Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Great American Songwriter: Dolly Parton

In 1992, Whitney Houston belted out her iconic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and the world was stunned. Not only were we reminded of Houston’s incredible voice, but also of the songwriting talent of Dolly Parton – who had, until then, been reasonably respected in the world of country music but not so much outside of it.

Parton was born and raised in Tennessee, and that’s also where she began her career at an early age. She sang on local radio and television programs, and recorded her first song (called “Puppy Love”) when she was only 13 years old. It was around the same time that she made an appearance at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, and met Johnny Cash. He saw her potential, and encouraged her to follow her dreams.

After Parton graduated from high school, she made the big move to Nashville – and almost immediately signed a songwriting contract with Combine Publishing. She co-wrote her first two hits (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” recorded by Bill Phillips in 1966, and Skeeter Davis’ 1967 single “Fuel to the Flame) with her uncle, Bill Owens. But while she continued to make a name for herself as a songwriter, writing hits for everyone from Kitty Wells to Hank Williams Jr., Parton dreamed of becoming a singer herself. She got the chance at age 19 when she signed with Monument Records, but the company insisted on pitching her as a pop star instead of a country singer and her career halted.

Parton’s first country single, “Dumb Blonde,” was released in 1967. It reached the No. 24 spot on the country chart and was followed by “Something Fishy”, which climbed to No. 17. When she appeared on Porter Wagoner’s television show and sang a duet with him (“The Last Thing on My Mind”, 1967) her reputation as an up-and-coming country star was established. She and Wagoner continued their partnership until 1974.

The early 1970’s saw a steady stream of Dolly Parton hits: “Mule Skinner Blues” (1970), “Joshua” (1971), “Coat of Many Colors” (1971), “Touch Your Woman” (1972), “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (1972),  “Jolene” (1973) and, of course, the original version of “I Will Always Love You” (1974). This last one was apparently written about her professional break from Wagoner – and when Elvis Presley expressed interest in covering the song, Parton refused. This decision proved she may be as good a businessperson as she is an artist, because it led to her earning far more in royalties.

Until 1980, Parton consistently charted in the country Top 10; eight of her singles released during this time reached No. 1. She also launched her own syndicated television variety show, called “Dolly!” (1976–1977) and had her songs covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Linda Ronstadt (both of whom she worked with to record Trio, the critically acclaimed album the three women released in 1987.) Her fame and success reached such great heights that she was even able to help her siblings, Randy and Stella, sign recording contracts of their own. But still, Parton wanted more.

In an attempt to branch out of country music and become more mainstream, Parton began working with Sandy Gallin, who acted as her personal manager for the next 25 years. In 1977, she dropped her first entirely self-produced album, New Harvest… First Gathering (1977) to highlight her abilities to create pop music – but while the album did well on the country chart, it barely touched the pop charts. Parton pivoted to enlist high-profile pop producer Gary Klein and her next album, Here You Come Again (1977) was her first million-dollar seller. It topped the country album chart and claimed the pop chart’s No. 20 spot.

While Parton did eventually see some mainstream success, she was never able to stray far from her country music roots. In 1978, she won a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance (for Here You Come Again, which she released as a pop album) and appeared on many country-music-themed television specials. Over the next few decades, she remained primarily a country music singer – but she did find one area of mainstream music in which she was able to excel: movie soundtracks. Nine to Five, Prisoner in Disguise and, of course, The Bodyguard – these and other films owe a lot to Ms. Parton.

Parton has worn many hats over the course of her career, and continues to do so to this day. She has been an actress, a performer, a composer, a businesswoman (she is co-owner of The Dollywood Company, which operates multiple businesses including the famous Dollywood theme park) and a philanthropist (best known for her Dollywood Foundation) but even within her songwriting alone, she has shown incredible range. While her early songs show strong elements of folk music, she has also won over 35 BMI Pop and Country Awards. In 2001, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame – and she is showing no sign of slowing down yet.

So, what’s Dolly Parton’s secret? What makes her such a prolific songwriter? Well, she’s been quoted as saying that she has written upwards of 3,000 songs and writes every single day, whether it be a complete song or just an idea. She isn’t afraid to work hard for what she wants, and we are all reaping the rewards.


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For more information, updates and profiles on American songwriters, keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records – where we record the songs that America writes.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Brief Introduction to A Cappella



Here on this blog, we’ve introduced and highlighted a variety of instruments, from the mainstream to the obscure – but what about that most important instrument of all, the one we were all born with?

While we love beautifully crafted instrumental pieces, it’s hard to deny the incredible affect the human voice has on music. In fact, it’s so powerful that the voice has the ability to mimic other popular instruments – and great music can be created by voices alone.

The term a cappella comes from an Italian phrase meaning “in the manner of the church” or “in the manner of the chapel”, referring to the type of music a church choir sings without instrumental assistance. But while it may have originated in religious customs, a cappella has grown and morphed over the years – and recently, modern media (think Pitch Perfect and Glee) has secured it a place in popular culture.

How did a cappella make such a transitional journey, moving from hymns sung in churches to the lively renditions of pop songs heard today? Well, early progression can largely be contributed to the barbershop quartets of the early twentieth century; the melodic four-part harmonies and matching outfits proved to be as entertaining for onlookers as they were fun for the performers. And while the dawn of radio threatened to put an end to the pastime, the 1930s saw a barbershop revival and the birth of The Barbershop Harmony Society – who, to this day, keeps the love of these early a cappella groups alive.

Today, a very different picture might surface when we think of a cappella – one involving teams of students competing against one another, in the way of a sporting event or dance-off. And it’s true that high school and college campuses across the United States have become important hubs of the instrument-less art. Joining an a cappella group is a respectable extracurricular activity, whether the student plans to pursue a career in music or not. And as modern music continues to evolve and diversify, so do the different types of a cappella. (Have you ever considered that beatboxing is a form of a cappella? It is.)


If you’re a fan of a cappella and want to find more of it, look for singles by 1980s artists like The Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin, Huey Lewis and the News, All-4-One, Backstreet Boys and The Nylons. That time was a great one for a cappella – but the genre can be found in many different places, from musical theatre to the group of kids freestyle rapping on their front porch down the street.

For more fun facts and updates from the world of American music, keep checking back with us at HillTop Records.

Friday, December 16, 2016

How Songwriters Make Money



By now, you’ve probably read a few articles asserting that the Internet has killed – or at least seriously maimed – the music industry’s ability to make money. But while it may be true that the rise of live streaming and (illegal) downloads has altered a songwriter’s income streams, the Internet has arguably opened more doors than it has closed. It is still very possible to make a good living from songwriting; you just need to understand how songwriters make money today, and consider diversifying your revenue streams.

Mechanical Royalties
Simply put, a mechanical royalty is a payment generated from a “reproduction” copyright. It is a specific, agreed upon amount of money owed to the songwriter for every physical unit – CD, LP, digital download, etc. – sold. It is most commonly paid by the record company and in the United States, the royalty rate per reproduction is set by the U.S. government. It is currently $0.091 per composition.

A Digital Download Mechanical Royalty is actually generated from both “reproduction” and “distribution” copyrights. Download music services like Amazon and iTunes pay this royalty to the songwriter, at the same rate as a traditional mechanical royalty.

A Streaming Mechanical Royalty is owed to the songwriter every time a song is streamed via an interactive streaming service like Spotify, Rhapsody or Pandora. The U.S. government currently mandates that the songwriter is owed 10.5% of gross revenue minus the cost of “public performance.” This rate, having started out extremely low, has recently been a hot topic in the music industry – and we are now seeing it climb at a rapid rate. The streaming mechanical royalty has the potential to become a lucrative revenue stream in the coming years.

A Mechanical Synchronization Royalty is based on a number of units of something – a greeting card, video game, toy, etc. – that contains the song. It is paid to the songwriter by the manufacturer of that product (i.e. a production company or brand like Hallmark) and there is no government rate per unit.

Another type of mechanical royalty is a Mechanical Royalty for a Ringtone or Ringback Tone, which is owed from the purchase of a ringtone or ringback tone. It is paid by telecom (i.e. AT&T, Verizon) and music service companies. There is no government rate; it is to be negotiated.

Public Performance Royalties
These are the royalties generated from the “public performance” portion of the copyright. Every time a song is performed in public, either in person (live on stage) or via television or Internet, the songwriter is owed a royalty. This money is paid by venues, TV stations, AM/FM radio, and other businesses typically to Performance Rights Organizations like ASCAP or BMI who collect these fees on behalf of their members and then distribute the money to their members based on the number of performances their songs have generated – and there is no government rate, but there are government agents who oversee these negotiations to ensure that they are fair.

Those performances that are broadcast via Internet or satellite (i.e. Sirius XM Satellite Radio) generate Digital Non-interactive Streaming Public Royalties, while those accessed by the public via digital sources that are interactive (any streaming service that allows the user to manually control the music) generate Interactive Streaming Public Performance Royalties.

Public Performance Royalties for a Ringtone or Ringback Tone are, meanwhile, owed by Telecom and music services for the public performance that occurs with the play of a ringtone or ringback tone.

Synchronization License Royalties
These are royalties generated from the “distribution” copyright. Unlike other types of royalties, these are one-time license payments made to the songwriter that allow for the synchronization and distribution of a song with a moving image. These royalties are owed when a song is used in a movie, commercial, etc. They are paid by studios and production companies, and there is no government rate. The license fee is typically negotiated based on the length of use of the song, the format and popularity of the vehicle, and how the song is used. A songwriter can make anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands in synchronization license royalties.

A Digital Synchronization License is a similar royalty paid by sites like YouTube and Vimeo that share user generated content, and the royalty rate is typically based off a percentage of net revenue generated by advertising.

Print Royalties
The “public display” copyright generates print royalties, which can either be one-time payments or per unit sold. They are owed whenever a song is printed, whether that be as sheet music or as a lyric on a t-shirt. There is no government rate but traditionally, for sheet music, songwriters are paid 15% of the retail price. A Digital Print Royalty works the same way, but for digital spaces like websites and apps.


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For more information on royalties and how songwriters get paid, read our previous post on the topic. For more tips, news and updates from the American music industry, keep checking back with us here at HillTop Records.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Goodbye, 2016! The Best Music Festivals Happening This December



December is a month that conjures up many things: wrapped gifts, twinkling lights, brightly colored decorations – and, of course, holiday music. But along with listening to beloved renditions of classic carols at home (and at the mall) we recommend also checking out some of these great music festivals.

Channel 93.3’s Not So Silent Night (12/2/2016) in Denver, Colorado
Brought to you by one of Denver’s most popular radio stations, this annual rock festival always draws a crowd. This year’s lineup features Empire of the Sun, Kaleo, The Strumbellas, JRJR, and 888 at the giant 1st Bank Center concert hall. Along with hours of incredible live music, the festival offers a beer garden and other concessions.

Frost Fest (12/2/2016 – 12/3/2016) in Palestine, Texas
After three successful years, the Frost Fest returns to charming Palestine, Texas. This year’s theme will center on the turn of the century, with d├ęcor and costumes to match. Attendees may enjoy snowman building, an open-air holiday film festival, an historical tour of homes, hot cocoa and cookies, games, food trucks, and the Freeze Your Buns 5k run. There will also be lots of live music and entertainment, and the piece de resistance for the little ones: a 110-foot snow hill for sledding.

Astoria Starving Artist Faire (12/2/2016 – 12/4/2016) in Astoria, Oregon
Like its tongue-in-cheek name indicates, the Starving Artist Faire serves to showcase the work of local artisans. Attendees (there will likely be 500 – 700) may browse over fifty vendors selling arts and crafts, and food. Meanwhile, live music by local performers will lend a lovely soundtrack to the biggest local event of the season. If you’re coming with children, know that Santa will be onsite both Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

Humboldt Artisans Crafts and Music Festival (12/2/2016 – 12/4/2016) in Eureka, California
Now in its 36th year, this festival is always held over the first weekend of December – and it keeps getting bigger and better. This year attendees can expect over 130 booths of handmade gifts by talented artisans and craftspeople from around the Pacific Northwest, live music by local bands, and delicious food. Admission is just $3, and kids and seniors get in free.

Winter Block Party (12/3/2016) in Lancaster, South Carolina
Lancaster Performing Arts is swapping its usual venue for the streets of downtown Lancaster, where you’ll find a stage set up during the Red Rose Holiday Tour. The free block party begins at 10 a.m. and goes till sundown. Plan to spend an entire day shopping for holiday gifts, sampling tasty local foods, and enjoying the live music and festive atmosphere.

Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies (12/7/2016 – 12/10/2016) in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
The Ramada Inn & Smoky Mountain Convention Center is the venue for this fun-filled festival. The lineup features Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Paul Williams, The Grascals, SIDELINE, Bluegrass Mountaineers, Garrett Newton Band, and so many others. If you’re a fan of bluegrass, you should definitely try to make it to this event.

NewSong Music (12/10/2016) in New York, New York
The NewSong Music showcase and competition is one of the country’s premier events for songwriters, created to identify and recognize excellence in songwriting. It’s a day that twelve songwriters have been waiting and working a long while for; they will compete as finalists and perform at world-renowned Lincoln Center – and no matter who wins, it’s sure to be a great time for all.

Winter Wonderland Festival (12/17/2016 – 12/18/2016) in Fort Valley, Georgia
Georgia residents, consider this your all-in-one wintertime festival. It features an ice skating rink, numerous attractions for kids of all ages (including those who are technically no longer kids), rids, food, arts and crafts, and great live music. The event promises to be fun for the whole family, and a fantastic way to embrace the holiday spirit. You won’t want to miss the Jumbo Tubing Slide, Bungee Jumping or SnowGlobe Live (a human-sized snowglobe.) Yes, Santa Claus will be there as well.


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For more information on music festivals near you, visit FestivalNet.com – and for more news and updates from the American music industry, keep following along with us here at HillTop Records.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Silicon Valley’s Influence on the Music Industry



If you read the news today, you might think that the industries of music and technology are at war with one another. But while the two may have a few differences of opinion, music and tech intersect in many ways – and Silicon Valley loves music just like the rest of the world.

Home to companies like Dolby Laboratories, Pandora and Smule, Silicon Valley is constantly turning out new ways to discover, make and listen to music. They’re even home to a non-profit organization specially designed to help technology professionals (and those who want to be) lend their efforts and expertise to the music industry. Real Industry offers informative courses that teach students how to create new music apps, produce music, and even design new instruments. It and similar programs serve to combat the opinion that Silicon Valley’s corporations are at odds with music and art.

If you live in Silicon Valley, you know that good music isn’t hard to find. The area is home to fantastic live music venues like the TrianonTheatre in downtown San Jose, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, and Stanford’s Frost Amphitheatre. San Francisco is, meanwhile, a short drive away.

However, what really makes the music scene in Silicon Valley – and, for that matter, around the country – special these days is how it is affected (and even molded) by the area’s main export – and while naysayers may insist that music and tech can’t get along, a new generation of startups is out to prove them wrong.

Here are just a few of the newest, most exciting companies blurring the lines between music, tech, and things in between:

In an industry known for cloud-based innovation and intangible products, Heard Well does the unthinkable: It makes physical products. The company sells compilation albums hand-picked by the company founders and popular YouTubers on iTunes as well as actual things like CDs, vinyl and T-shirts – and it’s doing well, proving that nostalgia still plays a large role in how we buy, listen to and love music.

Headed by a former designer at Nokia, The Sync Project has a lofty mission “to develop music as medicine”. Its website offers “a million songs to unlock the health benefits of music” and its plans are backed by extensive research on the profound cognitive effects that music has on the brain. From pain to fatigue to anxiety, music has been shown to help treat a variety of ailments – but this should come as no surprise to any music lover.

Virtual reality has been getting a lot of press lately (Pokemon Go, anyone?) and this well-funded startup brilliantly sets the technology to music. Its main offering is the unique ability to “experience” a live concert from the comfort of your own home (or, well, anywhere.) Paul McCartney, Jack White and other world-renowned artists have already come on board to produce virtual versions of performances.

In the same vein as WhatsApp and Snapchat, La-La looks to change the way we communicate with one another. Instead of sending written words, however, users message snippets of songs that they like to their friends (and they have the option to include a photo as well.) Consider it a fun, new way to discover fun, new songs.

For more updates and news from the American music industry, be sure to keep checking back with us at HillTop Records