Michael Badami

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the off-road racer capital of the world, El Cajon, California.

Near San Diego?

Yep.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?

I listened to all different kinds of stuff. I used to listen to a lot of late '70s and early '80s new wave bands like the Cars, the Motels, The Smiths, English Beat, and Simple Minds. When I was younger, I listened to the Beatles and some Eagles.

At what age did you have a sense that you wanted to be in the music business?

I think when I got out of college. When I graduated, I kind of changed directions and really wanted to see if I could get into the music business.

What was your direction before that?

I majored in film and television production at San Diego State University. Then I started hanging out with bands and doing sound and the like. I did a little bit of engineering for a cover band in San Diego, and I played in garage bands and stuff. I really didn't dig the film and television scene in San Diego. I just wanted to kind of get out of my home town and go do something else. The music business just seemed so weird and cool—a weird black hole that I didn't know anything about. So I read every book I could find on the music business and just went for it. I went into college wanting to be Steven Spielberg, and I ended up working for him [laughs], but in a completely different capacity.

Was there any particular aspect of the industry that intrigued you most?

Publishing. Always publishing. It was the thing that I understood the least, so it was the thing I gravitated toward the most.

What was your first job in the business?

When I first moved to L.A., I didn't know anybody. My uncle let me stay in his extra room, which was really like this bizarre little glassed-in patio, greenhouse room. This was over the summer so it would heat up to like 5000 degrees by 8 o'clock in the morning. I would wake up at 8 am everyday with nothing to do, so I just started reading music industry books because I didn't know much about anything.

I tried to learn as much as I could. I started going out to clubs and stuff, not even really knowing what clubs there were. Then, somehow I got a sort of quick tour of ASCAP. I didn't understand anything about ASCAP at the time. It seemed really, really confusing. I got in to see a woman named Nancy Knutsen who is the head of film and TV music there.

As she showed me around ASCAP and told me what it was all about, she walked me by Tom DeSavia's office. He happened to need an intern at the time to help fill the void because nobody was really dealing with rock music there anymore. I had nothing else going on then, so I became an intern there and about a year later a rep position opened up and I got the job. Tom DeSavia became sort of my godfather in the music business. He introduced me to everybody and gave me my start. He is 115-percent responsible for my being here.

What is it that a performing rights organization really does?

A performing rights organization is responsible for—God, I've got to make this sound professional [laughs]—the collection of license fees from broadcasters and the distribution of those license fees to the writers and publishers whose songs are performed in broadcast media.

Our readers are always asking us "What is the difference between ASCAP and BMI?" Is there one? Are there several?

I think ASCAP is really, really great. ASCAP is founded by writers and publishers and is still run by writers and publishers to this day. BMI is run by broadcasters. Having spent so much time at ASCAP and knowing so much about it, I think it's a great place. But I've met a lot of great people at BMI as well.

The job you have now at DreamWorks is considered by many people to be one of the plum jobs in the industry because DreamWorks is so highly regarded. How did that job come about, and what made you decide to leave ASCAP to take it?

I was at ASCAP, and a job came up at another publisher—not DreamWorks. Chuck Kaye, who is my boss now, is a legendary publisher, and I had always just wanted to talk to him to get his advice on stuff. He is one of the last publishers still working who really built the publishing industry. That's not a blatant ass-kiss—he really is a legendary character. He was retired for five years before he came back to start this company.

I had always wanted to get his guidance on what I should do, because everyone that I asked always told me the same thing: that Chuck Kaye was a legend and a really mind-blowing guy. I had talked to him on the phone occasionally, and I saw him as this guru who could maybe just tell me which companies are the good ones to try and go work for, and which ones are the bad ones, and what are good and bad situations.

Ultimately, when I was in the middle of talking to this other company, I happened to meet Chuck through his daughter Emily Kaye, who had been a great friend for a long time. I brought her the first band that she signed at Time Bomb Records—a band called No Knife. She helped me meet her dad. I met with him at his house one day and we talked. I didn't even know that he was getting back into the business. It just sort of came about that he was going to get back in, and I didn't know what he was going to be doing.

When I found out it was DreamWorks, I freaked out and said, "Pay me $5 an hour—I don't care what you pay me—I want to come work there." I wanted to be a part of DreamWorks because the people that are here are legendary. Just to be under this roof and to share space with these people is incredible. When I come to work everyday, I can't believe it. I'm the dopey guy that wakes up every morning and says, "Holy shit! I work at DreamWorks." It's just what anybody would think it would be. I come in here and can't believe it. Right down the hall are Chuck Kaye, and Lenny Waronker, and Mo and Michael Ostin and Michael Goldstone.

How does DreamWorks differ from other companies? What makes it so special, other than the people, or what do they do that is so special?

I've never worked at another publishing company or another record company. I have only come from ASCAP, which was a really great place to work. Now I'm here, and all I can tell you is what I hear from all of my other friends in the business and that is: that this place has a completely different philosophy and angle on the entertainment industry. There are no job titles here, and we have very liberal job descriptions.

I think the guys that started this company and almost everyone that I've met that works here just sort of wants to do something different. They kind of see the industry right now for what it is, which is a very large monolith that doesn't really work right anymore. You have very, very little-to-no artist development. You have a lot of things being signed for the wrong reasons. You have a lot of people in jobs that don't deserve them. Just look at the charts. Talk to kids. Ask them what they think of radio. It's pretty crazy out there right now. People aren't selling records like they used to. Everybody thinks electronica is going to save the universe.

I just see all of the people who are here as wanting to make a creative statement that is timeless and valuable, not sort of going for the short coin and doing short-term profit things while sacrificing credibility and long-term commitment. That goes for records, or film, or television or whatever. It's really cool that these guys who are running DreamWorks are the creative leaders of the industry. They come from all different places—whether it be Disney, Warner Brothers, Geffen or the Sony system. Everyone has worked in other systems and wants to do it their own way now. They want to see if this experiment will work, which is: give everyone from top to bottom a really creatively liberal environment, so that there is just a tremendous amount of positive energy and everyone contributes.

Has the experiment produced any results yet?

Everyone here is still building the foundation of this company. A lot of us haven't really done anything yet. We all are just getting started. We have a hit TV show with "Spin City," which is an accomplishment. There is a lot of great stuff coming out of television. Our first feature film, Peacemaker, is coming out soon. Then there are going to be two animated features that are just going to blow the lid off of animation. In music, they have signed an amazing roster of really credible artists. In publishing, we're trying very, very hard to build a great catalog and sign very few, but very great, writers.

Where do you find these writers? Are you still in the process, as most people in the industry have been for the last three or four years, of signing bands, or are you getting back to signing writers?

I think that you have to sign writers no matter what. If they are in a band, and the band is good, great. For me working for Chuck, the one lesson I've learned is there is a lot of good stuff out there—really good stuff—but there is not a lot of great stuff. You really have to be selective about what you want to go the full distance on. There has been sort of a trend recently to just go out and sign bands. At this company, the marching orders are a lot different than they are at other big publishing companies. A lot of other big, big publishers are concerned with immediate market share. They need to look at the charts and see that they rule the charts that month, or that quarter or that year. Everybody needs to have hits and make money, but when you're in that sort of a system, the turnover gets to be a little bit higher, and you get to do more deals. It becomes a little bit more about quantity. I think sometimes the quality tends to suffer.

Here, I'm concerned with signing great writers. We've got to keep this company small. We don't want to be a gigantic behemoth company with 200,000 copyrights. You can't pay attention to all of them effectively. We want to take a few great writers under our wing and work the hell out of them—move along the path that way. I have no interest and no desire in signing something that is going to be cool for the next three months and then disappear forever. I want the next James Taylor. I want to sign things that are going to be around for ten years, not ten months. There are great writers that are going to make a timeless contribution to music. That's what matters to me here. I not happy personally in just sort of signing the next electronica band now, or signing another ska copycat band, or signing another band that sounds like Collective Soul. I don't see the long-term value in doing something like that.

I have the luxury of working for people who are just concerned with doing what is creatively valuable and putting it out there. There are so many horrible bands out there now. There are so many horrible writers. There are so many bad songs. Somebody has got to give a shit about the creative integrity of what is being put out there. I don't want to sign trends, I want to start them.

How do you think the Internet is going change music publishing?

Just tremendously. There is going to be a tremendous income stream that is going to come from the Net. Everyone, including ASCAP, is trying to figure out how to license the Internet. Yes, it's a big, big potential bag of money out there. The two biggies right now are mechanical royalties and performing right royalties—and sychronization money and stuff like that. The Internet is here. It's huge. It's gigantic. We've all got to run around and figure out how to license it and protect copyrights on the Internet. That's hugely important.

Do you get any sense that anybody is getting close to coming up with a standard that all can agree on, or is it not going to be for ten more years or so?

There is no way it can be that far off. If it's that far off, you're talking about a massive loss of income and an enormous amount of copyright infringement. We've seen a couple of presentations here on digital footprinting or imprinting—I'm not sure what they call it—where they put a sort of latent digital image over an entire song so that no matter how small the snippet is that is played in whatever medium, you can pick it up. These guys played like three-tenths of a second of a song and showed us how this digital latent image identifies the song, the writer, the publisher and all of the entitled parties. It's something that people are working on and it's coming. We're all just trying to figure it out. It is something that is a huge concern for the publishing industry at large.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming songwriters?

To anybody out there who is a writer, don't copy anyone else. It's good to have influences—everyone comes from somewhere. Everybody has their experiences and writers in music that they love. That's part of the experience of being a creative person in music. But everything has been done and redone so many times, and with such increasing frequency now, that it makes me ill. I would very much like to hear things that are completely different. You can't be afraid to completely step out and do something that is so outer limits that everyone laughs at you. I think that that's what is important as we go into this new millennium. There is an incredible amount of positive energy right now in society as we get close to this millennium. I think that if you look at where music is now, as opposed to where it was three or four or five years ago, the depressing scene is over and now it's bands like Hanson who are ruling the world. I think great pop songs never die. The key is to write great songs, not good ones.

When you say, "Be completely open and creative," should people quit writing with verses and choruses and bridges?

Oh, I don't know. I think that that's a formula that is sort of a Westernized form of writing that works for pop radio, and works for alternative, and Triple-A and most of the radio formats. It's been around forever. I think AABA is great and it works, but I just signed a writer who doesn't always have bridges in his songs. I don't think there is a specific rule, but if I can't sing it in the shower, I don't know what the long-term value is. The are a lot of us in publishing now who are wrestling with the whole electronic music scene. It is still a vastly unproved ground as far as sales go, excluding Prodigy. I don't know that I can get covers on that kind of music in fifteen years. And a lot of people would say, "Well who gives a shit? The stuff is selling records now. You're not going to be there in fifteen years anyway. What do you care?" I get that a lot from people. The bottom line is, you know what, I still want to be here in fifteen years.


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