SONG POEMS AND PAY-TO-PLAY

LEARNING FROM
THE PAST...

THE SONG POEM STORY

by Bon Von Wheelie

Have you ever looked in old 50s/60s/70s tabloid movie and teen magazines? Way in the back, in bold print, you’ll find an enormous amount of ads inviting new songwriters to submit their poems for recordings. I’ve always been intrigued by these ads. Even as a kid I couldn’t imagine that there weren’t already thousands of great songwriters working in the music industry. Why would there be such a shortage? Could it really be true that new talent needed to be sought in the same way that you could buy and train sea monkeys (aka brine shrimp)? It just didn’t make sense and I always wondered what the deal was.

Later in my life I discovered the other end of this practice - the records themselves. And oh, what records! There is now almost a cult of record collectors who prize these weird and sometimes demented gems. Count me in! Listening to such potential hits as “Sing Your Zip Code” and “Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush” is both mind boggling and hilarious. But I believe the more interesting aspect of this phenomenon is the process that went from those crude little magazine ads to the finished product.


THEY ARE KNOWN AS SONG-POEMS

As I have researched the current popularity of pay-to-play opportunities, I can’t keep from thinking how these two industries seem to have quite a few characteristics in common. Song-poems started in the 1900s as sheet music and branched out into records during it’s heyday of the 50s/70s. Also referred to as song-sharking, the old song-poem companies built their business from people who had dreams of becoming successful in the music industry. Were these companies helping the “average joe” to attain his dreams, or simply taking advantage of that fact to gain profit for themselves? It’s an extremely interesting question. I believe that sometimes a bit of history can be highly beneficial to examine current practices. So let’s look at the song-poem industry.

CALLING ALL POETS...

Look in the back of any pulp movie/music/specialty magazine (especially from the 50s to the 70s). In amongst the ads for personal vibrators, X-ray specs and bust enhancers you will see small bold ads inviting you to submit your poems to songwriting companies. "Your Poems Set To Music", "Songwriters Needs Poems" "$100,000 Recording Contract Possible" and "Hollywood Needs Songwriters" were just a few of the tempting headlines. Commonly known as song-sharking, these ads enticed potential "lyricists" to submit their material to a panel of experts who would judge its potential. No matter how disjointed, how un-music-like, how crazy, the poem was always given the TOP RATING and immediately accepted by the company to be worthy of treatment. You would receive a letter from the company praising your work and giving you an offer for their team of expert musicians to record your song. Who could pass up a chance like that? The experts have spoken: YOU HAVE POTENTIAL! and with the right treatment you could be famous and have a successful hit record. The final prices varied but it would normally take a $200 (for a trio) to $400 (orchestra) show of good faith (seed money) to make those dreams come true. A sizeable investment for the poor people who fell for this, but a small price to pay for a new and exciting career.



Song-poem ads taken from movie magazines. This group is from Photoplay, 1973.

YOU ARE A SONGWRITER...

These companies were set up to knock out a song almost faster than humanly possible. I highly recommend you see the film (see the link below) called "Off The Charts" to understand how fast these pros could work. Dozens of companies were set up to crank out a record with such speed and efficiency it is unbelievable. There were two primary ways these records were made. One way was for the company to quickly think up a tune (or sometimes even recycling them) and write the charts for professional session musicians to sight read in one take. These musicians were usually down on their luck or at the end of a real career in recording. They claim these session guys could sight-read and record 30 songs in an hour and a half of studio time! The other way, as in the case of a one-man operation, was for one musician/company owner to handle the poem from start to finish (writing, performing, and recording could take under an hour to complete). Once the poem was recorded, a vinyl 45 RPM record was quickly pressed (or for extra you could appear on a compilation album). The company would produce a small quantity - just enough for the song-writer to have for their own needs (pass out to family and friends) and that's as far as it went. The cash invested covered the small pressing of records and some profit for the company. The more serious of these songwriters even went as far as releasing albums!


PHOTO ABOVE: An actual song-poem album "Songs of Love, Songs of Life" released on the Royal Master Recording label and autographed by song-poet Alice Picotte.


THE ULTIMATE TEST...

In 1976, 19 year old John Trubee put this practice to the ultimate test. Upon thumbing through a pulp magazine he spotted a song poem ad and decided it would be funny to write the most obnoxious poem he could think of, and send it in. He quickly penned the infamous "Peace and Love" (aka "Blind Man's Penis"), and fully expected a nasty return letter telling him what a “screwed up hippie” he was. He was ready for the worst. Instead, his composition was accepted by the Midnight Globe company and received notice that it was worthy to put onto record, for the right price. John couldn’t resist and sent $79.95 for the “full Nashville sound” which was co-written by Will Gentry and sung by Ramsey Kearney (the same guy under different names). John did indeed receive his 45 rpm record. Read all about it here.

NEVER GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAM...

Thousands of star-struck people paid hundreds, often times thousands, of dollars they couldn't afford for that chance of a major songwriting career. Songs like "Jimmy Carter Says Yes", "Non-Violent TaeKwonDo Troopers", "Convertibles and Headbands" and "Human Breakdown of Absurdity" (to name but a few) would be pressed into records with the hope that each disc would sell millions. Many song-poem writers would continue, with the encouragement of the song-poem company, to submit poem after poem, thinking that if they just kept at it eventually they'd get that "hit" of their dreams. Fame and riches could be as close as that next record...

Song poem labels always released albums with generic covers.

COMPLETE HONESTY OR FUDGING THE DETAILS?

It’s important to remember that these companies were not specifically lying to people. In a weird twisted way, they could back up every claim they made. At the same time, was it completely ethical? Let’s look at what was promised and what was the reality.

Your song will be judged and approved by a team of “music industry experts!”
There is no denying that the song-poem companies were part of the music industry. Unfortunately it was considered the lowest rung and was almost completely dismissed by professional artists working in the field.

Your song will be recorded by professional musicians!
Song poem artists were made up of professionals (some with very good credentials) who were either down on their luck, or needed the extra work between real gigs. However, it’s important to note that only song poems received this kind of one-take, assembly line treatment. If something wasn’t quite right, these musicians almost never went back and tried again. All song-poems were recorded in the fastest possible way. Quantity was definitely more important than quality.

You will receive a record of your poem set to music!
Song-poems were produced providing your check cleared, and covered the entire cost of the project including song-writing, recording and pressing...plus some profit for the company.

Your song will be released on a national label and distributed!
There were hundreds of song-poem labels operating all over the U.S. Many companies had multiple label names. The distribution was mostly done by the song-poet to their immediate family and friends.

Your song may receive airplay!
Song-poem companies would sometimes book dead hours on tiny independent radio stations in order to play their clients’ records.

Your song may appear on the charts!
Song-poem companies often published their own independent charts to track all the songs on their label. These never made it on to any legitimate song charts.

BOTH SIDES OF THE CONTROVERSY
When discussing song-poems it is best to keep in mind that...
* Song poem companies were totally legal.
* These companies were not getting rich off song-poem clients. They were only making a healthy living.
* Nobody was twisting the arm of the potential song poets.

On the other hand...
* Song poem companies obviously knew that none of these poems had a chance in hell of going farther than the record they produced.
* Even though they might have given it their best effort, the performing musicians realized that no real record was produced in this manner.
* The magazine ads were purposely worded to take advantage of the hopes and dreams of desperate or naive people.
* The facts were being fudged...big time.

FOLLOW THIS STEP BY STEP TUTORIAL IN THE TREATMENT OF YOUR SONG-POEM


BUT YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH THIS FACT...

In all the hundreds of thousands of song-poems that have been published and recorded over many decades...

not one has ever been a hit.


SO WERE SONG-POEMS A SCAM?

The companies certainly would never admit to something like that. Most of them actually claimed they were offering a valuable and much-needed service by helping people realize their dreams. They were offering a gateway to showbiz to the average person. Lots of the "poets" claim they were not a scam. Of course who would want to admit they spent a lot of money for nothing or that they didn't have talent in the first place? Many song-poets still believe that submitting song-poems keeps their hand in showbiz or that they will eventually get that hit. They are still not giving up on their dream, no matter how many facts you throw at them. But again, these companies absolutely knew that they were being evasive and very loose with the facts. They were experts at taking advantage of human nature.

Some people claim all scams must involve illegal activity. I don’t agree. To me, in this context, a scam is a venture perpetrated for profit upon someone who is so naive, so inexperienced or so eager for a fast track to success, they'll go to any lengths to achieve their goal. The song-poem companies didn’t actually lie, they just didn’t give all the important information required to make a rational judgement. They might have skirted around the issues like an Olympic ice skater, BUT they didn’t specifically lie. Fudging the details wasn’t grounds for a lawsuit.

So are you getting my drift here? These types of "showbiz opportunities" and "industry salesmanship" have been in the music industry as long as there has been a music industry. Even before recordings, there were vanity sheet music publishers. The pitch may vary but the outcome is usually the same. So next time some show, battle, showcase, or CD opportunity sounds too good to be true, think about the old song-poem industry and see if it doesn't sound familiar...


This is famous song-poem, "demo singer" (to use his term) Gene Merlino, going under the name John Muir. Gene was a real professional and worked with Frank, Elvis, etc. Having many different names was typical in the song poem industry.


THE SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE

The American Song-Poem Music Archives: The most in-depth website ever done on song-poems by our old pal, Phil Milstein. Leave it to Phil to have the most comprehensive website ever!

Off The Charts (The Song-Poem Story): Originally aired on the PBS program, Independent Lens, you can watch the entire show here. Be sure to see how really good Rodd Keith was!

Off The Charts (The Song-Poem Story) DVD: Better yet, just buy the DVD! I guarantee you'll be watching it over and over with all your friends. Plus, really great extra features (including a pay-to-play tv variety show)!

American Song-Poem Anthology CD: This is a great one to get started on. One listen to this and you'll be hooked!

I Died Today CD: This is an entire album of Rodd Keith songs. Check out his story on the Off The Charts DVD and fall in love like I did. We didn't realize we'd already had a bunch of his records! Unfortunately this CD doesn't have our personal favorite "Big Weekend" which he released under Rod Rogers (listen to Big Weekend here from the wfmu website) but still well worth the price.

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