Transcript from Pro Online Chat with Thom Shepherdon on April 5, 2006
Moderator: Welcome to NSAI's monthly Pro Online Chat. Tonight's guest is Mr. Thom Shepherd. Thom's numerous writing accolades include the #1 hits "Riding With Private Malone" and most recently, "Redneck Yacht Club". He's here to answer as many of your questions as possible regarding the craft and business of songwriting. We'll open the floor to questions, and then mute the chat, allowing Thom to answer.
Thom: Hello Everyone! Thanks for logging on!
Q: What brought you to Nashville? Why Nashville as opposed to another music area? Thom: Moved to Nashville in '93 after college. Worked day jobs until '98. I had my first big cut in 2001 "Riding With Private Malone". I picked Nashville because I didn't want to live in California or NY. AND because I was a huge country fan. I was totally clueless when I moved here and had zero going on. But I figured this was the place to learn how to do it the right way. And let me answer your next question for you. Yes, you need to move here. If you want to catch fish, it's handy to hang out next to the lake. And not 500 miles away from the lake.
Q: Thom, what do you do for inspiration? Are you a reader? Watch movies? Or do you gather ideas at your appointments by chatting with your co-writer? Thom: Mostly chatting with co-writers, from friends¡¦ lives. We love it when a friend gets divorced because we come up with lots of ideas. I'm always listening for clever phrases that could be turned into songs.
Q: When a published writer co-writes with a non-published writer, what happens when the song gets recorded, as far as money and rights are concerned? Thom: Here is the answer. The non-published writer makes twice as much money. This is a good thing. ƒº The non-published writer keeps their rights, which they can sell later or parlay into a publishing deal.
Q: How did Private Malone come about? Thom: Let's see...this is kind of a long story. I was working a day job and I had always wanted to write a song about a car. I guess, let me back up for a second. My former publisher told me to write about something that you care about. Don't worry about trying to write a hit song, write what you care about. I had heard the story of people finding cars for sale really cheap in barns, etc. from families who posted ads in the paper. I always hoped that one day I'd find one myself. But after the guy buys the car, where does the story go from there? So one day when I sat down to come up with an idea, I remembered a story I'd heard about a guy who bought a car and thought it was haunted. And then I thought, what if the guy bought a used car from a barn AND it was a haunted car. And one version of that story I'd heard of the car for sale was that it was a soldier who had died in Vietnam and his mother didn't want to sell the car. But finally after all of these years she decides to finally let the car go for cheap.
Q: Hi Thom. Curious how you got your first song to a legit artist? Thom: I wrote the song with Wood Newton and he was producing David Ball at the time. And it was a real last minute thing. His record was finished and they weren't even looking for songs. But when he heard it, he said that he had to cut it.
Q: When you sit down to write a song like Private Malone do you work on the story first just writing words and not worrying about meter and rhyme or do you get a musical idea then write the story¡Kthen later edit the lyric to get it right? Thom: I always like to have a story kind of mapped out. I like to know where I'm going before I get started, but sometimes you don't. Like with "Malone" I had the idea, but we didn't know how to end it. All I knew it that we had to have a big finish.
Q: Simple question Thom... how do you write a hit song? Thom: Write about what you care about and don't worry if anyone's gonna like it. Both "Private Malone" and "Redneck Yacht Club" were both ideas I didn't think would get played on the radio, because a lot of stuff I really like don¡¦t make it to radio. Like album cuts.
Q: Most people think that all anyone needs is one hit song, and then they'll b be set for life. Can you speak to why that is not the case? And how the process of getting paid for your song goes? Thom: It doesn't set you for life. It's great money from radio airplay, but you'd be surprised at how quickly you spend it. My family got out of debt, bought a couple cars. Lived on it for a couple of years...next thing you know, you need another hit song!
Q: I was talking with Hugh Prestwood and he said he like to get the basics of the story on paper...just prose...no editor invited...then tighten up the lyric later. How did you arrive at the musical idea for "Malone"? Do you just play around with chord progressions trying to map the music to the lyric? Thom: I actually plagiarized myself. I had started another song with the same melody, but the song was about a musician's wife and I didn't know if that would appeal to the masses...so I never finished it, but I ended up using the melody for "Private Malone." That song breaks the rules a lot because the verse sections and the chords aren't the same each time. But you don't notice because the story keeps you involved.
Q: Redneck Yacht Club¡Kwhere did the title idea come from? Great song!!! Thom: My co-writer Steve Williams. He hangs out a lot at Elm Hill Marina...AND I have too. We have friends that have boats there and we always end up playing songs down there and drinking lots of free beer. When Steve first told me the idea I thought...nay...there hadn't been any redneck song out in a while when we wrote it. This was a year before "Redneck Woman".
Q: Do you think humor...with tempo...helps a new writer as opposed to ballads? Thom: I think humor gets people's attention, but only if it's really good. It's easy to make people laugh; it's hard to tell if you are reaching them with a ballad sometimes. I think mainly a great song is what's gonna get people's attention¡Kwhether it's funny or not.
Q: Do you think country radio today is hostile toward offbeat songs? Some of the hits from the past sure didn't follow the form that's most suggested now. Thom: I don't think so. Look at "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk". That's about as off beat as you can get.
Q: Thom I notice you gig a lot, I saw you play at The Legends Corner Bar in Nashville a couple of trips ago. Have you ever had any songs cut because of your live performances? And are you seeking a solo career? Thom: Yes I am seeking a solo career. And yes, I got a Blake Shelton cut from playing a song at a gig. However, it didn't make the final album. It's kind of ironic because the song is called, "Life Ain't Fair".
Q: What do you think is more important, melody or lyrics? What's your favorite way to write? How do you go about figuring out a chord progression that will go with a melody in your head? Thom: I always start with the idea and a lot of times the idea will tell you where the music needs to go...tempo wise and so forth. The best way to get ideas is just talking to your co-writer or just thinking about things that happened to you in the past. Or just thinking about things that matter to you that you want to say. Always remember the "Who Cares" Factor. Sure it matters to me, but is anyone else gonna give a damn.
Q: Did you think Private Malone was a universal theme when you wrote it? Thom: I thought I was the only one who would care about "Private Malone", but I wrote it anyway because it really mattered to me.
Q: So Private Malone was one you didn't think would get cut and "Redneck Yacht Club" you probably felt had more appeal? Thom: Not necessarily with Redneck Yacht Club. I thought our friends would like it, but didn't know if radio would. But I found if it matters to me and my friends, it matters to a lot of people. And I've come to find out that there are Redneck Yacht Clubs EVERYWHERE. And don't forget to visit RedneckYachtClub.com for all of your t-shirt and ball cap needs :) Summers Comin'!
Q: Do you always co-write? Thom: Yes, pretty much. Mainly because I'm not disciplined enough to write by myself. If a co-writer cancels, I usually end up doing my catch-up work (answering e-mails, trying to book gigs, making CDs to pitch), which is all an important part to of being a writer. And I always put that on the back burner. Meaning, what I call the "homework" stuff, or the maintenance stuff.
Q: How often do you write? Is it usually at home or writing room? What's your schedule like as far as hours writing in a given week? Will you have several co-write appointments in a day? Thom: I write pretty much Monday - Friday, usually on Music Row. Not so much at home because I have two little kids.
Q: Do you think it would be beneficial for a publishing company to allow their staff writers to co-write a song with an unpublished writer if they thought that particular song could be a hit? Thom: Yes, definitely. It happens all of the time. Some may worry about paying for the demo, but if you can't afford to pay for a demo, then how serious really are you about your career.
Q: How often do your kids affect your ideas for writing, or shall I ask what are most common influences? Thom: My kids have inspired a couple songs, or lines in some songs. I've been mostly inspired by people watching. My former publisher inspired two drinking songs.
Q: I have noticed you are being played on XM Radio a lot through the America Channel, it great to hear that artist like yourself being played. How did you get them to grab on to your stuff? Thom: I had heard of a show on XM called Music From Across America were they played independent artists stuff. So I sent them a CD and they really liked it. I've even been on there live in studio in D.C. and this summer I'm gonna do an hour-long live concert on XM. Which I think is huge for someone who doesn't have a record deal. It makes me feel like I'm doing something right, that the people at XM are giving me an hour of coast-to-coast airtime.
Q: Do you split demo costs with your co-writers? What is the demo price and are there any demo studios in Nashville you could recommend? I use County Q currently and it's around $750 for a full demo. Thom: I just did a session at County Q and they have the best sounding demos. Yeah, I do split demo cost with my co-writers. Demos cost anywhere from $75 to $1200. Although my budget at Sony is $800, so if it's a co-write, I can only spend $400 on my part. Sometimes if it's a song that I really believe in and my co-writer is broke, I'll pay the whole thing if I can.
Q: How long have you been writing overall, and how long with a publisher? Thom: I am on my fourth publishing deal. First one was '98-2000. Got one small Gospel cut, had to go back to a day job. When "Private Malone" happened I didn't have a deal and I signed with a fly-by-night company who went out of business in 6 months. Then I signed with Mosaic in '03. They let me go in '05, surprisingly right before "Redneck Yacht Club" came out. And then I signed with Sony in November'05.
Q: Where did you grow up? Where there musical or artistic influences in your family roots? Thom: Born in St. Louis. My mom's family used to come over and play music in our basement and her uncle played steel guitar. I remember falling asleep in my room and hearing it through the floor as a little kid. My Dad picked up guitar when I was in Elementary School and I always had a guitar in my room, but never learned to play it until I was a Senior in High School.
Q: What type of music did you grow up around? Thom: It was a lot of Glenn Campbell until the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack came out. But we listened to a lot of different things. My first concert was the Charlie Daniels Band in 1980. I was eleven and I wondered when I went to the show what all of the hippies were doing there since it was a country show.
Q: Did your P.R.O help in placing you with your publisher? Thom: No, I'm a member of ASCAP and while they have set me up with a meeting or two, I've always gotten them on my own. Actually, I think ASCAP told me that I ought to talk to Sony, but I did the legwork.
Q: Did you hit the pavement and walk into the publisher to get your deal? Thom: Actually my first publishing deal I got through a friend. This guy who played the gig after mine and he was really the last guy I thought could get me a publishing deal because he was older and didn't have anything going on. But he was a friend of a woman who wrote for a publishing company and he passed my tape on to her. That's how long ago it was...it was a cassette tape. Actually, it was 1996. Most places I've gotten deals was because of referral or because I knew someone who worked there. But when I signed at Mosaic I didn't really know anyone there, they just seemed like a happening publisher so my friend, Mike Sistad, from ASCAP, introduced me to one of their people. And I set up a meeting.
Q: Were you snubbed or ¡§hi-hatted¡¨ by pro writers while you were still trying to work your way up. Did they consider you a ¡§gherm¡¨ for trying to get close to them? Thom: Sort of...I always wanted why hit writers were so guarded. And now I understand, you only have so much time to write and you can't write with everybody. And honestly I want to write with people that I think can help get songs cut. I rarely write with out-of-towners because of that reason. They are not here all of the time working the song (i.e. ¡V trying to get the song recorded).
Q: Do you recommend using any tip sheet/services? I know that Music Row has Row Fax. Can you recommend any? Watching your answers it seems obvious as to why you have to know someone who knows some and live in Nashville! Thom: Yeah, they are good to find out who's looking, but I have rarely gotten a song cut by giving it to an A&R department or label. Most of the luck I have had has been giving the song to the artist or producer. That doesn't mean hang out by their bus and give it to them at the show. Actually, that's how we got Redneck Yacht Club to Craig. BUT we had an "IN". My friend Steve was playing keyboards on the road with Sherrie Austin. She was touring with Craig.
Q: Should you always be armed with your written material on hand for short notice introductions?Thom: Well, you should always be prepared. But each case is different. Most artists are afraid they'll get sued if they take a tape from you on the road. If you are ASKED for material, great! If not, don¡¦t bring it up. And please, please, PLEASE never walk up to a pro writer you don¡¦t know and ask them to write sometime. That¡¦s just poor etiquette, and it makes you look bad.
Q: So, is it what you write? Or who you know? Thom: Both. You can know everyone in the world, but if you don¡¦t have good songs, it won¡¦t make a difference. At the same time, if you have great songs, but haven¡¦t worked at meeting people and networking to find people who can help you, those songs aren¡¦t going to go anywhere.
Q: My last question...I have a song plugger and I have had a lot of takes but no "holds" yet. I live out of town but make frequent trips to Nashville. Do you think the artist looks at the writer and goes by that name they have seen many times or the best song? Thom: If the people that you are pitching to THINK you are living here, sometimes it helps. Bottom line is, if it's a great song, something will happen to it. But I think people maybe avoid the out-of-towners because they don't think they are as experienced or as serious about what they are doing as much as someone who has lived here a while. And I also want to clarify that it doesn't mean that your songs aren't as competitive, it's just kind of the nature of the business.
Q: Do you do any home recording, with all the advances in computer gear? Thom: Yes, I have an M-Box (with PRO Tools). I also use Cakewalk and a cheap microphone attached to my laptop when I'm writing (but not for demos, just work tapes). Sometimes I'll use the MBox to make a better work tape or to put vocals on tracks previously recorded at a demo studio.
Q: Isn't it the publishers job to get the song recorded? Thom: Ideally, but writers do an awful lot of work to get his/her own song cut. You're being foolish if you don't take a concerned role in trying to get your song cut.
Q: How much artistic control of demos do you have with Sony? Are all musicians and vocals hired? Or do you do your share? Thom: I have total creative control. Sometimes my plugger will have some input.
Q: So unless you know someone or someone who knows someone how do you get your song heard? Sorry if I am repeating a question. Thom: Knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone is called networking. And it's key to getting a song cut. That is true for any business. I always like to say, "The plumber who hands out the most business cards, gets the most work."
Q: What is the "best advice" you would give? Thom: They say that success is when preparation meets opportunity and that's true. Keep your head down and do the work and don't worry about writing with a hit songwriter. Just write the best song that you can and do what you can to get it cut. Persistence is the key. I know that's not what you want to hear, but that's what heard for years. There are a million ways to get a song cut; you just have to figure out what's your way. Who do you know? Who is the someone who knows someone who knows you? Don¡¦t force anything, just don't give up.
Moderator: Thanks so much everyone. Remember that the PRO ONLINE CHAT happens the first wed of every month. Look for the transcript of this and other chats chat on the members only site!