Alumni Interview with Emily Shackelton-James

NameEmily Shackelton-James   

Major at Berklee: Songwriting

Graduation Date: 2007

Professional Title: Singer/Songwriter

Employer: Liz Rose Music/Warner-Chappell


What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of in your career thus far?

Making a living in this crazy business is, in my opinion, an accomplishment in and of itself, and I’m grateful every day that I get to go to work and write songs. That being said, I’m so thankful for a few standout moments I’ll never forget: making my record, Late Bloomer, this past year and seeing the songs come to life has been a lifelong dream come true. Winning the John Lennon scholarship through BMI while in my last semester at Berklee was an incredible opportunity and experience. Hearing my songs on television (David Cook singing “Dream Big” on American Idol; Hayden Panetierre’s character singing “Love Like Mine” on ABC’s Nashville; The Voice winner Cassadee Pope singing “Proved You Wrong” and “Secondhand” at an internationally televised benefit concert) never gets old! Tate Stevens (winner of The X-Factor) recorded my song “Ordinary Angels” and spoke about it being his favorite song on his record in Rolling Stone magazine—that was a real trip! And just last week, one of my all-time favorite producers played me “Can’t Stop,” a duet I wrote that he just cut on Sara Evans and the Fray. It sounded so good I started crying! Cross your fingers, it will be my first major-label single on the radio.

What are the most challenging aspects of your current job?  

Climbing the ladder is a never-ending process. When I was at Berklee I thought, "If I could just move to Nashville, then I will be happy." When I moved to Nashville I thought, "If I could just land a staff songwriter position, then I will be happy." When I was signed to my first publishing deal I thought, "If an artist would just record my song..." It goes on and on, and the truth is, it will go on forever if you let it. I’ve seen many friends come off the high of having their first No. 1 song on the radio and plunge into a deep depression, desperate for another taste of success, and I’ve seen writers who have had 25 No. 1's who behave exactly the same way. I believe the biggest challenge (in songwriting, but also in life) is to find happiness in the now. I spent so much time dreaming about how great the future was going to be that I don’t think I really enjoyed the moment my first few years in Nashville. I’m practicing being grateful for every minute I get to be a part of this crazy town and the music that comes out of it.

Other challenges include trying to stay ahead of the curve of what’s hip right now, trying to stay fresh with ideas and melodies, and just trying to stick it out. They call Nashville a 10-year town for a reason. It is my sixth year here and I feel so lucky to have had a few small successes, but the truth is, it’s a long process and it’s easy to let the voices in your head talk you out of believing that your time will come; I have to shut them out every single day.

What would you say are the top requirements (skills, mind-set, etc.) for someone entering this line of work?

I think you need to have a strong independent work ethic, a real love and passion for your craft, a desire to continue to grow, stretch, learn, and get better, and enough drive to get you through the long nights waiting tables and then hoofing it to an open mic night, living on Wendy’s value menu, sleeping on thrift store mattress on the floor. Being independently wealthy, having a benevolent family member, or marrying a rich old man would be the ideal scenario when trying to break into the music business, but I did none of those things and my story has turned out okay thus far. Check back in 10 years! 

What is a normal day like in your line of work (assuming there is such a thing as a normal day)?

I normally get up at about 7:30 a.m., workout for about an hour, eat breakfast, and check my calendar and email for the day. At 10:30 a.m., I head to either my cowriter’s office or to my personal office inside of Liz Rose Music, and spend the day writing and sometimes recording what we do. Sometimes my day is done (around 3:00 p.m.), but usually I then will head over to the studio to work on a session or prepare for a writer’s round I’m performing in. The nights when I’m not working, you’ll usually find me out at another writer’s night or performance in town. There is always good live music happening somewhere and my friends and I are all really supportive of each other, and sing on each other’s rounds, so there’s always something to do!

What would be a reasonable salary range to expect if I entered this field? What is the long-term potential?

The short-term potential is overwhelmingly bad. I didn’t let that stop me and it shouldn’t stop you either, but I want to make it clear that it is hard to sustain a life on a songwriter’s salary the first several years. I didn’t come to town at all prepared for the life I was about to live. I had three part-time jobs that I worked my first year in Nashville, running myself into the ground and then trying to be creative. Pat Pattison finally sat me down nine months in and challenged me: if I really believed in myself, then why couldn’t I take that leap of faith and devote myself full-time to songwriting and trying to land a deal? Bless him ... I signed my first deal less than two months later. It was a hard decision and my husband was a champ, taking on extra financial burden in the meantime to make rent.

I believe the average publishing deal is about $18,000 to $22,000 per year. That salary, plus student loans, was just about impossible for us. I supplemented my income by singing demos whenever I could and playing at a little piano bar in town. Any good entertainment lawyer will help you negotiate raises each year that you’re kept and those can add up nicely. But truly, it’s when you start getting royalty checks from your performance rights organization (PRO) that life starts looking up. It’s a nice gift to receive every three months.

This industry has changed dramatically in the past five years. What have you seen from inside your company? Where do you think the changes will happen in the next five years?

I get this question a lot and I feel like I’m not the right person to answer it. I came to town after the big change started happening; downloading was already replacing record sales, nobody was getting publishing deals, and no one was getting cuts unless they were writing with the artist. I hear stories all the time about the glory days of this biz, but this is all I know. It’s certainly not perfect, but I love a good challenge and I think there’s always room for a new, fresh perspective. Who doesn’t want to be a pioneer?

How has your Berklee experience prepared you for what you are doing today?

I loved my time at Berklee. It feels like forever ago and yesterday at the same time. The songwriting department was amazing and my time spent within those classes really prepped me for writing in so many ways: starting from a title, starting from a melody, only writing with four chords, writing a rap, writing poetry, and cutting out 25 percent of your lyrics in your song. Pat, am I giving away your Advanced Lyric Writing curriculum?

If you could offer just one piece of career advice to students, what would it be?

I wish I had some amazing piece of advice about Nashville or about songwriting, but if I could only offer one bit of wisdom it would be this: cherish your time where you are now. I sound like an old woman, but I would give anything for one more day walking down Mass Ave., late for another conducting class. You’ll never get this time back again. Don’t get me wrong, I worked 40 hours a week while at Berklee, but it’s still the last few moments before adulthood truly kicks in, so be a kid. Dream recklessly, wildly, and live in the now. You won’t regret it.