Interview with "BIG" JON PLATT, Senior VP of Creative at EMI Music Publishing for Jay-Z, Usher - Dec 28, 2001
ďI educated Jay-Z on how lucrative publishing can be. He is now probably the richest rapper because his business is so tight.Ē
As Senior VP of Creative at EMI Music Publishing LA, "Big" Jon Platt has signed and developed songwriters and artists including Jay Z, Usher, Warryn Campbell, Mary Mary, Harold Lilly, Rick Rock and DJ Sheats. He also represents songwriters and producers David Frank and Steve Kipner (Christina Aguilera, Dream).
In this exclusive interview, Platt talks about how any songwriter with career aspirations must find their own style, get clued up about the music business and make sure their melodies are razor sharp.
How did you get started in the music industry and what was your route to becoming a publisher?
Iím from Denver originally and I was a DJ there for eight or nine years. Besides DJing I had a regular job as an office supervisor, but DJing was my real introduction into the Ďbusinessí.
I then decided I wanted to get into the business side and started reading books on the music business: Donald Passmanís "All You Need to Know About the Music", Nelson Georgeís The Death Of Rhythm And Blues and another book called ĎHit Men [: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Businessí by Fredric Dannen]. I would be up all night reading and that just increased my hunger to be in the business.
From reading Passmanís book, I found management to be something I could do. Because there was a low overhead at the time and I didnít have a lot of money, I started a management thing and through a friend in L.A, met some producers and started managing them from Denver. I would travel back and forth to L.A. and I ended up getting those guys publishing deals with EMI and getting them involved in a lot of projects like YoYo, Volume 10 and Tupac remixes.
From that, I started managing another producer who was already signed to EMI named Kiyamma Griffin who had worked on High Five and Usher. EMI kind of took notice of my drive and decided to offer me a job here. Jody gave me a shot at it and itís been a fun ride ever since. That was in March of Ď95.
What skills is it necessary for a successful publisher to have?
To be a good publisher, youíve got to have this undying drive to really want to develop your writers and get their songs out there. You must have great relationships with record companies. Youíve also got to have great relationships with your writers, so you know what theyíre doing and how you can fight for them.
Iíve signed and developed a lot of writers, whether itís Tamara Savage, Harold Lilly or Warryn Campbell. Before they came here those had nothing going on for them except for some good songs and a lot of drive. Together we developed it to where it is now.
The people who really get respected in this business are those who develop something, who bring something new to the game. It starts with the songs Ė the songs must be good first of all - but itís also about teaching them about this business and also teaching them how to conduct themselves to be here for the long haul. Iím a part of young writersí lives.
What are your main activities?
Signing new writers and getting them to be as active as possible song-wise. Pitching songs is a big part of my job - a lot of urban publishers donít do that. Looking at my desk right now, Iíve got CDs all over it, just songs from my writers that Iím listening to.
For example, the group Dreamís ĎHe Loves You NotĒ was a song that was on my desk for God knows how long. A guy called and said they needed a song. It was the right song for that project and the rest, as they say, is history.
Are you involved in the production side at all?
I donít produce myself, but I am very hands on on a lot of projects that I work on. Iím in the studio helping people get songs right, telling them ďyouíve got to switch this and thatĒ. I know what itís supposed to sound like.
Eventually I think it will evolve into producing but thatís a little down the road of what I do now. Right now I donít want production credits because then egos get involved and then people tend to shy away from having you around, which can then wreck the project. Iím not concerned about egos; Iím concerned about hit records.
How did the signings of Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Usher come about?
In Ď96, Jay-Z had an album called ĎReasonable Doubtí which I listened to all the time because I thought it was so amazing. I said to myself, ĎIíve got to get into business with this guy.í Most of the stuff I sign, Iím an honest, true fan of, so itís easy for me to work it or to work with the person. So I just sought him out. We had a mutual friend (Jay Brown) who got us introduced and from there it just took off.
With Usher, his first album had just sold gold and he was working on the second album with Jermaine Dupri. There was a ĎCity Of Hopeí dinner in Ď97 and they were honouring L.A Reid and Babyface, so all the acts performing were La Face acts. Usher comes out and performs a tribute to Bobby Brown as well as a song of his own. I always thought he was a talent, and when I saw him bring the house down in a room full of only industry people, I said, ďThis guy is a star!Ē Jody Gerson (Senior VP Creative EMI Music Publishing LA) and I talked about signing him and we decided to pursue it.
With Snoop, it was really Bob Flaxís (Executive VP EMI Music Publishing-Worldwide) deal. Bob was working on it and wanted me to go to Snoopís studio and hear the record. I drove for about an hour to get to Snoopís house where he has a studio in his garage. He starts to play the album for me and the album is hot, itís really good. But more than anything it was his conversation. His conversation was that of a winner.
I remember calling Bob on the way back and I was telling him the album is hot and the deal is one he should do. I said ďI donít know if this is the album that will sell millions and millions of copies, but he has got that album in him.Ē And boom, we did the deal and the rest is history.
How do you find new talent?
My instincts always guide me in the right direction. As for the new talent I find, the day I sign them no one really knows who they are, but itís my musical instincts that guide me with those decisions.
I found all my writers in different ways. With Tamara Savage, a friend thought I should check her out. She wanted to be an artist, so she came to meet me with her demo. I thought she was a good singer and had wonderful songs. Her songs grabbed me and she was 20 years old at the time. I kept the cassette and listened to it. The next week we met up again and I was honest with her. I said, ďI think you could be a great artist one day, but I want to do a publishing deal with you.Ē I said, ďTrust me, you write amazing songs. Just trust in me and Iíll get you to the top.Ē She had that hunger and itís been an amazing ride with her, with credits such as Whitney Houston, TLC, Monica, Deborah Cox and Mya.
Warryn Campbell came to me through a friend who at the time worked at Columbia Records. He said, ďI know this kid who is looking for a publishing deal. Do me a favour and take a meeting with him.Ē Warryn came to my office with his aunt. He only had two songs, one I loved. I told him to bring more stuff and he came back with two cassettes the following day. I took a chance with him.
The first two years he was signed to the company was just heavy development and he evolved into a great songwriter/producer. Iím so proud of him because Iíve watched him grow into a man. He was 19 then, heís 25 now and I was proud to see him win a Grammy for the Mary Mary album. To me, thatís what itís all about and Iím so glad to be a part of it.
What is it you look for in a songwriter?
Melody is what strikes me first. Most songs are about love, but can you tell the story in a different way that I havenít heard before? There are a lot of writers that write left of the centre, but at times donít have the melody to pull you into the song. I call those writers ďdifferent just for the sake of being different.Ē You still have to have hit songs tied to that. You can have a negative subject matter song all day but if itís a hit, itís a hit. When I hear a hit song, I get a chill down my spine.
Secondly, youíve got to have a real passion for the music. If youíre in this business for the ego or just to get paid, then youíre probably not going to be successful. Even people whoíve got paid and then developed egos, started out with a tremendous passion for music.
Do you also sign songwriter/artists with the intention to develop them into recording artists?
Of course. Mary Mary, J. Bubble and Harold Lilly, who has just signed a record deal with Elektra Records, have all developed into artists.
I believe Harold Lilly is going to be one of the best songwriters to ever get into this business. Amongst R&B writers, pop writers, country writers, people are going to remember the name Harold Lilly. Trust me. In such a short time, he has written for Luther Vandross, Angie Stone, Gerald Levine, Monica, Faith Evans, O-Town, etc. He has that special ingredient that you are lucky to come across only once or twice in your career.
What would your advice be to an aspiring songwriter who wants to showcase his music to the music industry, how should they proceed?
You have to really get into your craft. You canít be like Harold Lilly or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. You can start from that, but then you have to evolve into you. And thatís the key. Everyone is inspired by something, so Iím not going to sit down and tell you, donít copy Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, cause theyíve been inspired by somebody, but from that theyíve evolved and turned that into Flyte Tyme, which is their own thing.
You have to turn it into your thing, have the undying passion to win. It might take a while sometimes, but youíve got to keep on pressing and youíve got to keep getting better. As Quincy Jones said, ďA lot of people are trying to get paid, but no oneís trying to get better,Ē and thatís the key, youíve got to try to get better, develop your craft and donít be scared to try new things.
But most of all have fun. If youíre not having fun in this business, youíve got to get out.
Which advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of song writing itself and what mistakes do they make?
The first is copying other peopleís work. Thatís the biggest one actually. ďI wrote a song and it sounds just like such and such.Ē If I wanted a song like that, Iíd go to the person youíre trying to sound like.
The second biggest thing is that they donít educate themselves on the business. People get into bad situations, become bitter and jaded by the business. I tell anyone whom Iím doing a deal with, ďCheck me out. Throw my name around.Ē I have no problem saying that because I know what the results are going to be. There is always a sense of urgency getting a deal done because itís a competitive business, but if you have reservations, I donít have a problem with you checking me out.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I used to, but I became so overwhelmed with it because I like to get back to people and there would be material sitting here for I canít even tell you how long. The best way to get material to me now is when Iím at a music conference on a panel. I do accept it then because those people at those conferences are like I once was.
I went to all the conferences before I officially got into the business. Itís where you invest your own money to go and learn about the business and I owe it to those people to listen to their music and get back to them and develop a relationship with them. There are some people, who when I went to those conferences I developed relationships with and those are some of the best relationships Iíve ever had. This is a business that works like that, you never know who the next guy is going to be.
Is the responsibility to get the songs released, shared between the songwriter and the publisher?
Neither the publisher nor the songwriter determines when a song will be released. That is in the record companyís hands. As for getting songs placed on projects, I think itís both. Weíre in business together. Donít get me wrong, Iíll do everything I can do, but you better be doing everything you can do as well. Thatís how we will really win. Depend on me, but donít depend only on me.
Would you say that young songwriters have a sufficiently good knowledge about how the music industry works, particularly in regards to publishing?
For the most part, no. Some of them have heard of publishing, but have no idea how it works and so I try to educate them on that. I educated Jay-Z on it to the point where the guy is now practically a publishing guru. He became that way because he learned how lucrative publishing can be. This guy is now rich on his publishing alone. Jay is probably the richest rapper out there because his business is so tight.
Aspiring songwriters should know how to get their song splits correct because thatís how you determine what youíre going to get paid. Youíve got to be on top of your business.
Which resources do you use to know which artists need songs?
I stay in touch with a lot of A&Rs and they let me know what they are looking for. Also, producers who are working on things, like Jermaine Dupri, who is co-executive producer of Monicaís album, itís a no brainer to get him with Tamara Savage or Harold Lilly to write a song. Thatís automatic. It comes down to taking advantage of your relationships.
A lot of people know a lot of people, but they do nothing, they just know them. I know a lot of people and I work with a lot of people, itís that simple. I donít go to a studio and just hang out - I donít have the time for that - I go to the studio because I have something to give or I go to develop a new relationship I didnít have the day before.
Everything I do, Iíve got to get something positive from it. Thatís just the way I am, itís not using people, but in every person I cross, Iím using the situation to develop a relationship that may be of use to the songwriters Iím working with.
Are your songwritersí songs available for EMI publishers in other territories to pitch as well?
Yeah! Every week songs are turned in from our writers. We screen all of them and a CD goes out to all the EMI offices in our 27 territories. We had a managing directors meeting last year in Florida. Each country does a presentation of their priorities and activities. The Italians play their presentation and they get to the part where they do the sync licenses for the movies and stuff andÖílo and behold,í in an Italian film there is a Mary Mary song! I ran out of the room and called the girls and Warryn. To me that is what itís all about. There are certain things that happen that remind you of how great the company you work for is and why you got into this business.
The Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, do you think itís good that itís based on both radio airplay and single sales?
I think it should only be airplay because I think record companies can play so many games with the singles sales. You can put a single in the store for 99 cents as opposed to the real hot singles that sell for 3.99 or 4.99, so you donít have a true gauge. If it was only sales, thereís so many ways you can manipulate it. Itís harder to manipulate airplay.
What about payola?
Iím not saying it doesnít happen but thatís a lot of radio stations to pay to chart in the Hot 100 on airplay alone. Thereís no mistake proof method, but I still would go with radio because itís BDS and itís real spins. I know how the record companies play with those sales games to manipulate the charts. Thatís just my personal take on it.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
The main thing I would change is to have a lot of the executives who have been in the industry for a while mentor the younger ones. That doesnít happen as much as it should anymore, especially in the urban music scene. I know Iím sitting in this chair right now in what some people would call a ďpowerful positionĒ, but it was people before me who made it possible for me to sit here. Weíve got to make it right for the person coming right behind us.
I wish every person could have a Martin Bandier or a Jody Gerson, who started my development process as an executive. I wish everyone could have a mentor like Clarence Avant. Iím not a person who talks about what I want changed, but Iím the person who will start to make the change. I think change starts with you.
I also wish people could educate themselves more on the business before attempting it. One bad experience could leave you jaded and beaten down, which would be a shame because a lot of the people are genuinely talented.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
I live my greatest moment everyday by being in this business.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Definitely moving forward. Iíve always want more and thatís what I love about EMI, Iím allowed to do more. I just wake up everyday and give 200%. Technology evolves and peopleís goals and drives change daily, but all I can tell you that 5, 10 or 20 years from now, Iím still going to have the same drive and whatever Iím doing, Iím going to be at the top of my game doing it.
What Iíve learned is that I can look at Martin Bandier, L.A Reid, Clarence Avant and see that these people all have something in common - they have all been extremely successful in this business. So, if theyíre successful, that also means they are extremely wealthy. But they are at the office everyday, which means it isnít about being wealthy to them. They still have a genuine love for the game and thatís what I love about them because I feel Iím the same way.
What do you think of HitQuarters - how much do you value it as a resource for unsigned artists?
I think itís a real good outlet. Years ago it wasnít even an option.
Interviewed by Vic Bassey
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