Creative Dir, Famous Music Publishing
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
From the male perspective, Laura Becker could very well be the perfect woman. Brains and beauty rolled into someone who is the girl next door, and also somebody you'd love to invite over for a Monday night football game. But I love Laura for another reason. She committed to do this interview, and even though she was home with a nasty case of the flu, she honored that commitment. She's a rare bird, especially in the music business. ML
Where did you grow up?
San Diego, born and raised.
Did you always know that you wanted to be in the music business or was it a fluke that you got in?
Total fluke. I didn't even know there was a music business to be in. I was going to school down at UC San Diego. A friend of mine graduated a quarter before me and was living here in L.A. trying to work in the entertainment industry. She called the summer after I graduated and asked what I was doing. I said, "Nothing." I thought, I've got to figure out what I'm going to do now with my psychology degree. Having grown up in San Diego my entire life, she naturally said, "Don't you want to move to L.A.?" "And do what?" "Work in the entertainment industry." So I said, "Okay"--after about two seconds worth of thought!
I think that was in September of 1993. I moved up here and signed up with some temp agencies. Through one of them, I ended up temping at a music management company, called Kushnick-Passick. It was supposed to be for about a month, and it turned into two years. So it was a complete fluke.
After Kushnick-Passick, you went over to Famous Music, and if I remember correctly, you started there as the assistant to the president.
We had a couple of writers and artists at Kushnick-Passick that were signed through Famous, because Kushnick-Passick had a joint venture with them. So I had worked with some of the people over there and always thought they were efficient, and nice, and really cool. After two years of management--which is about all anybody could probably take--I thought, okay, what do I want to do now? For me it was always about songs. They were the heart of music for me, so I said, well I should probably check out publishing. I just sort of randomly called over to a couple of publishers--Famous being one of them--just asking if they had anything available anywhere. I just wanted to come in and find out about the publishing side of it.
Famous had just been taken off the market for sale. Viacom was going to sell them. In 1996, they were given a new signing budget and given the go ahead to start signing artists and writers again. It turned out when I had called in October of 1995, they knew that they were going to be up and running again, so the president, Ira Jaffe, was actually looking for somebody to be his assistant. It was just lucky timing. I went in and met with him, and we clicked, and I got the gig. I spent about two and a half years as his assistant. He's really good about that. He's had people like Jolene Cherry and Ronda Call that have worked as his assistants before. They've gone on to bigger and better things. He's never one to hold anyone back. He let me go out and see bands. Once I started doing that, he really liked it, because it saved him a lot of time. He actually let me sign a band, K's Choice, while I was still his assistant.
I guess being the assistant to the president probably makes you privy to a lot of stuff that other people in the company aren't privy to. I imagine that must have been great training for the business side of publishing as well.
Oh exactly. That's what I had always thought about management too. For somebody who didn't know anything about the music industry, management was a great place to start. You work with everybody--you've got the artist, their record company, their publisher, their lawyer, their booking agency--the whole thing. The same was true with Ira. If you want to learn about publishing, work for the president of the company. He interacts with every department--copyright, legal, finance, royalty. I got a vast introduction and education to it all. He's really great about sharing his knowledge and helping you figure it all out.
In the past, publishers traditionally signed a stable full of writers. The writers wrote songs, and the publisher acted as song plugger to get the songs cut. Then it seems that all that changed in the '90s. Can you explain how the publishing business has become different from what it used to be and why that change has taken place?
When I started, deals with two or three of our bigger songwriters had just ended--Phil Gold, Marsha Malamed and Steve Dorff. That was sort of the last we've seen of the traditional staff songwriters--at least in the pop world of publishing. For us, our three major writers are all writer-producers, and they are all in the R&B world--Fred Jerkins, Montell Jordan, and Christopher Stewart. So we have maybe three to five other strictly songwriters, and the rest of our roster is comprised of bands. That's sort of the way it has been with publishers recently. Everybody is signing bands that write their own songs. That's kind of the way it has gone for the three and half years that I've been doing it at least. Although now this year, of course, with the arrival of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and all those boy band, pop groups, it is coming back around to a songwriter's world in a publishing sense. Right now, we're currently looking for a couple of A-level, strict pop songwriters who can plug us into that market by getting those cuts with 98 Degrees, or Celine, or whoever. I think that's a good thing. I keep telling people it's a good time to be a songwriter, because there are great opportunities right now.
It has been sad throughout the '90s to see all of these great songwriters not having anywhere to shop their stuff.
It's definitely coming back around to a world where we're looking to sign strictly songwriters again.
It seems that many of the bands or artists that got signed during the '90s are one-hit wonders because they just don't have the songs to build an entire career out of. Why don't bands cut outside songs when they realize that they've just used up the ten good songs that they wrote over the last three years? Now it's time to do the second album, and they've only got two good songs. Why do you think they're so resistant?
I'm not a songwriter, so I'll say this with a grain of salt, but I think some of it is that people prefer to sing their own material. Even with a band like Bush who we publish, Gavin writes all of the songs. I was just reading an article on them today, and one of the other guys in the band does write, but Gavin basically said he likes to sing his own songs. Many bands feel they have an association and an emotion with a song that they have created and written. They can sing it knowing where it came from, and therefore be able to feel more emotion and passion. Another reason could be that I don't think a lot of them even think of [using outside songs].
But their A&R people must. In the old days, half of the A&R job was finding songs for their artists.
Exactly. It's just gotten so far away from that though.
Explain to me how a publisher can be a safety net for a band, as far as the financial aspect. A baby band just gets signed to their first record deal. They are in the studio working on their record now. It's scheduled for a July 2000 release. How does the publisher come in and offer some financial security to the band?
Well, there is the initial advance which can be given to them in full upon signing. Or a lot of times we'll break it up and give some of it to them on signing, and some when the record is officially delivered to the record company, and the third part when it's released. They can get money all along the way that way. We also provide a lot of times for promotion and marketing money, above and beyond what the label might be putting into it. In the meantime, our Film & TV department is always pitching our bands and artists for projects. They'll be making sync and master fees on that. We have somebody who does strictly commercials for us, so they are constantly pitching artists for that. Bands always ask, "Why should we do a publishing deal? What else are you going to do for us?" So those are some of the other things that we tell them. Aside from registering your songs, and collecting and administering your money and your catalog, we do have a Film & TV department, and the commercial department. We're a vast resource too. Do you want collaborators for the next record? We'll hook you up. Are you thinking about producers? We'll hook you up. In terms of money, a lot of the time we will also give them increases or "bumps" on selling 250,000 records, and gold, and then platinum. Or if it's a songwriter, we might give them bonuses if they have a song that achieves a certain chart position, particularly if it's a #1, or a Top-10, or a gold single, or something like that.
So in many ways it's a smart investment for the band, even though in some respect they're gambling on the fact that the record might be a flop. At least they can walk away with the publishing advance.
Right. And a lot of times, releases can be delayed. I've got a couple of bands right now whose records have been pushed back, from releases of summer of this year, to now February or March of 2000. So there can be a long lag time between when they have been signed and when their record comes out. What happens a lot of times, whether we like it or not, is they will call and ask for an advance on the next advance. Just depending on the situation and the relationship, and if we know that they're struggling or need to get by, we'll take care of it. And also, though not necessarily for most signed bands, we've paid for a couple of videos for artists of ours that we are developing. We've also put in money for new demos.
As a publisher, do you actually do development deals very often with bands or artists or writers?
Not very often any more. I would say in the time I've been here, that we've done about ten. Imani Coppola was one, but it was very quick. I think we signed her and then she got signed to Columbia within three months. We've got about five outstanding development deals right now where we've signed writer-artists. One of them is a writer who decided to put together a band and is starting to get some attention. So we're working on that. We've got a couple of singer-songwriter types that we're developing. We've put in money for demos. We hook them up with writers or musicians or help them find bands. We help set up showcases, and stuff like that. I know we're going to be sort of cutting back on that for 2000, just because they do take a lot of time and there is not always a lot of payoff. I like to do them if it's something I totally believe in. It's worth it to sign somebody early on for a reasonable amount of money, work with them, get them a record deal, and get them out there. It's very gratifying, too, to see something early, believe in it, pick it up, grow it, develop it, and watch it get signed and happen. I would say next year, if we sign ten bands or ten artists, if one or two of them were development deals, that would be plenty.
Is it worth it for a publisher to spend time in clubs hearing unsigned artists, or is it more likely that the artists that you'll sign to a publishing deal come to you because they are about to do a record deal?
Most of the things that we end up signing come about because the lawyer or the manager called to say, "Check this out, we just signed to Universal," or, "We're finishing a deal with Atlantic with a record coming out in the spring of 2000. We're now looking for a publishing deal." I would say 80-percent of it is that. But we also go out all the time to see unsigned bands in clubs in L.A. because you want to get in early on. If you see something great, you can get it before you have to pay a fortune for it when they've got a song on the radio and are getting airplay and charting. It does pay in that sense. However, you might also think, "I love this band. They're great. I want to see what label they sign to first." There are certain labels that may be a better place for a certain kind of band, and maybe you're going to think twice about it. On the other hand, it's always good to go out and see stuff just to get it off your list. You've been hearing about such-and-such band that everybody is talking about. You go down and see them and decide to pass. I have to tell you, much of the time when I go out to see bands, it's to make sure I don't like them.
How do you think the Internet is going to affect publishing in the future?
Of course, all publishers are concerned about being able to track downloads of our songs and getting properly reimbursed for that. That would be our first and foremost concern. I think the Internet is a great thing. Myself, I'm not one to sit there all day going through hundreds of artists on MP3.com. I still don't think a lot of industry people are doing that. You still don't want to have to sift through them all. You want to give it to someone else to go through and bring me the one that's great. You're still going to have to dig through a lot to find a couple of great things. But I think it's a great avenue for artists who just want to get their music out there. Maybe there are still a few people out there who don't want to sell a million records. They just want their music to be heard and have a chance to get it out there. It a great avenue for that.
What are some of the most common mistakes that you think amateur or up and coming songwriters make?
I stayed up late to write that one (laughs)!
I often find myself commenting that a lot of material sounds dated. I know a lot of people want to write what they feel or whatever their muse is, but you really do have to figure out what's going on out there in the world of music and what is being played on the radio. That's what we're looking for. If you come to me with something that sounds like it could have been good for an old Bette Midler album or something, that's just not going to cut it.
My other feeling is that a lot of times people get lyrically trite--my favorite word to use! Lyrics are a big thing for me. Not that it has to be intellectually off the scale, but a lot of lyrics written by writers who are just starting out tend to be very clichÈ.
Been done a thousand time before?
Right. Been there, done that, formulaic. Or it's just something that doesn't do anything for you. It doesn't move you. It doesn't make you feel anything, or think about anything.
If your little sister were getting off the bus in Los Angeles and wanted to become a songwriter or break into the music industry somehow, what advice might you give her?
Get great at networking, and just go for it. Even making the cold calls to publishers, A&R people, and managers. Another good thing I always tell people that they rarely think to use as a songwriter is get to know your ASCAP or BMI rep. Both of those companies have people who set showcases up, and can hook you up with co-writers. That's their job. And they have a vast amount of contacts.