Jennifer Johnson may seem like an unlikely choice to be a successful songplugger and music publisher. From a dirt-poor southern background, she pulled herself up by the bootstraps to become a successful chemist with one of America’s largest corporations. But then, using the same drive that made her the valedictorian of her college class at Northeast Louisiana University, she moved to Nashville after Jim McCormick and Bud Tower of the New Orleans NSAI chapter helped convince her that her future was in the music business. Five years after arriving in Nashvilleshe has had cuts with Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, George Strait and many others.
After a stint with Midas Music Group, Johnson is now the president and co-owner of the Song Factory, a co-venture with Super 98 Publishing, which is a publishing affiliate of Big Machine Records. Catching her during her 16 hour day as a wife, mother, publisher and community volunteer, freelance writer Rick Moore asked the petite, bubbly blonde a few questions at her office on 18th Ave.
Q. The music business gets tougher every day. Exactly what made you think you could succeed in the music business where so many others fail?
A: It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t succeed. “No” was never an option. I only want to accept the best in life and I had a passion for songs and the music business and knew I wanted to do it, so it never occurred to me that I couldn’t.
Q. Most writers don’t have the $800 it takes to make a good produced demo, but they need one because so many publishers and producers don’t seem to have the “ears” to hear anything that doesn’t sound like a radio mix. Do you think you’re able to hear a great song if it’s just a piano/vocal?
A: Actually, I prefer a good, clean guitar/vocal or piano vocal demo over a produced one.
Q. So what do you look for when you’re listening to a demo of a song?
A: Of course I look for great lyrics and melody, and for prosody between the lyric and the melody. But the biggest thing I look for is if it’s something I want to play again. That’s the most important thing, if I want to hear it again.
Q. What are your primary methods of working a song after it gets cut in terms of pushing it to radio, working it to movies, etc.?
A: Well, once something gets cut I don’t really have a lot of control over anything because the artist’s record label may or may not want me to, among other reasons. After a song is cut there may be opportunities for karaoke, soundtracks, and other things, but once a song is on the charts it becomes more the record company’s job, it’s more their budget. There’s only so much involvement I will probably have.
Q. Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: Well, first, all my staff writers, of course. Then guys like Tim Johnson, Dallas Davidson…Kris Kristofferson for sure. I love Kris Kristofferson. There are just so many writers I love.
Q: Regarding those staff writers – I know you have several fine writers, including Julie Moriva who co-wrote Steel Magnolia’s “Edge of Goodbye.” What do you look for when you’re considering someone for a staff position?
A: It’s tough. I look for someone who is unique, who doesn’t write like everybody else on Music Row. At the same time, they have to have a consistency to their music, and they have to be able to write commercially. Maybe more than anything, a writer has to be very positive because I don’t do well with negativity. And they have to be good networkers. They have to be creative and work at their craft. And now that artists are tending to want to write more of their own material, a writer has to be able to write with an artist as well as other writers, and to be sensitive to that artist and his or her history, personality and needs. Having said that, while some artists are really good writers, it’s still more important to me to pair a writer with another writer than an artist. I believe this creates a synergy that gives both writers the opportunity to create a better song, which is really what everyone is looking for in the end. It all starts with the song no matter who writes it, and the better the song is, the better off everyone is all the way down the line. But I love putting good writers together and hearing the magic.
Q. Thanks, Jennifer. Well, I can tell you’re squirming to get back to work so I’ll let you go.
Q. (Laughs) Thanks, Rick. There aren’t enough hours in a day. So many songs, so little time.
Story by Rick Moore