By Tracy Zollinger Turner
Trying to cut a career path as a musician can be a bit like trying to traverse a maze blindfolded. It can be complicated to navigate whether to invest time and resources into recording, booking live gigs, selling merchandise, trying to create viral interest online, finding representation, or simply honing one’s craft and hoping for the best. And at this particular moment, the future of the music industry – whether record labels will continue to exist, and if so, how and what size, or what copyright and creative licensing laws will look like – is unpredictable.
But forces in Columbus are working to create a framework for musicians to help each other through the maze and to knock down some of its walls. The city is now home to the third largest songwriters’ association in the United States, founded just over two years ago. Helping its membership find stability and growth in a field where the ground is constantly shifting has made it a vibrant source of not just talent-sharing, but solution-finding for local musicians. The founders of the Columbus Songwriters’ Association are determined to not only help create a better creative climate for its membership to be heard, collaborate and make a living, but to seize the opportunities presented by the decentralization of the traditional music industry to better position the city and its deep pool of talent nationally.
“It’s a very convoluted industry – not only has it always been incredibly convoluted but it’s changing every day, so I think to be part of a group of people who are trying to figure it out is important,” says Chris Bosca, musician and member of the CSA’s advisory board. “Nobody has the answer to what the next three to five years are going to look like, but with CSA you have a group of people that are actively thinking about it. Our rapidly becoming the 3rd largest songwriters’ association in the country tells me there hasn’t been as much organization for musicians in cities you would have thought there should have been.”
Like so much effective community change, the CSA began with modest origins.
“I played 150 shows a year as a performing musician for a couple of years,” says Joey Hendrickson, about the time that led to the founding of the CSA. “I ended up getting sick on the road, not eating or sleeping right. I was on the couch and I started wondering, ‘how can we do this without frying ourselves?’”
As a start, he decided to try and get a group together to begin to share information, concerns and experience. The first presentation of the idea for the CSA was held in the modest space of Mission Coffee in the Short North. Twenty-five songwriters signed up immediately and membership has been climbing ever since, with musicians of multiple genres, from ages 12 to 74.
The very first need they served was largely creating spaces where local songwriters could begin to share creative energy or simply be heard.
“When we started, CSA was mostly based around events,” says co-founder (and fellow musician) Derek DuPont. “We were finding that that people could go out to play and be completely taken for granted at happy hours; treated as background noise. We wanted to create something that was more Nashville-esque.”
One major event started by the CSA that has continued to pick up steam is its monthly songwriter showcase. A competitive event designed in a supportive framework, several songwriters are able to play one song, and audience critique cards help select the top three songs for the night, with winners receiving things like free studio time at John Schwab Recording Studios. The top two also get a slot at the annual showcase, which is held in December and is attended by a panel of industry experts.
Last month’s sold out event was attended by Brady Barnett of OSM Productions in Nashville (Rascal Flatts, Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton), among others, but Barnett offered the winner a studio experience as a grand prize. (The monthly showcase was formerly held at King Avenue 5, but is scheduled at Woodlands Tavern on the first Sunday of each month in 2015.)
“They [the monthly songwriter showcases] are a great service to the aspiring and practicing songwriters in town,” says Chris Bosca, musician and member of the organization’s advisory board. “It starts with having a venue that is good for singer/songwriters – and a range of people in the audience that includes experienced singer songwriters. They get written feedback on songwriting and performance, so unlike other open mics, it’s really a place for songwriters to get real about songwriting and an opportunity to meet other people in town. It’s a pretty successful and effective format.”
Local Music Shelf, a CSA partner, gets local music recordings sold from the counter tops of coffee shops and restaurants to raise the profile of central Ohio talent. Members of the organization get a heads up about various local and national opportunities, as well as some discounted services. Members have also presented Songwriter Circles at local venues that have featured some of the city’s musical veterans.
While the grassroots, community-nurturing work of the CSA is part of its core mission, it also has a much broader focus that includes helping get local musicians in front of national music executives, connecting acts to possible corporate licensing and empowering musicians with knowledge and education about the ground of the music business.
There has also been the long-standing perception that in order to make a living, a musician cannot remain in Columbus. CSA pulled together a lively workshop/panel discussion called “How to Build a Music City” last August and intend to organize another in 2015.
There have been times when certain routes to success in the music business seemed clear – being signed to a major label or talent agency might afford some protection, and certainly getting the protection of a publishing license could yield royalty fees for years. That is no longer a given. For example, Spotify, the highly customizable streaming music site is “a microglance at what’s happening right now,” says Hendrickson. The greatest royalty from airplay on traditional radio is 9.7 cents a play, while the greatest on Spotify is .0079 cents a play.
But airplay isn’t the only route to a living for musicians. Certainly live music performance can create one revenue stream for many, but one of the largest avenues for up and coming bands to suddenly break big is having their music used in advertising campaigns, movies or television. Songs utilized in campaigns by Apple, for example, are almost guaranteed to buoy the success of musical acts into a whole new realm.
“In my opinion, music is becoming more valuable,” says Hendrickson. “I don’t think the demise of record labels is a bad thing at all for cities like Columbus, while it’s a big hit to LA or Nashville or New York. There is a thriving music culture that has value here that is virtually untapped. My role is to figure out how to get musicians paid.”
A representative of a business called Music Dealers from Chicago, which works to connect local bands to licensing opportunities, spoke at the How to Build a Music City panel last summer and left an impression on Hendrickson.
“They will find out that an ad campaign is looking at a song by Coldplay, which would be very expensive to license, then come in and say, ‘don’t use Coldplay, use this up and coming band,” he says. “In Columbus, I think that’s where artists should be thinking. What brands could be using my music? How do I meet people involved in creative work? How do I create those relationships?”
“Music Dealers has technology that allows them to search sfor songs according to moods, colors, styles –specific needs for campaigns. Nobody’s ever done that for Columbus. Nobody has tried to do that and said ‘who needs who?’ Columbus has an incredibly healthy business environment and a lot of places are getting music from outside of Columbus.”
Conversations are currently underway to try and get a similar set up in Columbus that could pair bands with brands.
“We’re in this hotbed of brands here in Columbus,” says DuPont. “We’re thinking about how to make that bridge between something like L Brands and independent artists who couldn’t approach them, or getting brands to see the benefits of going local – a lot of companies take pride in where they are located, so being able to give them someone from their own backyard is a valuable service.”
“One objective is to create stepping stones for success in a way that helps people feel they don’t have to leave and go to LA,” says Chris Bosca, a songwriter who is on CSA’s advisory board. “We can build a community here that supports and understands what a songwriter does, and then retain those creative people.”
Even though major licensing organizations are running into new obstacles, like the lack of regulation that computer streaming and downloads allow, the CSA tells musicians that registering their creative property remains one of the most important things they can do.
“Being registered with a PRO (Publishing Rights Organization)– ASCAP, SESAC, BMI – that’s the biggest thing you can do as a songwriter. A lot of people miss that work, but if you’re not registered, you are not going to be able to protect your work,” says DuPont. “A lot of times on a local scale you don’t see the need to protect your work, but when we’re introducing people to a larger audience, they have to.”
Hendrickson, Dupont and a handful of other songwriters also have an ambitious vision to help independent musicians beyond Columbus. They traveled to Los Angeles to interview several people in the music industry about the complications of publishing today – what it takes to succeed financially and how to protect themselves. The result will be a documentary called “Music Publishing in the Wild West,” directed by Henderson, which is currently in the editing stages.
“We want to spread core knowledge about music publishing to the independent musicians in the United States who don’t live in a music industry,” says Hendrickson. “We want to give you access to knowledge about how music publishing really works today, as explained by leading experts in music publishing. We did this because we needed to know how music publishing really works, and we realized others need to know too.”
They are currently considering a crowd-funding campaign to help finish the task of editing the film and getting it to screens in 2015.
Be sure to check out this month’s ColumbusArts.com Artist Profile of Anthony Mossburg, the winner of this year’s CSA Finale Showcase.
Images: courtesy of Columbus Songwriters Association.
Resources for musicians:
News about events, paid performance opportunities, becoming a member, membership benefits:
More rapid updates about the news featured on the CSA web site, as well as information sharing about national news.
Greater Columbus Arts Council Grants & Services for Performing Artists
New! Musicians can qualify for travel grants up to $1,500 to offset the costs of traveling for performance opportunities. They are also eligible for supply grants to support the material costs of creating new work (up to $500), professional development grants (up to $1,000) and individual artist grants.
An organization committed to bringing local music and local businesses together.
Columbus Arts Festival Performance Opportunities
The jurying process for the 2015 Columbus Arts Festival is now underway. Deadline is February 7.
Music Publishing in the Wild West
Facebook page featuring news about this Columbus-based national documentary
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