Steve Bloch needs songs. And since Bloch is an A&R man for Giant Records in Nashville, his needs are pretty specific. Which is why he's sitting under the fluorescent lights of a drab, institutional meeting room at Fort Mason, rubbing his temples with his fingertips as he listens to one song demo after another.
Bloch is scouting songs for three of Giant's recent signings: Georgia Middleman is looking for "uptempo contemporary country and a popish ballad"; Christy Southerland needs "energetic traditional female" country songs; and Blake Shelton is searching for "traditional male country." Bloch is finishing up a three-city tour of the Bay Area, hoping somebody around here can give him what he needs -- and for better or for worse, what he needs is the next "Achy Breaky Heart."
"Songscreenings," events at which people inside the music industry (A&R reps, label executives, etc.) listen to what people outside the music industry (freelance songwriters, unsigned performers) are doing, have been a regular part of the Northern California Songwriters Association (NCSA) calendar throughout its 20-year existence. Tapes of songs, with lyric sheets, are submitted by members of the NCSA -- on this evening, there are 19 -- and played one by one for Bloch. As he listens -- sometimes to the entire tune, but usually just a verse and chorus -- he passes along comments to the tunesmiths in attendance.
This isn't exactly Robert Altman's Nashville, in which poor Gwen Welles keeps singing her awful little song in her awful little voice until a group of Music City muckety-mucks offer her the empty promise of a record deal if she'll strip for the boys. Actually, it's more like an undergraduate creative writing seminar, where lots of tough-but-fair comments are presented to an audience at various levels of desperation to hear something, anything, positive about the music they write.
"It's about constructive criticism," says Ian Crombie, the NCSA's executive director. "We're not trying to cut anybody off at the knees." Still, the assembled crowd is an eager one. Bloch is an A&R man. If he likes one of the songs he hears on this evening, he'll take it with him back to Nashville. He can get songs into the right hands, try to make sure the right people hear them. Maybe even record them.
Which might be why Bloch sounded a tad boastful when he explained his background: In addition to his A&R job, he works as an independent solicitor of songs in Nashville, and also runs Southern Cow Music, a talent agency right on Music Square with two songwriters on staff. All of which sounds pretty impressive, until Bob Rose, a vocal coach who's worked with the Beach Boys and Mary Stuart Masterson on Benny & Joon, turns in his seat and whispers in my ear.
"Look at all the stuff this guy has to do to stay alive in the music business," he says.
Country is the last genre of music in which songs are routinely put up for sale, and where the idea of a "songscreening" can mean a real break for the working songwriter. The repertoires of rock, folk, hip hop, and modern pop acts are generally made up of their own musical creations, or the occasional cherished cover. R&B artists rely on their own hit factories of producers and writers, high-level folks like Babyface who've run tunesmiths through their own particular filters.
So country's pretty much what's left, and while the Bay Area isn't Nashville Northwest, the size and reputation of the 1,200-member NCSA make it a place worth paying attention to for the music industry. One of the largest regional groups of its kind in the nation, its internal support system functions through songscreenings, open-mike nights (every Monday at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage coffeehouse), classes, workshops, and an annual conference at Los Altos' Foothill College. "It's the only port in a storm when you first come to a city," says Bob Rose.
The NCSA can claim some successes. Member Steve Seskin -- whom Crombie characterizes as a mentor for the entire association -- recently landed a No. 1 hit on the Billboard country charts with Mark Wills' "Don't Laugh at Me." On occasion a pop song will creep through: Andre Pessis' "Walking on a Thin Line" was a success in 1983 for Huey Lewis & the News.
Remember, this isn't about musical quality -- just about commercial success. So for a critic or listener who's used to listening for what's good or bad, not "marketable" or "non-marketable," Bloch's assessments under the fluorescent lights of Meeting Room 205 take some getting used to. Introducing a sample song by Blake Shelton -- loud, brash, vaguely twangy, and engineered to compete with Garth Brooks -- he points out that the record's producer is "very be-hind Blake. He thinks Blake's a star." He points this out with an enthusiasm that sounds geared not toward Shelton's talents, but to whether his record's going to sell. Blake Shelton is going to be a star. That's not a matter of opinion. Just a cold, clinical fact.
And Bloch wants you to know: With Shelton, who needs four more songs to finish up his album within the next month, the goal is to "avoid the straight-ahead love song," although "thematically, he's not attached to anything." And please note that Christy Southerland has a conservative background -- her father's a Baptist minister -- so the plan with her is to "keep it very straight and safe." She's a songwriter, and wants to have all the songs on the record be hers, but the producer has other ideas.
In fact, the first song that's screened, "Happiest Woman in Mississippi," is "not for Christy," Bloch says. Indeed, it's "too bold for country radio." Many of the rest fall by the wayside for various specific reasons after he's done listening to them, his hands covering his face, fingers massaging his temples. "He Calls Himself a Cowboy," which rhymes "hypocrite," "true grit," and "don't fit," won't sound as clever on the radio in four months as it will on a first listen; "Our Song" takes too long to explain what happened to the lovers' relationship ("The car stopped, but 50 feet too late"); "Stick Man" makes the mistake of using the word "apparition" in its lyric. "Not real down-home," Bloch notes.
Contemporary country music is formulaic stuff, which makes Bloch's screenings a rare peek into the first step into applying the formula (songscreenings are open to the public, though only members can submit songs). Watch Bloch listen long enough, and you can start listening with his ears -- not for what actually moves you, but for which songs put together the right pieces of the modern country-pop puzzle. So, halfway through "Somewhere in Love" -- with a resounding chorus, an appropriate twang, and nods to '70s rock -- it's obvious that Bloch feels he's hit pay dirt. When he says he'll "take this for another listen," applause fills the room.
Reed Fromer, a Mill Valley resident who co-wrote "Somewhere" with Andy Padlo, says writing the song took him about a month; from there, the lyric went through nine months of "50 or 60 possibilities," and Bloch still said he wanted to get to know the song's characters more. It's not the Fromer-Padlo team's first success: Their "Starting Over" found a place at the end of Gregg Allman's 1997 album Searching for Simplicity.
Early on, Bloch poses a question to the audience.
"How many of you have been to Nashville?"
A few hands go up.
"How many of you plan on going back?"
Fewer hands go up.
After all, the odds for an outside songwriter to make headway in Nashville make the lottery look good. For every 100 songs Bloch pitches to labels, one might get held -- taken by the label for further consideration for an indefinite period of time, with no money exchanged. For every 100 songs that get held, one might actually get recorded.
"That's called getting successful in Nashville," Bloch says.
Northern California Songwriters Association: 1724 Laurel St., Suite 120, San Carlos, CA 94070, www.ncsasong.org.