publisher you need to join one of the organisations ASCAP, BMI or SESAC (in the US) to collect for radio, film, TV, etc. I have found ASCAP to be a very helpful source of information. Establishing your own publishing concern is not a very complicated process. Sheet music is not meaningful anymore. Publishing means getting songs on records and that is the hard part.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regards to contracts?
I am not a lawyer and every writer needs to get their own legal advice. But look at the length of contract and at what your obligations are.
For example, if they’re gonna ask you to write ten songs a year as part of the contract, make sure you can meet the demand and can fulfill their terms. If you co-write a song, then that comes to only half a song.
Look at the reversion clause: How long will they have the song before it goes back to you? If they do get the song recorded, how long a period of time do they have the song until it is released? Are you asking for advance?
Make sure that you work with a publisher who has what you need. Do you need money or is it more important to have someone who really knows how to shop your songs? Those two attributes don’t necessarily come in the same publisher package. Find out exactly what they’re gonna do for you.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Unexpectedly hearing my song on the radio for the first time. A friend called me and said on my machine, ”Check it out - your song is on the radio!” Since it wasn’t supposed to be on the radio, I was very surprised! I left the station on all day and heard it that evening.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I wish there were more obligations towards the writers on the part of the record company such as buy-outs on songs they hold for a long time and don’t use. Producers get buy-outs, but songwriters don’t.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I see myself still songwriting, going back to writing musical theatre and doing some film work. And, of course, I want more cuts and, how about a Grammy?! I plan to be in more of a position to create and produce projects since I love working with singers and new talents.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean