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The Return Of The Song Plugger - The Unsung Heros Behind Songwriting’s Renaissance In The Digital Age 

By Thomas Scherer, EVP US publishing and international writer services at BMG

We’re in the middle of a golden age of collaboration in the music industry. The digital age has removed barriers for artists and writers teaming up to work together, contributing parts, ideas, lyrics and so much more. In the past twelve months, some of the biggest hits in our catalogue - such as DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You” ft. Justin Bieber and Florida Georgia Line’s “H.O.L.Y.” - have been co-created by amazingly talented writing and production teams. Yet all of this creativity is underpinned by an unsung role that has never been more important within the music industry - the song plugger. 

To understand the role of the song plugger within the music ecosystem, it’s necessary to go right back to the roots of the music business. Before high-quality recordings were widely available, department stores employed ‘song demonstrators’ to drive sales of sheet music to the public. While the modern plugger seems almost completely unrelated to this archaic profession, the core role is the same - getting songs heard by the right people to drive publishing revenue. 

Sure, the role has evolved, but there has always been a necessity for someone to go out and sell songs (they don’t play themselves). Today’s song plugger has a catalogue of potential hits at the fingertips of one hand and an A+ set of industry contacts on the other. They can tell, just from listening to a demo, which artist, feature film or game the song would be suitable for, and if they think they have a contender, they’ll work every contact they have to get the demo heard by the relevant people. They have their ear-to-the-ground. Their insider knowledge is second to none - a good plugger can tell you instantly which artists, movie producers and game developers are currently looking for songs. 

The job as we know it today began to crystallise in the 1950s, when Freddy Bienstock relentlessly scoured the Brill Building for material worthy of the King, and for the first 12 years of his career, it was said that Elvis Presley wouldn’t so much as look at a song unless Bienstock had already vetted it. While this approach worked well in the age of the bandleader and the rock ‘n roll star, the 1960s began a sea change in the global music industry. Acts like The Beatles and Bob Dylan fed a craving for self-penned songs, and the default mode for ‘authentic’ artists moved towards performing their own material. Although this led to a diminishing of the plugger’s role through the 80s and 90s, it also laid the groundwork for the more artist-led songwriting ecosystem we live in today, with artists encouraged to seek co-writers, and adopt a more curatorial attitude to their musical output. 

Today, the plugger lives and dies by the strength of their contacts, and an ‘in’ with a major artist is enough to put the plugger in constant demand. This generates a two-way street of business, in which songwriters strive to deliver better quality, more competitive songs, and up and coming artists chase the plugger, hoping to gain access to Hot 100 quality material. Modern pluggers must also gauge the potential of a song to perform well in other arenas - for example, viral potential can, if the stars align, snowball into mainstream success, providing a perfect storm of exposure, revenue and sales. 

It’s also worth noting that the role of the songwriter has changed dramatically since the early days of the music business. The modern songwriting market is more competitive than ever, and writers have had to up their game in order to keep pace with the industry. Whereas previous eras may have seen a ‘lyrics guy’ and a ‘music guy’ (a la Bernie Taupin and Elton John) getting major placements with piano and vocal demos, today’s songwriters are far more specialized. Terms such as ‘topliner,’ ‘chords man’ and ‘beatmaker’ are now an everyday part of the lexicon of songwriting. More often than not, producers are involved from the very beginning, with demos becoming the final master with very minor tweaks. 

In 2016, the songwriting process is extremely targeted, with teams of writers crafting songs to meet the needs of high profile artists. Yet with the number of professional songwriters actually in decline, it’s no longer practical to write generically and hope the song ends up in the right hands. A plugger is essential to get songs heard by, and placed with, the right people, as part of a broader digitally-savvy publishing operation. A strong team can identify key market trends and respond quickly and efficiently on the supply side, capitalizing on the work of the plugger by providing an efficient licensing, promotion and legal operation. While the day to day role of the plugger may have changed immeasurably, in many ways we’re all still doing what we’ve always done in this business: getting great music out into the world.

The Return Of The Song Plugger - The Unsung Heros Behind Songwriting’s Renaissance In The Digital Age

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