The Last Songwriter Depicts Fate of Composers in the Digital Age

Documentary Debuts and Takes Honor at Nashville Film Festival

The Last Songwriter, a documentary that made its debut last week at the Nashville Film Festival, does not present quite as dire a picture as its title suggests. It does, however, chronicle many of the realities of songwriters working in the digital age.

Both the debut and the second showing, which took place the following day, drew capacity crowds. And, at the festival’s end, the film copped the Audience Award Winner prize.

Directed by Mark Barger Elliott, the 52-minute film opens with Garth Brooks declaring that songwriting is “the least rewarded but most important step in music.” Rewards are so low, the film argues, because songwriters are paid such low royalty rates, particularly by digital streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, and are legally prohibited from bargaining for higher rates.

The Last Songwriter – Official Trailer from Danny Mohill on Vimeo.

While all this is true, the film overlooks the more obvious point that even if the digital rates were doubled or tripled, the chief beneficiaries would not be aspiring songwriters with only a cut or two to their credit but rather successful songwriters whose careers are already buttressed by catalogs of hit singles.

Indeed, the film seems to undercut its main thesis that songwriters are a disappearing breed by featuring commentaries from writers who’ve made it big and whose success stories will almost certainly serve to attract a steady stream of new talent into the business, even against overwhelming odds.

Still, it’s the commentaries by Matraca Berg, Tony Arata, Tom Douglas, Allen Shamblin, Marcus Hummon and Jason Isbell that give The Last Songwriter its heft and charm. Berg reflects on writing “Back When We Were Beautiful,” which was recorded by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and “Strawberry Wine,” the breakthrough megahit for Deana Carter.

Douglas recounts being set up to co-write with “the next big thing” — which turned out to be Lady Antebellum — and which resulted in the trio’s first No. 1 single, “I Run to You.”

He and Shamblin also muse about the inspiration and process of co-writing “The House That Built Me,” immortalized by Miranda Lambert.

“From a performer’s heart to a listener’s heart–that’s what makes a great song,” says Shamblin.

Arata recalls meeting Brooks when they were both relative newcomers to the songwriting scene. Although the future superstar took an immediate liking to “The Dance,” Arata says, it would be three more years before he was able to record it.

Hummon remarks on “Bless the Broken Road,” a song he co-wrote and which became a five-week No. 1 single for Rascal Flatts.

Berg, Douglas, Arata and Shamblin are all members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Jason Isbell offers would-be songwriters the most practical advice: “Learn how to perform,” he urges, noting that he also owns his own publishing and recording companies.

Jamie Floyd, who co-wrote the Grammy-nominated “The Blade” (recorded by Ashley Monroe) is the only currently struggling singer-songwriter the film chronicles. At the time of the filming, she was earning her living as a waitress and working to establish herself as a performer.

Before digital downloading and streaming came along, the film explains, songwriters who didn’t have hit singles from radio play could still earn significant “mechanical” royalties simply by having their songs recorded on bestselling albums.

But, as pop songwriter Paul Williams testified before a Congressional committee, “People no longer want to own music [by buying albums] — they want to stream it.”

In spite of the enormous popularity of “The House That Built Me,” Douglas estimates it didn’t earn him and Shamblin more than $1,000 each via streaming.

The film shows songwriter Lee Thomas Miller, who also serves as board chairman of Nashville Songwriters Association International, describing to a Congressional committee what it’s like to earn one’s living as a composer.

“I am America’s smallest small business,” he says. “I sit down and make stuff up. I do not succeed if my songs are not recorded, sold and played, and when I do get paid I pay self-employment income tax.

“With the money that remains I raise babies. I buy bread, gasoline, anniversary flowers, cough medicine, braces, and guitar strings. … However, I am bound by archaic government regulations that prohibit me from pursuing a fair market opportunity for the music I create.”

As to where The Last Songwriter goes from here, director Elliott says, “A distribution plan for the film is being developed as well as possible screenings in Washington to help persuade Congress and the Department of Justice to change archaic laws suppressing the ability of songwriters to make a living.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.