by Andy Argyrakis
When people pop in the latest CD from a hot pop act, turn on their television or take a trip to the movie theatre, they often connect at some level with whoever is the main attraction. It may be the singer of an undeniably catchy tune, a theme song that sets the tone for a TV program or the perfect soundtrack accompaniment to a scene with Hollywood's A-list actors. But in the midst of that attention occupation, one rarely takes the time to think about what goes into that very moment and the people behind the scenes that made it happen. Who's the band that performed the music, what steps were taken for placement on a record or score, and perhaps the most important question of all, who wrote the track in the first place? Though instant mainstream fame isn't often associated with a songwriter, those who are sharp enough to score smashes in every area are incredibly respected within the entertainment industry and also make a remarkably lucrative living. Between their initial upfront fees, royalties generated along the way and a back catalogue of publishing rights, it might even be more money than even the star of the show ever sees!
Los Angeles based troubadour Chuckie Perez is one of those cats, who basically hangs out at home while the phone rings off the hook with requests for pretty much every format under the sun. Sometimes it will be a soap opera, other times a track for a major recording artist, occasionally a motion picture moment and a wide array of special projects or random, industry related opportunities. Sometimes the behind the scenes star scores credits, which include immensely popular TV shows like "One Life to Live" and "All My Children," plus a recently filmed TuPac DVD documentary. Other times he enters the picture as what's called a "ghost writer," a silent partner who takes the main reigns for a developing project or fills in the blanks on an already active endeavor. In a special sit down interview from the Hilton Hotel in that other music city (Nashville, Tennessee) the tunesmith shared what makes his world tick. And for a guy who's seen the cover of the L.A. Times, coverage in Billboard and CNN, along with an appearance before the last Pope, he sure does offer an incredible amount of insight.
Livewire: How in the world did you get started in the world of songwriting at this level?
Perez: It started by me working at my craft, writing with the right people and then talking to people- pretty much everyone I came in contact with. I didn't follow any formula and there really isn't one way to break into the business. My break basically came when a guy turned me on to a publishing company in New York and started by getting half the royalties of whatever I'd write as a result of leading me there. At first I thought it was cool, but then I realized it would be in my better interest to get it all. I asked the women I was working with if I could sign on directly with her, she said "sure" and from there would tell me exactly what she was looking for.
Livewire: To what degree do those needs vary?
Perez: Sometimes I have a song that I'll give to her and she'll find placement for it. Other times I'll send her a whole CD of songs and see what she likes. And then I'm also called out of the blue in many different instances with whatever needs there are to be met.
Livewire: How do you track who's interested in your material and where it winds up being sold?
Perez: A lot of times I'll get a call right around the day of a broadcast, in the case of TV that is, and will be told a particular song is about to be on a particular program. Then I see a check in the mail not long after.
Livewire: What degree of Hollywood game playing is needed to increase your chances at landing major appearances?
Perez: I'm not so much into networking and I'm not into the schmooze thing. I just become friends with people for no other reason than to be their friend. And then in some of those relationships, you meet people you eventually work with, like a friend who was a spotting guard for TuPac.
Livewire: What's the feeling working on such major projects or hearing one of your tunes on national television?
Perez: It's absolutely awesome. It's not just about the money. It's the appreciation for what I've written that feels pretty good.
Livewire: But what are we talking money wise?
Perez: If it airs once, that's a certain amount. Depending on how many minutes it's airing also has to do with the amount. A theme song is even better.
Livewire: Are we talking thousands?
Perez: Yes, it can start from like a thousand for landing one time air play in a club scene that is barely heard. If the song interacts in a main scene for one time, that could be around $5,000. If played over and over four or five times during a year- which one soap opera did [for me]- that's even more money. The goal financially is to score a main scene or a theme song. The guys who wrote "Friends" are living off that song forever and will rake in millions of dollars.
Livewire: Does having such higher-pressure situations and knowing that kind of payment is on the line stress you out?
Perez: Not necessarily, though there are times when it is a challenge. I write all day and depending on what's going on, it can be easy. But then I may get put in a corner to fill a need for a particular scene in a movie with a specific setting and that becomes a challenge.
Livewire: What's a typical day in your professional life like?
Perez: It's just really random. I write whatever I'm inspired to write about and when I get a call, I have to get focused. Sometimes it comes quick in the day. Sometimes I head to my studio at 3am. Other times I'm working on it all week.
Livewire: How come some of your material is credited and other songs of yours are ghost written?
Perez: The dollar amounts are different and you earn a greater payment if you're credited. When you ghost write a song, the royalty rate is different and sometimes they make you sign an agreement where you can't say who you wrote for.
Livewire: Have you done ghost writing for major recording artists?
Perez: Yes and I do get royalties, but not the same as a credited co-writer.
Livewire: Does that ever feel like a raw deal or is it just a part of the business?
Perez: Well in the sense that the writer agrees to it, sure it's fair. The fact that there is a price to pay in terms of how much money you get back is the part that doesn't seem as fair, especially when some of your other songs are credited.
Livewire: Do you always know upfront what direction a purchaser's decision will go?
Perez: It's been both, sometimes yes and other times no. It can be right at the beginning, somewhere in the middle or right at the last minute. When you've been working on it a long time and you're told right at the end it will be a ghost written track, there's an emotional let down at first. But you get used to it as long as you get paid something. I've got a pretty heavy movie on the table right now that I can't talk about just yet and I don't know what direction it's gonna go.
Livewire: What advice do you have to offer to anyone wanting to get on either side of the coin?
Perez: I'd recommend they not get discouraged and just keep writing. I was always told when you love what you do, money will follow. If you love what you do and you're good at it, the opportunities will open up and the money's good. I tell people to keep writing and the doors will pop open. Going to a songwriting convention builds up a lot of contacts and moving to where it's at helps. If you've got the talent but you're living in a small Iowa town, chances are it won't happen. They need to come to L.A. and they'll find out real soon, probably within a year, whether they have any talent and what might be out there for them.