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Interviewed by Michael Laskow
Live at the TAXI Road Rally, November 4, 2022

Finding Success in the Music Industry Michelle Bell, Vice-President Roc Nation Keynote Interview, Part 3

If I were a songwriter, avoiding clichés would be the hardest obstacle in the world for me to overcome. Did you ever go through a period where you're like, damn, everything coming out of my brain tonight sounds like a cliche, and if that happened, how did you get past it?

Oh, clichés. There's always a different way to say something, and you've got to find that way. I think Bruno Mars is probably one of my favorite songwriters. I always reference him because I feel like all of his lyrics are pretty conversational. There's nothing super-duper clever, but it's just putting the words together in a way that's relatable, accessible. The storyline is there, the melody's there, but there's just something a little special about just pushing past just a little further. Definitely. I mean, rhyming it. It's also getting a little lazy. I'll say that too because this is what I was talking about, about making it perfect and making it better. Sometimes there is a point where you got the melody, it's great but rhyming way with day or heart with a part is like, these are pretty basic things, but what are you going to put in between those words? How are you going to make this sound something that's new because there's nothing new under the sun. We're just saying the same things over and over and really, it's the same melodies over and over, but I think it's finding the way to express it in a way that just sounds different. It's pushing past just the basic rhyme schemes and basic lyrics that are just kind of everyday things that you would hear.

This is going to sound like a plug for one of our sponsors, and I guess it is, but it’s not intended to be. MasterWriter sent me a video that's going to air either Monday or Tuesday for one of the virtual Road Rally “Sequels.” David Foster endorses it, and he religiously uses MasterWriter. If you’re writing and you're feeling like you're finding phrases that are clichés, MasterWriter is dirt cheap. It's an amazing tool. Get it. If I were a songwriter, I would live with that thing on my laptop.

What I'll add to that too, sometimes tools like that can just inspire you, and just get the juices going a little bit. I love tools like that, too. It’s a good thing to do some research and see if there's another way to say what you're trying to say.

“If you’re a big James Taylor fan and you write things like James Taylor, well who is the newer version of a James Taylor or who's making songs that are in that lane that speak to you?”

How did you learn how to produce?

I think that everyone thinks the goal is to become a popular music songwriter, right? Pop is kind of the ultimate goal, but I think it's finding your lane. Very early on I knew I am really good at a few things, but probably Pop and R&B, that hybrid was the thing I'm really good at. Maybe I can do a hook for Hip Hop, or I can definitely collaborate with a number of writers out of Nashville because everything is just melody and lyrics. But I think there was a point where I had to hone in on the things that I was really, really good at and focus on that. And I think with production… the key way to get a Pop record is to rely on your authenticity, and when you're doing something that you’re great at doing and you're perfecting your style, then you’re on the right track. If you’re a big James Taylor fan and you write things like James Taylor, well who is the newer version of a James Taylor or who's making songs that are in that lane that speak to you? What are the songs that you don't turn off?

If that's what you connect with, then that's what you lean into instead of trying to create music that maybe you're not that great at or doesn't really speak to your heart. Why create something that you don't even listen to? So, I think that's one way of getting better as a producer, focusing on what you're great at and just learning from that and learning from other people who are doing things that you love.

Do you still write today?

I can't avoid it. Sometimes I'll wake up with songs in my head and I'm like, oh, that’s really silly. But it's in there. Yes, I hear melodies, that's my thing. I don't get a chance to go in the studio as much anymore. And now, after listening to songs all day long, by the time I get home, I don't want to try to figure out what the pre-chorus is. But yeah, not as much as I'd like to, but I feel like I get the opportunity to work on music all the time by helping other people and critiquing other people, so it's awesome.

Michael Laskow shows Michelle Bell that a plant she gave him on her last day as a member of TAXI's A&R team is still thriving years later.
Michael Laskow shows Michelle Bell that a plant she gave him on her last day as a member of TAXI's A&R team is still thriving years later.

Do you ever get tempted when you’re developing a writer or you’ve signed a writer and think, “I would love to write with that person?” Is it even Kosher for somebody in your position to write with one of your writers, you, or is it breaking a rule, like having a relationship with a co-worker or something?

No, but it's funny, I've had a few of the writers that I work with ask me, and I'm always so flattered. I think it's, again, it's that sacred space. I wouldn't rule it out. And there's no real problem from a legal standpoint or from, I think even a moral and ethical standpoint, it's up to the co-writer. I don't believe in managers or A&R people—and this might be controversial, but there are a lot of people in the industry now who will take credit for placing a song. They want a percentage. And I think that's so unfair. If you have the opportunity to put people in the room and to have an audience with them and to give them a chance, why take something? Now, if you've contributed and I go in the studio, and I'm not just saying, “Hey, move around this high-hat and add a ‘the,’ but no, if there's legitimate songwriting happening, then yeah, there are a lot of A&R people that collaborate with their writers. But I personally don't want to take from anyone when I haven't contributed to the song.

Let's talk about film and TV. I knew you best when you were transitioning to film and TV music, which I always thought was a smart move on your part. You recognized that part of the market was shifting and growing pretty rapidly. And with all the new outlets for music, people would need more. And I watched you network. You came from not knowing anybody in that world to knowing a lot of people in that world inside of six to nine months. Any observations for songwriters that when you're writing for film and TV versus writing for radio and records, what are some of the things you've noticed that they should be aware of?

I think that people think that film and TV, it's kind of the knockoff, soundalike songs. And I actually thought that for a long time in the beginning. But realizing when you look at what's on an Apple commercial or Samsung commercial… these are the ear candy. The way that streaming, the way that television has changed so much since I was working at TAXI. Advertisements aren’t as long as they were before, because people don't really watch ads. You can go to Netflix or you can go to Hulu, and not have the ads. So, I think it's so important with advertisers, especially for music, to be just as powerful as it would be if it were on the radio. It's got to be catchy and it's got to grab you. And I think with TV and film, especially, they want really great polished sounding songs. The beginnings and the endings are super important for TV and film because when they're making their edits, they want to hear that you've buttoned it up at the end and that you've kind of thought it through. So before, I would've said it's a milder version of a radio song. But now I think TV and film and advertising songs are just as competitive as anything that you'd hear on the radio.

So, there's that fine line of if the song's too good, it's going to steal the scene. But then for a commercial, you want something that’s almost a hit Pop song. Especially if it's a commercial that’s got a lot of quick cut edits and a lot of action going on where there's not a voiceover or dialogue and the song is the thing. So, it's an art form, but I think there are several art forms under the umbrella of music for sync. You actually got into even understanding the instrumental side of the industry really well. I watched you learn that side of the film and TV music side of the industry with some interest, because most song people don't really understand the instrumental side of the industry. They think it's the trailer park of the film and TV industry. Those of you in the audience who are making nice money know better.

Do you ever have to advise the writers that you're working with at Roc Nation? Do you have to educate them as to how music for film and TV is a little different… maybe a simpler lyric or non-specific lyrics, things like that?

Sure. Oh yeah. I think all songwriters want to work in TV and film. Especially these days with streaming changing so much about how songwriters get paid. And I think TV, film, advertising, video games, it's just a different revenue source. And it's definitely a different way of writing. The briefs are pretty much the same. The briefs don't really change. They haven't changed that much since I was working at TAXI. There's always going to be the high energy sports theme, big drums, horns, Rock guitar… something that's always driving. You see them in the highlights for ESPN. There's always that. And then there's always going to be the sort of happy, friendly Pop song that has a little bit of a Sixties kind of vintage thing in there, but still really up to date and modern. I encourage our writers to create their own small library of different songs… don't wait for the brief, be prepared for the brief, and then we'll already have the songs ready.

And there's a lot of songwriters that have big hit records, but writing for film and TV is different from writing with a big artist. It's much more concentrated in what they're looking for. So yeah, we definitely give notes and help people as much as possible. I mean, I'm very fortunate to have one of the biggest composers Ludwig Goransson, who’s scored huge movies like Black Panther, and tons more. He’s world renowned. So yeah, I mean, somebody like that gets it. But then we have people who are Grammy nominated, A-list writers, and it's just a different world. So, I think all creatives think it's good to have direction. It's good to have someone say, instead of just saying, “I didn't like this,” or “This didn't work for this, sorry,” why we went with this. Or sometimes I let people hear the references they sent to us. I always try to give references, and it's good to give notes. So, we like to do that as much as possible.

“I always think I want to be the publisher that I wanted. I wanted to spend time with someone who really cared and could be brutally honest.”

Tell us what a typical meeting is like with your writers. Do they still come in and sit with you in the office and you listen and you give them feedback?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! Being a creative, it's super important to me to listen to everything that comes in and to listen to it wholeheartedly. We take our listening meetings very seriously, and because we know that this is someone's heart on the line, this is someone who's waiting to just get an answer. “What do you think? Are you going to pitch this? What's going to happen with it?” So yeah, people definitely still come in and we're hearing music, and I think giving feedback is really important. Like I was saying, you want people to have some direction so that they can nail it, and so that they can walk away saying, “Oh, great, I'm going to work on this tonight,” and also be excited about it. So, it's great to give someone one direction as opposed to just saying, “I don't think this is going to work,” or “We're not really feeling, it doesn't speak to my heart.”

Is it hard to break hearts in your office because you've been on the other side of the desk and had yours broken?

There are moments when it's really difficult, but I always think I want to be the publisher that I wanted. I wanted to spend time with someone who really cared and could be brutally honest. And I think I don't believe in bad songs. I believe that some songs need work or you never know. This could resonate with somebody if you put it out, who knows, because it's still very subjective. Even with me, I'm supposed to know what I'm doing, but every now and then I might hear something and say, “I don't know. I don't love this.” And somebody else might say, “This is a huge hit record. We're going to take it.” It just depends on what it's for. I always feel like some songs can find a home, but I like to be honest with people. And I always tell people, “You have so many millions of songs in your brain. There are so many songs… there are other songs that you can create. So don't get hung up on this one. And also, just because I don't like it, play it for other people.”

Let's talk about casting for a minute. A word that maybe doesn't get used as much as it did 15 years ago in the publishing world, but casting songs is not unlike what a casting agent does for actors and actresses auditioning for parts. So, as part of the process, when you have a writer come in and you hear something amazing, is your mind immediately going down a list of which artists the song would be a good pitch for? Once the writer leaves the meeting and you’ve heard a great song, how does that process go as far as getting it to the artists you think it might be a good fit for?

I think it depends on the moment. I'm very in the moment, so if a writer comes in and I hear something that I love right away, I'm going to pitch it right there. I don't like to send big folders. As a publisher, we pitch a lot to record labels and to music supervisors. I don't send big folders. I like personal relationships. So, if I hear something that I love, I'm going to text it to that A&R person, and I'm going to say, “Hey, I think this is really great!” I'm not sending them folders with a bunch of stuff every week. It's way more personal to me. I feel really thankful that I'm at a company where it's not quantity, it's quality. They also care about great relationships.

So, if I'm not sending them a hundred songs every week, then I know that they're going to listen and they'll usually get back to me right away with feedback. So that's kind of how I pitch. And then sometimes there are songs where it's like, I love this. I don't know where this is going to go yet, but I'm just going to wait. I'm going to sit on it. And I have writers that I've worked with, a guy that I met about three years ago, and we'd been talking and building a relationship. I actually signed him this year after getting to know this person for two and a half years, listening to his music, pitching his music, and it just seemed like it, nothing was going to happen. And I know that he was kind of getting discouraged, but I never gave up. I never forgot.

I thought, this person was absolutely amazing. He didn't have a lot of huge cuts, but he just blew me away. And I think it's been so wonderful to watch his career flourish and to go to bat for him. It's easy to get the guys who have the hit records. We’ve got a lot of people who have hit records, it’s really easy to get them in the room. They have the names, it's great. But when you have to talk to someone and say, “You've got to trust me on this one. I've got to get this person in there, you're going to love them. Take a meeting.” Now I'm pushy for other people the same way that I was pushy for myself. But yeah, that's the process. I think for me it's more personal and special. I don't send a bunch of folders.

Don’t miss the final part of this insightful interview next month!