H-O-L-D: The Forgotten 4 Letter Word

Last week was amazing for songwriters. BMI’s Rate Court Judge ruled in favor of BMI over the DoJ with regard to the issue of 100% licensing. I posted about it incessantly. So perhaps it would be refreshing to change the subject until there’s more to report. 


So, how about we talk about that beloved and rather extinct concept: the H-O-L-D.  


I realize the very youngin’s might not know what a H-O-L-D is. Others are asking, “Can’t Shelly get over the past?” I can. I have! Still, it’s romantic to reminisce. So let’s. 


“I’d like to put your song on H-O-L-D.” We heard those words a lot after successfully pitching it via snail mail or later, email. Sometimes we pitched it in real time in an office at a record label. Remember that? We'd actually go into an A&R's office—not our manager on our behalf—and play our song.


A H-O-L-D was like a temporary spell. It meant that until further notice, the A&R liked a song enough to reserve it. He would request (or in some cases demand), that you pause your pitching because he had serious intentions of cutting it with an artist on his roster. This news alone would cause an incoming jolt to your heart as it meant good things were in store for your song. 

A H-O-L-D was foreplay to a potential big bang (a single…a smash). You actually envisioned the biggest superstar recording it. You closed your eyes and saw it moving up the Hot 100 and heard the ch-ching ch-ching of your bank account expanding. 


Sometimes you weren’t told who the H-O-L-D was for. It could turn out to be the most left of center placement; a niche artist that you hadn't even think of. That was part of pitching culture that I found exciting…intriguing and it reassured me that A&R were being creative. That was their job. 


Then A&R would then play said song for the marketing department to get their reaction (before algorithms were the barometer for success, they actually went by instinct or...drumroll…their ears!) If the feelings were mutually positive you would likely be notified that your song was being transferred from H-O-L-D to the we are definitely cutting it category. 


Further incoming jolts to the heart. 

However, more often than not your song was eventually removed from H-O-L-D. This was always disappointing and resulted in a jolt to your heart in a different direction: outgoing. 


When you first started experiencing the news of a song coming off of H-O-L-D it was painful and extended. It could last for days. There could be weeks of malaise.


But as you got more seasoned you recovered faster. Later, if you managed to stay in the game you came to understand that songs would always be put on and taken off of H-O-L-D. No one was immune. No matter your status. Even if you won a Grammy. Soon it would just roll of your shoulder. You’d dust yourself off and write another song. 


Another interesting aspect of H-O-L-D culture was what transpired when more than one A&R wanted your song. Of course, this meant you cheated—you kept pitching it after one of them reserved it. And if you had a valuable relationship with the A&R you risked damaging it if you did this. The phone calls regarding the matter were stressful. And you’d lie. You know you did. You’d blame it on your publisher. Or your co-writer. It got ugly. We’d say things like, "Ohhhhh I played it weeks ago for other A&R but he never responded until NOW!"


Those were the days. I remember them fondly. 


I rarely hear the word H-O-L-D any more. There are so few A&Rs actively looking for songs. Material is being chosen by production companies or gatekeepers (who co-write), or managers (who sometimes co-write). Most songs are in-house or understandably, co-written with the artist. Even when you are in-house, they might use a piece of your song or a word or two and let you know how much of a percentage you’ve been allocated after the song is cut. Sometimes, you don’t even find out if you made the album until a track list gets leaked a few days before its release. There’s not much keeping in touch. 


So, even though we used to be cynical about H-O-L-Ds, I miss them. I do. Because when H-O-L-D was a thing, it was an era when the pitching of songs was prolific. Albums were selling and songs were getting cut all the time. They’d hold them, they’d drop them. What did it matter? Someone would put them on H-O-L-D again the next day. Plus…if there were recordings in between those drops, it meant there was activity. 


A hold was H-O-P-E. And even though you knew it could be short lived, you held it in your hand for a minute. It was emotionally tangible and it felt pretty f*cking good…while it lasted. And that was something. 

Thank you for reading, my friends. If you're in the NYC area, I'll be at The Bitter End on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 24th from 1-4, reading excerpts from my book, performing, and critiquing songs with Suzan Koc, the best song-shrink ever! 

 If you liked this blog you might enjoy Confessions of a Serial Songwriter. Follow me on FacebookTwitter, InstagramSign up to receive my blog via email.