A Songwriting Perspective

The following is a concise and relevant conversations between Peter Cooper and Carnival Music’s Frank Liddell on the state of songwriting and publishing.

Published by Peter Cooper on March 19, 2010 in The Tennessean’s Features

Frank Liddell owns Carnival Music Publishing and produces recording artists including Miranda Lambert. He took the time for a recent e-mail exchange about songwriting while he, wife Lee Ann Womack and their family were in Mexico on vacation.

“I should start by saying that one thing I have learned over the years is that there are no absolutes,” Liddell said of the secrets behind the craft. “Having said that, go find your copy of East Of Eden and open up to chapter 13 and read the first five or six pages.”

In those pages, author John Steinbeck writes, “There are no good collaborations,” but he writes much more than that, so we’re taking him somewhat out of context.

By those words, Liddell said, he’s developed a philosophy that keeps him “at least partially relevant” as a publisher and producer.

What’s your perspective on co-writing?

    “I am certainly in the long run a fan of a great deal of music that has come from the ‘lonely mind of one person.’ And I think many co-writes are written for the sole purpose of getting a song cut and not necessarily from the lonely mind of one person.

    “However, there have been many great co-writes over the years — John Lennon/Paul McCartney, Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Hank Cochran/Harlan Howard, Don Schlitz/Paul Overstreet — that might fly in the face of my argument that the best songs come from a single mind. I think perhaps the real problem we face today is the quality of the writing abilities of some of the people out there in these co-writes. There have always been politics in this business and there has always been bad music and marginal songwriting. This is nothing really new. But it does seem that there are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they really don’t know how to play the game. I also think a lot of artists are encouraged to write for financial reasons that would be better off recording outside songs. Look, if Willie Nelson, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, etc. could cut outside songs, everyone should.”

Am I correct that co-writing is a near-mandate for writers interested in scoring hits on Music Row?

    “I guess if you look at the charts, the facts would probably say so. I do know that we pursue co-writes actively, but encourage each of our writers to write by themselves. And each of our writers was signed because of his or her unique slant and perspective. Having said that, many of our recent cuts have been co-writes, but I know we just got a cut today on a major artist that was written 100 percent. I will say this: Great music, not politics, will in the long run take care of most of our problems.”

Do you think most publishers prefer that their writers co-write?

    “Yes and for the most part, I think it is because everyone is scared to death and we are a) trying to hedge our bets, and b) putting ourselves in the company of others, i.e. misery loves company. “We somehow think this is the best way to get songs recorded and it is a way and perhaps the preferred way today. The funny thing is, you can do the math. The more writers on a song, the less everyone is making on that song and in some cases, depending on how many units are sold and/or how high a single charts, there might not be enough money generated in a perceived hit to keep the writer employed and the publisher afloat. One 100 percent song can cure a lot of financial woes.”

Can co-writing at times water down the songs? I’m thinking here of something like Odie Blackmon’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” which I doubt would have come out the same if there’d been three guys in the room.

    “Of course it can, but that is not a steadfast rule. There are many songs that have been co-written that still carry a lot of punch. But I do think that people are moving fast today. Songs are co-written quickly, and we are finding a lot of recurring themes in songs that suffer from a lack of originality and quality. And a lot of generic thoughts are often being shepherded around as original ideas. Nevertheless, I can’t say this is new. There are still great co-written songs, written by, again, great writers. Perhaps if you find a poor co-written song, the problem lies in the quality of the writer/writers.”

Is the art of country music improved by all of this co-writing?

    “This is where I think the idea from East Of Eden comes in to play. I think the answer on the whole is no. There are still many good songs and records out there, but we are missing the perspective of one person, perhaps ‘one lonely person,’ that was so prevalent in the advent of our genre.”

Is the commerce of country music improved by all of this co-writing?

    “Not at all. I think the commerce of country music will only be improved by great music. There is some (great music) out there. There needs to be more. Nashville is a creative center and there is no question our most valuable assets are our musicians, our artists and our songwriters. As long as we have great unique music, we will be a viable music center. Hedging our bets to increase our income or to keep from going out of business is not the way to gain listeners.”
Reach Peter Cooper at 615–259-8220 or pcooper@tennessean.com.

Another very interesting article on co-writes can be found HERE.

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