Interview with PELLE LIDELL, MD of publishers Murilyn Songs (Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Christina Milian, Sugababes) - Sep 10, 2002
“I faced a lot of prejudice in the US after Max Martin had reached his peak - A&Rs were saying, ‘Sweden is over’.”
Co-owner and managing director of influential independent Swedish publishing company Murlyn Songs, Pelle Lidell, is this week's interviewee.
Murilyn has provided songs for Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Christina Milian, 98 Degrees, Samantha Mumba, Sugababes, Ms Dynamite, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Ronan Keating amongst others.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a music publisher?
I was born in 1962 and by 1969 my life was changed by hearing the Magical Mystery Tour EP by The Beatles. I started listening to David Bowie, T-Rex, ABBA and The Clash, and then I discovered black music, Motown, funk, soul, which broadened my horizons.
At 15 I started going to England every three to four months. Working nights at a supermarket I saved every penny I earned to buy cheap tickets to London. When I got there, I immediately looked up the gigs in the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. I was a complete music junkie.
By 16 the band I played drums in got signed and we started touring Sweden after school and at weekends. I was a musician for a long time and I lived in England and in Los Angeles until 1993. Then I thought of getting into A&R, and I chose publishing because I like the creative process. Publishing is very close to the roots of music making and you are involved well before the music becomes a commercial tool. I’ve always been a song man, and no matter what genre, it’s always been more about the song for me than about the band.
On my return to Sweden, Lars Wiggman at AIR/Chrysalis Music offered me an A&R position, after rejections from most labels and publishers in Sweden. He became my mentor and friend. I highly respect his work ethic and experience, and without him I wouldn’t be here.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as a publisher?
I wasn’t a songwriter, but being a musician in bands who had publishing deals was a good school. I learnt how things work, why I’m signing this paper, what my publisher is supposed to do for me, etc.
How did Murlyn Songs get started?
Music executive Christian Wahlberg and producer/songwriter Anders "Bag" Bagge launched it in 1998. The first office was in the basement of Bag’s home, and the idea was to gather songwriters/producers under one roof, make music and have fun – a bit like Motown in the 60s. After helping them out from a distance, I joined them in June 1999 to help build Murlyn Songs.
What was the key to your success?
Very talented songwriters/producers, in combination with a knowledge of the international market. We profiled ourselves as a song-driven company, equipped with a service mentality and a creative drive as well as a fun, laid-back attitude.
What are your main activities?
To develop our roster of writers and make sure they have assignments by bringing in writing and production gigs to Murlyn. With my creative team, I set up new co-writes for upcoming recording projects, and we make sure we deliver the right songs. I also keep an eye on new talent.
How many songwriters do you have at Murlyn?
We have 42 songwriters signed to exclusive agreements.
What are the main territories you work with?
All of our clients are US and UK-based major labels, because that’s where the market is.
Our network is second to none in the US, and we work with the heads of most major labels, who come to us for new songs all the time. We attract writers and producers who want to be out on the international scene, and we sign the ones we think are made to be major players.
The Americans were much quicker to start doing business with Swedish writers and producers than the English, who started to react when they saw the Swedes scoring big hits in the US. That's with the exception of Colin Barlow (HQ interview) at Polydor UK, who was there for us when we were nobodies, and David Massey (HQ interview) at Sony US. Those two have been very supportive and have brought in a lot of business.
What was the process that led to you producing and writing songs for Christina Milian?
Jeff Fenster (HQ interview), the head of A&R at Def Jam/Island, brought over some of his other artists to our camp. He’s a fan of Bloodshy and Avant, the two guys who would eventually work with Christina. He said he'd signed this fantastic American-Cuban girl, and asked us whether we wanted to work with her.
So Bloodshy met her in LA. and thought she was a star. She came over and spent a couple of weeks here doing a number of songs, of which five or six ended up on the album. But one of the tracks she contributed to but felt wasn’t right for her was ‘Play’, which was later recorded and released as a single by Jennifer Lopez. With that track we helped create and establish Christina as the serious songwriter she is. She was about to sign a major publishing deal but we signed a non-exclusive deal with her for future co-writes that has nothing to do with her own career.
What creative challenges do you face when working with your songwriters and when trying to placing songs?
There was a guy, Paul Rein, whom I signed when I was at AIR/Chrysalis. He used to be a Swedish popstar with a bad hairdo in the 80s. He was signed to another major publishing company who didn’t do much for him, so when he came to me with a fantastic tape of hit songs we managed to buy him out of the deal. I had A&R colleagues calling me and mocking me a bit for signing him, because they thought he was a has-been. I asked them whether they'd heard his tape.
Obviously they hadn’t, and 18 months later he scored a No.1 in the US with Christina Aguilera's “Come On Over”, and has had several No.1s in the UK and Germany since. To me that is the true award for a publisher, when you share a vision with someone, nurture that talent, and then get other people to share that vision.
How do your writers work? Do they write with a particular artist in mind or do you see where the song fits once it has been written?
It depends. Many of our writers are also producers, and every year we try to break up the production schedule a bit and have a writing period. I believe that you bring in the production assignments based on the quality of the songs, and also obviously the sound that comes with the songs.
Often we have artists here whom we write with and for, and A&Rs also call me with requests and give me a creative brief on what they want. I relay the information to the writers I think suitable for that particular project, and keep a close eye on the songwriting by being their biggest fan and critic.
How important is it that a demo's production is of a high quality when pitching a song?
It’s very important. We always treat our demos as masters, and on most of the songs that we've had cut, 75-80% of the production has been there on the demo.
Do you sign songwriter/artists with the intention of developing them into recording artists?
It has happened, but my main focus is to sign and nurture songwriters. I decide whether I can establish this person in 18 months. If I believe I can, I‘ll sign them. If I know it’s going to take longer than that, I usually offer a development deal and see where we are in 18 months. If it doesn’t work, I have no problem with taking the loss and letting that person go, which, I think, is fair to both parties.
Do you have an example of a song pitch where everything worked the way you wanted it to?
“Play” is one such example. Tommy Mottola from Sony Music was visiting our camp and we were sitting in the studio when Anders Bagge said, “I've got the track for Jennifer Lopez.” We knew that most songs that had been pitched to her were similar to what she had done on her first album, and “Play” was so off the market and different that we hoped it would catch his attention. We were 8 bars into the song and he was hooked. That’s a perfect one.
But for us, every song that gets cut is a perfect pitch. We have an average of over 150 songs recorded per year, which very few major publishers can match.
How do you find new talent?
As an A&R, you build a network of people, and if you’ve done a good job over the years, been active and scored hits, people come to you.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, but it’s getting increasingly tricky because we are inundated with demos. We get 40 to 50 per week, plus mp3s, and we try to listen to everything. Pernilla Sandström is my creative manager and she knows what I want. She’ll let me know if she feels I should listen to something.
Do you work with songwriters based outside of Sweden?
We collaborate extensively with American and British A-writers like Kandi Buruss, Michelle Bell, Danielle Brisebois, Rob Davis, Be Be Winans, Wayne Hector, and Angela Hunt. We have an average of three to four American writers here every week. Usually it works very easily: they'll call us, or we'll approach their publisher and then bring them over for a week. We run very tight schedules for every writer and producer here, and they are usually booked two months in advance.
Would you sign a songwriter from another territory?
I would be reluctant to do that. To regularly meet and discuss are essential matters for a great relationship between a publisher and a writer. Therefore I prefer it that we can have quick and personal access to each other.
What do you look for in a songwriter?
Apart from true talent, lots of guts. I don’t like writers who repeat themselves because they can cash in on it. Drive is important; I want to see that this person writes songs for the right reasons and because they have to, that it’s part of their life, like breathing fresh air, and not a shortcut to fame and fortune.
If I’m going to sign a writer, writer/producer or writing/production team, they have to bring in a sound or a style that we don’t already have.
There are many talented writers, but a common mistake is to copy the current styles, which I’m not interested in, because when I sign someone, I expect it to pay off in 1-2 years. Lyrically, I think a lot of writers take the easy way out. Lyrics are much more important in the US than in England, and the Americans focus on them much more.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters who are considering signing a deal with a publisher?
Get to know the person offering you the deal. Find out whom they've worked with, how many writers they have to deal with on a daily or weekly basis and whether you will fit in and get attention. There are tons of people out there who can make great R&B, but it’s already been done, and the only way to get attention is to come up with a new sound.
When you sign a new writer, what are the conditions of your agreement?
Very few songwriters who come to me are already 100% professional or write full-time. We help them make sure the finances are there, we give them advances, we help them set up their own company, which is something we always advise them to do, and we help them find a good accountant or a manager, if that’s what's needed.
The number of songs they must deliver ranges from 10-25 per year. A contract period could be one year, with an option for another 2-3 years. But it all depends on the writing teams. We don’t have a set formula we follow, because it’s all about creating a deal which everyone feel comfortable with.
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, thereby causing frustration?
If I’m going to make a serious commitment and start working with an unknown writer who could be the next big thing, I want to represent him or her exclusively, as most publishers would want to do.
Let’s say we work with a per song deal: I place this unknown writer’s songs, we become successful, and a rivaling publisher comes in with a big checkbook, then I can go home. If I take the risk and put in the work, obviously I want to reap the rewards. If I do a good job and present fair publishing deals, the writer is likely to renew the deal when it expires.
What happens to the songs you don’t like?
Fact is our writers write few songs I don’t like. There are many territories and artists and it’s always possible to find a home for the song, if it’s not downright badly written. The writers can also pitch their songs themselves, if they want to.
Do you develop strategies for your songwriters with regard to what areas they should develop and how to strengthen their brand name?
Absolutely. We have an individual strategy for every writer we sign. They might be a writing/production team who are very good with tracks and melody, but we feel that the lyrics are not up to par, which means we have to find the right top liners, top line melody people to work with them. We build bridges between writers all the time to ensure great co-writes.
Do you think unsigned songwriters are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
Overall, no. Songwriters tend to think they can just walk into a publishing company without being informed. This is a business and you need to be prepared for it. Songwriters should know about the mechanical and performance royalties, which is how they earn their money. They should study other songwriters and the history of songwriting, and the music business. HitQuarters is actually the best tool I’ve seen for a young writer who doesn’t know much about it.
What is your opinion about putting a song on hold?
It could be the best or the worst thing in the world. A song on hold is based on trust, and if I feel that someone can’t make a definite decision on whether they are going to use it, I’ll say, for example, “You’ve had it for 3 months now, if you can’t make up your mind, I’ll get a cut elsewhere.”
Major labels sometimes play hardball with you, and as a publisher you’ve got to play hardball as well. But usually, the people who request to put a song on hold are people we work frequently with and know very well, and it basically lies in both parties' interests to conduct business in an ethical way.
What about a standard contract which stipulates rates and time periods for holds? That to have a song on hold costs for example $1.000/month?
In a perfect world, yes. But record labels don’t ever agree to that.
Is it common to get requests to give up some of the publishing in order to get a song placed with a big artist?
I do get these requests, but I never say yes. It’s theft and I refuse to be blackmailed.
Now that many Swedish music business professionals have established themselves worldwide, how can you see the Swedish music industry developing in the next few years, from an international perspective?
From a writing/production point of view, I think we are here to stay. I faced a lot of prejudice in the US after Max Martin had reached his peak, when A&Rs were saying, “Sweden is over.” But I made sure my partners in New York and LA played new material to the A&Rs, which they went bananas over, loving the sound and the groove. Later they learnt it came from Sweden, which killed all prejudice. It doesn’t matter by who and where it’s made, a song always travels and as long as there are A&Rs with guts and good ears, this business will continue. If you have world-class songs and production, sooner or later you will get inside the doors.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
What I really miss, and which is the whole reason for me starting in the business, is live music. The joy, the thrill, and all the emotions a live performance can give you. There are very few mid-sized bands and artists who can tour today, because it’s so expensive. There are superstars now, but it’s not like it used to be. Consumer society and the media have changed things: you’re bombarded with the Internet, TV and computer games, which music has to compete with.
However, in my book, music will always be the supreme entertainer. The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, AC/DC, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, The Clash: I hold them all responsible for what I’m doing today. They were my first love affairs as a kid.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
As a fan, it was seeing The Clash, in 1979, perform the entire ‘London Calling’ album two months before it was released, in front of 12,000 wild fans! That was the biggest rock and roll thrill I’ve ever had.
In terms of my career, it’s either my first No.1 in the States, Christina Aguilera's ‘Come On Over’, in 2000, or when we were voted the most creative and interesting publisher here in Sweden a couple of months ago by the Swedish music industry. Because we’re a young company it meant a lot to us.
My wife is sometimes envious and says, “You get kicks every day at work, you get a song cut, you hear a new mix, or you get a thank-you note from an A&R who thinks the job you’ve done is fantastic. It gives you little injections of joy and you want to do it again.” Which is true and I feel fortunate. There are tons of guys who would love to do what I do, and I have the pleasure and joy to work with very talented people.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
The same thing, absolutely.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Polydor A&R Colin Barlow on creating a sound and concept
* Interview with SVP of Sony Music and Murilyn supporter David Massey
* A&R Jeff Fenster on what he wants to hear in the first 30 seconds of a demo
* Co-founder of Muryln, Christian Wahlberg, on mentoring songwriters