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Interview with ROGER MURRAH, publisher, and songwriter for Waylon Jennings (US Country No.1), Alan Jackson (US No.1), Reba McEntire (US No.1) - Jun 22, 2009

“The large publishing companies want to hire writers who can “hit the ground earning”, they don’t want to spend time teaching them. Developing writers gave me an edge as publisher.”

picture In the first of a new interview series focusing on the world songwriting hub of Nashville, HitQuarters visits the Music Row office of seasoned hit songwriter and publisher Roger Murrah.

With a rare gift for both hit songwriting and business acumen, there are few more fitting ambassadors for a city where the song is king than Murrah. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee established his songwriting credentials by penning 10 country No.1s and by working with such esteemed artists as Waylon Jennings (US Country No.1), Alan Jackson (US No.1), Al Jarreau (US Jazz No.1), and Reba McEntire (US No.1) before deciding to help other songsmiths achieve similar feats by founding his successful independent publishing company Murrah Music.

From behind his desk at 33 Music Square West, the now Senior Vice President of Bug Music Nashville talks to HitQuarters about cutting it in a city that Billy Joel calls “the centre of the of universe for songwriting.”

How did you first get into the music business?

My dad traded a pick-up truck for an old piano, and so me and my sister and brothers learnt to play by ear. I pursued this business to be a singer but the songwriting took off so much sooner and better. I started writing aged 13 or 14, and in 1972 I came to Nashville.

With a bunch of songs under your arm, like so many writers do?

No. The gentleman who gave me my first big break was an artist by the name of Bobby Bare. He came to a recording studio in Huntsville, Alabama that I was involved in. I met him and booked him for the county fair in my hometown. He asked me what I was doing and when he heard I wrote songs he wanted to hear something. I only had one song with me, went to the car and got the cassette. It was called ‘Send Tomorrow to the Moon’, and I thought it was much too pop for him. But he heard something in it and offered me a job. He gave me a small monthly advance as a start and moved me up to Nashville.

What other events were significant in your career?

I got a few recordings at Bobby Bare’s company and my writing gradually got better - as you hope it would! When he sold to ATV, the new owners didn’t renew my contract, and so I moved back to Alabama and ran a grocery store for a year. In 1978 my wife and I moved back to Nashville, and I started work for the Georgia Boot Company. And around the same time I was offered a songwriting opportunity by Bill Rice.

He had just started a new company that would later become CBS Songs, and then EMI Music. I began to have some success with my songs and had my first number one hit, ‘Southern Rains’ sung by Mel Tillis. In 1984 I signed with Tom Collins Music. He was a very successful producer and we had a good run together. In 1990 I started my own publishing company [ Murrah Music] and did that until last year. Then I sold a portion of it to Bug Music and then they hired me to be Senior VP. I brought in my six staff writers and I am also signed as a writer to Bug.

You have also been actively involved in two important industry organisations.

I was president of the NSAI, the Nashville Songwriters Association International, for two terms [In her informative book ‘The Songwriters and Musicians Guide to Nashville’, Sherry Bond says, “Joining the NSAI is the most important step you can take in the advancement of your Nashville songwriting career” - MR] And I´ve been elected chairman of the Songwriters Foundation which is part of the Hall of Fame Foundation.

What made you decide to start a publishing company in Murrah Music in the first place?

I wanted to be independent and I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I started with an assistant, a song-plugger, and me and a colleague as the anchor writers. Then I began to sign writers and added staff to exploit the songs. I had trained writers for years and I had worked a lot with beginner writers. This was quite unique because the idea of developing writers had been diminishing. The large publishing companies want to hire writers who can “hit the ground earning”, they don’t want to spend time teaching them. Developing writers gave me an edge as publisher and also they are more affordable, so it was a win/win situation.

How much do you now offer a newcomer as a staff writer?

Between $16,000 and $24,000 per year. On average I would say $18,000 for a promising writer. They would have to be showing you a lot of talent for that. As a publisher, this would be recouped by me when a song starts making money. The writer still gets the draw and at some point starts making his own money when the advance has been recouped.

Have your writers been successful for you?

Yes, I’ve been very successful. The first writer I signed was Mark Alan Springer and he has had some very big songs. But it costs a lot to keep writers like that on because you have to invest in them for around 2 years until things start to turn around [It is hard to get a staff writer position in Nashville – most writers are free-lancers and it is not unusual to sign individual songs to different publishers - MR].

What kinds of contracts do you get as a staff writer in Nashville?

Usually you start with an initial term of a year. Then the publisher has options for the years after that - so you’re looking at a total period of say three years. The publisher pays the writer a draw, which is an advance for future earnings you will hopefully make. Payments to the writer are on a monthly basis so they can live on it. The copyright of the songs that are written during the term of the agreement is owned by the publisher for a period of around a couple of years. Then you can give the publisher notice and reclaim the copyright.

How does the American system differ from the European one?

In Europe you look at a song as 100 per cent and then the writer gets his share and so does the publisher. In the US the split is 50/50 but we look at a song as 200 per cent. That means 100 per cent writer and 100 per cent publisher. A songwriter can own a part of the publishing. But a songwriter can also sell the writer’s share completely.

Country Music has traditionally offered a lot of opportunity for good songwriting because singers are often not writers and vice versa, is that still as true today?

Nowadays more and more artists want to write their own material. But wanting to write and being able to write can be two different things. However, Nashville is becoming more very popular around the world as a songwriting centre, with writers from all over the world. And the music coming out of Nashville is not just country any more, it is pop, rock, R&B – you name it!

How do you write and find the inspiration for your own songs?

For years I would try to come up with a really strong title and then I would write towards that title. But then I learnt just through experience to start from scratch and let the song tell you what the title is. Inspiration could come from any number of things – situations in life, hearing something, anything really. And I make time to write. People have these illusions about a songwriter going down to the river and sitting by the bank to get inspired.

Is it true that staff writers in Nashville go to “the office” to write?

Absolutely. Our writers will come in about 10 a.m. and work away on their songs until 4 or 5 o’clock. Just like a person working on the assembly line! We give them an office here and they come in with their laptop computers. Some writers write at home or wherever they are, but generally speaking in Nashville you go to work - writing is treated just like a profession.

Right now we are expanding our writing rooms. You can hear different songs coming out of every room. I believe if you go in every day to write not only do have more volume but you will write better songs. You write the bad stuff out so you can get to the core of what you want to say.

Which instrument do you use for writing?

Wurlitzer piano, and also with a guitar if someone else is playing it. I am not a real good musician and my playing is simple, but just good enough. Knowing so little kept my songs simple! When someone is a great musician they will want to put all their chords into their song and they get lost in that and it gets in the way of the song.

Co-writing seems to be very popular in Nashville, why is that?

As writers get to know each other they arrange regular get-togethers with people they can be creative with. As publishers we try to pair writers that could make a powerful team. Sometimes you put two great writers together and you get nothing. Then you pair a strong writer with a weaker writer and it works great. The chemistry needs to be there. We pair our writers with writers from other publishers. I’d rather have a share of a hit song than 100 per cent in a bad song that I can’t get recorded.

Are your writers on a quota?

Yes, and most writers signed to a publisher are. On average that would be 12 songs per year, and if they co-write them, 24 songs.

How are the songs then demoed?

The writers will give me their work tapes with just either guitar or piano, and vocal. If we don’t like it, we’re just real quiet about it. We usually let a writer collect 4 or 5 strong songs that we think are worth recording a demo for, which will cost around $800 per song. Then the writer will organise the demo session.

We have incredible musicians here in Nashville. In every session there is a ‘leader’, usually one of the musicians - he and the engineer will put the session together and they will just knock ‘em out. In 3 hours you hopefully get 4 or 5 tracks recorded. Then you spend another day or two on anything you need to add - putting backing vocals on, getting the lead vocal correct, and then mixing it.

Who sings on the demo?

Usually the writer, unless we feel they can’t sing or if the writer is a male but the song is meant to be sung by a female (or vice versa). However, often the better way to pitch a song to a female singer is actually to have the demo sung by a male vocalist.

Does the publisher pay for the demos?

Yes we do, but we eventually recoup 50% of the costs back from the writer’s share.

Are your demos all country-style?

Predominantly country. But we let the song tell us what to do, so we will lean towards pop or rock or southern rock in the demo.

Do you already have an artist in mind when you record the demo?

We’ll have an idea before the session – but that idea will be much clearer afterwards. “This sounds like it could be good for George Straight,” for instance.

And then what happens?

Let me use George Straight as an example. Sarah Johnson pitches for us here. She had 12 holds when George was recording his album. A hold means an artist is considering recording your song and asks you not to pitch it to someone else until they’ve made a decision. 12 holds is a lot when you have the whole of Nashville pitching to George. Out of those we were very happy to get two cuts.

Who do you actually pitch the song to?

His producer, manager, record label … his bus driver! Anyone we can get to. Did you never hear the story of Kris Kristofferson landing a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s back yard to deliver him a song demo? There are many stories about the crazy things people do to get their demo heard. Once it’s heard, the battle is up to the song.

Would you recommend a writer start their own publishing company like you did?

Publishing is a very varied business and there is a lot to handle. I would recommend that only to very few writers. Most of them should just concentrate on writing.

How much time do you spend in the office and how much writing?

It’s about 50/50. When I am writing I tell the staff that I am “out of circulation” unless it is something very urgent.

Do you get to play your own songs at all?

Yes, I sometimes do ‘Songwriters In The Round’ [“A showcase for original music in an intimate, acoustic setting”] - I sing and a songwriter friend plays the guitar.

What was your most successful song?

'We’re In This Love Together’. The tape was sent by the song-plugger to L.A., to Al Jarreau, and he happened to listen to it and like it. At the time I did not even know who he was. So I bought his record and I knew whatever he was going to do to the song, it was going to be good! He recorded it in a soft pop jazz style and it became a worldwide hit in 1981. In fact it is still being played.

You wrote a whole album with the late great ‘Waylon Jennings – what was that and what was the experience like?

It is the story of his life, called ‘A Man Called Hoss’. Waylon is exceptional. A simple man but with a lot of charisma, rough but with a big heart. Writing with him for sure was one of the highlights in my career.

What was another highlight for you?

Being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. And I am actively involved in the process of creating a physical Hall of Fame for Songwriters – a space has been donated to us and hopefully we will open next year! Right now there are 168 members. We have a dinner each year and 3 new writers are ‘going in’ [2 writers and one artist/songwriter].

How can a songwriter get you to listen to their song? Usually you cannot just send a tape because publishers do not accept unsolicited material.

That because of legal reasons - publishing companies could get sued by people who claim they sent in a song and that tune got stolen from them. It does not really happen that way, but the publishing companies have to take precautions. I am constantly emailed by people asking for permission to send in material, and I can usually tell who is amateurish and who isn’t.

Finally, what would be your advice to an aspiring songwriter?

They should be very determined. And convinced that this is what they want to do. For one person that does well there are thousands that don’t. Be passionate about it and persistent, and keep ploughing forward. Get to know many people in songwriting and music circles - constant networking!

Find someone to present you to someone else. Find people who have confidence in what you do and have confidence in yourself and your own integrity. And I recommend you become a member of the NSAI, it is a great starting point to learn about the ‘How-Tos’ in this business and a great way to get connected.

Interview by Monica Riedel

Read On ...

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* Publisher Natalie Harker on how Nashville's songwriting heritage is being compromised
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