Songwriting is the foundation of the music business. And as the business has changed, it has also evolved. Unlike yesteryear when one or two writers wrote a song, now it’s not uncommon to have multiple writers and publishers sharing royalties. Additionally, digital distribution and streaming services have adversely affected income. Naturally, those changes caused a shift in focus––not to mention a change of attitude––for many professional writers. To understand what it’s like to write songs for a living today, we spoke with five prominent songwriters and a publisher, who is known as “the song whisperer.”
Shelly Peiken is a multiplatinum Grammy-nominated songwriter best known for her No.1 hits “What a Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby.” She earned a Grammy nomination for the song “Bitch” recorded by Meredith Brooks. Peiken has also written for or with Britney Spears, Natasha Bedingfield, Keith Urban, Celine Dion, Cher, Reba McEntire, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, Aaliyah, Selena Gomez, Idina Menzel and Demi Lovato. Additionally, she is the author of the book Confessions of a Serial Songwriter.
You’ve been writing for decades––how has the business changed?
There are very few people pitching songs now. It’s become more self-contained, especially with so many producer-generated projects. Today, a manager might be more important than a publisher to get you where you need to be.
How many publishing deals have you had?
I was with Hit & Run for 10 years. Then I signed with Peer Music and, later, with Kobalt.
Why so many different publishers?
You need to be loved and admired. You need someone who’s really going to move your career along. And new people with a new environment can spark creativity.
What should you look for in a publisher?
Look for one that really listens and pays attention to your songs and your career. Someone who can hook you up with the right collaborators and artists. And, most important, one that collects and pays royalties in a transparent way.
What’s the most critical thing you’ve learned about songwriting?
Dare to suck… One needs to share the idea that nothing truly sucks. Even a bad idea can turn out to be wonderful.
You’re a co-founder of SONA (Songwriters of North America). What’s the purpose of that organization?
We’re trying to improve royalty rates and eliminate outdated regulations. Currently, royalties are based on antiquated laws that haven’t changed in 75 years, and never anticipated the digital world and streaming services. There’s no other profession that’s regulated like ours. Because of that, new writers can hardly survive.
How has your career changed?
It’s a different kind of machine. After the book, I still wanted to write––but only with people I enjoy. I’m also working on my one-woman show, where I’ll do a book reading and play songs.
Any advice for aspiring songwriters?
Learn how to analyze and deconstruct a song. Then if you really want to do it–do it. But, you have to believe you can do it. If there’s any question… move on. •