Image provided courtesy of Mike Thomas of Encyclopedia of British Dance Bands.
Do you want to be rich? Do you want to be famous? Better still, would you like to be both? No matter what they say, just about everyone has nurtured such a dream at some point in their life. But as time moves on and most of us don’t manage it, we let the dream drift away and settle for a more normal life. After all, the opportunities become more and more limited. To be plucked from the back row of the chorus to fill in for an indisposed star you have to be in the chorus in the first place, not unheard of behind a desk. What you need is a short cut, like a best selling novel you can write in your spare time, or, if that is too much of an effort, then a successful song lyric might do just as well.
There’s a lot of money in music, always provided you are successful. Remember that list of the richest people in show-business, with Paul McCartney near the top? Then again, the estate of the late Cole Porter rakes in tens of thousands of dollars every year in royalties from Night and Day alone. It’s a bandwagon we’d all like to hop on, if only we knew how to set about it.
For all the rewards that just a few lines can offer, though, successful songwriting is far from easy. But because the size of the finished product is so small compared to a book or a script, it is easy to overlook this and there are people, as we shall see, who neglect to draw your attention to the fact that it takes a great deal of talent or even genius, but not necessarily a lot of time, to write a good song lyric, one that people will remember as they leave the theatre, one that will become embedded in the public consciousness as a standard. To write a mediocre lyric one only as to be mediocre oneself---it is no great effort to dash off something mildly pleasing and instantly forgettable which, like Kleenex, can be used once and then thrown away.
On the other hand, while it is easy to write a mediocre or bad lyric, writing a dreadful one is something you’ve got to work at. I know this because a few years ago a couple of friends and I saw what at first glance appeared to be a door to fame and fortune opened wide and beckoning. With tongues planted firmly in cheeks we conducted a little experiment.
In the classifieds at the back of certain magazines, particularly those which publicise love affairs between film stars, new infallible diets, and shock horror encounters with visiting aliens and which enjoy surprisingly large circulations, you can find, sandwiched between the offers of genuine good-luck charms (send only $10.99) and religious tracts, ads from music publishers looking for new songwriters to join the business. Send your lyric, they ask, for free appraisal.
To cynical types, this may have the word “con,” writ large all over it, but who can resist something free? Now, places like that have a reputation for enthusing over everything sent to them. They work, of course, in the business of vanity publishing and there are lots of publishers of this sort around everywhere. They set out to hook in as many aspiring novelists, poets, and songwriters as they can find who believe in their own work, however dire it may be, and who will part with their own money in order to see their efforts in print.
Never mind the fact that no successful writer has ever had to resort to financing his or her own publication. Maybe they collected rejection slips by the truck load or wore out shoe leather searching Tin Pan Alley for a publisher to buy their work, but they never had to put their own money up front. The fact is that their work spoke for itself when it finally found a sympathetic ear.
The vanity publishers might argue that they serve a section of the creative industries, that they serve a section of the creative industries, that they fulfill a need otherwise ignored, or that they provide a short cut for those who have something to offer that properly serviced will bring them that longed-for celebrity without their first having to serve the soul-destroying apprenticeship of rejection and lack of interest that is the fate of the beginner. Very worthy perhaps, but then they spoil the whole effect by seldom, or never, turning down a submitted work.
My friends and I decided to put this to the test. It was a cold evening a few years ago (in the mid-seventies actually) in Toronto, shortly after Christmas and feeling suitably merry (as befitted the season), we sat down to write a really bad lyric to see what these music publishers would make of it.
It isn’t easy to write a really bad lyric. No matter how lousy you set out to make it there’s always a danger that a good point or two will creep in. You feel pleased with a rather nice internal rhyme, or perhaps the words actually make sense; and before you realize it, your lyric has risen to the level of mediocre. To avoid such pitfalls, my chums, whom I shall call Mark and Patti (for those were their names) and I decided to use a method pinched from a parlour game.
I wrote a line, folded the paper over, and passed it to Patti who wrote her line without knowing what I had written. Then she folded the paper and passed it to Mark, who added his contribution. The paper went round a few times, we unfolded it, and voila! We had this deathless piece:
The rainbow is wrapped around my elbow,
Can’t you see why I must leave you baby?
By living on the blues, by living under trash
My beer tastes bad, I want you back today
And the sun shines above while the birds
Twitter in the Colorado sunshine
So I don’t want no war, no war, no war
And I don’t want no job either.
It didn’t scan; it didn’t rhyme. Not only did the words make no sense at all but they actually contradicted themselves. The only redeeming feature was that we had fun writing it, and that wasn’t something you could tell by reading or hearing it, so we wondered what sort of reply we’d get when we sent it off for free appraisal.
The next day I typed up the lyric and added a title. I chose “Christmas Alone” because it had nothing to do with the words, and put together a covering letter above the invented name of Walter P. Temillson, who described himself as a supermarket shelf-filler but who wanted to “make a career of being a famous song compositor.” I rather liked that touch, I must admit.
In case the lyric didn’t make it absolutely clear, the letter, complete with syntax errors, would show that Mr Temillson was no genius. Finally I sealed the envelope and sent it to Gerry Lanzarote Music Publishers at a post office box number in Hollywood.
Maybe our lyrics had some hidden meaning of which we were unaware. Perhaps we had unknowingly anticipated a trend in pop music. At any rate we received, a week or two later, a most enthusiastic letter (albeit a mimeographed one with blanks filled in with ballpoint) from Gerry Lanzarote himself saying that “Christmas Alone” had been reviewed by his selection panel and had been accepted for publishing. He would arrange for music to be written to fit the words, if we would be good enough to tell him what style of music we preferred.
For this purpose he enclosed a form listing the styles available: rock, country and western, waltz, polka, tango, jazz, military, sacred and latin. All we had to do was put a tick next to the one we felt would be most suited to our lyric. Once we had sent our instructions to Mr Lanzarote he would commission a songwriter to compose music in our chosen style, would publish the song and arrange for it to be recorded by a top-line band.
Here followed a list of names: top-line they may have been, but neither Mark, Patti nor I had ever heard of any of them. We would then receive half a dozen copies of the sheet music and two demo discs. All this Mr Lanzarote would do for us as soon as he received our cheque or money order for $150. However, if we replied within ten days we could make use of the enclosed discount voucher worth $25 and would receive a further discount voucher to use toward publication of our next song.
I used the word “con” earlier on. That is not quite fair because although false hopes may be raised by this sort of thing, there is not actual con involved. Mr. Lanzarote and publishers like him do for you everything they say they will---they provide music to your words and then publish, print and record the product. There the matter rests. They may encourage you to deceive yourself into imagining that you are about to hae a brilliant success leading to a profitable career but they never promise it.
The only profitable career is Mr. Lanzarote’s, and his business is playing on the hopes and vanity of people who don’t know, or choose to ignore, the fact that there has never been a successful song whose publication was paid for by the composer rather than the publisher. Perhaps there always is a first time but we (in the person of Walter P. Temillson) didn’t want to risk $150 on the offchance we’d be it.
So we didn’t send off our cheque or money order but even so we did hear from Mr. Lanzarote several more times. He sent us letter after form letter, reminding us that his offer was still open. He made things easier for us by extending the deadline for using the discount voucher and when that had no effect, told us about his easy payment installment plan. In case we doubted the value of his services there was a sheet of testimonials from satisfied clients, all of whom seemed to be married women with initials (“I have played my record to all my friends and they all like it very much. One day I hope to write another song” says Mrs. R.D. of Boise, Idaho).
But we ignored all this and in time Mr. Lanzarote gave up on us. His advertisement appeared every week in the tabloid in which we had originally found it so there was presumably a steady supply of people willing to pay $150 for six sheets of paper and two records.
Maybe we should have taken the matter further. We were level-headed enough to realise that our song was rubbish and that it would not bring us one inch closer to a new career, no matter how much we paid for it. But just for the sake of sheer curiosity I sometimes think it would have been interesting to find out exactly what Mr. Lanzarote would have done with it. For my part, I would have gone the whole hog and would have marked the form to indicate that the preferred style of music was military or sacred, but perhaps that would have been going too far; rock or country and western, would have been the natural choices though a tango might have bee a nice idea. But even though the three of us tossed the notion about for a bit we finally lost interest. Mr. Lanzarote was not the least worried -- there are plenty of budding song compositors with egos that need massaging to keep him comfortable.
As for the notional Walter P. Temillson, he continued to restockk the shelves at the supermarket. After all, there are lots of other things one can do badly without having to pay for the privilege.