Making Something Out of Nothing:
Connecting Music Notes and Network Nodes in Country Music Songwriting
This figure shows my network-based sampling frame of successful songwriters, with interviewees indicated in blue. You can see that I interviewed one isolate, some from small components, and many in the main component. Further, unlike snowball samples, you can see the there are no direct ties between my interviewees.
“One day I was feeling really sorry for myself, you know, like oh I’m not making a lot of money and nobody is cutting my songs. And I was driving to a writing appointment and so I thought: ‘Well ok if you had that big string of hit songs on the charts right now, what would you do?’ It’s like, what am I doing today? I’m going to go over to somebody’s house whose creativity excites and inspires me. And we’re going to sit down in a room and make something out of nothing. And if I had three songs in the top ten right now, what would I be doing today?
I’d be going over to meet with somebody and make something out of nothing.”
In a commercial art world like the country music industry, the right balance of artistic integrity and making money is a lofty but primary goal. Though the genre's commercial alignment makes maxims about not selling out less potent, there still exist tensions between art and commerce. Emphasizing this dualism, two of country music’s figureheads, songwriter Harlan Howard and Chet Atkins, the co-creator of the Nashville Sound, respectively asserted that country music is made up of three chords and the truth and that the true Nashville Sound is coins jingling in a pocket. Though country music remains the most popular and profitable format of music in the United States, the goal of writing a song that achieves lucrative commercial success and artistic integrity has become more difficult during the turbulent post-2000 period, after which revenue from recorded music plummeted in a market disrupted by fundamental technological changes. In the scurry to maintain an economic foothold in a nascent digital and streaming music economy, the industry and its players have re-strategized and distorted their strategies and practices, reshaping the way that music is made and ultimately rewriting the social rules that structure the creation of hit songs.
Making Something Out of Nothing dives into the world of country music songwriters as they try to balance their artistic goals with the need to make money and maintain a career. Since the work of songwriting happens collaboratively, with songwriters building networks node by node and writing songs note by note, the book is structured to mirror the building of successful networks, from an initial chapter introducing individual songwriters and commenting on career paths and creative intentions, to co-writing and small group collaboration, to network-level effects, and finally placing the network and embedded songwriters into the larger context of the country music industry.
The setting of this book is the social network of successful Nashville songwriters from 2000-2015, a period of intense transition to a digital music economy dealing with economic decline brought on by paradigm-shifting technological change. I situate interviews with 40 elite hit songwriters within a rigorously-constructed sampling frame that maps out all collaborative network ties based on a four-fold typology of successful songs. The results of this study reveal songwriters’ approach to strategizing their next career move, how they use collective attribution to solve the tension between artistic and commercial aspirations, and the ways they effectively manage collaborating with a wide range of up-and-comers, gonna-be’s, wanna-be’s, and Grammy-winning artists. Their social world is complex, and each individual songwriter has to consider the embedded resources that are “in the room” when a song is written rather than just considering who could come together to write the best lyrics or music.