There will be a rare opportunity on the Island to collaborate with, learn from, and share aspects of successful songwriting with true pros at the Nashville Hitmakers Festival, held Sept. 15 to 17. The event kicks off with a barbecue Friday night, followed by workshops Saturday, and then at 7 pm, at the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs, the Rising Stars of Nashville will play original acoustic songs and then will be backed by a full band to play covers of hit songs. Tickets for the performance are $20, with $75 VIP tickets. Proceeds from the VIP tickets will benefit Alex’s Place, the site of the songwriting workshops. The hitmakers who are participating in the festival will play at the Tivoli Day celebration later on Saturday, as well as performing at the Strand. Then on Sunday, Sept. 17, there will be more workshops in the morning, followed by the Rising Stars playing acoustic rounds at the Ritz in Oak Bluffs, beginning at 1 pm. There’s a complete list of offerings as well as registration at marthasvineyardsongwritingfest.com.
Songwriter Matt Casey from Neon Music Management, founder of the festival, answered some questions from The Times about this remarkable event, and shared with us some of his unique insight into the current state of the industry.
What are your impressions of Alex’s Place and our artist community?
I think Alex’s Place is a vitally important asset to the Martha’s Vineyard community. When you live on an Island, it can be difficult to get to where you need to go to “follow your dream.” The fact that Alex’s Place brings such amazing experiences for students interested in pursuing arts and music enables them to realize what those dreams are, and pursue them where they are.
We get a sense of how vibrant the community is, and what a welcoming place Alex’s Place is, just by the two days we spend there each year, and by working with people like Ryan, Sarah, and Laurel in planning the event. Their love for the community, music, and teaching is immediately apparent and infectious, and that is why we donate all the VIP tickets sales from the show to Alex’s Place to help make sure what we do over the weekend down there offers not only a great experience for songwriters and music fans, but that it also leads to helping provide resources to continue to enrich the experience for kids at Alex’s Place.
What changes within the entertainment industry have helped or hurt aspiring songwriters?
I think the digitization of the industry is both the biggest help and hindrance for songwriters. On one hand, it is great because there are so many more ways to get your music heard online, to get feedback and gain fans through social media, streaming services etc., so you don’t need to have a major publishing deal or label deal to be heard and make connections with other artists, songwriters, or fans. But on the other hand, the economics for a professional songwriter have become incredibly difficult. If you had a song on an album before, you could make money even if i wasn’t a radio hit, but that started to dry up when single-song downloads became big. Album sales went way down, and so did income for songwriters. Now with streaming becoming more popular than downloads, you can’t even make much money at all off hits that have millions of streams. The only way to really make a living is off radio hits, and there are only so many radio hits to go around.
What makes a song truly great?
For me, it’s timelessness. I don’t really think it matters what genre it is, what tempo it is, whether it’s the lyric or the melody that grab you, but I think ultimately whether a song stands the test of time is the true way to judge its greatness. Doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, the Beatles, if you can create something that different generations all will hear and remember, that is greatness to me.
When a popular artist uses music that is written by a number of musicians, how does the collaboration tend to occur?
Co-writing is the lifeblood of the Nashville songwriting community. It’s not only how the songs are written, it’s how the friendships are made, how the demo costs become more affordable, how the songs are pitched to all different industry people, depending on whom each writer on a song knows or has access to.
There are so many ways to collaborate on songs these days; you can write with someone long-distance on Skype. you can go back and forth by email, you can write lyrics and have someone put a melody to them later and vice versa, you can build a track electronically and have someone else work on the melody and lyrics. But I still think most of the best songs that come out of Nashville are written the old-fashioned way. Two or three people get together, and work on the whole song together and simultaneously. They enter the room with nothing except maybe an idea, and they come out with what I once heard a famous songwriter refer to as a “three-minute miracle.” And hopefully some new friends and lasting relationships.
What are a few songs we can expect to hear from the Rising Stars of Nashville?
The hit writers will play stripped-down, acoustic versions of the songs they wrote for the biggest country stars, like “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice), “Love Me Like You Mean It” (Kelsea Ballerini), “Must Be Doing Something Right” (Billy Currington), “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (Darius Rucker), and “Somewhere on a Beach” (Dierks Bentley). The Rising Stars will play acoustic versions of their original songs that you will be hearing on the radio soon. Some, like Michael Tyler’s “They Can’t See,” are already starting to get in rotation on major country radio. They will also be playing full band covers of their favorite songs of all genres, anything from “American Girl” from Tom Petty to “Waterfalls” by TLC to “Blue Ain’t Your Color” by Keith Urban. Gonna be a fun night!