Interview with BEN MALÉN, MD at Swedish publishing company Tom Bone - Feb 12, 2003
“In Sweden there’s no such thing as solicited material. We want people to send us their demos and 80% of our signings have come straight out of the mail.”
As Managing Director at the Stockholm, Sweden-based publishing and production company Tom Bone Music, Ben Malén has provided songs for artists that include NSync, Blue, A Camp, Backyard Babies and Mandy Moore, among others. Here he tells us what publishers' responsibilities towards songwriters should be, what kind of people are missing in the industry, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a publisher?
I left school when I was 16 and started playing in bands with varying success. Finally, I started a band in the mid-80s called Trance Dance, who did really well in Scandinavia and was the biggest pop act here in Sweden for a few years. When I turned 30, I stopped being in bands and, in 1993, I was offered the job of setting up the creative division at Jimmy Fun Music, a publishing company owned by Per Gessle, one half of Roxette.
At first I said no, because as a songwriter my own experience with the publishing world was really negative. Basically, I didn't like publishers and couldn't see myself becoming one of them, but after a while I realised that there had to be a better way of working with publishing. Not in an administrative sense, but I thought the creative side of the publishing business in the early 90s was really poor, nothing happened and all they did was collect money.
So I called back and said, "I've changed my mind. Let's do it." We began by signing a band called Brainpool, who became one of the biggest pop bands in Sweden in the mid-90s, and Broder Daniel, who became the biggest indie band we had had in Sweden for a long time.
Then, in 1999, the music climate in Sweden hotted up because of the international success of Swedish songwriters and producers, particularly Cheiron of course. And suddenly, quite a few of the artists we represented looked at their careers and decided that perhaps they should start writing songs for other people.
Therefore, during 1998-99, quite a few of them became writers and producers instead and it was at that point that the whole direction of Jimmy Fun Music changed and we became more of a publishing/production company as opposed to just being a publisher working with self-contained artists. Even the name changed to Tom Bone Music and since then I've worked mostly as a representative for the writers pitching their songs, but also as a representative for them as producers.
What experiences have been important in developing your skills as a publisher?
It’s a process of trial and error. My biggest asset is having been a pop star and a songwriter myself, because there’s no education that can replace that. I’m able to talk to writers and producers in their own language.
Also, having written quite a few big hits myself lends me a certain amount of respect amongst our writers, because they know I can hear when it’s a good song and can give constructive criticism. It has definitely helped me in communicating with the people I work with and what is most indicative of that is the fact that none of our active writers have left us during these nine years.
Is Tom Bone an independent company?
Yes, Tom Bone is 100% independent and owned by Per Gessle, Jan Beme and I.
So your main activity is pitching songs. Who are some of the artists you’ve had songs covered by?
Yes, our main activity is delivering hits for artists, but we also develop our own bands. We’ve delivered music all the way from NSync, Blue, A-Teens, Aaron and Nick Carter, Natural, Mandy Moore, ATC, Bosson, Backyard Babies and A Camp, to Popstars and Popstars-like TV series in France, Holland, Sweden, Brazil and Spain. That’s mainly what I do, and then we have an A&R called Carolina Eriksson, who signs self-contained bands. At the moment we have a band called The Sounds, who are doing really well in Sweden and are now getting releases across Europe and in America.
How many songwriters do you have at Tom Bone and are they all signed to exclusive publishing agreements?
We currently represent 32 writers and they're all signed to us in one way or another. We don't have them on management deals, but we do represent them as managers on a non-exclusive basis, which in practical terms means on an exclusive basis.
What main territories do you work with?
US, UK, France, Germany, Australia, Japan ... we're all over the world, basically. We currently have a No.1 in Brazil and Sweden, a No.4 in France, a No.10 in Japan and we had a No.1 on the Billboard Latin Chart just a few months ago.
Right now, we have a lot going on in France, because France is an interesting territory that has recently opened up and there are great opportunities for us to get songs cut there. It just depends on where people are making a lot of records at the moment. In the States, there aren't that many records that are currently accessible to us and we're only working on two or three projects there right now.
Do your writers usually have an artist in mind when they write songs?
Many of our writers are hooked up to write for particular projects, and they work with or without the artist in question. Obviously, we are asked to write for projects all the time, but we also gather information about who is looking for songs. I'm in contact with people around the world every day, people who let me know who they're looking for songs for. We gather that information and give it to our writers.
How important is it these days that the production is already there in the demo when pitching a song?
It’s very important. There are quite a lot of uneducated A&Rs who don’t understand the easy part is the production and the hard thing is writing a fantastic song with great lyrics. You can turn anything into reggae or heavy metal, and even though it might turn out good or bad, it’s still easy to do. Unfortunately, very few A&Rs realise this, or perhaps they just don't want to bother. So it’s important that when you're producing a demo, you point it in the right direction. Then when the song reaches the A&R’s desk, it’s easy for them to understand and to stick into the current project that he or she is working on.
Is the responsibility to get the songs released shared between the songwriter and the publisher?
There's no such agreement or understanding, but perhaps one out of ten are pitched directly by the writer. Our deals are quite unique, because I always wanted to define the publisher’s responsibilities. The administrative responsibility is pretty clear and easy to understand: collect money. And I have a simple way of defining a publisher’s creative responsibility: songs that are not released when the deal runs out will be returned to the writer. That defines what we're supposed to do, which is to pitch the songs, and we will only publish the songs that are cut during the contractual period.
How important is it to have a relation with an A&R or manager in order to get your song taken?
I had a look at my mailing list the other day, which includes all the people that I’m involved with on projects at least once or twice per year. There are 201 names of people who would not be surprised if I sent them a mail just to say hi, and to have such a relationship is very important.
If you contact an A&R who doesn’t know you or your company, how likely is it that your song will be taken?
Our writers are successful and have had many big records, so people often think that if we have delivered hits, they should listen to us. Therefore it happens quite frequently that I find a new contact, pitch some songs to him or her and actually get a cut.
Do you have an example of a song pitch that worked perfectly?
I’ll tell you my best pitch ever. My A&R Carolina was listening to a CD and I could hear it through the wall and I thought, ‘Shit, this is really great!’ So I ran into her office and asked her what it was and she said, "Oh, it's a CD I got from a young songwriter". When she played it for me, I thought, "This is exactly what Martin Dodd (VP of International A&R at Zomba Records) is looking for for Sita."
I called Martin up and said, "You’ve got to listen to this". I played one verse and chorus really loud on the phone to him and then I asked him what he thought and he said, "That’s our next single. Send it to me." That was "Hello", Sita’s second single. It was about three minutes from when I heard the song for the first time until it got cut!
How do you find new talent?
Having been around quite a while and having had a lot of domestic success, people get in touch with me. As a publishing company, we organise lots of activities that keep us in touch with the people we are dependent on: the people who create music, the new talent. We've hosted our own rock club for unsigned bands and put on three bands per night, giving them an opportunity to play in Stockholm and us an opportunity to see three bands in the same night. People know that we're proactive and never sign established writers or acts, because the sexy part for us is the development. It’s what I’m best at, recognising talent and helping to develop it.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. In Sweden there’s no such thing as solicited material. We want people to send us their demos and 80% of our signings have come straight out of the mail. We have Carolina and Lasse, whose job it is to keep the demo box empty and anything they find they either give to me or they get in touch with the people behind it. It's a lot of work because it's about a couple of thousand demos per year.
Do you work with songwriters based outside of Sweden?
Yes, we have four foreign writers at the moment, two from Finland and two from America. Practical everyday work consists of e-mail and telephone. It's fairly simple.
What do you look for in a songwriter?
I'm a sucker for melodies and lyrics, so that’s what I’ll listen for first and that’s why we always have a lack of track people. For better or worse, I second rate the production ability, because as I understand it the hard thing to do is to write great melodies and great lyrics.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of songwriting itself?
The best advice I can give anybody who wants to become a songwriter is to study different types of music and be open to new influences. Especially if you want to write for other people, which is what I’m talking about here—there’s a big difference between writing songs for other people and being a self-contained artist writing for yourself. When you write for yourself, it's a completely different ball game and there are no rules.
The most successful writers are the ones that are able to follow what happens in time and can deliver on demand. Right now, everybody is looking for the Pink and Avril Lavigne type of song and successful writers are quick to understand that and they move in that direction.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regard to publishing contracts?
Be really careful, as it's a choice you're making between a publisher who acts as a bank and one who will look after you and further your career. The bank could offer you a lot of money, but they take a lot in deposit from you—your songs. We never sign people on big money, we sign people on the fact that we will get them work. It's unhealthy to give out large advances, because then the songwriter will always be trapped in the recoupment loop.
What does the agreement generally include when you sign a new writer?
It's an important document and it shouldn’t be filled with bullshit that nobody understands. Our agreements are therefore very short, healthy and easy to follow. They just state the time period, the minimum amount of songs the writer has to deliver per year and the responsibilities we have towards him or her, such as advances and making a studio or studio equipment available. And again, what's really unique in our agreements is that the songs that don't get cut go back to the writer once the deal is terminated.
Do your writers and producers have their own studios?
Most of our writers work in pairs, which is quite common in Sweden, and they have their own studio set-up, although some equipment usually needs to be added. But for those who haven't, we have a house with six studios in it that they can use.
Why should songwriters sign exclusive deals as opposed to "per song" deals?
Songwriters must judge that from company to company. A "per song" deal means that they’re not sure if the publisher will deliver. If you sign with us, we should become involved with the whole process. We're a company who wants to be emotionally involved with what we're working with, which is hard to achieve if someone is suspicious about what we do. There's so much experience you can gain from me and the staff that you wouldn’t get access to if you just worked with us on a "per song" basis, because you wouldn't really be signed to the company.
Then again, it would probably be completely different with another company and maybe you should be suspicious, until they prove that they can actually do it. When you're a new writer, you're looking for somebody who wants to be a part of what you're doing, so really you have to judge the person, and not the deal, first. The deal is obviously important and good to fall back on when there is a disagreement, but you should commit to a company because of the people in it, the other writers and the staff—that’s what the company is. Talk to the writers who are signed there for a while and ask them what's good or bad about the company.
Do you develop strategies for your songwriters with regard to what areas they should develop and how to strengthen their brand name?
It's hard to set up a strategy, as you're so much in the hands of the people who make the records. But we do have them, although they’re brief. First you try to fix whatever isn't 100%, so it depends on what level the writer is at. Some are good at the production side, but less good with the lyrics, so we will try to hook them up with good lyricists. We also try to find out which of the company's writers and producers they work well with.
A simple strategy I employ is never to start pitching a new writer before I have a fantastic song as a possible first single. I don't want to start with a song that is just OK because when you introduce a new writer or a writing team it’s as if they were debut artists, so you’ve got to be really sure. Some people have been really annoyed with me when it's taken over a year for me to pitch their first song, but if they have the talent that I believe they have, at some point they will deliver that song. They become much more powerful writers if the first cut they get is a single.
For instance, "Hello" was the work of a debut writer. Writing a single for a Zomba artist who is fairly big and very promising was great for him and it led him to getting some cuts on the Nick Carter album.
Do you think unsigned songwriters are skilled in the ways of the music business?
No. They should learn how little money songwriters actually make. They all make these funky calculations of how much they will make on every record sold and clearly they don’t see the difference between having a single or an album cut. In terms of making money and credibility and moving your writing career forward, the difference is huge.
I go by the theory that when you're a writer there are only hit singles and crap songs. Nobody wants you to write album songs - people want hit singles from professional writers.
What is your opinion about putting a song on hold?
We do that all the time and it's fine. It's a game that everybody plays, including me. If you're naïve and think that a hold means that they're close to cutting the song, then sorry, but that’s not the reality. I have my own ways of making sure that a great song gets cut and never stays on hold for long.
Do you ever have to give up some of the publishing rights in order to get a song placed with a high-profile artist?
No. People have asked me to do that many times, but I refuse.
What would you change about the music industry?
I would put more idiots back into the business to replace those people who are only good at counting money. By idiots I mean people who are good at making money just because they make great records. I had a meeting with Nancy Griffiths, a very successful A&R at Elektra, and we talked about the future of the music business and she said, "Ben, they're taking too many idiots away from the business," and I realised that she's so right!
There aren't enough crazy people making crazy records, which are the records that become huge and create artists that last for a lifetime. Instead there are too many people who are too aware of the costs and marketing and all those things that are important but not when you're making the record. You should first create a fantastic record and then solve the problem of how to sell it.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
Playing at the Royal Albert Hall. We did a gig there in 1989 with Trance Dance and that is undoubtedly the biggest moment so far. It was fantastic: it was a Swedish event, but the Royal Albert Hall was completely packed and the Swedish king was there and British royalty were there, which wasn't important, but for any Scandinavian band it's like "Bingo!"
Another great moment was playing football at Wembley. You might think it has nothing to do with the music business, but it was the 1994 World Championship for the Music Business and it was staged at Wembley. I'm a football player too, so that was a magic moment.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
I’ve spent my life so far with music and I'm quite sure I will still be working in the music business, because I enjoy it and because I think I'm quite good at it. It's the only thing I really know how to do.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman