Magical 'Music City' Tours
Interview With Nashville Songwriter Tour Guide, Prosongwriter Marc-Alan Barnette
Marc-Alan Barnette, singer, songwriter, mentor, teacher and general man about town, has been a fixture on the Nashville songwriting landscape since his move here in 1988. Landing a cut on his first night in town, on Grammy Award winning artist Shelby Lynne (Best New Artist of 2002, nine years after her first album), gave Marc-Alan Barnette a sense of truly how fast and slow things can work around here.
His writing skills have led him to co-writes with the likes of David Vincent Williams (I'm Moving On), Jimbeau Hinson (Party Crowd), Jim McBride (Chattahoochie), Kim Williams (Three Wooden Crosses), and Joie Scott (Not That Different), among others. Subsequent songs recorded by John Berry and his most recent cut, "Too Much Blood In My Alcohol Level," by country legend David Ball, have led to him being regarded as one of the best "unsung writers" in town.
As a performer he is unparalleled, leading nationally known country critic Robert Foreman to say, "If you see this man's name listed at a club, run don't walk to get there."
His knowledge of the business and networking aspects of the music industry led to the development of workshops, seminars, a book, "Freshman Year in Nashville," three CDs, and his unique "Nashville Songwriters Tours," a customized one-day (or more) excursion into a behind-the-scenes look at Music City.
This guy’s knowledge seems to have no end, and many have experienced the rare feeling of making connections and a view of the inner workings of Nashville that so few will ever see. He is always worth whatever he charges and so much more. I recommend him whenever I get the opportunity and he never disappoints.
Having been the beneficiary of some of his much appreciated wisdom, I wanted to get an inner look at his dealings with other aspiring songwriters, whom I also see making great gains in their careers. I caught up with Marc-Alan Barnette at the conclusion of a 15-person group tour of Nashville. The results were exhilarating, educational, and amazing. I'll let him fill in the details.
[Doak Turner] So, this tour was another biggie, huh?
Marc-Alan Barnette Yeah … I keep topping myself! It's amazing to me just to sit back and watch, and I know how neat it is.
[Doak Turner] How did you get the idea for the tour?
Marc-Alan Barnette A friend of mine from Chicago pointed it out. I had been taking people around the town for years. We all love to do that. But the things I seem to be able to do, the picking parties, analyzing people's music and performances, etc., and helping to shepherd the relationships [that you develop here] have seemed to be worth it.
After I did a lot of work to help out a friend of my friend, she said, "You should charge for this." I got to thinking about how much time I was taking and how much "inside information" I was handing out, and thought that she was right.
[Doak Turner] How does the typical tour go?
Marc-Alan Barnette There is not really a typical tour. But they all focus on elements of the same thing. A career in music has four essential elements that cannot be avoided:
1. Creation of the song.
2. Presentation of the song
Without all of them in conjunction and each one separately working, you have no career. Whatever level you go to, they are always there. If the song is not unique and different, it goes nowhere. If it is not presented just right, it goes nowhere. If you don't meet the proper people to help assist you in your career, you go nowhere. If you don't understand the elements of the business, you go nowhere. They all have to work.
[Doak Turner] And you cover all this?
Marc-Alan Barnette Absolutely. The tour day usually starts with a "get acquainted breakfast” at one of Nashville's eating spots. We are a very social group here, so eating is always important. Usually, while the tour participants are filling me out about themselves, I'll see one of my friends in the industry and I try to pull them over for introductions, insights, stories, etc. One cool one was at Noshville ( a restaurant), where Frank Myers told the group the story of how "I Swear" got cut. They had the wrong type of demo on it for five years, and couldn't get it cut. They got a different demo and it got cut immediately. (See number 2.)
After that we head to my house or one of the other offices I work out of and we get into a complete examination of where they have been and what they are doing. I listen to many songs and go line-by-line, note-by-note, point out strong and weak points, structure, melody, demo quality, what works and what doesn't. Sometimes the ideas are not strong enough or have been done to death.
You wouldn't know it unless you were around it all the time. What may fly somewhere else doesn’t here because there are so many songs and writers, and it is done so much. The novice writer doesn't know that, makes a bad first impression and BOOM! your career is over before you know it.
If they are performers, I get them to perform. I analyze them for style, abilities, dynamics, etc. I try to give tips to help them get the most from their performance. If one of the goals is to perform on a writers show, I try to make that happen. I know most of the hosts in town, who are usually asking me to perform. I book myself and then get them up so they don't have to wait till midnight.
[Doak Turner] I'd hate to have to follow you. Do they know how good a performer you are? You are like the Nashville monster performer.
Marc-Alan Barnette That's part of the deal. If you want to do this you had better be prepared to perform with the likes of Jeffery Steele, Jimbeau Hinson, and people like that. You have to sell yourself.
[Doak Turner] What if they are not performers?
Marc-Alan Barnette That is where the networking comes in. Through the course of the day we "tour" the town. More lunches - usually at the Longhorn and other [restaurants] - find many of our singers and writers hanging out. Nashville is the "Art of the Hang." I try to provide them a comfortable introduction to the town.
I encourage them to collect business cards, telling them about your "Cards in multiple pockets" approach (your business cards in your left pocket – everyone else’s cards go in your right pocket). We go to the clubs at night and see shows, and try to get them to meet as many people as they can. With me along, it usually [creates] an air of familiarity around them so that the "insiders" feel a little more at ease with new people.
[Doak Turner] How long do the tours last?
Marc-Alan Barnette It starts at a three- to five-hour day. I book by the day, unless they are doing a group thing or need more time. Sometimes people might want to do demos, sometimes write songs, I try to help them in whatever way I can.
[Doak Turner] Do you physically write songs with them?
Marc-Alan Barnette In certain instances. It is a service I have recently done called "The Write Up," and can be easily misconstrued. It was arrived at by one of my coordinators in California, Cliff Nelson, who thought that this might be a good thing for his members. While no one should ever pay anyone just to write a song, if you get a songwriting lesson, it can be just like a guitar or piano lesson.
It has a time limit of two hours, because you have to get in the habit of writing fast. I listen to their ideas or get them to talk about themselves. Then we write based upon story line, structure, melody, etc. I try to get them to understand by doing. I discuss each step and show them "twist on the tale," how to avoid clichés, overused ideas, etc. It has been incredibly successful, and has led to many songs being taken by publishers, pluggers, etc., and has given these people access they might not otherwise get. And it keeps me on my toes as a writer.
[Doak Turner] And how many of these have you done?
Marc-Alan Barnette I think about 200 so far. I've just been doing it since October of last year.
[Doak Turner] My Gosh, that's a lot of songs.
Marc-Alan Barnette Up to three a day sometimes. But I don't like to do that much. Wears me out.
[Doak Turner] You have started doing group tours. Tell us about that.
Marc-Alan Barnette Two of my main Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) groups, (those that I continually mentor), decided to make a group effort to come into town. My first was Julie Moriva from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She brought 20 of her members in, most who had never been to Nashville. Julie has been making trips once a month for about two years, so we used it as a launch for her writing showcase. We did a showcase with a band doing her songs first. She had done a GREAT CD, (that I produced with my side kick, Jay Verne) and had it put together first rate. She doesn't even sing or play, and she sells as many CDs as I do!
From there we had a show featuring five of her writers on their own, and then followed with my group, “Volcano of Soul,” which features hit writers and singers Jimbeau Hinson, Dana McVicker, Vicky Carrico and Jay Verne. That was an electric night.
The next day was pitch to publisher meetings, ASCAP meetings, a pitch to artist panel with three artists from inside the town, a trip to the recording studio where we actually listened, charted and played a demo that they all got in and sang on.
One of the main things I focus on is inside the town co-writing, so I paired each of them up in an all day Saturday songwriting boot camp with inside writers, and they all wrote songs. Another show at a different club, a trip to the Bluebird, where the last song they heard was "The Dance" done by Tony Arata, and where I said, "Guys, that's the bar."
Each night they had guitar pulls at the bed and breakfast they were staying in, and to top everything off they ended up at your party, Doak, (every 3rd Sunday at 3:00 event) that Sunday. They left exhausted and beaten, but the first thing they asked Julie was, "When are we going back?"
[Doak Turner] Then you had your "A" Team huh?
Marc-Alan Barnette The group I have worked with the longest is from Orange County, California. They are among my best friends with the NSAI co-coordinators, Cliff and Bev Nelson. I actually have my own room in their house with clothes, an extra guitar, and lots of my stuff. I am out there about six times a year, so it makes sense and lightens my load to carry. But these guys are my all stars.
In addition to being very talented they bring a discipline that you have to have in this game. They write sometimes four times a week with each other and everybody they can. They mentor younger writers; they even formed a sub group that gets together every two weeks to write to assignment. They bring the same attitude that the professionals do.
[Doak Turner] They are well trained, no doubt.
Marc-Alan Barnette They have done everything I told them to and we brought a lot of people out to them. How many people can say they have had Jeffery Steele play in their living room? They have learned from the best.
[Doak Turner] So they were at a different level than most of the people you work with?
Marc-Alan Barnette Much higher. Most writers write a few songs here and there and then don't do much from there. These guys are fanatics. Kind of like writing Green Berets. And it paid off.
We had a guitar pull with five number one writers and six publishers. They had seven publishing "sit down" meetings; they actually all got publishing representation on their songs from one of the top song pluggers and publishers in town. They got a deal that is structured like no other deal I have ever seen.
We did another “Volcano of Soul” show with them. Did three shows over the four days. They met with two dozen hit writers, and had the all-day Saturday writing thing. They all stood up to the challenge and wrote killer songs and started relationships that are now turning into incredible friends. And, of course, they had the party at your house – the 3rd Sunday at 3:00 monthly event (see www.nashvillemuse.com for details). They were exhausted - but again, wondering when they are coming back. Well, they all have deals now so they can come back whenever they want.
[Doak Turner] Where do you see these things going?
Marc-Alan Barnette One of the biggest problems we have has been illegal downloading and frivolous lawsuits. So, if nothing else happens but these people get to live out their dreams for a little bit, that is the best part.
I guarantee they will have a better understanding of the music business. If it stops one person from Gherming, which is trying to give CDs out [to professionals] unasked for, or making a fool out of themselves on the personal side, I have done my job. If they can understand how we work and learn how it all happens, the people inside won't be so afraid to give someone a hand up.
You can't get songs to anyone because first of all, there are so many of them and second, because we are afraid someone will sue us because a word in their songs ended up in another one of our songs. I've got news for you folks, it's all been said before.
And think that if one of these people were to get a big hit out of this and say, "I got this through NSAI or Marc-Alan Barnette (MAB) tours or something like that, just think of the writers that would band together to try and get that as well. Then we would have an even more effective voice in Washington when it comes to the lobbying efforts and such.
[Doak Turner] So you are getting paid for what you love to do, helping people and getting practical application experience. What a deal.
Marc-Alan Barnette I have developed the reputation I have because I never rip anyone off, always do what I say I will, and make everyone win. I am able to see some pretty important people because of that.
[Doak Turner] How much are the tours?
Marc-Alan Barnette They start out at $175 for the day, but I have rates that adjust depending on the time, the number of people, and how much work I have to do.
[Doak Turner] So for less than $200 you can change their lives?
Marc-Alan Barnette I usually up their level of understanding the game by about five years and $5000.
The Kinley's (Country Duo) claimed I could have saved them $6500 on their first showcase alone.
[Doak Turner] Everywhere I go, someone has a MAB-first-night-in-town story. You are well loved and respected. How do people get in touch with you and how long do you need in advance?
Marc-Alan Barnette I am booked about three weeks ahead right now, but it is filling up. I also travel a lot to the outside workshops so I am out of town a lot. A visit to my web site www.marcalanbarnette.com will have info on there, as well as a info sheet to fill out. Get a date, send that in, and we are a go. I have a feeling that before too long I will have to be only doing group tours. But for now the individual ones are really cool.
[Doak Turner] Thanks for doing all you do for songwriters.
Marc-Alan Barnette Back at you. We have a really great family here and love people to join. All are welcome and can learn from it. But to have people support you, you must first support them. As you say, Doak, “Friends don't let friends play to an empty room.” That is one of my favorite sayings, along with "A rising tide lifts all boats," my personal favorite.
[Doak Turner] It sure does. Thanks, Marc-Alan Barnette.
Marc-Alan Barnette Thanks, Doak.
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