Interview with BENJAMIN GROFF, publisher at EMI Music Publishing, US, for Destiny’s Child, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees - Feb 10, 2002
“If your music isn’t 100% ready, don’t shop it until it is, because it’s very hard to get a second chance”
Benjamin Groff is a publisher at EMI Music Publishing L.A. Previously with BMG, he has provided songs to artists and acts such as Destiny’s Child, 98 Degrees, Christina Aguilera, to name a few.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route to become a publisher?
I started in the music business by going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I took a major in songwriting and performance. I then played in bands throughout the East coast.
I made the realization that the reason I loved music is because of great songs and thus landed a day job at a music publishing company called Almo/Irving (Rondor), which was followed by a move to Polygram. After Polygram, I moved to BMG, where I got my first creative executive break and remained there for five years, having hits and covers with Destiny’s Child (“Emotion”), 98 Degrees (“Invisible Man”), O-Town, Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, etc. And now, I’ve just started at EMI Music Publishing, which is simply an amazing company with an incredible aritst/writer/producer staff, as well as some of the top and most talented executives in the business.
Which qualities/skills are necessary for a publisher to have?
A publisher from a creative aspect has to have an excellent song sense and shouldn’t just be restricted to knowing when a song isn’t working, but should also know HOW to make it work or make it better. They have to know how to develop writers and have an intuitive sense for putting together unique, hit and fertile, creative collaborations. They have to be diligent and not forget their past songs and catalogue as well as the new songs that come in. They should have a great recognition of new talent, but at the same time have to be patient and know how to nurture writers. Lastly, it’s important to have a good information flow so that the copyright, film/tv dept. other staff, affiliates, etc…are all aware of releases, etc. so as to best maximize the potential of the song.
Which experiences have been important for you in developing your skills as a publisher?
People who I have met and inspired me along the way. People like Billy Joel, Jimmy Webb, Quincy Jones and Clive Davis, people who are simply exceptional at what they do. I have found that being close to and learning from the best in the business, the experts, is essential no matter what you are doing in this or any business.
Which are your main activities?
To create opportunities for songs and songwriters. That includes everything from getting new songs cut, to finding new writers, working back catalogues for new hits and working/liasing with our domestic and international offices.
Do you also sign songwriter/artists with the intention of developing them into recording artists?
It depends on the writer. If it’s something they want to do and it’s something we believe in, then absolutely. We also encourage and have helped our writer/producers develop their own artists. I’m very fortunate to be at a company where I can work with a lot of varied and high profile writers.
Which notable hits have you pitched and how did it happen?
My most recent hit is “Emotions” by Destiny’s Child. As I mentioned before a publisher should always remember their back catalogue. I was looking with one or our writer/producers for a song from the back catalogue that could be a modern hit. The song was reproduced by a BMG writer/producer named Mark Feist. Mark created a version, which Beyoncé discovered and added her magic to and it went on to become the third single for Destiny’s Child and went Top 10 here in the US and onto a worldwide hit. Basically, a publishers (and writers) dream come true.
How do you find new talent?
The most effective resources at finding new talent are other colleagues who are exceptional at recognising talent themselves. People whom we trust at record labels, managements and entertainment law firms. But there are many ways of discovering talent. Anything from being out on the street to getting word on a new songwriter from other songwriters or demo singers I work with. You’ve also got demo reviews from magazines like Music Connection and then there are also “Research” records, where you can find out about things that are selling regionally via Sound Scan. There are other organisations and colleagues we work with at U.S. performance right’s societies such as BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and on occasion there’s an independent resource like TAXI, which I’ve found is excellent in finding new talent.
What do you look for in a songwriter?
Uniqueness and HITS. EMI has some of the best writers on the planet, so a new writer has to come with a HIT song, meaning edgy, great choruses, new sounds in the production (if a producer) but at the end of the day, the spirit has to be moved in a big way. I especially keep an eye out for great lyrics and overall great songwriting technique and craft, which is becoming increasingly rare these days.
Which are the important factors for a songwriter to think about when contacting a publisher?
They should know that people in this business are very, very busy. We already have a diverse writer roster that we’re already working with, so taking on a new writer… if they are shopping themselves…they have to be the most excellent they can be. My advice has always been, “If your music isn’t 100% ready, don’t shop it until it is, because it’s very hard to get a second chance.” For a new songwriter the power of getting your name out with one or two songs is much better than with ten. Being able to take someone’s attention with one song, I think is very valuable. They should keep on the path that will take them onto the next level. They should learn their tradition and the great songs that have come before them. Reach for excellence and not sit back on a lyric that is only 75% there.
When you sign a new writer, what in general does the agreement include?
A general agreement includes an advance, an option period (which is the length and duration of the contract), a minimum delivery commitment (which for a new songwriter can be a pure song delivery and ranges between 8-12 songs, fully completed), or a record and release commitment (songs that have to be recorded and released within a year). Those are the basic points of the deal. It also includes the territories of the contract and sometimes bonuses for singles/albums that reach a certain success.
Why sign exclusive publishing deals as opposed to a per song deal with an option? Isn’t it a downside for songwriters with exclusive deals, that many songs get locked and thereby causing frustration?
For a new writer there are two sides to the story. From the “single song” point of view…if you are a new writer, you can develop a relationship with the publisher with one song they believe in and you’re not giving away your entire catalogue. The publisher may be more open to checking out one song that he/she feels he can get a cut on for you. The down side may be that you may be giving away your crown jewels which may also get you a larger publishing deal. The advantage of doing an exclusive deal is that, we’re not just working a song; we’re investing in them. It’s usually a period of two to three years and that gives a writer the opportunity to grow and then see what kind of activity has been established. Of course, it varies from writer to writer and situation to situation on what is exactly right for them at that time in their career.
How much is the publisher involved with a release economically?
As far as contributing money, on occasion a publisher will get involved if they believe there is an artist or single that needs additional marketing/promotion funds that could help in the breaking of an artist. It’s used especially for new artists who need the extra push or a song that might need the extra independent promotion.
As a songwriter, what are the necessary steps to take in becoming a staff songwriter or getting a publishing deal with a major publishing company?
Most of the time, it requires that they have some pipeline income or a couple of covers already out in the market. However, in my perspective, I just need to hear a hit song and the rest will follow.
Is the responsibility to get the songs released shared between the songwriter and the publisher?
Yes it is. It’s both our responsibilities. The first thing is to get the covers happening and that’s the responsibility of the songwriter, who also has to develop relationships with record companies and other artists, and that’s something we facilitate. As publishers, we take our writers to A&R-people and make the introductions. A songwriter may also come into the publishing company, with some pre-established relationships where they have connections in getting their material played.
The Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, do you think it’s good that it’s based on both radio airplay and single sales?
I think it should be both. I think it’s fine the way it is at the moment.
How useful is the Internet to you?
It’s very useful especially in my day-to-day activities. There are several websites that deal strictly with finding new talent. I also use MP3 quite a bit to transfer/exchange songs to my network of contacts.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Officially we don’t, but no matter who you are dealing with, there is always a way to get a package to them if you believe in it and it’s a hit. The hits seem to have a way of breaking down those invisible doors. If it’s an excellent song and a hit…all you need is a little persistence to get our or anyone’s attention. On demos…if there’s a writer that doesn’t have production skills, it’s better to do a very clean and professional piano/vocal than sending poorly produced songs.
Do you in general consider songwriters to have a good knowledge about the music biz?
I think that people have been very good at educating themselves. Obviously they don’t know everything, but most people seem to get it.
Do you sign songwriters/acts from outside of the US?
Since EMI Music Publishing has excellent worldwide offices, if I personally come across something that’s exceptional or might be turned on to a new writer or artist in another territory, I’ll be sure to alert the office/territory that writer is in and often we can work on it together. Also for example, a writer who signs a deal to Stockholm, not just signs to that office, but is able to develop relationships with EMI Music contacts in the US or the UK for example. I’ve been able to do a lot of great things working with writers from around the world…it expands the possibility and my own personal publishing/pitching repertoire for a smash hit!
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
To be more song based and less production based.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
I think it was getting my first cover, which was also my first hit. It was a song by 98 Degrees called “Invisible Man”, and that was in 1997. A gorgeous song written by Sean Hosein, Dane Deviller and EMI Music Publishing writer/producer Steve Kipner. It’s still one of my favorites and a major, modern copyright, in my opinion.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Very similar to what I’m doing at the moment, but on a continued higher profile. To continue working with the best songwriters and finding the best talent on the planet.
Interviewed by Victor Bassey