Bob Regan made his move to Nashville in 1985 after a brief artist stint in L.A. where he was signed to Curb/CBS records. Since arriving in Nashville, he’s had over 200 songs recorded by a string of artists too numerous to mention and played guitar on the Grand Ole Opry. His song “Dig Two Graves,” recorded by Randy Travis, was nominated for Grammy Country Song of the Year in 2009 and he has earned 11 ASCAP Most Performed Song Awards. He also holds a psychology degree from University of California at Davis.
Regan served three terms as President of the Nashville Songwriters Association International during which time he made numerous trips to Washington DC to meet with lawmakers. He was instrumental in helping to pass the Songwriters Capital Gains Equity Act of 2006. He is also the founder of Operation Song a unique music therapy program that partners active duty military service members and veterans with professional songwriters to help them tell their stories through song.
“I consider myself pretty much retired from the commercial songwriting business and for someone who just got their medicare card that’s as it should be,” Regan laughed at the start of our NEKST interview. His dry sense of humor perfectly punctuated his insights, gathered over three decades of Music City songwriter experience. For a rare dose of reality on topics including co-writing, hot streaks, publishers, staying current, financial advice, self-promotion and more, read on…
NEKST: What choices most steered your career path?
Bob Regan: The word “choice” needs explaining. I never thought of myself as a songwriter, I just started playing in my bedroom, then in bands. The next step was a record deal, but you need original material to push The Beatles or Led Zeppelin off the charts, so I started writing for the band and we finally got a deal. Only after it all fell through at age 35 did I actually make a choice to become a songwriter. There were still a few staff writer jobs in L.A., but I moved to Nashville because there was actually a songwriting business there. Everyone said it’s a five year town, but I was 35 with two little kids, so I gave myself three years to write a hit or pack it up.
NEKST: Did you meet your goal?
Bob Regan: I did and it was a great feeling, but would’ve been even better if my wife of many years and the mother of my children hadn’t decided to head for the hills the week my song hit the Top 10. So it was kind of a conflicted moment.
Bob Regan: I had never co-written a song until I moved to Nashville, and the idea terrified me. To walk into a room and show somebody else your ideas. But I learned that even brilliant songwriters didn’t always spit out brilliance immediately. They work long and hard putting their skills to it just like everybody else. Good co-writers check their ego at the door and think, let’s write the best song together that we can. You can tell if you are hitting it off—the songs are working, your publisher is excited and you create a bit of buzz.
NEKST: What about picking the right publisher?
Bob Regan: My original publishing deal was with Jody Williams and Pat Finch for $100 a week and all I could write. Jody had just taken over Dick James Music. Those guys believed in me and I went at it hard. Your publisher’s got to be willing to put his credibility on the line and say, “I am going to stake my reputation that this guy has talent.” But Dick James passed away, dominos fell and in short order Jody was gone. I was distraught. Later I met with Karen Conrad who started our meeting saying, “We aren’t really in a position to sign any more writers.” Then I played her a few songs and 20 minutes later she said, “I think we’d like to do something.” Suddenly I was bumped up to $150 a week.
NEKST: What were the differences between L.A. and Nashville for writers?
Bob Regan: Artists in Nashville looked for material creating an eco system where staff writers could pitch great songs to them. L.A. acts, seemed to arrive at the label more fully developed. They wrote, but publishing was some kind of an addendum to make the record deal work. Today the Nashville publishing slots are also a place to park potential artists. We have been migrating more toward the L.A. model with the track guy and 4 or 5-way writes. Both country and pop are subject to diminished sales and the devaluing of music through streaming, but it seems like pop is coming up with a more unique sound. People should ask themselves if doing away with the staff writer system as we know it and making Nashville publishing more like L.A. is creating better acts or contributing to uniformity. There’s some amazing pop stuff coming out of it so maybe, that fertility will translate to Nashville in some way. How we will keep our country identity I have no idea, but someone will find a way.
NEKST: What other effects are these changes having?
Bob Regan: Overall the ratio of gems to rhinestones is probably lower now than in the past. They all sparkle and are fun to wear, but the gem will be worth something in 20 years. It’s also the first time I’ve seen artists sniping at each other in the press about the music. Artists used to look for the best song, now it’s the song they or their camp wrote in the last 6-8 months. Garth Brooks is a pretty dang good writer, but would there be a Garth Brooks as we know him if he had not cut “The Dance” followed by “Friends In Low Places?” Two grand slam songs and he exploded. What if his contract stipulated he had to write every song on his album? But to be fair, for every song I don’t like on the radio I’ve probably written dozens worse and if they were to get cut tomorrow I’d walk proudly down Music Row to the bank and cash the check.
NEKST: Song trends come and go. How do writers stay current?
Bob Regan: Hot writers that have eaten the world alive in their eras are extremely talented and their musical instincts overlap with what the marketplace wants. Then as trends change there is a little bit of separation and somebody else comes in whose instincts sync more perfectly with what the market wants. Maybe their talent is so dominant they even create what the market wants. But when a writer gets that dominant, their sound almost defines an era and three years later people say, “That sounds like three years ago, what’s next?” Commercial songwriters are adept at nudging their writing to the left or the right. But they aren’t cold, calculating, commercial machines. You try to make up the difference by studying the market and strategizing, but once it starts to sound like work it frays around the edges. Picture two perfectly aligned circles representing commercial music and your instincts. Over time the circles separate and the overlap gets smaller. At some point they separate completely. I taught songwriting at Belmont for a brief period and used to tell my students, “Develop an appetite for rejection. The beginning of your career will be 100% rejection, the middle successful part about 80%, and then you’ll go back to 100%.” Having a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
NEKST: Any financial advice for writers?
Bob Regan: Don’t be the hillbilly with his first hit that buys everything in sight, pays off the wife’s student loan and then looks bewildered when the tax man shows up in April. Most writers deprive themselves of so much for so long that when some money comes in it’s like, “I deserve this.” And indeed you do. But it’s crucial to set some aside. Bump up your life style a little, go to the beach, pave the driveway. And once you’ve 3,4 or 5 hits bump it a little more. I was overly cautious because I had two little toddlers so I kept my side jobs, doing sessions and nighttime gigs, for a while.
NEKST: How do shrinking mechanicals impact writers?
Bob Regan: Until maybe 10 years ago mechanicals were a viable revenue source for Nashville publishers. Songwriters could stick around for 5 or 10 years by getting album cuts on platinum records, keeping their red ink down. Even without hit singles writers could stay on the farm team. Today, to make the publisher math work they even recoup from performances in some cases. A friend of mine finally had a big hit, but he’s still driving a ’94 Corolla because his performance revenue all went to recoup. In today’s marketplace singles are king.
NEKST: But it’s not all about money?
Bob Regan: As somebody said on Facebook, “Getting into songwriting for the money is like getting married for the sex.”
NEKST: What comes to mind first when you think about songwriting?
Bob Regan: My first feeling is Gratitude with a capitol “G.” I’ve been so lucky and the timing was fortuitous. I missed the Urban Cowboy gold rush, but unbeknownst to me there was a wonderful upsurge coming. I was positioned perfectly to take advantage of the high tide and green grass.
NEKST: Tell us about Operation Song?
Bob Regan: I’ve done Armed Forces entertainment tours in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Seeing the toll of repeated deployments on the troops, started me thinking about how to help. What if these guys sat down with a professional songwriter who could help them write a song they could send back to their wives, kids or the family of their buddy that didn’t make it. Writers are therapists whether they know it or not. These men and women are able to talk about what they have experienced and give it a viewpoint and perspective through song. It’s incredibly gratifying and everyone is so appreciative. I’m doing it almost full time with weekly programs at the VA in Murfreesboro and Clarksville. There’s a donate button on the www.operationsong.com website if anyone wants to help us expand the program. If I could offer writers a little bit of money to cover expenses we could do so much more.
NEKST: Is self-promotion necessary for songwriter success?
Bob Regan: I’m more into self-deprecation than promotion so it wasn’t really a choice based upon my my personality set. But I did watch people who were actively strategizing how to advance their agenda. I used to look askance at it, but later in life realized perhaps those guys knew something. There’s a lot of people squeezing into a small space so you need some sharp elbows. A large part of a publisher or label exec’s job is sales and no one loves a sales pitch like a salesman. So if you come in as the Humble Supplicant you will be seen that way. But if you arrive as the guy, ready to knock the lights out, they will likely say, “Thanks we’ve been waiting for you to arrive.”