Stars from NASA to Nashville
Goddard astrophysicist Dr. Marc J. Kuchner doesn’t really sing, and doesn’t seriously play any musical instruments. He does, however, write award-winning country songs, both lyrics and music.
When he was in high school, Kuchner attended The Julliard School’s pre-college program in music composition on weekends. He then did his undergraduate work at Harvard in physics and, at the same time, took music classes and played drums in a rock band. He began studying for a Ph.D. in astronomy at The California Institute of Technology (Caltech), but decided to take a year off to be an unpaid intern at a recording studio in Burbank, California, after answering an ad he stumbled across in the paper. “I spent a lot of time making coffee, tweaking recording machines, and organizing the microphone closet,” said Kuchner. “My mother was extremely upset.”
The studio was the Mad Dog recording studio, home of country music icon Dwight Yoakam. His experience in that studio was Kuchner’s first real exposure to country music. At the end of the year, Kuchner returned to Caltech to finish his Ph.D., which involved spending many nights at the telescope. Whenever it was too cloudy or too rainy to observe, he would write country songs.
Kuchner’s first national recognition occurred in 2000 when his song “I Can Break My Own Heart” won fifth place in John Lennon’s annual songwriting contest sponsored by Yoko Ono. “There were 3,000 entries. All of a sudden, I realized that there might be something to this songwriting thing,” says Kuchner. He returned to Harvard for a post-doctoral fellowship but continued writing and winning even more contests. Kuchner explains, “I won a guitar, a trip to Vegas, some cash, and lots and lots of BluBlocker sunglasses. But then I stopped entering contests. I found that Nashville people were not impressed by songwriting contest winners. That’s how everyone down there got their start.”
He began a second post-doctoral fellowship, this time at Princeton on NASA’s Hubble Fellowship, and also began making trips to Nashville once or twice a year. Kuchner says, “During those trips to Nashville, I met music publishers, who connect writers to the recording artists, and pitched them my songs. They all helped me in some way.” Soon he was selling his songs in Nashville.
Kuchner notes, “The first royalty check I ever got was in 2005 for a song I wrote called ‘Start Now.’” “Start Now” was later named 2008 Demo of the Year from Music Connection magazine, the Los Angeles, Calif. music trade journal. Explains Kuchner, “The chorus is a list of things I learned from my grandmother. Country music today isn’t about cowboys. It’s about regular folk.”
Ever the astute businessman, Kuchner delineates the currency of success in Nashville. “A cut means an artist has recorded your song and you’ll get royalties when it is played. A placement means your recording ends up on TV in a show, movie, or commercial. These are the magic words, the measure of success.” Kuchner’s first cut was in 2006 for “I Can Break My Own Heart.” Since then he has had about 20–25 more cuts. His first placement was in 2009 for “True Love,” which was played on MTV2’s and BET’s “Making the Band.” “I get a lot of checks, but they are always small,” jokes Kuchner.
In explaining his writing process, Kuchner says, “I try to get a melody that works in my head, without an instrument. Beginning songwriters write using an instrument, but once you get good at it, you don’t use an instrument so much. I now do a lot of my writing at a laptop. I type the lyrics, but I remember the music. And if I can’t remember it, then it wouldn’t be a good song anyway.”
After writing a song, he then makes a work tape, which is a recording of himself singing his song while playing the guitar. He uses the Garage Band program on his old Macintosh laptop to make the recording. Once in Nashville, he finds up and coming singers to professionally play and sing his songs on a demo tape. He then emails the demo tapes to targeted publishers. A publisher in the musical world pitches songs to recording artists in exchange for a percentage of each cut or placement.
A unique aspect of Kuchner’s songwriting is his analytical approach to the lyrics. Kuchner has analyzed country music songs by archetypes or characters based on Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes. As explained on his Web site, Kuchner has identified seven archetypes commonly used in country music: hero/warrior, everyman/regular guy/gal, lover, innocent, caretaker, joker, and outlaw. In describing his analysis, Kuchner says, “I find that it helps a song to have a primary archetype, but you need a secondary archetype as a foil. You need tension between these archetypes to tell the story.”
Like many songwriters before him, Kuchner hopes to eventually become more successful as a music publisher. To further his publishing ambitions, Kuchner sends out a monthly newsletter containing marketing tips. Recent topics have included changes in how advances are structured; the new “entertainment group” trend which involves production, management, and promotion from a single independent label; interviewing basics; Web sites looking for music to post; and labels looking for country music artists.
Ever the businessman, Kuchner also has a Facebook group called “Marketing for Scientists,” which discusses these same marketing techniques as applied to science. According to Kuchner, “The music business is a business. Science is really a kind of business too. The same principles apply.” In fact, he is working on a book called “Marketing for Scientists” and already has a literary agent working with him to find a publisher. The funny thing is that although Kuchner has graduated from some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, he does not have a degree in marketing. He does not need to; in between writing award-winning country songs, he is already writing the book.
Check out Kuchner’s Web site at: http://www.marckuchner.com
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.