The business side of the music industry is just as important (and in the eyes of many, just as exciting) as the creative side. At the very least, it’s critical for any artist wanting to make it in the industry to understand how the business side operates, not to mention understanding how people on the business side think.
At this year’s Durango Songwriter’s Expo, MIMO had the chance to chat with Shea Fowler, creative director for Cornman Music, a boutique music publishing house located on Nashville’s famed Music Row. Like many on the business side, Shea began her career as a performer, but fell in love with the business aspects as a student at Belmont University in Nashville and moved into the business side. Her college connections led to a position in the A&R department of Big Machine Records (Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift), and eventually to Cornman Music. Today, Shea describes her job as a “jack-of-all-trades” position, but says she’s primarily a song plugger, seeking to get music written by her staff songwriters cut on records by major label artists, mainly in the country genre. This gives her a unique perspective to offer advice to songwriters and performers seeking to “break in” to the business.
Shea’s position obviously requires her to listen to lots of music, and she knows what she’s looking for. “When I’m listening for songs that come into our company, just from a songwriter point of view, I’m always looking for a couple of things,” she says. “One is a unique way to say something that’s generally probably already been said in our genre, but something that’s being said a little bit differently. And two, something that is still commercial, that I feel like I can go to an artist or to an A&R representative and get that song cut, that it’s something that artist would say, that we could put on the radio.”
Even with the songs that come in from her staff writers, Shea says the process is competitive. “I generally listen to, say, verse-chorus, and if I’m still interested, I’ll listen all the way through, and see if there’s anything else in the song that’s captivating,” Shea says. “But normally you get a pretty good idea over verse-chorus if it’s gonna be unique, or if I’ve heard it said like a million times, or whether something’s gonna make the cut or not. And I’m always listening for things that are better than, or as good as, my songwriters already have. We have a roster of six writers that are hit songwriters that have a reputation of success, so they are my first priority. So I have to make sure that any new things I’m listening to can hang with that level.”
Shea also says her particular company isn’t just looking for good songs, but for good songwriters—people who can turn out a number of potential hits on a consistent basis. “We don’t do any single-song contracts,” she says. “I am only on the lookout, right now, at least, for great songwriters as a whole, that are well-rounded, that would fit in our company to add on as a staff songwriter.”
Like many in the business, Shea says connections and relationships are also a huge part of breaking in. “We could have the next greatest songwriter under our nose in Nashville,” she says, “but if no one knows you’re there, how are we going to get your songs on the radio? They don’t just magically appear. So you have to be out and meeting people constantly.” Even on the business side, Shea says these relationships are crucial. “It’s a relationship business. It’s not submit-a-resume, that kind of thing. It’s all about relationships in our business.”
At the same time, Shea is careful to emphasize that knowing people is only part of it—there has to be substance behind the style. “You can be the nicest person in the world,” she says, “but if your songs aren’t competitive, then we’re just gonna be friends.”
Her best advice for up-and-coming songwriters and performers? “Keep writing and performing as much as possible,” she says. “If it’s something that you do on the side, just do it a lot. And study, study, study. I think that a lot of people sometimes listen to what’s on the radio and try to duplicate that, but they’re not diving further into what makes that song better than another song out of the thousands that were written in Nashville yesterday. So do your homework, learn the writers and what they’re doing that’s making these songs so great on the radio. It’s not all about politics and who you know—there’s a craft to it.”