The Skin Game
For musicians, there is nothing more important than our creativity and our ideas. It is our lifeblood. Even if the wider audience never embraces us, we know “I did this,” and can point to our accomplishments with pride. Take away anything and everything you like from me in this business and in this world (save my amazing wonderful wife), but not my songs, my ideas. My songs are part of me. My creativity is the one thing that is uniquely mine that I can hold on to through all the ups and downs.
In the past I’ve been very impatient with musicians who threaten to quit the music business because they were too sensitive for it--they were delicate flowers, and demanded an outpouring of support to stay. They were lucky to be making music! But recently, I’ve seen another side of this. An experience in the last few months in this sphere was the most crushing in my life and precipitated a crisis in my sobriety and my will to continue on.
One of the very first songs I ever wrote was cut by celebrated blues artist Bettye LaVette on her Grammy-nominated comeback record in 2007. It was a dream come true. I was invited to the record release party in New York City, and when she sang my song and graciously had the spotlight turned on me in the audience to announce me as the songwriter, I had tears in my eyes.
The song was one that I wrote very early in my career and recorded for my first album. I left it off the album at the last minute because I wasn’t quite happy with it, but I still have an early master of the album with the song on it. The version that Bettye ended up recording is a co-write with another Nashville songwriter, but much of the original content is intact from when I first wrote it. I had ended up working with my co-writer when I was looking to get my foot in the door in the Nashville publishing world. A publisher whom I knew casually suggested I write with one his writers because, in his words, “she was in a rut” and he thought we’d make a good team. I like to think that I give credit where credit is due, and when Bettye came to Nashville I invited my co-writer to the show and introduced her to Bettye and Bettye’s husband as the co-writer on our song.
Fast forward five years later, when Bettye’s biography is published. A fantastic account of Bettye’s amazing journey to survive and finally thrive in the cutthroat music industry, it deservedly hit the New York Times' bestseller list and earned rave reviews. However, when I read my copy and got to page 224, I was shocked to find this: “After weeks or deliberating it came down to ten songs [for her 2007 The Scene of the Crime album] including…'I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now' co-written by the brilliant Kim McLean.” I had been made to disappear.
I was heartbroken when I read that. Bettye knew full well I wrote the song, I was the one who personally brought her the song in the first place and she had singled me out at its release! I talked it out with Bettye and it became obvious that my co-writer had been courting Bettye and her husband. It seems my co-writer had snowed them with her past credits and maybe even talked about her contributions to our song to the point that it prompted Bettye and her husband to ask this question: “Sometimes a co-write is a co-write if someone is just in the room with you, how was it with you and Ed?” And according to Bettye, Kim’s answer was a shrug and a “Well, you know how it is.” Anyone who reads that book may not believe me when I say that was my song. And that was the crushing blow that finally broke me.
I’ve done some incredibly stupid things in my time and I’m extremely sorry to anyone I may have hurt or offended or caused to worry. But one thing my friends attest to is that I have heart, loyalty, and integrity. These are the things my parents didn’t fail to instill in me. They are traits that were the most important to them. I know, that’s asking a lot from the entertainment business.
As musicians and people we need to be better than this. In my mind what’s wrong with the music business is not illegal downloading, though that certainly and positively sucks. It’s that we have been given this beautiful and magical grace of God in our lives, the rhythm of life and language everyone on this planet can feel and understand regardless of background, and we’ve turned it into a skin game. Taken it for granted, made it disposable and maybe gotten lazy. We’re not used-car salesmen. We all need to cherish the creation a lot more and respect it with all our hearts and souls. It’s not something to be taken lightly.
Next time you hear a great idea or hear a wonderful tune, please give credit. Have a kind word, congratulate folks, be happy for them. Share the love, for we are not here forever--no one gets out of here alive, and I dare think we all got into this business because music makes our lives a little bit better. This applies equally to the musicians and to those of us who just love music. I believe music makes our lives a lot better. Richer. Let’s not let music, or its creators, slip away from us so easily.
Thanks for listening. I wish you love and peace. Support your local musicians!
P.S.I guess I already wrote and recorded a song with my Norwegian band The Black Country that's perfect for this situation: