Shane McAnally, Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey Talk “Giving Away Magic Tricks” On NBC’s ‘Songland’
With 40 No. 1 singles and three Grammy Awards to his credit, songwriter and producer Shane McAnally knows quite a bit about crafting songs that not only impact the country radio charts, but songs that help change culture while helping artists reveal more of themselves, both creatively and personally.
McAnally is sharing some of those secrets beginning tonight (May 28) as part of NBC’s Songland, a music competition that pulls back the curtain on the often private world of songwriting that provides so many artists with the essential hit songs that create superstars.
“We always joke that we are giving away magic tricks,” McAnally told MusicRow. “For the every day lover of music who has no idea where hit songs come from, or how it happens, it shows what it really means to us. You get to see the effort and heart that these writers have put on the line for this. That part is so important because songwriters really have been put on the back burner.”
Each week, four unknown songwriters pitch and perform their songs before a major recording artist, as well as a panel of songwriters and producers, which includes McAnally alongside OneRepublic lead singer Ryan Tedder (also known for his production work with Taylor Swift, Adele and Beyonce), and Ester Dean (who has written and produced for Nikki Minaj, Katy Perry and Rihanna).
“We go down the line and start to tell them what we would have done differently. If we have the Jonas Brothers for that episode, they are there and we discuss how to make each song a better fit for them. And these contestants are songwriters, not performers. We’re not judging your voice or what you look like. We are listening to your song and trying to find the gold in that.”
After hearing each song possibility and commenting on ways to improve the track, the artist pairs each songwriter contestant up with either Tedder, Dean or McAnally, to tweak and record the song using the artist’s suggestions. The artist listens to each reconstructed song and selects one entry to record as their next single release.
As part of a recording and publishing deal with Songland, BMG will release the music written and recorded immediately following each episode. Under the agreement, BMG serves as worldwide distributor of Songland Records and the administrator of the show’s publishing company, Eligible Music, for the songwriter contestants’ original music created and recorded during the show.
Old Dominion and Kelsea Ballerini join fellow artists the Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Meghan Trainor, will.i.am, OneRepublic, John Legend, Macklemore, Leona Lewis and Aloe Blacc on the show. Ballerini has co-written and performed chart-topping hits including “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” “Peter Pan.” Meanwhile, the members of Old Dominion have penned hit songs for Kenny Chesney, Sam Hunt, Dierks Bentley, and William Michael Morgan, in addition to their own hits including “Break Up With Him,” “Written In The Sand,” and the band’s current single “Make It Sweet.”
“It’s a look at songwriting that most people don’t get,” Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey tells MusicRow. “I haven’t seen a full episode yet, so I don’t know how much they show, but it’s very much like a co-writing session. I’m excited for people to see how we work. It was refreshing to feel like we had something to contribute to them that could help.”
“It’s an instant connection that an artist like Old Dominion can sit there and go, ‘I’ve been where you are,’” McAnally adds. “At that moment when they play their song we start instantly giving feedback, instantly co-writing with them. Ryan might chime in about a chorus or a melody, and the artist is on the spot co-writing and recreating the song to fit them.”
Sometimes the contestants get thrown a curveball, as in Old Dominion’s upcoming episode.
“Ours is a little different than some of the other episodes as we are working on a song for an ad campaign,” Ramsey says. “It was a two-fold challenge for the songwriters in our episode. They had to write a song that would work for Old Dominion, but also would work for a brand.”
McAnally notes that several of the contestants are from Nashville or have written songs in Nashville; some contestants have had publishing deals.
“It always made us lean in a little closer when a contestant said they were from Nashville or had written in Nashville because we know how high that bar is,” he says. “Some contestants that have deals might be in their first deal, some might be in their fifth, but there are so many signed writers that have as little of a leg up as an unsigned writer, so it’s still writers who are in that part of their career that they need a way to break through.”
As exciting as Songland may be for the contestants, and aspiring songwriters watching at home, McAnally says its the personalities that will draw in average television watchers and music lovers.
“People always say, ‘Who would watch a show about songwriting?’ McAnally says. “Well, I love cooking shows and home improvement shows. I don’t do either of those things, and those shows don’t make me want to do them. That doesn’t come naturally to me. But I love the people on those shows and their passion for what they do. And this show does the same. It’s songwriting in place of those things, but you fall in love with these songwriters that come forward and put their hearts on the line and I think that’s what will make people watch.”
In addition to being a hit songwriter and producer, McAnally is a co-founder of the Nashville-based publishing powerhouse SMACKSongs and is co-president of the relaunched Monument Records, alongside Jason Owen.
“There are options there for these songwriters,” McAnally says, noting that he, Tedder and Dean each own publishing companies. “I’m working with and writing with some of these writers and talking about publishing opportunities.”
Though Songland represents a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the contestants, McAnally cautions that the show is still only one step in a long-term career, even for those whose songs are not chosen by an artist.
“I know what it feels like to hear the word ‘no’ over and over again. I’ve been where they are. Even on this show, where you are leapfrogging over managers, publishers, A&R, and you are right in front of the artist with these songs—something I’ve never even gotten to do—I still remind them that this is just one part of it. One song is going to win, but there are so many paths forward for these songwriters.”
Songland premieres tonight (May 28) at 9 p.m. CT on NBC.
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