What Publishers Really Want

Young, yet mature, male or female writer/performer; prolific in lyrics & melody; able to produce & pitch own demos; requires little financial support from publisher; has some track record; lives next door to office.

The above listing might be the typical Want Ad you would expect a publisher to post (if publishers did, indeed, do such things) when searching to find and sign a new songwriter.

Yet, according to a recent Murphy's Laws survey, the reality is somewhat different. Mark Ford (without whose scrupulous editing and input the Murphy's Laws column would be a tough read) helped me assemble an informal survey that polled 14 Nashville music publishers. Each publisher, within the past twelve months, had placed a hit song on the charts and had signed a new staff writer. The publishers ranked each of the following attributes from 1 to 10 (with 1 being least important and 10 being most important) based on the last writer they signed, not on any particular "wish list." [Note: averages for each question appear in brackets.]

What least motivates a publisher to put out the Welcome Mat

According to our survey, the following were of minimal importance to publishers:

20. Marital status [1.0]
19. Gender [1.5]
18. Living in or near another major music center (such as New York or Los Angeles) [1.6]
17. Being a producer [1.9]
16. Being recommended by non-publishers (such as lawyers, managers, A&R) [2.7]
15. Already writing with a recording artist [2.9]
14. Age [3.0] (good news for older songwriters!)
14. Being pursued by other publishers [3.0]
14. Already writing with the publisher's staff writers [3.0]

(I was quite surprised to find that being a producer, writing with an artist and being able to pitch one's own songs ranked so low.)

What somewhat influences a publisher

The mid-range results of our survey bore these responses:

13. Being recommended by other songwriters [4.0]
12. Appearance [4.5]
11. Demo quality [4.6]
10. Track record [4.9]
9. Persistence pursuing the deal [5.1]
8. Living in or near Nashville [5.3]
7. Record deal/artist potential [6.0]
6. Ability to co-write [6.2]
6. Ability to perform songs live [6.2]
5. Affordability (amount of draw) [6.3]

(I was surprised that track record, affordability and record deal did not score higher.)

The Big Four

According to our survey, the following four were the top deal-maker qualities:

4. Ability to write alone [7.5]
3. Ability to write great melodies [8.7]
2. Personality/compatibility with the company [9.0]
1. Ability to write great lyrics [9.6]

The Nutshell

Having examined all of the information in depth, I would like to point out that most of the publishers who responded (all who were asked did so) were not actively looking for writers to sign, and -- with the one exception of lyrical ability being the across-the-board, most-desired quality -- there were qualities that were a must-have to some that were of no consideration to others.

So, in summation: work particularly on your lyrics, hone the rest of your skills, and pray that there will always be room for the odd frog amongst royalty.