Bart Herbison

“We believe songwriting is a gift…”

Interview with Interview with Bart Herbison, Nashville Songwriters’ Association International (NSAI).
© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly.

On September 12th 2003 I paid a visit to the Nashville Songwriters’ Association, located on a small street between 18th and 17th Avenue. I had a meeting with its executive director Bart Herbison. He is a tall handsome and extremely intelligent guy. Also present were two young songwriters, Luke and Lindsey. It was a rainy day, with thunder and lightning, which could be heard on the tape. Inside, it was nice and cozy and the three of us had an inspiring conversation, with occasional laughs.

Bart, you are a music journalist and reporter? Tell me more about yourself and how you became the executive director of NSAI?

I’m from a little town called Paris, TN, which is 2 hours away from here. I started working on radio; I had a country, a rock and a talk show. I did that when I was 29 years old. Then I became a reporter for the “Nashville Banner” and worked on television. A candidate, from our State House of Representatives was running for governor and he won. He hired me as the deputy director of communications in the state of Tennessee. I did that for couple of years. Then, the congressman from Nashville asked for my help and I worked for him in Washington, DC. I guess I could have had a political career, but I decided not to. My loves were always for media, political process and music. And that’s what this job is! Promoting and representing original music. I’m the representative for all American songwriters in Washington.

How is it funded?

It is funded through membership and through a variety of other things: sponsorship, special events, shows, etc.

Do you have a festival?

We do. It is called “Tin Pan South”, it is in early spring every year. It pays homage to “Tin Pan Alley” writers.

Is Stephen Foster the first American songwriter?

He was the first compensated American songwriter. He was the first person that has been paid, though his sheet music and live performances. And by the way, Stephen Foster died with 39 cents in his pocket! And, we in the songwriters’ association want to change the fact, that the people who create the music are the least paid ones – the songwriters! Sad.

What does your organization do for the songwriters?

We are constantly in DC. I bring songwriters to perform in Congress. We make individual appointments in their offices, special events and groups. We have done 3000 of those performances in the past 12 years.

Do you mean, congressmen are willing to listen to them in their offices?

Yes, absolutely. It is the highlight of their day. Do you wanna have a budget or tax meeting, or do you wanna listen to a great song? (laughs)

And what happens after these showcases?

James Madison authored Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution. I paraphrase it, it says that, in order to promote progress in science and art, Congress makes grants to authors and inventors. This is the legacy of our founding fathers. And we remind members of Congress of that. How this country was formed and what their predecessors wanted for music and other creative works. But it is still a slow process. Copyright issues are not understood.

Do you work on changes in the laws that affect songwriters?

Well, we have the US Copyright Act. The first version was passed in 1909 and we are still under some elements of this law. It wasn’t aggressively updated until 1978. So many of the things we do now, is updating sections of the Copyright Act. However there are some free standing bills. I just had one introduced for songwriters this year. It is an arcane tax issue. So we do both. We amend already existing laws and we introduce some new ones.

Are you a songwriter yourself?

No. I play really bad trumpet. (laughs)

On your website, you offer lots of songwriting tools and courses? Tell me about them?

Well, we don’t believe we can teach you songwriting. It is a gift. But we can help you do it better. We can teach you the craft. We can help you with the balance of music and lyrics and teach you on the business part of the music. There are a number of services and programs offered on our website. We broadcast live on the internet and we reach in person in the office.

How do you pitch a good song?

We have a number of ways to do that. We contact people who have commercial uses for a song: publishers, record labels, artists, film and television. We present our best writers to them.
We do it in different ways: in person and electronically.

Does a songwriter need a publisher or can they publish themselves?

Typically, when they have had success already, they form their own publishing. Usually they start with a publishing deal. The three big ones at the moment are: Universal, Warner Brothers and Sony. There are about 80 000 people in Nashville who would like to get a publishing deal. There will be less than 80 who will get one!

What is the difference between publisher and record label?

The publisher works with the song. His partners are the writers. The artists record their songs. Lately, big publishers have taken on the record labels’ roles. They find the writers and the artists and make the records and then present them to the label. So the lines are a little blurred. Publishers are doing what record labels used to do. But the distinction is: the publisher is not putting the artist on tour; they are not getting the record on ITunes or Wal-Mart. The label does the distribution and promotion. However, the publishers have taken much of the creative role from the labels.

Which organizations collect royalties for the artists?

For the performers – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC; for the artists – Harry Fox Agency and Sound Exchange.

What are country music songs about?

Bart: They are about life.
Luke: They are about the truth, about things that really happen.
Lindsey: They are about love. (laughs)

What are the trends in modern country songs?

Bart: Party!
Luke: Party and girls!
Lindsey: There is a lot of redneck stuff. Pick-up trucks and mud.

What percentage is country music in the whole music mix in the US?

About a third of the music industry’s revenues come from Nashville.

Is country the folk music of the white Americans?

Every music reflects the culture where it originated. R & B was the struggle of sharecroppers and the black Americans. That’s the blues, their story. Rock end roll was born by a disaffected generation politically in the 50s and early 60s. It involved the Vietnam War and other things.

Is country a conservative music? I mean the strong religious element?

Ah, not really. There is a lot of sleeping around and drinking as well. But it has conservative view, because the proper way to say it – it is about God, guns and country. (laughs)

Why are there more male country singers on the radio?

Have a guess! Because 60% of the audience are women!

What is your relationship with the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame?

They are a sister organization. They were born from us. We were created in 1967. We opened the Hall of Fame this year. It is in the Nashville Music City Center.

How many people work in your office?

14- full time and couple of hundred – part time.

Thank you, guys. Nice talking to you!

Lilly Drumeva