Five of today's most successful songwriters nodded their heads in unison when their co-panelist Sam Hollander, who's written hits for Fitz and the Tantrums, Train, and Pentatonix among many others, blurted out what is perhaps not such a well-known secret about song craft: "Dare to suck," he advised. "You have to start somewhere and you have to be fearless."
That message resonated loudly to an auditorium filled with aspiring tunesmiths gathered for the opening day of the 12th annual ASCAP "I Create Music" Expo which runs April 13-15 at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles.
The event is meant to provide songwriters, producers and composers with an inside look at the opportunities and challenges in today's songwriting industry. That mission was perhaps manifest nowhere more than at one of the day's marquee and most lively panels, appropriately titled "We Create Music." Deftly moderated by Billboard senior writer Melinda Newman, each of the five successful songwriting panelists expressed the difficulty they regularly face in attempting to harness creativity in composing songs and hedging their bets as to not "suck."
"I have a good pile about this high," said Dave Pirner of the band Soul Asylum while lifting his hand to just above his waist. "And I have a shit pile this high," he said raising his hand high above his head. "I have to fill up this pile until something good ends up over in that pile -- let's just say I have a lot of works in progress."
For country songwriter Ashley Gorley (Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley Luke Bryan), he likes to mix up the songwriting process. "I like to write in different places with different collaborations and different instruments," he said describing his non-linear approach. "I like to keep the wheels turning because I never know where or when it starts. "
The entertaining James Fauntleroy (Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars) compared his seemingly more impressionistic process to the movie The Hangover. "It's like you walk into a room and a chicken's on fire, there's a tiger and Mike Tyson's there and it's like, 'Why did all this happen?'"
As for film and TV composer Jeff Cardoni (Silicon Valley, CSI: Miami) the pressure he regularly faces every day working to score music to images seems to help him. "As soon as I get to see a picture to put music to there's clock ticking and there's a certain panic," he said. "It does wonders for ideas coming out."
There were other similarities, between this dynamic and disparate group of songwriters beyond their capacity to "suck." Each carries a recording device to capture fleeting melodies and/or fickle muses popping in and out of their heads; no instrument or genre or collaborator is off limits; they all work incredibly hard at their craft; and all have stories of great struggle before finding great success.
The outspoken Hollander described his break after "many misses" growing up in Mt. Kisco, New York when he reached out to legendary singer Carole King on a rap project. That somehow led to him co-writing the title track to "Love Makes The World," which he called his first big break.
For Pirner with his punk rock roots and growing up in Minneapolis his options were more limited. That is until his band Soul Asylum got on a bill with the Replacements where Peter Jespersen of Twin Tone Records signed them. "I thought that was as far as I was ever gonna go," he said, "and at the time that was very exciting to me."
Gorley described working for a "short 7 years" writing for a publishing company before he met a "young girl named Carrie Underwood from a TV show" whose first No. 1 he helped pen.
Cardoni recalled not having enough for bus fare, maxing out a random credit card, staying at a motel by the Los Angeles airport and eating at a Denny's when he got a call from the director of CSI Miami that his music would be used for the show.
And it was somehow faking his way into Teddy Riley's hat room (apparently he collects hats) where the famed producer asked Fauntleroy to sing, so he did "Amazing Grace." That inexplicably led to his first hit which he said was 2007's "No Air" with Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown.
The very candid and supportive panel marked the opening day of ASCAP's I Create Music Expo, which kicked off with the performing rights organization's annual Membership Meeting with ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews, president & chairman Paul Williams and evp of membership John Titta.
The event comes as ASCAP last week announced its yearly financials in which the PRO had a record-high 2016 collecting $1.06 billion in revenue and distributing more than $918 million to its membership of songwriters, composers and music publishers.
The day also featured performances by Plain White T's Tom Higgenson (who performed the hit "1,2,3,4," which was written at an ASCAP songcamp) and Brett McLaughlin whose "Hide Away," was a Billboard Hot 100 hit for Daya in 2015.
Other panels included the "You Should Be Here: A Peek into the Country Music Market," led by Gorley (who recently scored his 30th No. 1 hit on the country charts) along with Matt Jenkins (Kenny Chesney, Pink, Old Dominion) and Zach Crowell (Sam Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton).
The day concluded with an all-star "in-the-round" concert featuring Pirner, Butch Walker (producer, Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen), Eric Bazilian (Joan Osborne, "One Of Us"), Rob Hyman (Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time") and Mark Hudson (producer, Aerosmith, Ringo Starr).