Interviews – Music Dish
Article appeared in Music Dish (By The Aspiring Songwriter)
[AS] Thank you, Eric, for agreeing to be interviewed by MusicDish.
[AS] For those who are serious about taking the independent route to break into the publishing industry, what kinds of steps would independent publishers have to take, or what action would their catalogues have to have to be viewed as serious by those already in the industry?
[EB] There are two obvious things that always help an independent publisher to be taken seriously. The first thing is diversification in the writer roster. I don’t mean stylistically– in that respect, it’s actually more effective to keep your business focused on one specific genre in which you can bring some real expertise. But I do think that a company appears a bit more legit by representing more than one writer. It’s okay to represent your own work (as a songwriter), but it helps if there are a few other writers you represent as well.
The second thing that always helps is “hits.” It doesn’t really matter how many songs you have in your catalogue– what really counts are the “hits.” Most of a publishing company’s income is generated by “hit” songs– they get on the radio, they get in movies, people sing to them at karaoke bars. You need songs that are radio-oriented– uptempo, mass appeal songs with big choruses.
I recently wrote a book called “Making Music Make Money”– the point of the book is to encourage songwriters to become active as their own publishers. In the book, I stress the importance of focusing on one particular genre, organizing your catalogue so that you can respond to requests quickly and efficiently, and building relationships. If a small publisher does those three things, they’ll be taken seriously by anyone. They’ll also be several steps ahead of the vast majority of music publishers, large and small.
[AS] The staff writing deal has traditionally been the “golden fleece” for any serious songwriter. Those opportunities are becoming more and more limited, especially for songwriters who are not also artists or producers. Do you see any alternatives to the staff writing deal on the horizon for serious songwriters?
[EB] I think the term “staff writer” tends to imply a certain type of relationship that doesn’t really exist anymore. It used to be that someone would be signed as a “staff writer” and be given a “draw” or monthly “advance” to live off of–the songwriter would write songs and the publisher would go out and try to get them cut. In return, the publisher would keep the publishing share of the income, and the writer would get the writer’s share. Outside of a few small publishing firms in Nashville, that sort of relationship is pretty much history, for better and worse. Most publishing deals now are “co-publishing deals.” This means that the writer keeps more of the money-but it also means that the publisher expects more of the writer. Publishers expect writers to get more of their own cuts, and the advances they offer are usually based on income that the writer has already generated on his or her own.
I think there are a couple of alternatives for writers in the present climate. As I’ve already mentioned, you could opt for a co-publishing deal, or you could look for an administration deal, which would allow you to keep control of your catalogue, take 90% of the income, and have someone else look after the paperwork. But if you opt for either of those options, you’re still going to have to do a lot of the upfront work yourself-you’re going to have to get your songs cut largely on your own before anyone will even offer you a co-pub or an admin deal. So the real alternative, at least in the early stages of your career, is to be your own publisher and try to generate some activity on your own.
[AS] Eric, let’s talk about artist development for a bit. For a while there, publishers were becoming the ad hoc artist development arm of the major label music industry. Is this trend continuing?
[EB] I think it’s a trend that is continuing, but not growing. Every large publisher has a certain number of development deals on their roster-artists or bands that were signed for modest advances, with the hopes that the publisher could help get them a deal. Of course, the difficulty is that given the contraction in the record industry, there are fewer labels signing new acts. So publishers have a lot of acts that they’ve developed that don’t have the big label opportunities anymore. For that reason, I think most publishers are being more cautious about taking on projects that require a lot of work, with only the hope of a future deal. Of course, if the record business bounces back a little, these deals will start to proliferate as well.
[AS] Is it essential that artists also write songs to land a deal today?
[EB] I assume when you ask about a “deal,” we’re talking about a record deal, not a publishing one. Obviously, it’s essential that an artist write in order to get a publishing deal. On the record side though, I think there continues to be a place for artists that don’t write-at least in specific markets. In the country market, you continue to have artists that don’t write, or at least don’t write much; in the pop/AC market you have people like Clay Aiken, Celine Dion, and Josh Groban. Of course in the rock market, most artists are expected to come up with their own material.
I think there is some concern at most labels about signing an artist who doesn’t write-as it can be incredibly hard to consistently turn up hit songs, album after album. At the same time, I think there’s concern about signing artists who insist on writing, when they’re not really topnotch songwriters. It works both ways. What you really like to see, as an A&R person, is some sense that artists understand their own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. If they really have something to say musically, then by all means, they should be writing. But if the artist is only a marginal songwriter, they really should stay out of the process, and focus on finding the best material they can.
[AS] Song royalties seem to be the “deep pockets” that everyone is trying to get their hand into today, from labels, producers, engineers, artists — just about everyone wants to get a piece of the music publishing pie these days. What impact is this trend having on the publishing business?
[EB] It’s a constant struggle to keep everyone’s hands out of our deep pockets. As I just said, I think a great many artists do themselves a disservice by trying to muscle in on the writing income and/or the publishing income. Unless they’re superstars, it just means that they don’t get the best material to record. The same is true of producers and engineers who try to grab a piece of publishing on anything they work on. Frankly, the worst offenders of all are the movie studios-it’s very difficult to get an original song in a movie without giving up a hefty chunk to the studio’s publishing company. And unfortunately, they usually have the clout to get away with it. The best you can do is try to structure something where they share the income, but don’t actually own a piece of the copyright.
As far as the impact all this money-grubbing has-it’s really just a question of being more cautious as far as projecting what a song might earn. And not to be cynical, but it also means that as a publisher, you might want to start offering admin deals to the producers, labels, engineers, managers, and artists who are grabbing pieces of publishing but don’t really know what they should do with it. Sometimes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
[AS] Thanks for your thoughts, Eric.