NASHVILLE -- Songwriters here don't have far to look for inspiration these days.
In a city famous for churning out sad country songs about heartache and despair, radio homogenization, corporate mergers, and music piracy have made it tough for songwriters to earn a living.
"We've lost more than half of America's professional songwriters over the past decade," said Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. "The ones staying alive have really had to adapt."
Thousands of songwriters and fans have descended on Nashville this week for the association's Tin Pan South festival, which runs through Saturday.
"Most of the songwriters who are making a living are stretching out," Herbison said. "They're writing musical scores, producing, and turning to television work. You can no longer depend on pitching songs, having two or three hits, and making a living that way."
Unlike pop and R&B, which often rely on the genius of a brilliant producer, the soul of country music has traditionally been in the lyrics and melodies of its songwriters. Country artists also rely more heavily than others on outside songwriters.
On a recent night at the Bluebird Cafe, a place where Nashville's songwriters come to hear and be heard, Jim Kimball picked a funky rhythm on his guitar as he sang a tune called "Cold Turkey." Afterward, he and his wife, Christian songwriter Stephanie Lewis, said things are harder than even a few years ago, when the recession and file-sharing knocked the bottom out of the music industry.
"It feels like in the past the situations that could turn into opportunities were more plentiful," said Kimball, who has lived here a dozen years. "This is a time when the business is shrinking."
Kimball has had to adapt. He plays guitar in Reba McEntire's band, writes songs for movies and television, and performs at clubs.
Herbison puts much of the blame on "radio consolidation": stations playing fewer songs by a narrow variety of artists and relying on cookie-cutter programming. These factors have made it tougher to get airplay and the royalties that come with it, Herbison says. "Three people program 85 percent of all country stations in America," Herbison said. "They sit in office towers and don't know George Jones from George Clooney."
Songwriter royalties from CD sales are about 8.5 cents per song; that's usually split between the writer and the publisher. The big money for most successful songwriters is from performance royalties, which are paid when a song is played on the radio.
A No. 1 single can generate $600,000 to $700,000 in royalties over the first two years of release, said hit country songwriter Fred Knobloch. That money typically is split between the writer and the publisher. A song that becomes a classic will continue to generate revenue for years to come. Songwriters also have had to contend with the consolidation of major record labels. A series of mergers has left only five major music companies. Many in the industry -- writers, producers, musicians, and publicists -- have lost their jobs in the shuffle. The problem, said Knobloch, is that sales are off the pace set during country's commercial peak in the early and mid-1990s. According to Nielsen SoundScan, country music sales fell nearly 10 percent last year.As for Internet music piracy, everyone believes it's a problem, but not the worst one. The challenge, they say, is for the record companies to catch up to changing technology and consumer demand.