A Star Is Demo'd

Northern California Songwriters
Association Songscreening
Fort Mason
Tuesday, Jan. 26

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.

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