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Interview with CHARLIE PINDER, managing director of Sony Music Publishing UK - Nov 14, 2001

ďIf youíre a songwriter but not a producer, itís important to develop relationships with producers who will invite you to write on their projects.Ē

picture Charlie Pinder is the Managing Director of Sony Music Publishing UK. As an A&R within the same company, he concentrated on finding new artists/bands writing their own songs and developing them. Examples of such signings include Travis, Catatonia, Belle & Sebastian and Five. He also works with artists/bands Oasis, Sade, Pet Shop Boys and Manic Street Preachers.

How did you get started in the music industry and what has been your route to becoming a publisher?

After college, where I did a law degree, I did a music business course for a year. The courses were very well supported by many music industry figures and I met a lot of people through it. One of them, the Head of human resources at BMG, offered me a position, an unpaid work experience in the A&R department in London.

I did that for a summer and through that I got to know lots of people, including the Head of A&R at East West, who in 1991 offered me a full time A&R job. Iíd never even considered doing A&R, but I found myself enjoying it. I worked there for two years and was then offered a talent scout job at Sony Publishing by Blair McDonald, who is now the MD of Columbia Records. Two years after that I was made the A&R manager, three years after that the Head of A&R and then I was made MD in 1999.

What factors do you look at when signing new writers?

One of the misconceptions about publishing is that, while we do sign songwriters, itís virtually the same decision making process as the record company A&Rs face when theyíre signing. The songs are important, but without the right vehicle they wonít get out there. Itís not just about finding a good writer. Thereís no point in saying, ďThis band arenít very good but their songs are very good, letís sign them anywayĒ. Obviously we do sign non-artist writers, but they tend to be writer/producers and they come as a package.

There are exceptions, sometimes you sign a band that doesnít work, but the writer in the band goes on to be a successful writer for other people. Guy Chambers is a good example of that. He was in an unsuccessful band called the Lemon Trees, one thing led to another and he has now established himself as one of the most successful UK writers, working with Robbie Williams, amongst others.

You got to have a vision for where you and your writers are going, whether it is in the context of a band or writing for other people. How you will help develop them.

If itís a band, you need to have a very clear vision of what sort of band they are and how record companies will perceive them and react to them. You have to put yourself in the record companies shoes. If I were a label how would I break this band? You have to get a fantastic collection of songs together and almost establishing in your own mind, which the first four singles are and how they would be placed in the market, how they would be promoted. Youíve got to be quite disciplined as youíre spending a lot of money on an act that havenít got a record deal.

Which experiences have been important for you in developing your skills as a publisher?

The most important thing has been working with writers. Understanding the song writing process, how songwriters think, what motivates them and what they want from their publisher. Itís inspiring and I now feel I have an understanding of these things. Not just on a practical level, but on a slightly deeper emotional, psychological level. Itís quite a lonely existence being a songwriter. They need support, they need encouragement, they need to feel that thereís somebody who understands them and what it is to be a writer. Thatís one of the things I have learned, which has made me a better publisher. My writers have taught me that.

Then you learn from your colleagues and bosses on how to do deals and run the business.

Which are your main activities?

I have a dual role. I run the business - budgets, administration, dealing with my employees, etc, and I have my own individual projects that I develop. At the moment I have about four or five acts that donít have record deals and Iím helping them to develop to a point where they will be ready to sign a record deal. Thatís by far the most interesting part of my job.

Which styles do you work with?

We have all sorts of writers and acts signed to the company. I donít limit myself and ourselves to any particular style. As I see it, there are two styles; good music and not very good music. Music you think will be successful and music you donít think will be successful. You canít afford to be a snob about it, and you canít afford to be blinkered in any particular musical genre.

How did you find Travis?

Travis used to be called Glass Onion, after the Beatles song. They were a band that everyone in the A&R community knew about and would go and see every now and then. But they werenít very good. They had quite good songs; Fran [Healy] always did write good songs. I first saw them in 1992; I went up to Glasgow and spent an evening with them, just to get to know them really, and I established a good relationship with them. So whenever they had new songs they would send them to me and I would go up and see them play.

This went on for about three years and they werenít really getting any better, just treading water. Then they split with the manager they had at the time, recorded a demo with about five songs and decided to move to New York as they felt the US might be more suited to their style of music. They had been repeatedly knocked back by the British record industry and couldnít afford to hang around for another five to six years. But then Fran said to the band, ďLetís send the demo to Charlie to see what he says. If heís not into it then weíll goĒ. He rang me and came down. On the demo was a song called "All I Wanna Do Is Rock" and it was a dramatic change. It was harder, more exciting, sexy; all things that they never really were. They turned a corner, a shift happened, which I think happens with all bands. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it may take five or six years, like it did with Travis.

We asked them to do a secret gig for Blair, my boss at the time, and me. We went up and saw them and they were fantastic. We signed them very, very secretly. There were a couple of things that we had to sort out, the line-up in the band wasnít right, so we changed it to the to the current one. We moved them to London, we got them a rehearsal room, we got them a house, we recorded more songs and that took about nine months/ a year. Then they were ready, the line-up was complete and they had about twenty fantastic songs. It was just a question of playing it to a couple of really good managers, who took them on and then got them a record deal.

How do you find new talent?

You establish a network of people around the country, who will hopefully ring you up if they know about something thatís good. Itís not a question of finding the newest thing. Sometimes things are right in front of you, that youíve ignored for a long time. Itís worth keeping in touch with these people because people get better at what they do. And suddenly they are ready.

Thereís always somebody somewhere who has heard about someone who is good. A manager, a promoter, a guy who runs a studio or a guy who runs a rehearsal room, who hear about a new band or writer and itís normally from these people I hear things, they filter stuff out through to me.

What do you look for in a songwriter?

Just someone with the talent and the ability to write great songs. But itís also important that they have the right attitude, that they understand what it is theyíre getting into and what it is that they have do to be successful. Sometimes the best songwriters have the worst attitude and have an ego. Or they are too insecure to be able to take constructive criticism, which is something that you have to be able to give and they be able to take. They have to be professional, be open to advice and people being honest with them. Be prepared to trust people and their opinions.

What would your advice be for an aspiring songwriter on how to get into the music industry?

If you want to be a writer who writes for other people; increasingly, writers arenít just writers these days, they are also producers. If youíre not a producer, itís important for you to develop relationships with producers who will invite you to write on their projects. Or perhaps set up a production team. Itís a question of finding people who compliment what you do. When youíre presenting a demo of a song for an act to cover it, most labels now really want to hear a polished demo. They want to hear what the record would sound like. Most people donít cover songs that are recorded in less than an average way. Unless you can do it all yourself, which most people canít, find people who compliment you.

Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regards to contracts?

Get yourself a lawyer. You need independent legal advice in order for a deal to be legally correct (in the UK Ė Ed). Most lawyers know what theyíre doing and will get a good deal for you. Publishing contract these days are generally very favourable to the writers. The deal is there to protect you if thereís a problem.

When you sign a new writer, what in general does the agreement include?

There are different types of deals. Broadly, the most common sort of deal is one in which we will pay the writer an advance and they will make a commitment to have a number of songs released. When that happens, another kind of advance is triggered and thatís how they move through their contract. Itís not just songs written, they have to be released.

If the writer delivers 20 songs, hasnít he fulfilled his obligation and itís then up to you to get them released?

No. If we are doing a deal with a writer we are pretty sure we will be able to get the songs released. But itís not purely the publishers responsibility to get the songs released, I think itís as much about the writer getting out there and getting to know other writers, producers, artists, managers, A&Rs, etc. Working themselves alongside with what we can do for them. We have to have some protection. If we are putting risk money down, the only guarantee of making our money back is if the songs are released.

We have writers who are incredibly professional, treating it as their career and who really make an effort to get out there and meet people. It doesnít prevent them from writing songs. If youíre out there talking to record companies, you get to understand the psychology of these people and what they want. Record companies also often like dealing directly with the writers, then they can sit down with the writer and say; ďOk, this is what I want from youĒ. It makes everyone feel more part of the team and thereís no risk of it being misinterpreted as it goes via us and back to the writer.

So, the responsibility to get the song cut is shared between the writer and us.

Do they have their living costs covered?

Most of the time, yes. Most of the time itís enough money to live on and pay the bills, but it depends on where the writer is in his career. With writers who are brand new, who know no one, who have no experience and no track record, thereís more of a risk attached to do these deals. More work that we have to put in, so it justifies not paying them a huge amount of money when they sign the deal. We have to manage our risk.

What are the advances recoupable against?

Itís recoupable against all publishing income. Mechanicals, performances, synchronisation, etc.

Letís say our deal ends and I didnít have any releases. Do I owe you money then?

You leave and the deal will be over. You leave your recoup balance here and donít have to pay it back. But itís recoupable against all income derived from your songs that we publish.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Personally I donít have the time to listen to unsolicited stuff, but we do as a company. The A&R department listen to the demos that come in. Generally the quality is not very good.

The demos we receive are the ones that people regionally would have picked up on and brought to me, but havenít, because itís not very good. So as a consequence they now write directly to us. There are very few good writers out there who donít get discovered.

Do you in general consider songwriters to have a good knowledge about the music biz?

The ones who are not in it: no. The ones who are in it: yes. Most people donít understand publishing, even in the business. The songwriters do, because theyíre really related to what they do. You can only have an understanding of something when you have had direct experience of it. You got to go out and do it.

Which territories do you work on as far as pitching songs?

We have regular meetings with all the European and American Sony affiliates. We discuss who are looking for songs and we share songs. Around 75% of UK acts, will take UK songs, but there are songs that goes to other acts in other territories and thatís achieved by us talking together about who needs songs. It would go through the local Sony office, although thereís no stopping you to develop relations with people yourself. But basically youíre busy with your own territory, so you donít have the time to go around the World looking for acts in need of songs.

How useful is the internet to you?

We have a website thatís just being launched, which will be very useful. I hope that people looking for songs for adverts, film and TV, will start using it. Itís designed for music users, a business-to-business thing. People looking for songs for acts will still ring a publisher, though, as the Internet is not being used right now for these purposes.

Will you put regular songs on your site?

We have catalogue songs on our web site at the moment.

Does it count as a performance to put songs on the internet, thus giving up the first time right to say no to people who want to record and release them?

No. Once a song has been released on vinyl, CD, cassette, etc, anybody can record and release it as a cover. They only need a license from the publisher, which they will be given automatically. To have a song on a website does not count as such a performance. Therefore, with a previously unreleased song, the owner of the publishing rights, usually the publisher, still has the right to deny anybody wanting to release it.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

If you want to buy a CD, or get some music from the internet, thereís a perception it should be either for free or extremely cheap and that really maddens me to be honest. What other product can you buy for £15, that you will probably have forever and that you will probably get more pleasure out of than anything else at a similar price?

Even if the record companies are making too much money, which I donít think they are, so what? Every other business is making money. These are businesses and they have enormous research and development funding requirements to develop, break and bring new artists to peopleís attention. With every successful act, a record company has five unsuccessful acts. We shouldnít get hold of it for nothing, because people have worked hard to make this happen - the artist, writer, manager, lawyer, marketing people, the press person, record company and the publisher.

I think people donít like the fact that itís actually a business and there are business concerns at play here. They almost want to remove that from the equation but still have music that comes to them in the highest quality. I donít blame people for using Napster like services though, if itís for free, you are going to use it rather than to pay for it. But itís just made the problem worse.

The good thing about Napster was that you could find songs that you just couldnít get hold off any other way.

Thatís where it worked, and thereís a hidden benefit there, which is bringing people to music, which they couldnít get hold off and in the end they might purchase that music. Which is actually similar to how we all got into music, through a brother, sister or a friend who plays a record.

I also think companies manufacturing CD copying machines should pay the music industry because thatís how they earn money, from people buying their gear and using it to copy music CDs. The manufacturers should realise they have some responsibilities. I bet they are making more money than the average record company.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?

My greatest moment was when Fran Healey, from Travis, won his Ivor Novello songwriter of the year award in 2000. I was very proud.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

You donít have much time for yourself in this business. Itís a total roller coaster. I think I will stay in music but I wanna simplify it a little bit more. My biggest inspiration is still songwriters, and Iíd like to continue to be inspired by and work with them. And hopefully have some continued success as well.

Interviewed by Stefan SŲrin

Read On ...

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