There is no segment of the music industry that hasn’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on some way over the past several weeks. Music tours have ground to a halt as venues large and small have shuttered in response to state ordinances, touring agencies have furloughed workers, and artist managers have scrambled to revamp promotional plans for their artists’ album releases.
For Nashville’s close-knit songwriting and music publishing community, the stay-at-home ordinances have meant songwriters and music publishers alike have been sheltering in place at their homes. The sudden shift has led music publishers and songwriters to turn to digital platforms to keep their businesses moving forward.
Song pitching has shifted from physical meetings to virtual meetings and conference calls, with publishers often sending label A&R reps the music beforehand.
“When you’re pitching songs to people, you get to know them very well and you can kind of feel out the vibe in the room and how they are reacting to certain songs,” Warner Chappell Nashville Director, A&R, Will Overton tells MusicRow. “You can play a different song if you think they might not like a certain type of song. It’s been a shift to putting [songs] on a playlist and sending them to the person to listen to; there is not as much flexibility as far as song choice. But all that said, the [label] A&R people we regularly pitch to have been very open and receptive. They want to hear music and they usually listen to more songs than they normally might over the course of a 30-minute pitch meeting.”
Jessi Vaughn, Manager, A&R, Warner Chappell Music Nashville, says few country artists are pushing back album release schedules, which means the hunt for solid song material for future releases has been as strong as ever.
“In our conversations with the labels, they are tweaking things by maybe a few weeks, but it seems like everything coming out of Nashville is sticking to schedule,” Vaughn says.
Overton says one potential upside to the shift to working from home and the corresponding influx of virtual meetings and conference calls is that managers, label A&R teams and others are listening to more outside cuts—songs being considered for an artist’s project that are not co-written by the artist.
“A lot of artists are writing for their own projects and there are not as many opportunities for outside cuts. In the course of a normal busy day as an A&R person at a label, pitch meetings can get squeezed into 15 or 20 minutes, or get bumped to another day, so it’s been kind of refreshing for us to know when we send songs, people are digging in and listening to the links and meetings are not being moved around as much as they might in the course of a normal week.
“It feels like there has been a renewed focus or importance placed on listening to the music. When we come out of this quarantine period, artists are going to be ready to go. All the recording sessions that have gotten pushed back, it’s all going to happen at once, it feels like. Everybody needs great songs so they need to stock up on them now so that whenever we go back to normal, they are ready to go.”
The shift from in-person meetings to virtual pitch sessions hasn’t been without a few hiccups.
“The first couple of weeks were a transition,” Overton says. “At my first Zoom pitch meeting, the A&R person didn’t realize we couldn’t hear the music they were pitching, so we all felt like we were in a silent disco we didn’t get invited to. That was pretty funny.”
From a co-writing session standpoint, one challenge has been deciding whether to reschedule previously booked co-writing sessions, or keep the co-writing dates and shift to virtual sessions.
“With songwriters, we live in a two-to-three months out calendar at all times, so it’s figuring out do we make it a Zoom call or whatever platform you want to use, or do you reschedule it for an in-person and if so, when is the right time to reschedule it when you might have to reschedule it again?
“We’ve never, in our generation, seen anything like this, so there’s not a right way to handle the situation. Also, a lot of songwriters are parents and some are not creatively inspired right now and that’s okay. We don’t expect everyone to be cranking out five songs a week. That’s not the goal here,” Says Jessi.
Last week, Mayor John Cooper announced a four-phase reopening plan for Nashville, which at best, will take several weeks before business employees can return to working in offices. Both Overton and Vaughn predict that virtual song pitch sessions and co-writing sessions could become part of the Nashville music publishing and songwriting community’s “new normal” once businesses fully reopen.
“Especially for songwriters that have established relationships and who don’t have to go out there and network every night, I think there is room for them to connect and continue writing great songs with people in an online format,” Overton says. “A few writers I’ve talked with have a commute that is an hour or more each way, so they love virtual writing so they don’t have the long commute and can spend more time with family and get more things done. Depending on the writer, we could see more virtual writing continue once the quarantine period is over.
“I think virtual pitching could stick around, too, depending on an A&R person’s schedule, instead of postponing or canceling meetings we can do a Zoom meeting,” says Overton.
“People react to it differently. I’ve had writers who really hate writing virtually and they are relying on writing songs on their own, which I love because it strengthens you as a writer, as long as they are maintaining those relationships with co-writers,” Vaughn says.
While song pitching has moved to the virtual space, so has songwriting, with most songwriters holding co-writing sessions on virtual platforms. Mickey Guyton, who is signed with Universal Music Group Nashville as a recording artist and with Warner Chappell Music Publishing as a songwriter, is one of the many songwriters who are trying out virtual songwriting for the first time as she continues work on an upcoming album.
“I’ve tried FaceTime and Zoom, and Zoom seems to be the best one,” she says.
In February, before people began self-isolating in their homes, Guyton created a buzz when she performed “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” in front of a crowd of country radio programmers at UMG Nashville’s annual luncheon during this year’s Country Radio Seminar. Guyton’s soaring, impassioned voice, paired with lyrics that challenge the contradicting messages society sends to young girls and to women, earned Guyton the only standing ovation during the luncheon.
One of her early virtual songwriting sessions was with Karen Kosowski, Victoria Banks and Emma-Lee, who penned “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?”
“We were able to connect and I think part of that is being comfortable with the people you are writing with. Writing with people you’ve never written with before might be a little challenging to try to figure out, but if they are people you know, you’re just comfortable. Now that I’m comfortable doing co-writing sessions virtually, I think it will be a balance of both going forward,” says Guyton, who also notes that doing more virtual co-writing sessions would allow her to spend more time with her husband Grant Savoy, who lives in Los Angeles.
“These situations force you to grow, for the better or for the worse. And I think we’ll see that in the music that comes out in the next 18 to 24 months,” Vaughn says.
“The quarantine is giving us time to get more songs, more material, but in everyday life, we’re so busy and we’re not dialed in. I’m sure so many greater songs are going to come out of this because we do have that time.”