VOL. 37 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 20, 2013
Songwriting guild connects Irish, US artists
By Tim Ghianni
Nick Nichols’ story – familiar to any Nashville songwriter, waiter, construction worker, masseuse or bellhop – may be taking a turn for success thanks to the quixotic Internet song-plugging mission of an Irishman who lives in Spain.
“I’ve been coming back and forth to Nashville for years,” says Nichols, a full-time resident of Clemson, S.C., who only recently began renting an apartment in Gallatin to forego so much highway wear-and-tear on his 57-year-old bones.
“I couldn’t get anybody to give me a single break. I’ve had songs pitched to most of the major artists in town, but it’s hard to crack that lineup. It’s hard to break in as an unknown.”
After spending 30 years as a guitarist in Greenville, S.C., with rock band Southern Crescent – as well as spending his days as a corporate recruiter, while squeezing in some songwriting on the side – he was pretty discouraged.
His attitude changed after he heard from Sean Andrew Murray, an Irish rock artist, songwriter and lounge guitarist who lives within eyeshot of the Mediterranean on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
Murray had come up with a plan. He and British artist Pete Ware, also an expat in Spain, had started the Irish Songwriters Guild. The idea: To take the songs made popular by artists and songwriters in Ireland – a magical land that in the name of love is crazed for traditional country as well as jigs and U2 anthems – and pitch them to American artists.
During that first phone call between the two, both men found what they were looking for: Murray wanted a Nashville writer to add to his roster, while Nichols just wanted someone to listen to his songs and give him a chance to get some cut by legitimate artists.
It was something of a turn for Murray, though. He and Ware had formed the Guild as an online home for Irish songwriters, a place where demos could be posted and sampled, with Nashville as the target.
“The idea for the ISG (guild) first came through talks and swapping ideas and experiences with other Irish writers,’’ Murray says. “All these guys were having hits in Ireland but not breaking into other markets.
“I was pushing for deals in Nashville and other areas with my own songs, and it seemed to make sense to get all the writers together as a sort of co-op and move forward together as a team.
“If I didn’t have a song to suit, then someone else would so better to get the deal with one of our writers than to lose out completely.’’
Murray had plenty of Irish artists in his fold, but no songs had been picked up yet to be cut.
But after Nichols agreed to sign with the Guild, two of his songs – Hero and Back in Love Again – were picked up by Irish country mainstay Sean McAloon, the latter as a duet with the Emerald Isle’s Lisa Stanley.
It turned out that Murray’s first success story was not – as planned – getting an Irishman’s song cut on Music City Row. It was getting a Nashville writer’s songs cut in Ireland.
‘It’s a tough game’
The Irish Songwriters Guild – hatched by Murray and Ware in October 2012 – quickly began to morph into the International Songwriters Guild.
And Nichols has found writing success both in Nashville and overseas. As for Murray, he began using the success of being the American abroad as another tool in his network building to get Irish wordsmiths’ tunes heard and selected on Music Row.
It’s an exhausting process, but one in which he is willing to invest the time and energy to become an Across-the-Ocean, Internet-based song plugger.
After an evening of gigging in Spain – he never has a night off – Murray stares at the Mediterranean Sea and describes how this Guild idea got started and ponders where it might lead.
“I used to play with the top British band in Europe,” he says.
But he wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to settle in on the sunny Spanish coast and provide a solid home life for his wife and their four young children. His gigs in area clubs pay the bills. Something was lacking.
“I took up songwriting,” he says. “I’d never really concentrated on it. I’d always been working as a musician. … Quickly I got a lot of interest and got a couple of publishing deals in Nashville. But it’s a tough game.
“Of course, I didn’t expect things to happen overnight, but I got to know quite a few of the guys over there. And I’ve been pitching songs in Ireland as well.”
Irish songs stuck in Ireland
The problem, at least the way Murray saw it at the time, was that the rich vein of material by Irish country songwriters was not being mined in Nashville.
“I got in conversations and all these top Irish writers had hit records in Ireland, but they never were released outside of Ireland.
“So I contacted the writers and I said ‘If you are interested, I would represent your work. We might be taken a bit more seriously if we are doing it as a group.’”
It seemed a simple idea. And the Irish writers answered faster than a Leprechaun who spots a pot of gold (or a bottle of Jameson) at the end of the rainbow.
These Irish writers had dealt already with plenty of recording industry blarney, but with Murray, they saw the potential for their own pots of gold, in terms of royalties for songs cut beneath the Nashville skyline.
“Most of the top writers in Ireland came on board and we set up the website (www.irishsongwritersguild.com),” says Murray, noting he handles the plugging and the music while his partner, Ware, takes care of the IT that goes into making an attractive website for not only the songwriters but for artists or label executives who might want to sample some of these songs, for free, in privacy.
The basic premise/promise?
“We don’t charge anything to have their songs up there,” Murray says of the Guild. “The website is set up like a shop window. We promote the song. And we’ll charge 10 percent if we do a deal, that’s 10 percent of the money the writer actually makes. They don’t make anything, we don’t make anything. And we don’t take ownership of the song.”
‘Everything on trust’
In other words, if a writer – some Bono clone or imitator of The Edge, perhaps – makes $1 million in royalties for a song that’s posted on the site, then the Irish/International Songwriters Guild gets $100,000 … after the writers get paid.
“We do everything on trust. There are no contracts. I have contracts here from different guys I’ve come across in the business and they’re not worth the paper they’re written on,” says Murray. “I’ve never been to Nashville …. There are sharks over there, but we are trying to do it a wee bit differently.”
Wood Newton – among Nashville’s most prolific and successful songwriters, McCabe golfers and nice guys – is greatly impressed by Murray.
“There’s no written contract, just a handshake deal,” Newton says. “It’s the best deal I ever had, an agreement between two people.”
Newton, too, has had one of his songs – “Great Minds Drink Alike” – cut by McAloon, whom he describes as “an Irish Randy Travis.”
Newton knows all about the travails of plugging and rejection. He’s had to build up a tough hide.
He said he believes Murray’s new way of plugging songs on a website where everyone can pick and choose and listen to portions by various writers is innovative and could even be the way of the future.
“Sean makes it easy. He’s got it all up in the cloud, on his site. You go there and it’s like going into a record store and listening to songs. What could be better than that?”
Besides that, Newton says, “I would really like to tap into more of that European market.”
He laughs, too, when noting that while he spends most of his life on Music Row, plugging and producing; an Irishman based in Spain “is hooking me up with people right here in Nashville. I love that stuff.”
‘We do the job first’
There is a lilt in Murray’s voice when he talks about his just-now-fully hatched song-plugging Guild and the fact that, once people find out about it, they are receptive.
“From my experience in Nashville, there is plenty of money up front there,” he says.
He neither asks nor wants any front money. “We do the job first instead. It’s exciting crazy. There is no model for it.”
While praising the Nashville music community as generally good people, he notes that – as in any industry – there are fringe elements up to no good.
“There are so many people who have ripped off the writers over the years, we had to come up with a concept that is different,” says Murray.
The former rocker from Dublin has not made money from the venture, since his writers have not been cashing checks yet. But he’s got more than 40 writers on his roster – Irish, continental Europeans and Music Row tunesmiths.
They, like Nichols and Newton have invested their faith – not coin – in the Irishman in Spain.
“It’s about trust,” Murray says. “It’s about honesty between all the ones involved. We are prepared to do the work. A lot of guys get scammed. It’s not just in Nashville, but everywhere. I’d be in Nashville tomorrow to do this if I could.
“But I can’t. I have my young family here to take care of. So we do it by putting 1½ minutes of writers’ songs on the website and plugging them from here.”
Songs put on hold
Touring the website proves Murray’s assessment of the talent level that’s invested hope in him. “These guys are fantastically talented writers. I’m listening to these songs and their writing just blows me away.”
His payoff, and the writers’, may be forthcoming. “We’ve got at least 25 songs on hold or being recorded right now, between Ireland, Holland and Nashville.”
Legendary Nashville producer Fred Vail, whose Treasure Isle Recorders in Berry Hill has attracted the world’s best singers for three decades, is enthusiastic by the way Murray is doing business.
“I’ve been really impressed with the overall quality of the music (on the site),” says Vail, whose ears have been treated to the best and the worst songs in the world since he broke in by pushing The Beach Boys in the early 1960s. “You’re not going to impress me with every song, but the amount of stuff he sent me and the amount I put on hold is pretty impressive.”
One thing he notes is that the stuff pitched by and posted online by Murray is fresher to the weary ears of people who select songs for artists.
“I don’t think they (songs by Murray’s Guild members) are over-pitched, as some of the songs that are pitched around this town month after month, year after year.”
Vail is leaning on songs from Murray’s website for a project he’s doing on singer Kristi Warner.
“We hooked up and I heard a few demos and I heard an EP she had made with somebody some years ago.
“She has a great voice, great phrasing, enormous range, great pitch. She’s a cutie, great entertainer on stage. “
Vail had a deal to get Warner into the studio for an EP this autumn, but he had to find songs to suit the freshness of this new voice. The Irishman in Spain became his resource.
“To find these songs, I ended up getting ahold of Sean. I know his songs have not been overworked….”
Of this relatively unknown group of writers, he picked work by Irish songwriters. He also picked work by Nichols.
“For years I was going back and forth to Nashville and I couldn’t get anybody to give me a single break,” says Nichols of that development. “I was looking for someone to help me do something with my songs. I thought I had some good songs. Sean gave me a break.”
The online advantage
Nichols was among the first writers in the Guild.
Murray was cruising a website which hosts Music City writers –NashvilleUniverse.com – and heard what Nichols offered. He reached out.
“I was just ecstatic that somebody felt I had something worth doing something with,” says Nichols, who has four cuts on an upcoming album by Irishman Shane O’Neil, “a new Irish singer making headway.”
He said he had been discouraged by local politics. “When you go to somebody in this town, if you want to plug a song, everybody’s got their hand out.”
Now a lounge singer from Spain’s Costa del Sol not only previews Nichols’ work online, he reaches out to plug it with artists here and in Europe.
“There seems to be a market for the kind of country music I write today. There is a hunger for traditional country in Europe and mine is the kind of stuff that’s being picked up,” Nichols says.
Because of the handshake agreement with Murray, Nichols feels vested in a partnership, a sort of mini-revolution, a quixotic quest led by the fellow from Spain.
“As this thing grows and makes a success, it’s going to launch itself,” he says. “I think our success kind of speaks for itself.
“We’ve barely tipped the iceberg. I don’t think we’ve smelled it yet.”