|When Aaron Barker got home after a day of peddling oranges on a roadside near San Antonio in 1988, he found an envelope from BMI in the mailbox. "The envelope had a big check in it," Barker said. "I yelled, 'Oh, my God! Somebody at BMI really screwed up!' That check was more money than I had earned in the last ten years! "|
Although he expected to send the check back, Barker rushed to his parent's house so his mother could see his name beside the big number. "Mom handed it to Dad, and he said, 'I get this stuff in the mail all the time. Nobody ever wins anything with these'."
The family soon learned the check was neither a sweepstakes promotion nor a mistake. It was the first BMI performance royalty payment for Barker's first hit song, "Baby Blue," recorded by George Strait several months earlier.
In the 15 years since that first check, many of Barker's songs have been recorded by country stars including Clay Walker, Doug Supernaw, Neal McCoy and Lonestar. "Love Without End, Amen," "Easy Come, Easy Go," and "I'd Like To Have That One Back" are among Barker songs that topped the charts for George Strait.
There are many thousands of aspiring songwriters and composers working in America's fruit stands, restaurants, and taxi cabs, but only a few have sufficient talent and luck to earn a living wage in the profession. "Strait used to listen to 4,000 songs a year to pick ten songs to record," said Barker. "What are the odds he would pick mine?"
Barker sees irony in the difference between the income of singers and songwriters. "Many entertainers who sing earn far more than songwriters for a hit song, yet the singers have no career until they get good songs," Barker said. "You take a singer who's borrowing money to pay the rent. He records a hit song and his earnings go from a few thousand dollars per year to thousands every night. He can work for that kind of money until he turns blue. He uses the song to sell tickets and concessions. For the songwriter, his earnings end when the record ends.
Barker said that "probably 80 or 85 per cent" of his income is earned when his music is played publicly, rather than from the sale of CDs. Businesses such as radio and TV stations, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and retail stores pay fees to BMI for the copyrights they use. BMI, a non-profit organization, distributes about 84% of those fees to copyright owners. BMI currently represents more than half the music performed in the United States. Approximately 300,000 songwriters and music publishers are affiliated with BMI. Barker, who signed with BMI in 1971, said "there wouldn't be a songwriting profession" without the performing rights organization. "There would be guys writing songs, but some of the best songwriters in the world can't sing a lick," he said. "BMI makes it possible for these great poets who don't sing to be heard and earn a living."
Songs don't come easily to Barker. He said he needs inspiration to write, and it comes infrequently. His output is about 12 songs per year. "There are some people who can make money writing like an assembly line, but not me. I do better with inspiration.
"The hardest part about songwriting is it's all been done before," he said. "We have to find a better way to do it. It's so competitive, so subjective. As we get older, it's harder to stay contemporary. The language and phrases change. To hit a nerve with a song today, you've got to use a shotgun."