March 2, 2003
Once upon a song'
By CRAIG HAVIGHURST
Follow along as an idea becomes a song, a song becomes a hit and a hit becomes the story of Music City in microcosm
Last October, songwriter Billy Montana gathered his wife and three children around their Nashville dining room table to open a fat, clear-window envelope that meant everything was about to change.
It was a hold-your-breath moment, and the six-figure check from BMI — the biggest he'd ever seen — looked to his family's wide, teary eyes like a gift from heaven, an end to lean times.
The same week, Helen Darling's husband brought a similar envelope from their Austin, Texas, home to her Nashville writing base. A songwriter and her own publisher as well, she held twice Montana's good fortune in her tingling hands.
The payday was for Bring on the Rain, a song Montana and Darling had written more than three years before and one that singer Jo Dee Messina had taken to the top of the country charts in March 2002.
To date, the song has earned just a shade over $1 million in broadcast royalties, though the most recent checks cover only radio and other performances through June, and foreign royalties haven't been collected yet. The same team earned more money from having that song on Messina's third album, Burn, which has sold about 1.2 million copies, according to SoundScan.
How Bring on the Rain got from Darling's and Montana's pens to the top of the charts and back to them as royalty money is the story of Nashville in microcosm. By the time a song reaches No. 1, dozens of people have made hundreds of decisions and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, market and promote it.
The art and science of what makes the difference between a top-10 song and a No. 1 song is the subject of intense scrutiny and research.
It's what much of Music City does all day.
Montana, half-joking, likens his share of the royalties to winning a lottery. But what he and Darling know is that they are being paid back for much more than two afternoons of singing, strumming and scribbling. Those checks represent the reward for years of working, writing and striving with only small and sporadic successes.
Though they would be largely eaten by taxes and debt, those checks were the first sign that their career choice wasn't a black hole. They could now thrive doing what they loved to do and thought they did best.
Darling and Montana had earned their way into an exclusive club. They were, at last, hit songwriters. This is the story of the song that made it so.
Working in the Hit Hut
Montana, of Albany, N.Y., and Darling, of Baton Rouge, La., wear their names well.
He's a steely-eyed, goateed man of 43 who looks comfortable in weather-beaten denim and leather. She's a vivacious, married mother of two who made a critically acclaimed country album for Decca Records in 1995, but who never had those elusive, and necessary, radio hits.
He almost became a farmer but was led into a life of performing and songwriting. She still sees herself as a singer first and foremost. Her songwriting kept dreams of a music career alive, even after she married and moved to Austin to be a mom.
As career songwriters, they're just as different.
Montana is a staff writer who earns a ''draw'' (a salary that must be paid back with earned royalties) from publisher Moraine Music. He writes every working day and strives to finish 60 songs a year.
Darling treats writing like a part-time commuter job, shuttling between Austin and Nashville to co-write with Music Row composers. When the pair sat down in May 1999 for a co-writing session, both had had songs recorded by major country artists, but neither ever had a hit.
For a variety of reasons, most songs that get serious attention from major-label country artists are co-written. Every day, dozens of appointments between collegial writers, senior and junior writers, hit songwriting teams and haphazard dates between mismatched songwriters take place on and around Music Row.
Bring on the Rain wasn't unusual in that respect.
Darling and Montana met for coffee then headed to the Hit Hut, an outbuilding with glass French doors looking out on a gravel parking lot behind Moraine's Berry Hill office. Darling says she brought up a melodic idea and looked to Montana for reassurance that it was compelling. He brought the title line, which he'd borrowed from one of his own older songs.
''The line went, 'Bring on the rain/let it pour down/ain't gonna bother me none,' '' Montana says. ''It was a good song, but I always felt like that line warranted more.
''It just seemed like it had the potential to have more impact. As the first line in a song, you're only going to hear it once. Whereas if it becomes the hook, you're going to hear it several times.''
The ''hook'' is that lyrical and musical piece of taffy your mind keeps chewing after the song is over, generally the last line of the chorus, attended by an instrumental pause that helps it sink in. Most hits have one; many great songs have none.
What's curious is that Montana suggested the line without an emotional situation in mind. He just liked how the words sounded. Darling decided she heard a challenge in the line — a ''you wanna piece of me?'' come-on to the blues, and a sad but defiant message song was crafted over two days.
To pitch the song to artists, the writers' publishers would need a demonstration recording, or ''demo.'' Most Music Row demos are cut in studios with full bands in order to approximate what the song might sound like on the radio. Montana and Darling made a much simpler (and cheaper) tape, with him on guitar and her singing in the publisher's own studio. It was spare, and they liked it that way.
''It was a good song, a song that had a cool melody and had some cool lines and an empowering idea,'' Montana says. ''But I didn't come out of there thinking, 'This is the one.' ''
With demo in hand, it becomes the song publisher's job to pitch it, or ''plug'' it, to artists and producers in hopes of getting it recorded.
If the writers of a song each have a different publisher, then two or more publishers will pound the pavement on their behalf, a key reason so many songs are co-written. When Bring on the Rain was written, Darling didn't have a plugger, so the only person pitching it was Moraine president Dianna Maher.
Maher loved Rain (as they began to call it) and had a strong feeling from early on it would find a good home, but it wasn't as easy as she'd hoped.
''I'll bet that song was pitched 30 times at a minimum,'' she says. ''I can't tell you how many times it was passed on before they even got to the hook. But that's so par for the course.''
At one point, MCA, Trisha Yearwood's record label, briefly put the song on ''hold,'' but that didn't excite the Rain camp much.
Holds are an informal agreement that the publisher will stop pitching the song until the artist can give a more definitive answer. They are the source of much controversy, because publishers are often left hanging for weeks or months, waiting for a major artist to make a decision.
Strength in numbers
After months of hearing ''pass,'' Maher and the writers considered redoing the demo with more-elaborate production.
But good fortune intervened through a group called Chicks With Hits, which Maher had joined. The semi-formal cooperative of about 18 women from small and independent music publishers was formed to give each a better chance at pitching songs in a world dominated by large, powerful publishers and, frankly, by men. As Maher says, ''The guys seem to all go golf with producers to get cuts.''
Because Chicks With Hits offers one-stop shopping from the best material from more than a dozen publishers, artists are often willing to meet with them directly. When she invited the group over in the fall of 1999 for a pitch meeting, Jo Dee Messina was an artist on a roll — a relatively new country star on Nashville's Curb Records who had three consecutive No. 1 hits in 1998.
Messina hunts for songs by the basketful, she says, and was in the midst of looking for material for her third album. She hoped it would be the stepping stone from star to superstar. Song selection is critical, and she'd passed on hundreds of them.
Messina had been listening to songs all day with Missi Gallimore, wife of Messina's producer, Byron Gallimore, when the Chicks showed up en masse for an afternoon session in a cramped conference room. The publishers took turns playing songs, and on the third time around the room, Maher offered a brief disclaimer that she was about to play a guitar/vocal demo. Then she cued up Bring on the Rain.
Messina reacted immediately to the song. She left a strong signal she'd like the song held for her and that she'd need a few days to make a final decision.
''What struck me is how real it was,'' Messina says. ''Have you ever hurt so bad you wish you could go in your room and pull the covers over your head and just not come out? It painted that nobody-knows-how-I-feel kind of vibe.''
Messina recorded Rain Nov. 23, 1999, at Ocean Way Studio in Nashville, hewing closely to the quiet guitar/vocal quality of the demo, adding drums and strings but retaining a soft and organic feeling.
Superstar Tim McGraw, acting as the album's co-producer, proposed a vocal harmony line, which he volunteered to sing himself. Messina loved his part, so the song was released as Jo Dee Messina ''with'' Tim McGraw. That's something short of a full duet, but enough to have McGraw's famous name figuring in the overall success of the song.
Unless the artist or producer has written a song, the recording process almost never involves the songwriter, and writers often don't like the way their material gets handled in the studio anyway. It took six more months for Burn to be released, and for Darling and Montana to hear their song fully realized.
Maher went to buy several copies at a record store on the album's release day, Aug. 1, 2000. Back at Moraine, Montana recalls, ''We listened to it loud and listened to it several times. And in my opinion, it was magic.''
Swinging for a single
Rain wasn't the first single off Burn released to radio, nor was it the second or even third.
Messina says most of her success had come from ''tempo'' material, using the industry term for up-tempo singles. So that's what she led with.
And sure enough, the spunky That's the Way reached No. 1 Sept. 16, six weeks after the album hit store shelves. .
Burn, the melodramatic title track, came second. Timed so that it also came out on the soundtrack of a Sylvester Stallone film, it was a calculated play by the label to cross over to the large and lucrative adult-contemporary radio format.
Despite furious efforts to push it over the top, it crested at No. 2 on the country chart.
''It was a successful record, but it didn't reach No. 1,'' says Messina's manager, Stuart Dill. ''It was not going to be the multiformat smash that the label had hoped, that Jo Dee and I had hoped.''
A third single, Downtime, peaked at No. 5, to the dismay of everyone involved.
''There was an emotional letdown by the fall,'' Dill says. ''I don't want to overemphasize, but we were in a bit of a funk.''
The same could be said for Montana and Darling, who'd had numerous lessons in pessimism over their careers.
Montana once had a song on a Tim McGraw album that was named on the teaser sticker on the CD, but it was never released to radio as a single. He'd had a song recorded by Doug Stone that never made the album. And he'd had a Lee Ann Womack cut that was supposed to be the fourth single from her debut album.
''They had it boxed, ready to ship. And two weeks before the add date, they changed their mind,'' Montana recalls. ''Which was the point in my career that I needed to find something else to do. I'd been pushed to the brink so often that I didn't want to allow myself to get excited about anything.''
Then one day in the summer of 2001, Montana was shopping, and he couldn't help himself. He glanced at Messina's Burn album in the CD racks. Their song had been listed on the sticker, but no longer. His heart sank.
He called Helen. Her heart sank, too.
''I have to admit that's when my optimism started to (fade),'' she says. ''Someone had to consciously think to take that off the sticker.''
Survey says …
At Curb Records, there was indecision about what to do next. Messina wasn't close to having a new album ready, so a fourth single was called for, but which one?
Some in management were again thinking ''tempo,'' but Messina had been urging Bring on the Rain as a single from early on. It reminded her of an emotional, anthemic tune from her previous record called Even God Must Get the Blues, which she'd wanted as a single but never got. The label, Messina says, was nervous about the reference to God.
''Whether it's a single is really not my call,'' she says. ''I can voice an opinion, but the ultimate decision is not mine.''
Carson James, head of promotions for Curb, was as important to the decision as anyone. He and his nationwide staff of 10 would take the song to radio, and he would be responsible if it didn't work.
Radio promoters live or die according to their ability to deliver hits. Too many ''stiffs,'' and the radio decision makers won't trust that next record you bring them to light up the switchboards. Moreover, radio stations add, on average, less than two songs a week to their playlists, down from three or more a decade ago, much to labels' frustration.
James says the label turned to a familiar tool of the corporate music world — a consumer focus group.
''My background is research,'' he says, citing a keen professional understanding of ''the country life group.'' His survey found 150 professed Jo Dee Messina fans who hadn't yet bought Burn.
Curb shipped each of them a CD with instructions to listen to it at least seven times over a two-week period. After that, James says, the researchers called back and played snippets from the songs to remind the listener of each tune. They were asked to rate each song and indicate which they believed would most inspire them to buy the album.
''Bring on the Rain was a … monster,'' James says. ''We saw the scores and all of our jaws dropped.''
Darling was visiting Montana when Maher called, saying she was hearing rumors they had a single but she didn't know for sure. At the same time, Darling says she got a call from a licensing administrator at Curb, asking her for detailed information, which could logically mean only one thing.
Still, she didn't get her hopes up too high until she called Curb's head of A&R (artists and repertoire), Michelle Metzger, at her office. Darling left a voice mail, and the call came back:
''I can't believe you don't already know,'' Metzger said. ''We're shipping it on Tuesday.''
There seemed to be hunger for the new Messina song. Curb sent CDs with the single to major stations a few weeks in advance of their ''add date,'' a day they announce in their supporting materials and trade advertising seen only by radio people.
On Aug. 27, Jaye Albright, one of the leading consultants in country radio, gave the song a positive review on the strength of its emotional impact and its pairing of star vocalists. Some stations put the song in rotation as soon as they got the disc, a promising sign noticed by all involved as they approached the official add date: Sept. 10, 2001.
The shock of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks turned into an unexpected boon. Program directors were looking for healing, message-oriented music, and Rain fit perfectly. A significant number of stations spliced quotes from speeches by President Bush and newscasters into the instrumental passages of the song.
On Sept. 12, Montana got a call from his sister in Pennsylvania, who said she'd heard one of the voice-over versions. Montana heard it himself in Nashville the next day.
''I was parked in my driveway under our American flag and I bawled my eyes out,'' he says. ''It gave me a feeling like the song made some contribution.''
Another break came a few weeks later when Messina invited syndicated radio personality Delilah to a concert in Tacoma, Wash. It was a bit of off-the-cuff politicking that paid off.
Delilah's show has a feel-good, therapeutic quality, with a Web site that says, ''Welcome! What's on your heart today? I hope you'll find something here that lifts your spirit!'' It's a tone that ripples through much of Messina's female-friendly music.
In concert, Messina's high-energy, aerobic show would slow way down for Bring on the Rain, with her singing in a solemn spotlight. Delilah, according to Dill, saw that sort of performance, leaned over to her assistant and said, ''Get me that song.''
It wasn't as simple as that. In recent years, adult contemporary radio, a soft-rock format, has frequently played country singles, but generally a different version. Dill quickly consulted with Curb and had producer Gallimore go back to the tapes and make a ''pop mix,'' featuring Messina's same vocal take with subtly different instrumentation.
When Delilah played it on her show, carried on more than 200 radio stations, it gave birth to the parallel track Curb had dreamed of with the Burn single, and the label's West Coast pop-promotions staff began working the song.
The promotions game
Delilah was a fortunate break, but Messina's song still had to win over country radio's programmers and consultants.
At one level, that boils down to whether they like it and think their listeners are responding to it. But just as in any business, relationships count as much as the product itself. Messina works those relationships as intensely as any country artist.
''I will say it until the day that I die: Radio is the foundation of a career,'' says Messina, who half jokes that ''my life is a radio tour.'' She says when she's on the concert circuit (as many as 250 days per year), courting radio people backstage is a routine part of a show day.
''I specifically arrange for radio to get there half an hour before every meet-and-greet, because I didn't want to run 'em through like cattle. We have hors d'oeuvres sent in. We have drinks. We hang out. . . . It's personal, but it's not as personal as I want to be, to thank them for everything. Not to ask them for anything. That's my label's job.''
While Curb's promotion staff talked up Rain, research on the single continued. Many radio program directors hire firms to do ''call out'' testing by phone or in auditoriums with volunteers. They play those audiences seven- to 10-second snippets from songs currently in rotation and ask them if they are familiar with them, and whether they like it or are tired of it.
Consultants such as Albright compile research done at several stations, in her case about 25, and share the results with her clients.
Generally, songs don't ''begin to research'' until they've been in rotation for about six weeks, but Rain's early success as a Sept. 11 anthem pushed it into the familiar and well-liked categories after only three weeks.
Albright, who began by recommending seven spins a week for Rain, quickly upgraded the song's recommendation from ''optional'' to ''light'' and then to ''medium'' on Nov. 1, seven weeks into its life.
A record label can't orchestrate which stations spin a song when, but it will try to influence them in a complex behind-the-scenes game. One key strategy has to do with pacing a song properly, so that it doesn't peak in popularity in different regions of the country at different times, thus stifling chances of reaching No. 1.
''Part of radio promotions' job is to monitor that and say, 'We're excited about the enthusiasm, but we need you to hold back a minute, and we'll tell you when to push again, just so the rest of the country can catch up with you,' '' Dill says. ''So there's a dance that happens all the way up.''
One of Dill's partners at his firm, Refugee Management, is Norbert Nix, former head of promotions for Mercury Records during its Shania Twain heyday. Nix worked hand-in-hand with James' staff to cajole individual stations and syndicated shows. He says research was enormously helpful in making the pitch to programmers to gradually boost their spins.
''We talked to the label on a daily basis,'' Nix says. ''We'd talk about individual stations, who's playing it, who's not, what station would be the difference. We get very specific. At that point, you can pick it apart and figure out what you need to do to bring it to No. 1.''
At the label, marketing officials pored over detailed sales information that showed where copies of Burn were selling, matching up hot spots with areas where Rain was being spun heavily.
That information was passed to the promotion staff, who added those facts to their story: Rain wasn't just a ''turntable hit.'' It was driving the album toward platinum (1 million) sales.
'A jump up and down thing'
Messina and the song's writers couldn't help but watch the charts.
''Artists know that feeling,'' Messina says. ''Every Monday you get up and your stomach's in knots wondering, 'Oh God, where are we today?' ''
Montana would have the charts presented to him at his weekly staff meetings at Curb, where he had a related songwriting deal. He would pass the information along to Darling by phone or e-mail.
''I was a little disappointed with my own response,'' Montana recalls. ''I envisioned myself (saying) just 'well, whatever.' But I turned hungry to see the charts.''
James and Dill watched the charts with cold, hard strategy in mind. They knew that when the record reached the right position in the charts, they'd have to target a specific week several weeks out to go for the top of the mountain.
''You're trying to count forward to when you really need to ring the bell for a No. 1 record,'' Dill says. ''You don't want to come a week early and you don't want to come a week late.''
One key factor in those final weeks has to do with syndicated country radio shows, which air on many stations at once. Record labels arrange special ''promotions'' with those shows that typically focus on a contest. The host will say, ''When you hear Bring on the Rain, be the eighth caller and win a trip for two to see Jo Dee Messina in concert.''
Federal laws prohibit stations or shows from playing a record in exchange for cash or merchandise, but these contests, which are valuable marketing tools for the show, pass muster. Furthermore, they're arranged with the understanding that they won't replace or crowd out other ''spins'' of the song that the shows had planned.
''We can't do that every week,'' Dill says. ''Probably one a year. Maybe two. We need to time that out when we really need that extra spin or two, which will obviously have great influence when you have 70 reporting stations. That will get us 70 extra spins.''
Toward the end of February 2002, Rain was at No. 4 on the charts and No. 3 in Albright's call-out research. It had been in ''power rotation'' at most big stations for 10 weeks and on the air for more than 20. She says that's a critical stage: ''You start worrying about burnout and are you going to lose people who were early believers?''
In Albright's Feb. 28 research report, about 8% of listeners said they were tired of hearing Rain, but the majority opinion overwhelmed that number, rating the song for the first time as the favorite song in the country format.
The following week, Montana saw Rain at No. 3 ''with a bullet,'' a white oval indicating that the song was still climbing. The No. 1 song, also on the Curb label, was Good Morning Beautiful by Steve Holy, who was in his fifth week atop the chart, a stretch that almost couldn't last any longer. Yet another Curb single, Tim McGraw's The Cowboy in Me, was nipping at Rain's heels.
''I remember . . . actually entertaining the idea that it could happen,'' Montana says. He also remembers getting a call a couple days later from a friend who was friendly with Curb's staff. She reported that they were ''99.9% sure'' they would reach No. 1 on Monday.
''As reserved as I was, I felt in my heart that would be it,'' Montana says. ''I wasn't going to entertain the .01% chance it wouldn't happen. The first thing I did was call my wife.''
What he didn't know was that, behind the scenes, Curb had shifted its priorities in his favor. James called the management teams of Messina, Holy and McGraw to say he thought the label could score a hat trick — three No. 1 songs in a row, with Messina squeezed in between Holy and McGraw. Rain was in its do-or-die week.
At Refugee, Nix watched the daily charts like a political analyst reading exit polls on election day. He reported to Dill and Messina that Rain was sitting at No. 1 on Thursday and Friday.
''We had to hold it through the weekend before the chart closed to have it on Monday,'' Dill says. ''We had set the syndication right, so we knew we were going to get maximum spins that weekend, so we thought it should happen. And we woke up Monday and it did happen.''
A flurry of calls rippled through the Messina camp. Dill called Jo Dee and reached her somewhere on the road. She can't remember exactly. But she remembers the first people she shared the news with was her band. They whooped and hugged. ''It's a jump up and down thing — still,'' the artist says.
It would be long after the noise and excitement of the No. 1 party had faded that Darling and Montana would get their reward for the massive airplay Bring on the Rain received.
In between, the mechanics of BMI, the organization that actually cuts the songwriters' checks, took over (see sidebar).
By the close of 2002, Rain had become the 16th most-played country song of the year, and it had reached No. 5 on Billboard's adult-contemporary chart as well. Only rarely do country songs cross over to various pop formats, but when they do, they act like a multiplier for radio spins.
That parallel success made Rain the 44th most-played song of the year of any kind, pushing its expected airplay royalties well over the million-dollar mark.
It's not quite as good as it sounds for the songwriter. For one thing, writers can't average their income with the IRS; they jump up into the highest tax bracket the year they earn a royalty windfall and get 40% lopped off the top. It's analogous to the precarious living Montana would have faced as a farmer — one good year surrounded, potentially, by years of drought.
Moreover, songwriters with publishing deals such as Montana, earn advances from their publishers that must be recouped when royalties come in. Broadcast royalties are typically exempt from such garnishing, but it's likely that his entire share of royalties from album sales went to pay off his debt to his publisher.
Darling says conventional wisdom is that while your third hit will probably make you rich, your first probably won't. But it does impart a sense of security.
''When you've been pinching pennies all your life, and something like this happens, it allows you to sort of exhale,'' she observes. ''You play it like it's the only time it will happen. And if you (manage) it right, your kids will have a chance to go to college.
''It was a gift. You can't make it happen. Sometimes it is about how great the song is, but there are a lot of great songs sitting in a drawer somewhere that won't have that opportunity.''
Montana emphasizes that amid all the hoopla, he's concentrating on going back to the office and looking for the next idea.
''You're starting all over again,'' he says. ''And you leave the (hit) behind because you're moving onto the next thing.''
Tomorrow's another day, indeed.