Song Pluggers and the Art of the Pitch

The Salespeople of Country Music Unite Publishers, Artists

A number of small, brightly painted houses are scattered among the imposing corporate buildings on Nashville’s Music Row. Very few people actually live on these two streets, but securely tucked away in these colorful homes, you’ll find thousands upon thousands of songs.

Someday, you might hear them, but only if the publisher’s songplugger does the job right.

Songpluggers are essentially the salespeople of country music. If a songwriter is lucky enough to have a publishing deal, they hand over their song at the end of the day to their publishing company. In turn, the company gives it to a songplugger, who then takes it to anybody in town — artists, labels, producers — who can get it recorded. After all, the publisher doesn’t make any money from a song until somebody buys it or plays it.

New artist Lauren Lucas is looking for two more songs for her forthcoming debut album on Warner Bros., preferably up-tempo. She’s sitting at the head of the conference room table and to her right is Jeremy Witt, who worked his way up from intern to mailroom to the A&R department. He navigates the stereo system while Lucas tries to envision her voice singing each song. She often dips her head to concentrate. She needs a hit.

The first plugger from Famous Music offers a CD without introduction. “I Want to Be Holding You” plays for about a minute and a half. Lucas shakes her head. “You Could See the Wheels Turning” — because somebody’s driving away, that is — lasts until just after the first chorus. “In the Meantime” is closer to what she’s looking for. She even recognizes one of the songs written by her friend, Maia Sharp. But overall, none of the new stuff knocks her out. Eight songs in 15 minutes.


A representative from Sea Gayle Music – co-owned by Brad Paisley — comes in. She’s excited about the first song, “What Do You Do?” because it’s sassy and fast, with the singer boisterously rattling off all the things she does. Lucas listens politely for about 30 seconds, then nixes it: “It’s really cute, but …”

However, Lucas does enjoy several of the pitches, although there’s only time for four. Wrapping it up, the plugger asks when she’s cutting the new material.

“Soon,” Lucas says. “We’re looking to beat what we have.”

“I can’t wait until you’re a superstar,” the plugger says.

“Me too!” Lucas says, chuckling. She has been chasing the spotlight since she appeared in her first theatre production at age 3. She grew up in South Carolina but traveled often to New York City in middle school and high school for Broadway auditions. As a teen, she fronted two country bands and eventually secured a publishing deal and a record deal with RCA. The album didn’t come out, so she enrolled in Belmont University’s School of Music.

Shortly after graduation, she signed with Warner Bros. They provided an elaborate showcase for her at a Nashville jazz club during Country Radio Seminar in February, but it didn’t take. Her first single, “What You Ain’t Gonna Get,” entered Billboard’s country airplay chart at No. 52 in April but promptly vanished. The label delayed her album release until she could find two more potential hit songs.

For the next round of demos at this morning meeting, representatives from four separate publishing companies – two men and two women — gather around the table clutching CDs.

First up: “You’re a Total Waste of Makeup.” (No.)

Then: “I Wish I Was a Little Girl.” (No.)

Somebody reaches toward a bowl of candy and pulls out some chewing gum. Everybody makes lively comments about the gum, throwing their arms up. It resembles one of those impromptu comedy sketches where everybody shouts and cracks on whoever is within earshot. The whole scene is a little overwhelming, but soon the next demo starts to play.

“Made in the Shade.” (Yes. Leslie Satcher, formerly on the Warner Bros. roster herself, wrote it. She’s one of Lucas’ favorites.)

“If Today Was Yesterday.” (No.)

More nervous chatter among the pluggers: “I really need to start exercising again.” Or “Hey, do you know which gyms have a pool?”

Another song: “When You Wake Up I’ll Be Gone.” (Right style, but not quite right.)

The next song, which also happens to be about leaving, is being sung by Kellie Coffey. (Should a record deal stall, many singers — Coffey included — go back to singing demos.) The next song, “Let Horses Be Horses,” is sung by Sara Buxton, the duet partner on Cowboy Troy’s “If You Don’t Want to Love Me.”

Then: “Love Dies Hard.” It’s definitely not upbeat but a solid song. Same with “I May Never Get Up Again.” Same with “Too Long.” Lucas passes on a second Satcher song, but likes the following ballad, sung by Morgane Hayes, who recently landed a record deal herself. Lucas also approves of the sassy “Never Loved a Boy Like You” but declines “There Is No ’U’ in Love.”

It’s almost a courtesy to endure the last few songs. One sounds exactly like “I Hope You Dance.” Another is basically “All Jacked Up” with different lyrics. Lucas is savvy enough to decline both. The final song of the morning has several, um, memorable lyrics, including: “I’m a microwave dinner/ I’m prime rib on your plate.” Rejected. The last two pluggers waive their turns, then everybody enthusiastically says their goodbyes. Lunch plans are confirmed. Not one song was played all the way through.

On the agenda for the afternoon?

Looking to beat what they’ve already got.