In Life - Debriefed, Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

Last week I attended my first day of school. Let me clarify.

“Professor” Sterling (sounds weird, right?) met with a small group of students on Saturday morning (yikes!) for the first of fourteen weekly 3-hour classes (double yikes) that will constitute the Music Publishing course for the spring semester at Dallas Baptist University. My job is to impart to these young people a practical, working knowledge of the mysterious and ever-changing world of owning, exploiting, and administering music copyrights.

When you put it that way, it just sounds like so much fun!

I did this once before, in 2003-04, at Belmont University in Nashville. Much like then, I am once again filling in for a professor, who is temporarily away. Prepping my notes for the class has been something of a wake-up call – because so much has changed. In 2004, Napster was in the news. Today Napster is a largely forgotten footnote. In 2004, CDs were king, and the industry was only beginning to develop language to deal with the concept of streaming.  Today, CDs are hard to find, and streaming is everywhere. Only last year, major legislation was passed to rectify the imbalance between streaming revenues and streaming payouts. Of course, within weeks of its passage, the Music Modernization Act was challenged in court.

It is really hard for this dinosaur of a songwriter to keep up, folks.

But some things never change. And it’s those immutable principles I most hope to impress upon my students. Here’s an incomplete list. I figure it will grow some as the semester unfolds. But these things mattered in the past, they matter today, and they will matter twenty years from now:

  1. The music business starts with songs. Without songwriters, there is no music business.
  2. The music business is a people business. Relationships are important. So don’t be a conniving jerk.
  3. As long as there is music, there will be those who would profit from it without compensating those who created it and own it. If you want to survive, avoid these people.
  4. Whenever possible, work with people more talented than yourself.
  5. Be generous with the credit.
  6. Music publishers want talented songwriters, who are willing to work hard.
  7. Songwriters want music publishers who are honest and do their job well.
  8. The music business is a “pennies” business. Income is sporadic. Learn to deal with that.
  9. You may live longer than you think. (see: Keith Richards) So take care of yourself. Stop smoking. Floss daily.
  10. Do good work. It may last longer than you do.

From the looks of this list, I may be an “easy A.”

Showing 6 comments
  • Vicki B
    Reply

    Fourteen 3-hour classes?! Wow! I don’t know who normally teaches this Saturday morning class, but these students are very, very lucky. What a great opportunity for them and for you. They will learn from the best!

    Now that I’ve buttered you up, I’ll tell you that I mailed you an envelope this morning — before I saw this post. I’m thanking you in advance for giving it five minutes of your attention.

    All is well. 🙂

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Since I have to drive 110 miles to teach, we decided to do the class as a once-a-week 3-hour session. And i chose Saturday in order to avoid Dallas traffic! I may come to regret that I gave up my Saturdays, though! And now I’m intrigued as to what is coming my way…

  • Bruce Cokeroft
    Reply

    My Dear Friend, Robert –

    Thanks (as always) for a clear and relevant approach to this convoluted topic. Though I never had to depend upon my own songwriting to pay the bills, without the creative efforts of the myriad of writers and arrangers with whom I had the privilege of working over the decades, I would have been sunk. ALL of the items on your list resonate with me. RELATIONSHIPS are key, as well as being willing to let others receive a part of the credit as they work with and around you. Treat people with kindness. That being stated, I still think crediting 6-8 writers on one song is silly (but I digress! Bless you and your family, Roberto. Hugs to Cindy!

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Relationships DO matter. And it’s not just the creative/writing/musician relationships. It’s also the relationships between the creative and the producing sides. As an editor, you were an arranger’s dream – because you always carried more than your share of the land and made my job easier. And you were vocally appreciative of my work – or at least you lied and told me you liked it! 🙂

  • Tom Eggleston
    Reply

    Thank you, Robert, for mentioning the part about songwriting being a pennies business. I have a framed royalty check hanging on my wall in my office from The Sunday School Board, Nashville, TN. It is dated June 9, 1998. The amount is for $0.02 (yes, it was for two cents). Of course, now days, publishers won’t check a check for less than $10.00. I also had two choruses published in another Broadman publication (Singing is Fun, vol. 2, I think) which I received checks under one dollar for years and years. What a blessing!

    So explain to me why the songwriters, the creators of these wonderful works only get 10% royalty compensation. Why not 12% or 15% or 20%? Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for publishers and their willingness to take the risk on writers like me, but there does seem to be some inequity with the distribution of funds. Okay, Robert, I know what you’re going to say, “Hey, smarty pants songwriter, get over it!”

    Believe me, I’ve been trying for 43 years since I had my first piece published in 1977. I just keeping coming back for more. The pennies are addictive!

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Most companies won’t issue checks for less than $50 these days. The royalty % (for print publishing) isn’t necessarily unfair, once you realize the publisher is taking a steep discount off the retail price, and then figure in the cost of those demo recordings and typesetting and editing and…all that stuff. They, too, are making “pennies” on each sale. What has hurt church music composers more than any other single thing is the decline of choirs. If we can figure out how to start a resurgence of choirs… Well, that’s another topic.

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