Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a very small town in Pennsylvania called Mount Gretna, located around the Amish Country. It was very rural, not even one traffic light.

What brought you here?

My love of music. I had always been a music lover, first and foremost. I went to Berklee College of Music to really learn songwriting and music. I moved to New York City to pursue a musical career and landed a day job at Rondor Music in the tape library. I did another tape library job at Polygram Music where I did some song plugging as well. And that led me to a job here at BMG. I've been here for three and a half years now.

On the writer/producer end of things, we have some great ones like Manuel Seal who has worked with Usher; We have also Malik Pendelton, who has a great album coming out on Atlantic. We have Shawn Bryant and Ron Lawrence who are also R&B producers. On the West Coast, we have a writer/production team called Sean Hosein and Dane Deviller who are doing great things for 98 Degrees, The Corrs, All 4 One, LFO, etc.. We also have Ashley Ingram who writes with Desiree. He wrote "You Gotta Be." We also get to work with our international roster that includes Phil Thornally who did the Natalie Imbruglia material, Dave Stewart, and Ray Hedges who does the B*Witched records. We have a really strong international writer/producer roster.

What are your roles here?

My job is to exploit the catalog in any way possible. This includes the back catalog, but primarily the current writers we have signed. Typically, 60-70% of my job is finding great songs from our writers and getting them to the appropriate A&R people and artists so that they can cover them. I also work with our back catalog. I continually re-demo some of our older songs. I put new faces on them to get them covered again. I try to get our songs on compilations. I also work with our Film & TV department here. Because of my knowledge of the catalog, we work well together. Lastly, I also look for new writers and artists to bring into the company.

How big is your back catalog?

I think we have about 300,000 copyrights, so it's quite extensive. It includes The Bee Gees, Eurythmics, Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Christopher Cross, The Go-Go's, Santana—a really great artist and pop catalog.

Most of the writers that you mentioned are writer/producers. Do you still have staff writers that only write and don't produce?

I just signed a writer who is just a songwriter. He is a budding talent as a producer, but right now he is primarily a songwriter. It is becoming more rare, but in special cases where we feel that there is a real special and unique writing talent, we will sign them regardless of how good their demos sound or what connections they have. In this case, we've taken the position that this writer was delivering songs that were so good, and he is so talented, that we are taking him under our arm. We are hiring people in Los Angeles and overseeing the demos of his songs so that we elevate the caliber of his original demos to the point where they can be heard properly.

How did he come to your attention?

Through a lawyer and a manager, actually, from Nashville. But he lives in Texas right now. Being in New York or Los Angeles, we're finding is not essential in this case.

What genre does he write in?

Pop music.

Backstreet Boys and that kind of stuff?

Exactly. The staff writer is still very relevant today, I find. The fact is there are very few hit songs and hit writers out there. When you come across them—no matter what, if they are writer/producers, or just songwriters, or lyricists—you've got to grab hold of them.

So he didn't already have cuts?

No.

That's not a story we hear very often. Most of the time these days, songwriters need to have songs already recorded by major artists before publishers are interested.

In this case, it was obvious that these songs were great. My philosophy has always been that great songs equal great covers and great activity. You can't stop a good song, so regardless of what position he was in, I wanted to be involved.

What about lyricists? Do you have anyone that specializes in lyrics?

The people that specialize in lyrics are mostly the people who also do melody. I would say 75% of the time, they are also vocalists that have been able to, through singing melodies, facilitate writing great lyrics as well. So we have a couple of people here that do that. We don't have one person that is per se just a lyricist. Those people would include Manuel Seal, who also does tracks as well, and someone like Trina Powell, who does a lot of R&B writing. I'm finding that there are more R&B-based melody-lyric writers than there are on the Pop side.

Besides the artists you have signed, how many staff writers and writer/producers do you currently have?

Probably ten on each coast. It's not so big that you can't manage it. I think it is somewhere between a boutique feel and a place like Warner/Chappell or EMI that have maybe fifty or more. It's a nice amount of people, and it works very well.

Is it fair to say that for aspiring writers their chances are better if they also produce as well as write?

I'd say, to simplify that, that their chances of making a living are better if they can write hits. Just because someone can produce tracks really doesn't mean anything unless it is a great song. Also, if their productions aren't up to snuff, it's not going to help activity that much.

What were the demos like of your writer from Texas?

Though very representative of the song, they were fairly rough. They were a 4-track kind of thing. He was singing his own demos. The vocals were in tune, but it was not a demo that I could take to a record company and they would feel confident playing to their artists. It was far from being a finished, highly produced demo that you are typically getting today.

Are you finding more opportunity lately in the Rock and Modern Rock world for outside songs?

Actually yes, I really am. I think that a lot of record people have found that for these bands to have longevity and life beyond a one-hit album, they are putting them together with hit songwriters. They are actually taking outside songs and looking for outside songs, and cover ideas too, like that band Orgy covering New Order's "Blue Monday." I'm finding that A&R people are considering other non-typical ways of finding hits for their artists.

So the artists are open to the idea as well?

The artists also understand that their longevity depends on hit songs. I think most of them have resistance to the idea because they may have had previous success, but I think they understand what the game is. I'm finding that those doors are starting to open.

Do you sign single song deals?

Yes. The last one I did looks like it is going to be getting recorded by Next on Arista. Single song deals are a really unique situation where the song has really got to be a hit. My philosophy is I can't sign something that doesn't have hit potential or is just a "good" song. It's got to be tremendous, because that's what other people are looking for. Again this was a case where the demo was decent, but it wasn't an amazing production. I'm always on the lookout for incredible songs.

How did you find that one?

I met with the writer, actually, who was referred to me by a colleague.

What are some of the other ways you find writers and songs? Do you accept unsolicited material?

Well, BMG's official position is that we don't. I'm finding great material from independent sources such as TAXI. I've found some great things from TAXI. There are also the typical ways like lawyer contacts, and other A&R contacts, as well as managers. I'm finding a lot of great things from other songwriters, a lot of other producers, and even vocalists. Vocalists who sing demos for everyone in town can lead me to a new songwriter that has just come into Los Angeles, or someone that they have worked with recently. I even found one thing just through the mail. So it does happen.

What about artist development deals? Do you do those here?

BMG really excels in artist development deals. Our best examples of success in that area have been Beck—who was signed before his Geffen deal—Cypress Hill, Elliott Smith, and Duncan Shiek. So we do do artist development deals. We have recently signed two new artists that, within a period of less than a half year, we've gotten major record label deals for.

On the Film & TV side, do you focus primarily on placing songs from the catalog, or does BMG actively sign instrumental composers and compositions also?

I find that the instrumental side is not very exploitable for us, especially in Film & TV. When the film supervisors need an instrumental cue, they can go to a music library, or they can hire it out as a work-for-hire. For us as a publisher, the whole definition of a song is melody and lyric, so we typically don't look for instrumental composers. However, someone like Jim Brickman, who is a great artist on Windham Hill Records and who we publish, is an instrumental piano player. We have enjoyed a great deal of success with him. However, his successes are also due to co-writing with other lyricists for radio singles which comprise 20% of his album.

When your writers bring you a song, do you work with them on making it the best song possible? For example, will they bring you a rough demo before they make a complete demo and ask your opinion and get critiques from you?

Yes and no. There are some writers that will call me on the phone, and we'll listen to it together, and I'll make comments. Often the comments that I'll offer will be constructive enough that they will re-approach things, and the song will be better. That happens quite a bit. There are some other writers that are more narrow-minded, that even after they turn it in, you may suggest something that is obvious, but they will be reluctant to go back and change it. I'm here for them to critique their songs and make them the best as possible. Through that process, and my knowledge of what A&R people and artists are looking for, we've been able to turn good songs into potential hits.

Do you encourage collaboration?

Of course, absolutely. Though we love it when we can control songs 100%, the bottom line is, whatever makes a song better is what I would encourage. So absolutely—collaborations with other writers, with other producers, and artists. It is especially a great thing if we can collaborate with artists, because that would more likely guarantee a release.

What percentage of the songs that current staff writers bring in end up getting cut?

It varies from songwriter to songwriter. I would say in the best case, we have a writing/production team right now that are getting about 80% of their songs placed. That includes current songs all the way back to the day they started at BMG. The reason that is happening is they are terrific songs, period. Although they are also great producers, they always come up with unique melodies, unique lyrics, unique ways to say things. They are on the case.

Are they currently having hits?

Yes

That must make it a lot easier.

It does make it easier, but the fact is they had to start out just like everyone else here. They didn't have any hits at the beginning, and no one knew them.. One of the first cuts we got for them went Top 10 in the U.S.

And yet 20% of the stuff they write still doesn't get cut.

Exactly. Then there are other writers where it is the total reverse. Only 25% of their songs are getting recorded. We try to get those percentages higher, but sometimes it just doesn't happen. The percentage of activity is in direct relation to the quality of the song

How many pitches do you have to make of the average song before it gets cut?

I'd say thirty or forty. Say you have 20 songs, and 17 of them get placed, out of those 17, in your best case scenario, maybe one or two of them will be singles. Maybe another one or two will be on an album that sells a million records. Three or four may be on a project that never gets released. A couple others may just sell 50,000 records. It's potluck a lot of times. Surprisingly, only 190 out of 50,000 artists released sell in excess of one million!

What advice would you offer a songwriter in Boise, Idaho who is trying to make a living at this? How could they get people's attention?

The best thing to do, I have found, is to have patience and wait to start soliciting your material until you are absolutely, 100% ready to do so. That way, when your name comes across someone's desk for the first time, it is immediately associated with great material. I think after an A&R person or publisher hears someone's name for the third or fourth time, and they haven't delivered good material, they will pay less attention to listening to that material. Maybe they won't even listen after a while. I would say to always make sure your songs are unique—saying something in a unique way, and using unique melodies and lyrics. And just to be as creative as possible but still within the confines of being mainstream, if that is your goal as a writer. The power will always be in the great songs which usually turn out to be hits. Concentrate on writing the best songs possible, and usually all else will follow. The last thing I would say about that is, I find that most songs fail for me on the lyrical end of things. That's the most common reason why songs don't get placed—the lyric is not up to par.

Why do you think that is?

Because it's the hardest thing to do. It's the hardest part of creating a great song—writing a unique lyrical idea and hook and making it work.

What would you say to someone who says, "You say lyrics are so important. I can point to ten songs, particularly on the R&B charts, that are just chock full of cliches and pretty weak lyrically?"

If you look at the songs on the charts right now, I would say for every one song that is like that, there are another seven or eight that have a real edgy lyric. A good example is a song like "Too Close," by Next. The first time I heard the song I thought it was just o.k... until I started listening to what the song was really about, which I can't really go into detail about here! The lyrical game is to find unique new ways to express ideas that may or may not have been previously said. I'm finding that R&B lyrics are pretty adventurous most times. For every rule, there is the exception. There is always that song that transcends having a great lyric.

So it's best to compare yourself to the best and not to the worst.

Yes, exactly.


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