Hello, #LetTheGirlsBlog readers. If you’ve never seen me join the gals onstage at The Listening Room, let me introduce myself. I’m Ella Mae Bowen, a songwriter and artist in Nashville, originally from South Carolina. If you know of me at all, it may be from my cover “Holding Out For A Hero” from the 2011 film, the Footloose remake…*Whoa! 5 years ago! One hit wonder, much?!* If this was an iMessage, I’d type the wink emoji. For the last 5 years— my life from years 16-21— I have been living in Music City full time, chasing the dream that so many chase.
In some ways my experience is completely the norm and par-for-the-course, and in other ways, it is completely my own. Maybe some other blog, I can dive into that, and certainly, I will touch on it here. What I have chosen to write about today, though, for my first suffragette blog effort is this-- do publishing companies on music row still have room for great lyricists? In the world of artist writers and track guys, is there still a place for three chords, the truth, and a good idea?
I submitted this idea to Song Suffragettes a couple of months ago, and it was the one they chose out of a list of other ideas. I’ve sort of been avoiding writing it, because even the short span of time since I submitted it, it’s been harder than ever to figure out that very question. A year ago, two years ago, three, four, five, ten years ago I would have shouted from the rooftops “Yes!!! OF COURSE. It all starts with a song!” …. but friends, is it indeed still that simple? Do I feel the same way now? Don’t worry, I’m not in the business of pity parties (not unless I run out of earl grey in the mornings, at least) but let me explain the doubts I’ve wrestled with this year, and how I’m beginning to overcome them.
As I write this I’m sitting on a plane with my husband, heading for Denver for some holiday festivities with family. I’m typing away on the MacBook Air generously purchased for me by my publishing company two years ago— my first publishing company. I got my first publishing deal three years into my Nashville journey with a record deal, the loss of a record deal, a healthy dose of teenage angst, a nanny job, a barista job and two managers under my belt. You could say I played the long game. I didn’t feel 100% comfortable going for a deal until I KNEW that I had decent chops lyrically, melodically, and in regards to having a steady flow of decent ideas. I built a catalog of songs throughout the two years I was signed to the label; songs for other females, songs for males, duets, rejects, long shots, and everything in between. When it felt right, and with the help of my super-fantastic- awesome (former) manager Tracy Gershon, I started to swing for the stars. That’s when it really all began for me— the process of coming out of my baby artist cocoon and beginning to test my tender wings in the real world of music row.
Early on in the publishing meetings that didn’t “go”, I had a lot of conversations like this:
(Before I get too swept up, let me take a moment to address whomever is reading this: this post isn’t intended to be a pity party. Though this blog advocates women in the industry, the message I’m hoping to convey isn’t just for girls but for all young writers.)
Any-who, hearing those things in publishing meetings was a shell-shock for me. It wasn’t because I felt I was entitled to a deal, but as an artist, I guess I just hadn’t picked up on the lack of respect for the craft of a good lyric, nor the slight sexism that (in my humble opinion) seems to be the trickle-down effect of the mostly male-dominated country radio landscape. Previously, I felt that my record deal didn’t ultimately take off because I wasn’t a drop dead gorgeous, electric performer with a million social media followers. But my writing? I was feeling pretty good about that. So what was the hold up?!
Alas, I finally did get a pub deal. Two young companies made offers, I picked the one that felt like the best fit, and hit the ground running. And not only did I get a deal, my best friend was renewed at her deal and I watched four or five other peers sign or resign their deals. It really felt like an upswing, and overall I would still say it has been.
Fast forward two years to now, typing on the nice laptop given to by the kind people at my (soon-to- be former) publishing company. Sadly, it’s now the only thing that endures from my deal. My third-year option wasn’t picked up, and I just found out about the loss of a game-changingly huge cut — that I tell you, was about a millimeter from happening. I have already received my last check from my draw, and after two or three more writing sessions to close out the year, I will move on again.
Sad stuff, right? Did something terribly dramatic happen, you may be wondering. No. I have great respect for the company I was with, and there’s no bad blood. But what did happen was an exchange that went something like this. “You are our least commercial writer, and when you nail it, WOW, it’s great. But that doesn’t happen all the time, and with a higher draw, we’re just not going to be able to move forward.”
I was sort of numb. It was neither sad, nor angry, or happy, nor expected or unexpected it was just, well, sucky for everyone. I’ll explain two things about the not-exact quote I just used: For one, a high draw in Nashville these days really means a "livable draw." Meaning, if you can live comfortably, but humbly and aren’t in tremendous debt, you don’t need a second job. It’s not glamorous. It’s not a two hundred thousand dollar record deal; it’s just a kindergarten teacher salary to keep you in the race. AND I WAS SO THANKFUL to have that for a while, and pray I was a good steward of it. Anytime someone banks on you with that level of faith, even just for a short time, it’s something to be grateful for. Secondly, when I say I’m the “least commercial” writer (or rather,when my publisher said that), it doesn’t mean I’m writing songs with Led Zeppelin-esque titles and lyrics about Harry Potter spells and outer space. It just simply means I’m digging for something a little deeper. I’m throwing the paint against the wall, and sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it utterly blows. I’m what they call a long-game writer, and my company just was no longer feeling the magic. They’ve moved on to another source that’s probably neither better or worse, just different. And you know what? That’s okay. I’m stressed out and a bit discouraged, but I’m okay.
All of this is to say, no matter how much progress women have made in the industry (and HECK YES there is some tangible progress being made!), no matter how much traction meaningful songs have gotten (i.e. Humble and Kind), things are still pretty rough out there. Still, I can sincerely tell you that I don’t feel downtrodden, and I don’t want to leave you on a negative note either. Already I can feel what I have learned, and what I’d like to do differently next time around. There is already momentum building for the next step. What that step consists of isn’t really clear yet, but I have faith that it is going to be. I will leave you with this.
Early in my artist career, I got to build relationships with some incredible female writers, all beautiful (inside and out) and talented to the core of their being — including Natalie Hemby, Matraca Berg, Liz Rose, Lori McKenna to name but a few (#NameDropper #SorryNotSorry). Though I can’t quote any of them word-for- word, there’s a common sentiment they’ve all expressed to me separately, at different times:
“The good rises to the top. It’s humbling, but it happens. If you’re really good, always act kind, and work really hard, it will eventually happen.”
While your version of it “happening” may be different from mine, and my goal is likely different from the next person’s, what more can I say? The proof is in that pudding. That Grammy-award-winning, writer-of-the-year-awarded, respect-having, number-one-song writing pudding that those remarkable women know how to whip up.
Your pudding isn’t bad. Neither is mine. I’m just still perfecting the recipe.