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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

These days, a pop song often begins in the recording studio. Teams of producers and composers sit together, building tracks with a performer, all for a specific album. Professional songwriters, like those who used to work in cubicles in New York's famed Brill Building, theyre largely a thing of the past - except, that is, in Nashville.

In this installment of our Hitmakers series, Craig Havighurst reports that most Nashville hits begin in small rooms and offices with just some guitars or a piano.

CRAIG HAVIGHURST: At one end of Music Row, the ASCAP and BMI buildings stand like twin guardians of the art and business going on up and down 16th and 17th Avenues. They are the performing rights organizations that help songwriters and publishers get paid for radio, TV and live performances of songs.

Mr. JODY WILLIAMS (Vice President for Writer/Publisher Relations, BMI): In his ground-floor office at BMI, Vice President for Writer/Publisher Relations Jody Williams explains why Nashville is the last bastion of a hit-making system built on the primacy of the song.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're on this kind of college campus here on Music Row, where it's about, you know, 10 blocks that way and three or four blocks this way. I'd say 300 songwriters a day wake up, walk into offices on this little campus at different publishing companies and they make coffee, and they see what falls out of the air, through their heads and through their pens.

HAVIGHURST: Just two blocks away at Bug Music, a global publisher, staff songwriter Jaron Boyer works on a new melody with co-writer Lynn Wilbanks.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LYNN WILBANKS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. JARON BOYER (Staff Songwriter, Bug Music): (Unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: Five years in the business, he's still looking for his first hit song.

Mr. BOYER: I wrote I think 140 songs last year, and, you know, more than half was more just me playing around and just mouthing stuff, and I'm saying something, and somebody is, like, yeah, that's awesome. What did you just say? And we'll write - you know, that'll be the hook or that would just click everything, you know.

HAVIGHURST: Where solo writers like Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson and Mel Tillis once dominated the system, today's Music Row has become a haven for co-writing. These ever-shifting combinations of two and three or more writers come together through personal relationships, Music Row politics and a collaborative effort that can get past blocks and help finish a song by quitting time.

(Soundbite of music)

HAVIGHURST: When a song is done, the writers gather around a digital recorder or laptop and make what's called a work tape, like this one Jaron Boyer made with co-writers Ben Stennis and Thomas Rhett Akins, who's singing.

(Soundbite of song, "I Ain't Ready to Quit")

Mr. THOMAS RHETT AKINS: (Singing) There's something about lighting up a Marlboro Red and that nicotine rushing to my head, and I taste the Southern Comfort on my lips. It tells me I ain't ready to quit.

HAVIGHURST: If the publishers of the various writers agree the song is worth pitching to artists, they book studio time and musicians to make a demo recording.

(Soundbite of song, "I Ain't Ready To Quit")

Mr. AKINS: (Singing) There's something about driving way too fast, switching gears and hammering on the gas.

HAVIGHURST: And at some point between the composing and the demo, strategy kicks in.

Mr. TOM DOUGLAS (Songwriter): People are always thinking about matching songs with, you know, so-and-so.

HAVIGHURST: Tom Douglas is one of the top writers in Music City. He landed his first number one hit in 1994 and has had three in just the past year and a half. He reads the RowFax, a tip sheet that covers which artists are looking for new material.

Mr. DOUGLAS: As the songwriters are writing songs, in the back of our mind, there are times when we think, all right, this song would be good for...

HAVIGHURST: Carrie Underwood, George Strait or, in the case of "I Ain't Ready To Quit," hot newcomer Jason Aldean.

(Soundbite of song, "I Ain't Ready To Quit")

Mr. JASON ALDEAN (Singer): (Singing) How could I ever get tired waking up by your side, in the face of your sweet kiss? It tells me I ain't ready to quit.

HAVIGHURST: This was the first time that Boyer, Stennis and Akins have landed a cut on a major country star's album, a career landmark. Some believe Aldean is on track to sell a million copies of his new CD, which would generate about $100,000 in royalties for the song.

Split among three writers and their publishers, that's a rather modest payday, which is why more than ever, writers and publishers are striving for radio hits, where hundreds of spins across 2,000 country stations can generate upwards of a million dollars for a single song.

(Soundbite of song, "White Liar")

Ms. NATALIE HEMBY: (Singing) Hey, white liar, truth comes out (unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: Songwriter Natalie Hemby performs "White Liar" in an office at her publisher, Carnival Music. She co-wrote the song with Miranda Lambert, the artist who made it a chart-topping, award-winning single and hit video.

Ms. HEMBY: We wrote it in 30 minutes, and all I did was tell her, I was like, I've had this song idea forever called "White Liar," and I don't know if you -and she immediately, it's like a light went off. Oh my gosh. Like, "White Liar." Like, the truth comes out a little at a time. I'm like, yes. And then we sat down, and we started playing, and that's a prime example of sometimes it's just to go in cold turkey with people and see what happens.

(Soundbite of song, "White Liar")

Ms. MIRANDA LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) White liar, truth comes out a little at a time. And it spreads just like a fire (Unintelligible).

HAVIGHURST: It was Hemby's first hit song, made easier by the good fortune of landing a writing appointment directly with the artist herself. Most songs, of course, do not have a singer attached from conception. They become the responsibility of Nashville's song pluggers, like veteran Scott Paschall.

Mr. PASCHALL: Back in the day it was a guy with a guitar singing songs from his catalog to people, you know.

HAVIGHURST: Today, it's files on a computer. One recent afternoon, Paschall and his partner Matt Lindsey cued up songs for Steve Bloch, an A&R consultant whos screening material for the creative director of a Nashville label.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Beautiful. Just out of curiosity, you also have a version with Mike singing it?

Unidentified Man #2: No, we talked to him about that. (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. Read me the bridge.

HAVIGHURST: Matt Lindsey says in his career, he's plugged for publishers, song catalogs and individual songwriters, including Garth Brooks' early smash "The Dance."

Mr. MATT LINDSEY: We meet with record producers, A&R people, the artists themselves, the managers, the bus driver, anybody we can get the song to to get it heard because you never know who's going to get the song cut.

HAVIGHURST: This system is a way of life in Nashville, but it is one that's under pressure. Shorter radio playlists and the collapse in CD sales have made lucrative hits scarcer than ever. The city's top songwriting association estimates there are only about a quarter as many staff writers on Music Row today as there were a decade ago.

Lindsey has days when he worries about the future. But he also says it's never been easy.

Mr. LINDSEY: We get turned down nine times out of 10. But you've got to have faith, and you've got to keep pitching those same songs over and over and over if you really believe in them. I have songs I've been pitching 20 years that I know in my heart are hit songs. If the public could just hear it, it would resonate with them and be a number one smash.

HAVIGHURST: For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: And you can hear "I Ain't Ready to Quit" go from work tape to album cut on our music news blog, npr.org/therecord.

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