My Path to my first Publishing Deal
It’s 1:30am and I'm standing outside of my apartment door with a heavy keyboard in one hand, sound system in the other hand, keys in the…oh wait…I have to put this stuff down first and then fiddle around in my purse for a while. The neighbors are outside in the courtyard having a ball, drinking, blasting some sweet 80s and smoking cigarettes; just as I left them (well almost just as I left them) at 4pm when I left for my gig. I finally find my keys between all the crap in my purse and the $50 bill that I earned tonight. I go inside and just leave all the junk in the doorway to deal with tomorrow; I’m a bit over carrying things at this time of the night. My sound system usually takes two trips (or one really masochistic one) to load in. Tonight was particularly fun; up and down 3 flights of stairs (thanks broken elevator) across a sky bridge, through a winding little passage of the kitchen and onto the ‘stage area‘: aka a designated floor space where people can come to get wasted and dance on a Tuesday night, judgment-free.
my head hits the pillow and my sore back can have a rest. (Until tomorrow night). The few minutes before I fall asleep I play a somewhat recent and all too familiar game of war with myself;
“how long am I going to have to keep playing these crappy gigs for little money? Well at least I’m doing what I love right?........Right? … How about that guy at the end that said, (not kidding) that I really should just reach out to people like Adam Levine that help discover struggling artists and stop wasting my time playing crappy venues. I’m sure he probably meant well. I should’ve asked him if he had Adam’s number. OR… how about this…the success-hotline number! I could just call and say ‘Hi yes, I’d like one order of success and one order of fame please…’ and just put however much that costs on a credit card.” Sigh.
I need to sleep. And I need to just be thankful that for a moment when I was playing tonight, someone, through the bar noise, was listening to my original song “Don’t Cry for Money” and really looking like they cared. Thanks, you.
For the sake of brevity, I will just say that; this is one night. Over the last 3 years I’ve played probably 200 shows a year. Sometimes I came home simply overjoyed because I made a ton of money and sometimes the audience was just so amazing that it didn’t matter and then of course there have been a handful of times where BOTH of those things happened and it was just heavenly. But this is the true story beyond the Facebook posts and the appearances. A very real part of this true story is the fact that I’ve cried many times while driving home after a gig. Or least waited till I got home to cry so that Evan could try to find a way to reassure me that it was all worth something. Sure the gigs were strenuous at times and people didn’t listen, but that’s not really what drove me to tears. Lurking in the depths of my spirit was an undeniable truth trying to come to the surface; a little voice dying to be heard saying; I don’t want to be a touring artist anymore. I had committed to this destiny since I was a kid, so I somehow felt like I would be giving up if I wasn’t pursuing being a famous artist. Let me be clear, it’s not that I don’t love performing; it’s just that I’m not sure I love it enough to handle everything that comes with it. I imagined myself getting all of the things I thought I wanted a few years ago; the record deal, the tour bus, the 9am Good morning America followed by a photo shoot followed by a performance in the Macy’s Day Parade and to be honest, I think that sounds AMAZING…for a week. Maybe. I know so many people for whom that sounds like the perfect lifestyle…people that either don’t really want to have a normal life and a family or people that do want that but are way better at managing it than I am. The depth to which you have to want those things has to be immeasurable to be as well-known as I would've wanted to be. It wasn’t doing much for me to be driven for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted. I have a different kind of drive; the drive to write and write and write again. The drive to pitch a song to several artists and get turned down but to just carry on until someone records it; the drive to network with different writers and co-write with hundreds of strangers and to love every part of it. I’ve told some of my artist friends this and they think that sounds kind of terrible…having to just write songs all day and not get to perform them? This is the power of the saying ‘do what you love and the money will come’. It is NO coincidence that my friends that love performing and non-stop touring have had more success than I have in finding booking agents, labels and help along the way. I felt that, for years, I was knocking down doors and getting very quiet responses. I also think it is no coincidence that I really love the act of songwriting (and all the bad parts that come with it) and have managed to get a publishing deal that will allow me to write and get paid for it. Say WHAAAAAT?!!
So what is Publishing exactly? For my non-industry friends; a publisher is the middle man between the songwriter(s) and those who will release the song (either a recording artist or film/TV). I started hearing about these companies (mostly Nashville based) that actually pay writers a yearly salary, essentially, to write. These writers are often referred to as Staff Writers. In my opinion, they have the damn coolest job in the world. They go to the grocery store without being hassled by the press, they play intimate shows when they want to and they turn on the radio to hear Taylor Swift singing a song they wrote. Ever heard of Liz Rose? Probably not…but you’ve heard her vicarious voice on the radio many many times before. Her songs have been recorded by Taylor Swift, Jewel, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Blake Shelton and OH YES, she was one of the writers on “Girl Crush”; the song that won a 2016 Grammy for Best Country Song. She also has two other Grammys- no big deal. Point is; she is the badass that will pass you on the street without you even knowing it. And that is my dream.
Lets rewind to last September. I came to Nashville to do some writing sessions; I set a lot of them up by emailing countless people I knew (and some I didn’t know but discovered through hours of online research) and also got a little help from a great guy at Merrill Artist Group who introduced me to some great writers. This trip was great; I got to write with super talented people and the main purpose of this trip was to prove to myself that 1.) I could co-write with strangers and 2.) I really do love songwriting enough to do it two or sometimes three times a day. It was during this trip that I had my first official publisher meeting with a man named Steve Leslie. Steve was introduced to me through a college professor at Berklee (during that time I was literally asking everyone I could think of if they knew a publisher that they would be willing to introduce me to) and Steve proved to be the kind and likeable man that my professor said he would be. (Quick side note; Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk “The Power of Asking” was a huge reason that I wasn’t afraid to ask people for help-in a refined and tactful way of course- and I owe a lot to that clever concept). As another side note, I do want to add that I had several meetings with other publishers too, but there was something clearly different about this and how unexplainably excited Steve was about me. I hadn't gotten that feeling, to that extend from really anyone before. Except for my Mom. Thanks Mom.
Where were we? Oh yes, I was about to brag about Steve Leslie. His songs have been recorded by Kenny Rogers, Mark Chesnutt, George Strait, Darryl Worley, Rhonda Vincent, and Neal McCoy, to name a few (and by the way… he also earned a Grammy Certificate for the title cut to Ricky Skaggs' 2004 "Brand New Strings" which won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album of the Year).
We met up at his office condo (beautifully decorated with a great view) on the west side of Nashville and we chatted for a while about my life, his life, his new publishing company and his dream to mentor young songwriters.
At the end of our chat Steve, in his easy-going kind of way said, “play something for me”. A moment of panic. What was I thinking that I would come in here and not play something? I felt totally unprepared in this moment just racking my brain for which one song would be good enough to play for a guy like this. Well of course I chose my best, most edited, most well-thought-out and brilliant idea to knock his socks off. Not.
I played him an unfinished song that for some reason at that time, I thought was just dandy. I played and he stood several feet behind me gazing out the window with a slight smirk on his face. Afterwards he complimented my playing and said he really liked the idea and gave some suggestions on how to improve the song. Of course I took mental notes and couldn’t wait to get home make those changes but I couldn’t help but feel a bit like I blew it and wished that I could try again and play a better song. I left feeling really grateful that I got to meet Steve anyway and that we got along so well; I also kept his songwriting tips in the back of my mind as I continued to write better and better songs and so I felt like it was still a successful meeting. I had no idea how well it would actually turn out.
Several months go by and one day I have a message in my Linkedin from a certain Steve Leslie asking when I will be back in Nashville and coincidentally my next trip to Nashville was coming up soon, so I eagerly asked to set up another meeting. This time, I thought…I am gonna be ready; I’ve got a bunch of new songs and I know exactly which one I’ll play, what I’ll wear, what I’ll say when he asks what my current goals are. It’ll be perfect.
So I walk in to the beautiful condo and of course it feels great and familiar with Steve because he’s kind, funny and easy to talk to. We catch up and it’s wonderful. Then he pulls out his guitar and whips out some really cool chords and looks over at me and says “well…you wanna write something?” Now, for my non-industry friends, it is not usual that a publisher is also an active songwriter and when we musicians think of publisher meetings we think of the talking and presenting a song part- not potentially writing a song with the person you are hoping will employ you. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that he wanted to co-write because he co-writes every day with various people and it was just a normal Thursday in Nashville, after all. So I roll with it and three or so hours later, we had a song that we both felt pretty damn good about and I could tell that we both loved nerding out on the crafting part of the writing; “maybe we should use this word instead of this word because it implies a bit more that the character is lonely”… stuff like that. (Basically just nit picking and not being satisfied with whatever comes out first, second or even third) Steve paced back and forth, I’ll never forget it, saying things like “man…this song is really something. This is why I do this work; it’s about crafting things like this”. Him being so excited about it was really a memorable moment in my life and to think that I could continue to write alongside writers of caliber was a really exciting prospect. I saw Steve several times over those next few days. That evening he messaged me and said “I’m playing at the Bluebird on Sunday night, do you want to come and sing our song?” Um…let me think about that for a minute...hell yeah!! So that happened. It was packed in there and we had a great time meeting people after Steve’s show and I was giddy like a schoolgirl being at the Bluebird (FYI: it only mildly resembles the Bluebird Café from the show, “Nashville”- just felt like that needed to be said)
The next day Steve and I had lunch and I saw quickly that his great storytelling extends far past his songwriting; when he tells stories about his wife and kids, his past experiences in Nashville and his songwriting friends (he keeps pretty darn good company too), it is simply captivating and I could listen to him tell stories all day. He can be heartfelt, poetic, funny, serious, tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted all in one story- and he does it seamlessly. It was in that lunch meeting that Steve first expressed an interest in signing me as a writer. His company, SNG Music, created with Gary Reamey (a successful businessman retired from Edward Jones with a passion and talent for music) became even more appealing to me as we talked. This boutique firm would ultimately have only 6 writers that would consist of some established writers (that already have songs recorded by artists) and some developing writers that would require a bit of mentoring and nurturing (aka, yours truly). With Steve’s talent for teaching and success in songwriting, and Gary’s business expertise, the two are an amazing team with admirable integrity. I was lucky enough to meet Gary a month or so later when Evan and I were invited to a more formal sit down dinner to get to know one another. They really value personality compatibility and family, since the company is so small and tight knit. Luckily, after a night of great eating, talking and excellent red wine, it seemed that there was good chemistry all around.
Fast forward a little bit to May 26; I’m standing outside a Mexican joint in Houston; I’m jumping up and down (literally- feet off the ground) while Steve is on the other end of the phone officially offering me a position as a songwriter at SNG and inviting me to a company photo shoot on June 8th. He understands my excitement in a very real way because his life was changed by a similar phone call many years ago when he signed his first deal with EMI Publishing. I can tell we are mutually excited but for me, this is truly life changing in a way that only a handful of moments are; the day you get married, have your first kid…you get the idea…this is the pinnacle of my career thus far and I can feel a sense of relief and validation wash over me like never before. I can actually feel something changing.
Up to this point I had invested SO much money and time into opportunities and people that I thought could potentially make all the difference and none of those things ever panned out as I planned. In fact, I had become so careful about getting excited because more often than not, things resulted in disappointment. For the first time I finally met someone that believes in me fully and is invested in helping me grow and realize my potential.
A new journey is starting; it will be filled with entirely different challenges, triumphs, disappointments, difficulties and a treasure cove of great stories and many many many songs. I am so excited to start this new chapter in which I will be living in Nashville fulltime, writing all week long, playing Songwriter-Round shows in Nashville and select shows around the country for my existing followers and any new willing ears. Many people so far have asked: “Does this mean you are done playing shows?” The answer is; No, never! “Will you release albums ever again?” Absolutely. The "Artist Zarni" is simply going to be living more vicariously through other Artists that are creatures of the road and magnets to the stage.
I feel more blessed than I can say and I am thanking my lucky stars for this incredible opportunity. I always heard that ‘it happens differently for everyone’ and it really is true; we are all different, our starting points are different, our paths and our outcomes are all so unique. I see now how silly it was to compare myself to others and to beat myself up over the fact that I wasn’t as far along as some other people that were on a complete different journey. Sorry, past Zarni, for bullying you into believing that you weren’t doing enough. I’m grateful that I never gave up in any of my efforts no matter how tough it was at times (especially with that stupid inner-bullying voice). I will remember this going forward too.
Note to My Future Self: be nice to Zarni. Be patient, enjoy the present, embrace the past, do your best work, and even in the tough times, be grateful for the little aching inner voice that made you honest about your true passion, and the fact that that little voice has set you free.