A Muse's Muse Interview with Journalist & Performing Songwriter, Mark Smeby
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Question: How did you first start writing songs? Who were your early influences and why?
I'd had a burning desire to write songs my whole life, solely because I loved the impact that music had on me. Music was "otherworldly" and had a way of expressing feelings that couldn't find words. I never thought I'd be able to write a song, or at least a half-way decent one. Until one day when I got asked to sing at church, and with a time frame of a week I had to come up with a song. I decided this would be the proper pressure that I needed to force myself to actually write a song to perform. I was living in my grandparent's condo at the time (they were in Florida for the winter), and began writing the song on the back of an envelope, just as the fire alarm for the building was going off. I was scampering up and down the halls trying to calm all the elderly residents that didn't know what to do! There I was with pen and paper all the while. The lesson here: I need pressure to write! First song: "It's Your Love"
Early influences: Michael W. Smith, Billy Joel, Kathy Troccoli, Barry Manilow, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Captain & Tennille (can I say that?) I loved the piano-based ballads that were so expressive and dramatic. Their music communicated simply, without too many bells & whistles.
Question: How did you get involved in the music industry to begin with?
In 1993, I packed up my tiny car and drove from Minneapolis to Nashville to "get involved" in the music industry down here. I knew I had a place to stay, but other than that, I had no clue what a "wannabe" was, or how to really be a good one, which I'm sure I wanted to do. I knew one person who took me to lunch and encouraged me. She knew about my demo tape and still liked me! Her husband ran a non-profit association that worked heavily within the industry, and they needed a director of membership. So, after delivering pizzas to bad neighborhoods and maxing my credit cards, I took this "real job." I had no clue that it would thrust me smack dab into the middle of the inner-workings of the Nashville music scene. I learned quickly that it's best not to expose my true "wannabe" nature.
Question: Tell me a little bit more about this job you took as the director of membership for the non-profit association. How did it get you involved in things? And where did that lead you?
As the Director of Membership for the Gospel Music Association I spent a lot of my time on customer service issues, data entry stuff...nothing too glamorous. I was, though, forced onto committees and into meetings with all of the leaders in the Christian music industry. As with anything, the industry is all about relationships. I can't say that I became friends with all the industry leaders, but I did get to see how they operate and treat people. I left the GMA after a year since I didn't move to town to sit behind a computer. A friend who was an editor of a great magazine asked me if I would be interested in writing some for them. I didn't think I knew how to do what she wanted, but I gave it a try. That led into a full-time gig as a freelance writer for the next five years. I kept busy writing reviews and feature stories for a bunch of magazines, as well as writing promo materials, liner notes, bios, etc. for local record companies. I even wrote speeches for some of the label heads that I had been in some of the earlier mentioned meetings with. I'm not sure if they knew it was my writing they were reading! Life's funny that way. For the past nearly two years, I've been working as the Senior Editor of the Music Channel at crosswalk.com, the largest lifestyle site on the web for Christians. All through this time, I've been playing out in coffeehouses and churches, writing, recording, even pitching myself as an artist.
Question: So you've seen a lot of the industry from the inside looking out - a perspective not many songwriters have had the chance to experience. Considering that experience, have you ever tried to explain the music industry to aspiring songwriters? What do you usually tell them about it to keep them from getting discouraged and/or confused?
That's a great question and a real passion area for me. People come to this town to make their dreams come true. That usually means that they are making a lot of their decisions based on their feelings - whether it's about the quality of their songs or their talent, or even about what "success" might mean to them. I think it's SO important to view Nashville as a place where business comes first. If you are wanting to sing...SING! If you want to write songs...WRITE! And do these things wherever you are. But if you want to find acceptance and affirmation from people in Nashville you have to be able to do what they think will make them money. That means working on your craft and your talent - not just relying upon your feelings...or your good heart to win through. Artists and songwriters don't get signed because they are nice people. They get signed because someone thinks they can make some money off of that person's abilities. It's so easy to get wrapped up in what people think about you. Figure out first who you are, what you believe in, what you want to stand for, what you want to accomplish... Learn how to like yourself and it won't matter so much if other people like you or not. As you are able to steer your efforts and focus your dreams, other people will be more apt to catch a vision for your talents, than if you showed up at their door with just a huge desire to be a songwriter or artist.
Question: By the "business" of the industry, what is it you mean exactly? What should an aspiring songwriter be doing, business-wise to make sure they see some success?
OK...this is the $100,000 question. If it were as easy as giving an answer to this question, I'm sure I'd be a very popular person. But what I am referring to when I talk about the "business" of the industry, is that sometimes it's easy for artists & writers to feel a "calling"...a force greater than themselves pulling them in the direction of doing music. Unfortunately, this doesn't always mean that a person is supposed to move to Nashville to fulfill this "calling." To be successful in any industry, you have to meet a need that presents itself. The need in Nashville is for great songs and great artists. While the word "great" is extremely intangible, the best way to figure out what Nashville considers great is to look at what they're signing and publishing. If you want to get a publishing deal, study the songs that are getting cut and write songs like them. Make it as easy for the publisher and labels as possible. They generally don't want to take the time to figure out whether something or someone is going to be great, they want to be able to see it right away. To me, this means eliminate all opportunities for rejection. Why do songs not get published? Why do artists not get signed? If labels are signing artists that are under 200 lbs. (kilos?), and you're over 200 lbs., try to get under 200 lbs. If you listen to the radio and hear that songs go verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus - don't pitch songs that have four verses. This doesn't mean that you can't write songs with four verses, or that you can't be successful if you weigh over 200 lbs. It just means that if you're interested in playing the Nashville game, you need to look at the rules of their game and play by them -- regardless of how inane or superficial it all seems. If you don't want to play by Nashville rules, but still hope to succeed within the Nashville system, you're destined for disappointment.
Question: In that same vein Mark, do you know of any particularly good reading materials, seminars or support groups to help an aspiring songwriter with such things, even if they're not aspiring to make it in Nashville, specifically? The business of the industry is a tough one for a lot of creative individuals to get their heads around and any help you can offer in this area would likely be very appreciated.
Listen to the radio - buy CDs - go to concerts. See what people are doing and copy it, adding your own personal flair or insight to it. A great place to start might be the Country Music Association (http://www.cmaworld.com/), the Gospel Music Association (http://www.gospelmusic.org/), and NARAS (http://www.grammy.org/), in Nashville - they are set up for this and should have plenty of access to resources in these areas.
Question: Have you seen any particular success stories that illustrate your point? Could you tell us how they came about? What the person did right - what their initial setbacks were?
I wish I could say that I have a whole list of people who are success stories along these lines. I have talked to so many people about this stuff - people outside of Nashville who want to move here, as well as people in town. My goal with them is to help them get some kind of perspective on their dreams, and how seeking the fulfillment of their oftentimes good-intentioned dreams can only be blurred by wanting to jump into the pool of the Nashville music business. Is it a success when one of those people doesn't move to Nashville? Hopefully, if it means that they have found greater peace and joy where they're at. But if they do move to town, I hope it means that we can have greater dialogue together on how to go after what you truly want for your life, beyond just seeking industry acceptance. I would say that I'm a success story - is that fair? I really feel that my change in perspective has been God-given and has freed me up to dream realistically and find success in what I'm doing right now -- freeing me up to pursue business opportunities apart from my need for acceptance from others. Sure, it's still easy to get down when the business opportunities don't seem to be close by, but it has less to do with who I am as a person and my abilities, and more about what the business climate is at this time -- a climate that changes with the wind, thankfully.
Question: What's coming up for you, musically? What would you like to see happen for you in the future, given your realistic goals?
Musically I'm having a blast right now. I'm singing a ton at my church - we're a pretty progressive rock and roll church - we even use in-ear monitors! I'm even leading a band for a Sunday night Nashville singles service. I'm writing a ton with friends, as well as by myself, and am set to begin work on an artist demo with a super hot producer here in town. My goal is to make something that I'm totally excited about - something that captures me - and view that as my success rather than what some A&R guy says. Although if one of them likes it, I'd love to sign a deal and record a whole project, tour, promote, etc. If that doesn't happen, I'll most likely record a project independently (meaning: self-financed) and pursue a publishing deal. I'll continue seeking opportunities to sing and write - hopefully using my journalism writing skills to keep paying the mortgage! Thankfully my life is pretty full right now, I'm able to dream big, yet enjoy today to its fullest. That's been my goal for several years, it's nice to realize that I've finally attained it.
Mark Smeby brings his background as a creative writer to the musical scene with a mature approach to the current pop music rage. He's traveled throughout the world performing his own music, as well as singing and dancing with various groups. After moving to Nashville from Minneapolis in 1993, Mark has made his living as a professional writer in the music industry -- writing for dozens of magazines and record companies -- writing feature stories, album reviews, liner notes, and even speeches for record company presidents. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can download 'Rest In His Love' (written by Mark, Tedd T. and Aimee Monaghan) at: http://tm.intervu.net/s2/croswalk/mp3/restinhislove.mp3.