The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. And everybody’s innocent. But I feel bad about stealing from the Facebook page of someone I don’t know, without permission. He’s a fellow musical theatre writer who’s just gotten some really good news, so I hope he’s in a mood to forgive the invasion of privacy.
I’ll call him Danny but our story begins with an earnest musical theatre performance student I’ll call Rick. Rick asked me to suggest a song he could perform in his Final Year Industry Showcase and I told him about a quirky number, written by Danny. All agreed it was a perfect match of performer to material and Rick diligently began his investigation of the lyric’s meaning. One of the advantages of attending school in New York – where so many songwriters live – is that you can invite them to performances of their songs and they might actually come. In fact, Danny had, a few years earlier, attended a cabaret where two of his songs were done. So Rick and his classmates were encouraged to contact the authors of their numbers.
Rick’s the kind of young man who was raised to ask questions. Why assume anything, or let a bit of confusion persist, if there’s someone available to answer queries? So, when he wrote to Danny, he asked for guidance understanding the lyric. He also felt honor-bound to report that Rick’s massively-long song was being trimmed to roughly three minutes. Such is a common requirement of industry showcases. Professionals have come to see you and sixteen other aspirants; they don’t want to sit there forever. In this case, we all agreed to be severe in limiting everyone’s time on stage, so the night would not outwear its welcome.
Danny was surprised by Rick’s e-mail, on three levels. First, he’d never heard of Rick, and had no idea that he’d be performing his song. Second was Rick’s interpretive questions, on issues that seemed obvious to Danny. And then there’s the cutting affront of knowing your song has been tailored to less than half its length. By someone you do not know. (OK, I’ll name the guilty party: It was me.)
What to do? How to respond? Danny decided to consult his friends via Facebook.
Hey fellow theatre songwriters: when a college student you’ve never heard from before contacts you saying he’s singing a “three-minute cut” of one of your songs at an upcoming industry showcase (and you are certain he didn’t get said sheet music from you directly) and asks for a whole bunch of detailed advice, lyrical clarifications, and basically interpretation coaching, is it in bad taste to say, “Um, yes, but pay me first”? It’s not that I need the ten bucks. (Although.) It’s the principle of the thing. How would you approach this? Should I just be glad my stuff is getting out there? Do I go all JRB on his ass? Please advise.
To “Go all JRB on his ass” is a reference to the time popular songsmith Jason Robert Brown caustically admonished a teen looking for a free copy of one of his songs, a set of back-and-forth e-mails he eventually published on his website as a wake-up call to all the young people who might share copies of his songs with their friends without paying him. Brown earns a lot of money from his writing; Danny earns next-to-nothing.
Danny commented on his own post- (Oh, and I’ve never made — as in, prepared myself — a three-minute cut of this or any song. Not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t, but I did hear this song done in an abbreviated form by another student once, and it sounded awkwardly and sort of arbitrarily cut. To me.)
Then came responses: Lucy– I think you should say, “I’m glad to offer any advice necessary to folks who purchase music directly from me. If you have, great. If you would like to purchase it, here’s a link.”
Mary– I’ve had students contact me for sheet music (since I haven’t gotten it together to have an e-commerce page) – I don’t mind giving tips, although I have never encountered the exact situation you’re describing. What I would do is this: if you don’t mind him singing the song, then answer the questions as best you can, and then say: in the future, you will build better relationships with writers such as myself if you buy from us (or from wherever we have our music being sold etc). Phrase it however you want – don’t quash his enthusiasm first – redirect it and make him your ally. If you feel he’s gone over the line, you could say, I know I can’t physically prevent you from singing the song, but I’d prefer you didn’t and here’s why… Do you have a place you sell the song? Because if so, Lucy’s advice is probably simplest.
Danny– Hi Mary (and all) — currently, emailing me with a request is the only official source for my tunes. I don’t mind him singing the song at all. I do want him to be more aware of the professional aspect of the relationship he’s assuming.
Danny– Thanks, all of you. Here’s what I said: “Hi Rick,
Thanks for writing! Glad to hear the song I wrote has made its way to you, and that you’ve chosen to perform it your industry showcase — no doubt, an important event in your development as a professional performer.
FYI, I’m always happy to provide advice and responses to questions about songs to anyone who’s purchased music directly from me. As far as I know, I’m the only direct source for my sheet music at this point. Since I don’t think I’ve heard from you until now, my assumption is you got a copy of the music from someone else — maybe a fellow or former student, or maybe an instructor? However you got it, that’s fine, and like I said, I’m very glad you’re singing it as part of what you might consider an important professional audition. At the same time, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my own efforts to make this MY profession, and not just a time-consuming and enjoyable hobby. I generally ask for $10 a song, which you can send via Paypal (my account name is firstname.lastname@example.org ) or check (let me know and I’ll send you my mailing address.)
Ash– The conversation I would have with myself would be not so much the about the immediate value of “getting my stuff out there” in front of audiences as much as about the value of having advocates for my work. In the current media environment in which media is either free and/or instantly accessible on demand, the $10 for the sheet music is a vestige of an obsolete world. Now, that said, charging for lessons/coaching sessions is still perfectly viable.
Mary– Very well worded response. It’s like … you’re a writer or something. Like, a *professional.*
Danny– Thanks. I sent it, and then on second thought sent him another email answering his questions. Basically separating the issues and still giving him the option to be a mensch.
Lucy– Dude, if he wants a coaching, he should hire someone to do so. My rates are between $60-80/hour, and if he wants you to coach him on your material or any other material, you should charge at least the same!
Danny’s desire to school Rick about the “professional relationship” between singers and songwriters is certainly akin to Jason Robert Brown’s massive schooling of a far younger performer. But at least this was temperate and free of snark; he communicated in an un-pissed way and with admirable honesty. I admire Danny’s consulting scribes like him about how to respond. Rick was a little taken aback by Danny’s communiqué and questioned whether he should have asked so many questions, or mentioned the cut. But, when you think about it, Rick doesn’t need Danny; Danny doesn’t need Rick. That professional relationship, ultimately, is of little value.
Songwriters are in a tough financial bind. Very few derive significant income from selling their songs. It’s extremely common for copies to be made, and the Ricks of the world feel no obligation to look up authors and pay some fee when their musical director suggests running to the school’s library to get a copy of a song. It’s possible, though, that Rick asked too many questions, so that a writer feels a little beleaguered, doing so much (answering, allowing a cut to be performed) for free. I’d suggest that Danny’s better course of action would be to just clear up all the interpretive stuff, ask for no money, be glad his song is being done somewhere (even in a truncated form) – all with the goal of merely being a good citizen of the world.
This whole exchange happened well over a year ago, and, today, Danny has made an enviable amount off songwriting. And I hope Rick feels a little pride about performing a song long before the rest of our community discovered it.