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How to get a running start in Nashville

By Mitch Ballard

At least once a day, I receive either an e-mail from our web site, or a phone call from a writer planning to move to town.

Finding a place to start in Nashville can be confusing. First of all, you’re in probably the most intimidating town in the world for songwriters. No other place has as many songwriters and places so much emphasis on the song. Second, there’s no guide they give you when you move to town that says: ‘First do this, then do this, etc…’. A step by step guide to making it in the music business is not available on the newsstands here in Music City U.S.A. Plus, there’s no real ONE single way to make it in the business. However, there are some very common denominators.

When you get here (whether you are just visiting, or if you’re moving here, it all applies) get the local paper (The Tennessean) or a copy of The Nashville Scene weekly paper. You can find a Scene practically everywhere in this town. If you can’t find one, just ask and you’ll get pointed in the right direction. Check out all of the writer’s nights, and other performances taking place. There is enough music in this town to keep you busy seven nights a week. Which, by the way, brings me to my next point. You have to get out at least four or five nights a week. No one comes knocking on your door and says ‘I hear you’re new to town and you write songs. Play me some.’ That’s not going to happen. One of the most important principles of this business is networking. You will find that doors open a lot faster, and you make the right connections by going to every possible music function. Make sure you know who the names of the successful writers. They play live all the time in town. You will find that more established industry people will be attending these shows.

I moved to town September 2, 1992 and did not know one single person in Nashville. It’s kind of strange when you first go out by yourself. But, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to anyone. You never know who you might meet. I got to know people like Wade Hayes, Bryan White, Danni Leigh, David Kersh, and was at least introduced to most every new artist currently on the radio. However, one of the most important was meeting Jerry Cupit 5 years ago. Jerry and I became very good friends and started hanging out together and writing together. A year and a half ago, he asked me to work for him. You never know where a new relationship will lead. I have a certain circle of my ‘best’ friends here in town. It started out as a couple of us, and it’s now about a dozen. When we all started hanging out together, none of us had anything going on in the business. Since then, out of the dozen, 5 have gotten songs cut, one got a record deal, and another is directing music videos for major label artists.

Get involved with some organizations. The Nashville Songwriters Association International is a great place to start. Not only do they have services for writers (tape copy rooms, guitar/vocal demo rooms, music book library, and more), they also have workshops, critique sessions, and song camps. You can get advice straight from successful writers through NSAI.

Find time to write every single day. Don’t expect to come to town with 15 songs under your belt and get taken very seriously. Hone your craft by writing every day, listening to suggestions from workshops, and apply principles learned from other writers and industry professionals.

Visit ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. All three are performance rights organizations that have writer’s relations departments. They will listen to songs, point you in the right direction, and make career suggestions. In some cases, if they think your songs are really good, they will personally make phone calls to publishers and set up meetings for you or tell the publisher that you will be calling them for an appointment. Big doors can be opened by these groups, if your songs are ready. Song workshops and seminars are also offered through these organizations as well.

Read every industry magazine (NSAI has them in their library) and keep up with what’s going on around town. You have to know the market. You can’t compete if you don’t know the game. Know all of the artists, all of the songwriters, all of the record labels, all of the producers, and all of the publishing company names. Music Row magazine puts out special editions once a year. These special editions include a publishers special, who’s in charge issue, and studio issue. Read every one.

Finding the right road to take is not an easy process. However, if you follow these basic guidelines, you will find it a lot easier to get things done. It can be a (actually it IS) a very frustrating business. Be ready to hear ‘No’ a lot. If you’re not ready to hear ‘No’ and ‘Your songs need some work’, you’re not ready to be here. You will get as much out of this business as you put in. It sometimes takes several years to get the ball rolling. But, one of the best feelings is to hear one of your friend’s songs on the radio (I haven’t had one cut yet) or see them on T.V. and seeing first hand where determination and perseverance can take you. I mentioned my circle of friends earlier. We have seen some great things happen. And there’s more to come. But, we have also seen a few move back home. Be prepared when you get here. Be ready to go out almost every night, write songs, and find time to work as well. Yes, WORK. Don’t expect to come to town and make it in six months. Get a job, get settled down, and be ready for the long haul. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet you out one night!!!

Mitch Ballard

Mitch Ballard moved to Nashville, TN in 1992 after graduating from the University of North Texas. Previously an on-air talent in radio and television in his native Texas, Mitch spent the next 16 years in the music business tour managing major national...


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