September 14, 2003
Songwriter Shelly Peiken Creates Hits for Others in Uncertain Profession
|Like most songwriters, Shelly Peiken lives a life of uncertainty. "I never take anything for granted, never assume there will be another hit, " she said.|
Unlike most songwriters, she is building on a brief history of commercial success. She co-wrote "What A Girl Wants" and "Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" which reached the top of the charts for Christina Aguilera. She co-wrote "Bitch" with Meredith Brooks, and the single spent four weeks at the #2 spot on the charts. She also has songs on albums by Celine Dion, Taylor Dayne, Mandy Moore and country stars Keith Urban and LeAnn Rimes.
The insecurity of her profession has been compounded by widespread internet downloading without compensation for copyright owners, Peiken said. "It's a big grey cloud over the songwriting community that feels as if we're being stolen from," she said. "I feel the impact emotionally on songwriters. Our hands are tied. We don't want to wave our fingers at young people and feel we're disciplining them, but we don't want to do nothing because we're responsible to ourselves."
She said she never made deliberate plans in her youth to be a songwriter; the profession simply chose her. "I never woke up and decided I want to do this," she explained. "It's just something I did since I was a little girl."
To the contrary, Peiken planned on a career in fashion design. After graduating from the University of Maryland, she began working in New York's garment district. "I watched people dragging racks of clothes through the street during August and imagined myself doing it. It was a reality check," she said. "I realized that business wasn't me."
Her yearning to be closer to music led her to Bleeker Street in New York, where she found work performing in clubs and waiting tables. "It was a long time, six or seven years, until I was able to really earn a living solely from music," she recalled. "For years, I never had more than $500 in savings. It was month to month paying the rent." Along the way, she partnered with Adam Gorgoni, also a songwriter, and moved to Los Angeles. Peiken was pregnant with a daughter in 1997 when Meredith Brooks released "Bitch" as a single. When her check for songwriting performance royalties arrived from BMI, Peiken thought cautiously of the future. "The first thing I did was open a college account for our daughter. We were very conservative in living below our means."
Most aspiring songwriters fail to achieve even one big hit, and often complain about difficulty in getting their songs heard by artists, producers and record companies. Peiken said those doors were opened to her by fearlessness and the relationships she established early in the business.
"Maybe I overestimated myself," she said. "I had no fear. I cold-called the labels, told them about scraps of songs I had that I felt had promise. They sense your confidence. I tried to write with people who weren't afraid to get out there. I built relationships with producers, managers -- even mothers and fathers of artists -- anybody who would listen."
She said she currently writes about 50 songs per year. Among those, in due time she estimates half will be recorded; eight will be released as singles; three will receive enough radio play to make the charts. Hopefully, she said, "one will be a big hit."