Amanda Colleen Williams is an award-winning songwriter and music publisher with songs on albums certified at 17 million sales by the Recording Industry Association of America®, including “She’s Tired of Boys,” written with Garth Brooks.
Also an educator and entrepreneur, Williams is regularly called on to speak as a non-attorney copyright expert at government institutions including the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. She is currently piloting a program with the U.S. Department of State called Arts Envoy IPR, combining arts diplomacy and intellectual property rights education.
As a one-woman army, Williams owns three successful businesses including a private events venue in Nashville called The 7695, an educational and consulting resource for songwriter entrepreneurs called Songpreneurs, and her multi-platinum certified music publishing company Hillbilly Culture LLC.
Can you talk about your new CD, Appalachia Kid and your recent cut with Garth Brooks?
Amanda Colleen Williams:
It is perfect timing because the lead single on ‘Appalachia Kid’ is now available for people to listen to on my website. I am excited about people hearing it. The release goes together with the song I wrote called “I Can Be Me With You” by Garth Brooks from his ‘Fun’ album. It was put on hold four years ago. It has been like a beam of light. As an independent artist and a singer-songwriter you always look for momentum. Garth talks about momentum. What better way and time to release my music, than right along with Garth’s. I am totally stoked to share the new music with everybody.
There is a reason I am excited about ‘Appalachia Kid.’ I ran away from country music and being a hillbilly from East Tennessee. The worst culture shock was not moving from Tennessee to Boston to go to The Berklee College of Music. For me it was moving from East Tennessee to Nashville. Tennessee has three stars in the flag that represent east, middle, and west. It really is three states in one. Each distinct region has its own culture and history. All three work together but are very much distinct. East Tennessee is stereotypical hillbilly. Think Dolly Parton and mountains. There are some truths and hidden beauties that people don’t always recognize. The terrain is gorgeous. Middle Tennessee is a travel and enterprise hub. The early folks didn’t really settle in Nashville because it was in a basin and it was used as hunting land. There was a lot of travel because of the major riverways and the central location. It is the reason why a lot of touring companies are based out of Nashville. Sixty five percent of the population in the United States is within an eight-hour radius of Nashville. West Tennessee consists of Memphis, the blues and farmland along the Mississippi River. I am a sucker for cultures and stories.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I observed my dad’s songwriting process. I have a cool vantage point which I call sitting at the feet of the master because my dad was a unique person. He survived an industrial fire from 1974 and sixty percent of his body was burned. He was this good looking twenty-six-year-old newlywed man who went to work one day and didn’t come home for six months. When he did, he was permanently disfigured. He went through a long recovery.
When I was born seven years after that, he was still very much in recovery. He poured himself into being a dad and reading poetry to me. He inflamed himself again with the love of the writing and spoken word. With writing you don’t have to be the good-looking kid. The older you are the more life experience you have, therefore the better writer you are because of the depth of experience and willingness to work through things. I think most of us come into songwriting as a form of therapy.
It’s no different for me. I had the example of this guy who against all odds decided he was going to be a hit songwriter and worked at it daily. He was a burnt-out construction worker from East Tennessee and became a Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame Member. That was all based on his willpower and ability to put words on paper and move people. He and I would talk a lot about songwriting and the creative process. He was a student of psychology, so I learned from that.
As an adult entrepreneur I started a company called Hillbilly Culture, and he was the ‘hillbilly godfather’ of knowledge. With the experience I gained from writing lesson plans as a homeschooling mom, I put it all together and came up with a way to encourage writers of all ability levels and help them write songs. It doesn’t matter if you have written one song or a thousand songs. We call it the Write Brain Song Crafting Method™. It helps you to put your full brain to use.
We draw on the old theory of your right and left brain. Your right brain sees the whole picture and takes risks etc. Your left brain is detail oriented and crosses the t’s and dots the I’s. Both parts are needed when songwriting. What you find is you can try and swim upstream but if you are in the flow you should stay in the flow with your right brain. You shouldn’t be leaping back and forth between writing and editing. Those are two separate things. Anybody who is a professional writer and even entrepreneurs who are flow hacking get into transcended states. I guess that happens when you are making music or concentrating hard on something. You see it throughout all different disciplines.
I apply the same technique to the songwriting process and it makes it easier and more fun. Of course, there are people who labor over every single word and they end up with songs that are just as beautiful as someone who practices our method. There is something to be said about pursuing one’s own process. I think a lot of the time the frustration that comes with writing is due to arguing with yourself and getting in your own way.
What’s your favorite song you have written and why?
Right now, it’s ‘I Can Be Me With You’ off the Garth Brooks album. I just love what he did with it. The coolest part is that I wrote it with my dear friend Benita Hill. She wrote ‘Two Pina Coladas.’ She has a very successful career in country music. She used to sing background for The Allman Brothers. She is such a mentor to me and I look up to her as a woman in the industry. She worked at Allen Reynolds’ old publishing house. That’s how she met Garth’s group. I didn’t meet her through my dad, but I met her around town. I thought she was such a radiant person. We started working together and we wrote a handful of stuff. We both felt really good about ‘I Can Be Me With You.’
When Garth put it on hold, we were both super excited. It’s one of those things where you never mention the title again until it’s out. I was really shocked that Garth talked about me having a song on his album. He was on the radio in Knoxville and they asked him about me. Sometimes people call me Mandy. He said, ‘I do write with Mandy and she has a new song on the album.’ It was so cool. The reviews are saying it is showing a new side of Garth.
Garth is so multi-faceted. The song is right up his alley with up tempo feel good stuff. I was so honored to have written it with Benita. It is one of the outside songs on the album that Garth did not write although he always puts his own touch on everything he does and makes it his own. I don’t care what the work tape sounds like, it’s always going to sound like Garth. It is always so exciting as a writer to hear what he is going to do. That’s my favorite one right now.
Can you talk about Songpreneurs?
That is my company. Over the past twenty years, the whole economics of being a songwriter has completely changed. If you were to take what you normally make today and divide it by ninety-one; that is what happened to the songwriters’ royalty rate as the consumer marketplace shifted from physical goods like albums to the streaming model. That is drastic. If you looked at your paycheck today and divided it by ninety-one, you probably couldn’t make it through the next few months.
It was devastating for Nashville and according to some people we lost eighty percent of our professional songwriters. I believe it was more than that. I believe we have two percent of everybody left. It’s probably less than that as to who is making a living as a songwriter. A lot of people have become entrepreneurial which is great for people who are looking to work with someone who has a mastery skillset as a songwriter, if you measure the mastery skillset by Malcom Gladwell’s definition of 10,000 hours doing it. You can measure it by getting song cuts as well.
Our company, Songpreneurs, saw it coming. We started seeing the decline of business in 2006 and 2007. It really fell off a cliff. The entrepreneurial mindset is essential to make a sustainable business within the current music space. You have to be more than a songwriter, you have to be a business owner. You can use your music in creative ways. You use your music to connect with the audience and you better have a plan to be able to pay for your bills, demos, and recordings. The current model is really challenging for the songwriter who is not also the artist or the business owner.
As a songwriter, can you talk about catalogue management, copyrighting, and registering songs?
The book that you are talking about, ‘Getting Started The Right Way In The New Millennium of Music Business’ was one of the first offerings from Songpreneurs. It really started out as my publishing house and then branched off into Songpreneurs which helps songwriters get the entrepreneurial skills to make a sustainable business. Getting started the right way in the new millennium of the music business is very important.
When a songwriter sits down and writes a song there is this thing called copyright which has to do with the song that was written. It helps you to get paid for the song. I have a degree in music business. I had been a lifelong daughter to a man who brought our family from living on social security and disability payments to becoming a songwriting Hall of Fame Member. I still did not understand what copyright meant as I always thought it was something that you do with your songs. It is so much more than that for the creative as you wield the bundle of rights to make your living. It works on the principle of supply and demand. You are the creator of a work and you take all your experiences, writing classes, every heartache that your poor body has withstood, and through your specialized experience you put that down into words.
Once you do that and put the melody to that, you have created intellectual property in the form of the song and that form of intellectual property is the copyright. That is the © with the circle around it. From there the song journeys from the words you wrote and recorded on your computer/phone to the music industry system of checks and balances that help you get paid when you send your song out on its merry way to the digital marketplace. That is what the music industry simply is. It’s the process of getting the material from the writer, artist, producer and everybody that goes into the making of that art distributed out to the consumer, and then getting the royalty money back to the creators.
For example, with my ‘Appalachia Kid’ release when I put my song out as a songwriter I then have a system that has to be done in order to make all my money. Basically, the first step is to register it with your Administrator if you have one, and from there to your other registrations for the song, including your Performing Rights Organization. As an independent you are taking care of your own mechanical rights, and you can pay directly to any co-writers you have. Soon you will have the opportunity to register through that mechanical rights licensing organization as that is being started up in the U.S. right now.
As an artist, you are handling your own mechanicals through your distributor. You must look at your bundle of rights, what income streams are going to come from your song, and how do I trace the income streams that come back to me. You are not only registering your copyright with the © circle around it that protects the song itself, but also as an independent artist you have your song recording copyright which is represented with the ℗ and a circle around it. Most people today still don’t understand the difference between the two; the C and the P. The reason is because it is not common sense.
In fact, it is a construct and is something that the industry got together and agreed upon; this is your copyright for your sound recording and this is your copyright for your song. Especially in Nashville, people are not the recording artists. They couldn’t be if they wanted to be and are physically not capable. It helps you to write wonderful, lasting, timeless, songs. My dad is case in point. He wrote: ‘Three Wooden Crosses,’ ‘Ain’t Going Down Until the Sun Comes Up,’ ‘Papa Loved Mama,’ ‘A New Way to Fly,’ ‘Cold Shoulder,’ ‘The Night I Called The Old Man Out,’ and ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.’ I am only naming number ones right now. Without the economics to back that up, you can’t help the individual creator make a living to sustain himself/herself and their family with the product of their commerce. This is where my passion comes from.
Now it is so different. With my music product right now, I am not able to earn the royalty return just from the music itself, when you consider that my most successful song to date earns me $4.00 (four dollars) per 500,000 (half a million) units consumed. If those were physical units, the royalty for the songwriter would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t understand the business. Beth Nielson Chapman said it best, ‘It’s like we all have our heads in our guitar hole.’
It is tough for those of us who know the difference and I know the difference. When my dad first started writing, it wasn’t even 9.1 cents yet for the mechanicals. It was around 6.9 cents. As low as that was for a song and let’s say an album had ten songs on it, each one of those songs paid the songwriter and the publisher 6.9 cents. They were selling the album for ten bucks. It may seem small but it was the engine that operated this town. When your single was played on the radio, the consumer was going out and buying the album because the single was so good.
Back in the day we called it going for a ride. I helped Beverly Ross write her memoirs and she wrote the Lollipop song. She taught me this term ‘going for a ride,’ as she had done it with her song ‘Candy Man,’ the flip side of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying.’ Her sales benefited from his other song. Now you don’t see the album format as much and that’s why the need for Songpreneurs is so strong because people love their music and know that there is value there.
In your book you talk about song pitching, casting, and access. Can you talk about this in depth?
You have three industry jargon words there. Pitching is the industry version of taking your song and shopping it around. I am a songwriter and let’s say Benita and I wrote ‘I Can Be Me With You’ and we are going to pitch it to Garth. If we didn’t know him, we would be sending it to someone who is in his camp. We would be sending it to somebody who has access to the artist. That is what access means.
Access is your reputation and your ability to show up and do the work. That is what it is based on. Another thing about access is that it makes you responsible for what you bring into the situation. You always have to be very protective of your relationships. That is why you see so many people that are not part of the insider circle, whatever that is. They haven’t been around long enough for people to know that they are not a squirrel. Creative people are creative for a reason. Creative people have a reputation of being squirrely, non-predictable and you can’t rely on their activities/material. These relationships are built over long periods of time. A lot of the time, unless you have access, you are not allowed to send unsolicited material because if someone accepts your material, that makes them responsible and liable if you decide to try and sue them for something. I am not saying there aren’t unscrupulous writers, as there are.
One of the best protections for a song as an independent or somebody starting out is to actually put the thing out. It is counterproductive to try and save it and protect it. Honestly, withholding the song from the market is endangering the song when you realize that the people you think are going to help you are listening to thousands of songs a day. Even if they do remember your song amongst the group, it can harm you if they don’t have the ability to access it again. If you have access use discretion as you would for any important business relationship because you don’t get second chances very often. What may seem like the smallest mistake in this business can cost you a lot.
The casting part is your catalog of songs that you have written. Catalog is jargon for your list of songs that you have written and the information about those songs. That is really the backbone of the business. It is a database of what you have written. It is your inventory. Casting is the process of a publishing company going through your catalog to see what songs have the opportunity to get out there. Someone may say that Jake Owen is cutting and you may look through your catalog that you have organized to find a song that would be good for him. You want to get a list of your songs together.
What did you learn at Berklee that helps you today?
Musically, Berklee is a great melting pot for cultural exploration and I met some of my dear friends there. Boston has such a population of students with such a rich culture. You have people from all over the world. I was able to hang out with Brazilians and eat fried Yucca. It’s sort of like a French fry. You take that stuff for granted even in a town like Nashville. It is more cosmopolitan here now than it used to be back then. Boston is a great place to study because there is just so much culture around. You can’t walk two or three blocks without coming across a dorm, college, museum, or coffeehouse. I would love to go and check out the Barcelona campus. I haven’t been back to Boston since 2002. I don’t think I would recognize the place.
I was a student at Berklee when they did one of the first trips to Nashville. I took Pat Pattison’s poetry class and Pat knew my dad and wrote with him at a certain point. My dad was doing great at that time. When you can sell millions of units as a songwriter, it is great. Even the 9.1 cents on a Gold album added up. We had a nice house out in Brentwood. It was right down the road from George Jones and up the hill was Ronnie Dunn. The nineties were a cool time. We had this big ole house and all the Berklee crew came to our house. We put on a writers round for everyone with my dad, Aaron Barker, and I think Dean Dillon was there.
I was in a punk rock band in those days. One of my friends from high school who is a great picker named Jonathan Trebing was there. He played and toured with Rascal Flatts for years. Dad was laughing because my mom had it catered. They brought in all these meatballs and you know how hungry college students are. There was zero food left so they called in a bunch of pizzas. My mom and dad were laughing and my dad said he thought ‘those long haired hippy college students were going to eat us out of house and home.’ It was hilarious. Pat did some work with my vocal teacher who is based out of Nashville. Her name is Renee Grant-Williams. She’s taught everybody from Bob Weir, Christina Aguilera, and about every country star. She has some ridiculously innovative techniques for vocal training. It blows over into phrasing. The stuff that Pat teaches about phrasing a lot of it was co-mingled and co-inspired with Renee. I call on both mentors with our Songpreneurs group.
I loved Berklee because I trained with some of the top people in the industry over the years and that includes Ann Dolan of Berklee. She is an incredible teacher too. I want to grow with the Songpreneurs group as it is not a top-down organization. We have a community of people who are pursuing mastery in all different genres from all different parts of the country. We have done trips and worked with clients and organizations from Canada, the UK, Australia, Romania, and Jamaica.
All music is unique as it comes from a place that frankly I don’t think we truly understand. That is part of the appeal of it. When you tap into that with other people, there is almost nothing better in this world. Music is at the core of every culture on this planet. It is not just for entertainment, although that is a great part of it. Music has a lot more to do with soul and the heart than it does with the head and the mind. You channel your passion and you have to channel it into a form that can pay your bills. It is important that musicians and creative people do not become discouraged by the current hardships and the economics. You are set free by embracing it.
So many times people who are extremely successful are doing what they want to do just on a smaller scale. My dad tried to discourage me from music and he saw the writing on the wall. He told me it is the hardest business. He told me if there is anything else in the world that you can do, besides music and be happy, then do that. It is funny all the different skillsets that I have acquired to try and do music. I cannot not do it.
What’s next for you?
I have been focusing on working with folks who have been Songpreneurs students that are now developed artists. My eye is on my producing chops, which is super fun, and I am loving it. I have been working especially hard with this kid from Texas for ten years. His name is Taylor Lewis. He has a Christmas EP out and he is more of a Texas style songwriter and we did some new arrangements on old Christmas songs.
I am also working with an artist from Canada. He is a Canadian country outlaw artist. His name is Sheldon Tyacke. We just put out a single called ‘Tattoos and Guitars’ for him that we produced here in Nashville. We have had it for a couple of years and we are now releasing it. I am getting the studio bug. Also, I am also getting the travel bug once everything opens back up. You can always see what I am up to on the songlife website.
*Feature image credit: Kyle G McLaughlin courtesy of the artist’s website