© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
At 5 PM on a balmy October afternoon, in the offices of Harlan Howard Songs just south of Nashville’s Music Row, 15 female publishing executives are sitting in a semicircle around Sony Music Nashville artist Joanna Smith. In the center of the room is an assortment of hors d’oeuvres, cheeses and beverages, but no one seems to be indulging. Smith is pensive as she listens to the first verse and chorus of two songs from each publisher, responding with comments such as “pass,” “kinda cute,” “not for me,” “nice groove” or “hold that one for sure.”
All of this is an exercise in the art of group song pitching, in this case by an informal assembly of pluggers and publishers who have dubbed themselves “Chicks with Hits.”
The Chicks are among the pioneers of the group pitch concept. “We did this because at the time we were, and still are for the most part, independent publishers, and we couldn’t get meetings with the big artists,” said Kim Jones of Mighty Kimmy Jo Music. “Some of us were not able to participate in ongoing plugger groups that were already there, so we just thought, ‘Why don’t we do an all-female group?’ The idea was that since everyone in this group has such great publishing experience and is great at what they do, we thought we could get to more artists as a group than by doing it individually, which we have done.”
Abbe Nameche was the other founder of the Chicks with Hits network. “When I worked at DreamWorks, Kim and I got together and hatched this idea,” she said. “We hand-selected the members and started rolling. It’s basically just one-stop shopping.”
Each of the group’s meetings is geared specifically to a particular artist’s project. Members are notified ahead of time exactly what the producer is looking for.
“The idea was that we would each come with our best two songs for that particular act,” said Whitney Daane of Kobalt Music Nashville. “For an hour and a half of their time, they would get to hear 30 or more great songs from some of the top independent publishers. Artists and producers typically go first to the major publishing companies and listen to songs, and they just don’t have time to go around individually to every independent publisher. So this is a way to kill 15 birds — or chicks, in our case — in one hour.”
Nearly every pitch session contains some surprises. An artist who had originally asked for “up-tempo positive” might end up sharing some life experiences that cue the Chicks to dig down into their basket of potential hits and bring out something more somber. This was the case when the group placed “Bring on the Rain” (written by Helen Darling and Billy Montana) with Jo Dee Messina.
Other times, a song may get a pass, but the producer will suggest another artist, and the song eventually finds a home that way. “I played ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off’ (Gary Hannan and John Wiggins) to Tony Brown in a pitch meeting for Brooks & Dunn,” said Judy Harris of Judy Harris Music. “He said, ‘I don’t think it’s right for them, but I’ll send it to Joe Nichols.’ Tony was with Universal South at the time. So when you think a song is perfect for one artist, it might actually work better for another.”
Other song placed by Chicks with Hits include Martina McBride’s “My Daughter’s Eyes” (James Slater), Jimmy Buffett’s “Bama Breeze” (Mark Abramson, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins) and “That’s How They Do It in Dixie” (Abramson, Kear and Tompkins), recorded by Big & Rich, Hank Jr., Van Zant and Gretchen Wilson.
“What I have found to be the most interesting thing about the group is how supportive we are,” said Daane. “We are all competitors. We are all vying for the same few slots on the same records. And yet as a group we are very internally supportive of each other, whether that means pitching songs for people while they are out of town or recommending songs from other publishers that we heard in the past that we think might be good for an artist. The Chicks are really there to support one another in all facets, not just in business but also in our lives in general.
“The music business is not just a business,” she added. “It’s a lifestyle. These people are my closest friends and confidants and my biggest cheerleaders as well as my biggest nemeses. So it’s an interesting dynamic that we can be wildly competitive and yet incredibly supportive of each other in a competitive business. But in the end, we all believe that the best song wins, or should win, and so to honor that process is really what we do.”
“We haven’t killed each other yet,” Harris observed.
“I’m not even sure it’s even about competition between the publishers,” added Dianna Maher of Moraine Music Group. “That’s the cold, hard truth. It just has to be right for that artist at that moment in time. That’s when the support comes in. To me, that’s where the group is so exciting: Everybody gets to hear each others’ new writers and new artists. It’s become this great networking thing where people will now even come to the Chicks because they want the music community to hear about this new artist. A producer will say, ‘Hey, I need for people to know about this new artist, and I know you guys will spread the word.’”
Jones says the typical pitch session runs an hour and a half or so, but there’s no real time limit or set number of songs. “We’ve met with Wynonna, we’ve met with Kenny Chesney and Jo Dee Messina, and we don’t say after an hour and a half, ‘Well, now you have to leave,’” she noted. “If they are having a good time, we will play songs for them until they get tired of listening. With some, it’s been three or four hours.”
Jeff Walter of Jack and Jenny Music, who is involved with a plugger group called the Mocha Network, agrees that there’s no “typical” pitch session and there’s always something new to discover in the process. “While we try to garner as much information as possible in advance of the pitch, rare is the pitch meeting where there isn’t some kind of surprise,” he said. “Sometimes the information has changed, or sometimes what we had in advance wasn’t very accurate to begin with.”
Members of Walter’s Mocha Network include Sherrill Blackman of the SCB Music Group, Penny Dionne of Little Vixen Music, Chad Green of Word Music Publishing, Dallas Gregory of Song Rocket Music, Camilla Kleindienst of Banner Music, Scott Lynch of Scott Lynch and Company, Jeffrey Nelson of Blue Canoe Music Group, Nancy Peacock of Washington Street Publishing and Kathy Sacra-Anderson of Hadley Music Group.
Walter believes that the mixture of camaraderie and competition inherent in plugger groups can be stimulating. “The group pitch has benefits for both the plugger and the person looking for songs,” he said. “The songpluggers have the benefit of hearing material from their colleagues — who, in a sense, are also their competition because everybody’s vying for just a handful of, or maybe just one or two, open slots on a record. There’s a real camaraderie to the process, though, and an energy that everyone seems to feed off of.
“It’s also educational,” he continued. “I might go into a meeting planning to play this killer party song, but then Sherrill might play a party song that prompts the ‘pitchee’ to say, ‘We already have all the party songs we need. What we’re really looking for is a serious up-tempo song about relationships.’ So we generally go in prepared to change gears if necessary.”
Walter notes that “the Mocha Network didn’t start as a songplugging group but simply as an information-sharing group. We would swap news about meetings we’d had, tips we’d received, rumors we’d heard and so on. We would meet at the Fido coffeehouse in (Nashville’s) Hillsboro Village – hence the name. After an opportunity arose to pitch to a young artist, we thought, ‘This was pretty cool. Why don’t we do it more often?’ And so we quickly morphed into a plugging group.
“We don’t always pitch together,” he observed. “Each of us schedules his or her own one-on-one meetings whenever possible, and at least a couple of the members are in other groups as well. True to our roots, we continue to have a regular monthly information-sharing meeting. The group pitch sessions are irregular — technically whenever one of the members schedules one. Sometimes we’ll have a cluster of them in a concentrated time period; there have been times when we have back-to-back meetings or four in a week. At other times it’s a bit slower.”
But participants in both groups agree that for all the challenges in fitting everyone’s schedule together, it’s generally worth the effort. “I might not get to play as many songs in a group meeting as I might in a one-on-one meeting,” Walter said. “But I love the group pitches.”
SOURCE: Country Music Association
Chicks with Hits Photo by Alan Mayor / Provided by Country Music Association / (l-r) front row: Judy Harris, Pat Rolfe and Jamie West; second row: Abbe Nameche, Robin Palmer, Whitney Daane and Lisa Johnson; back row: Stephanie Cox, Dianna Maher, Debbie Zavitson, Kim Jones and Melanie Howard. Not pictured: Celia Froehlig, Ree Guyer Buchanan, Jewel Coburn, Karen Conrad, Katherine B. Church and Tracy Gershon.
Members of the Mocha Network Songplugger Group Photo by Michael Davis / Provided by Country Music Association / (l-r) Jeff Walter, Kathy Sacra-Anderson, Nancy Peacock, Scott Lynch, Camilla Kleindienst, Sherrill Blackman and Jeffrey Anderson. Absent are Penny Dionne, Chad Green and Dallas Gregory.