Interview with MICHAEL MAVROLAS, manager for songwriters and producers - July 15, 2003
"Production and management companies are becoming the record labels' talent scouts"Michael Mavrolas is based in Los Angeles, where he heads Genuine Representation, a management company for songwriters and producers. His clients include Pro-Jay, Manuel Seal Jr., Damon Sharpe and Tone Capone. Collectively, the Genuine Representation team have written and produced songs for 2 Pac, Christina Aguilera, Brandy, Monica, Justin Timberlake, NAS, Anastacia and Destinyís Child, among others.
What led you to start a management company for songwriters and producers?
I started networking with a number of urban producers and songwriters when I first worked in A&R, and I noticed that many of them did not have representation. I started with one client and we represent about twenty now.
What experiences have contributed to your management skills?
Initially, I played the drums, and then I became a songwriter and producer myself. Because of this, I know about song structures and sounds, which gives me an edge over the manager who just carries out administration duties. In the studio, I not only work with and understand the position of producers and songwriters, but also that of the artist. I contribute to the creative process, which is important.
Whatís the story behind Genuine Representation?
I moved to Los Angeles in 1991. I was working for different labels when I in 1995 started the company by managing one producer, Pro-Jay, who went on to produce 2 Pac, En Vogue, Mya, Jordan Knight, Marc Nelson and Christina Aguilera. He was the first producer I had ever represented and he is still with us. Brion James, formerly the guitarist for the Dan Reed Network, who made four records for Mercury in the late 80s and early 90s, was my second client. From then onwards, I just kept adding clients.
A couple of years ago, I brought in a partner, Greg Johnson, who in turn brought in a number of songwriters and producers from Atlanta. These included Manuel Seal Jr., who has since produced and written tracks for Usher, Mariah Carey, Destinyís Child, TLC, Xscape, Jagged Edge, Tyrese, Da Brat and many others. Manuel also works closely with star producer Jermaine Dupri and the two have written and produced several No.1 records together.
What initial obstacles did you have to overcome?
Years ago, I had to knock on doors like everybody else; I called all the A&R reps to find clients, because I knew they could put me in touch with songwriters and producers. Our first move was to get three cuts on a 2 Pac album, produced by Pro-Jay. From that point onwards, it was just a matter of getting more clients and as they came in, we established a roster of writers and producers whose styles were unique.
Once we had established a roster of credible people, we were able to open up many more doors because we had X amount of songs with X amount of artists, and these records were performing hit records, which enhanced our reputation. The labels started to get to know us and we started getting calls from labels that were seeking the direct involvement of our writers and producers in their projects.
Do you focus on any particular genres?
We focus on urban (hip-hop and r&b) and pop music, but weíve also done country. One of our producers, Gregg Pagani, produced LeAnn Rimesís latest album, ďTwisted AngelĒ, and weíre on Faith Hillís latest album, ďCryĒ, with a song that was written by Lindy Robbins, one of our premier lyric/melody writers.
What services do you provide for your clients?
We do full-scale management for our songwriters and producers. We set them up to work on projects; we arrange collaborations with other writers and producers, as well as with the actual artists; we work with all the major publishing companies and collaborate with their clients as well; and we send producers and songwriters overseas to the UK, Sweden, Denmark, which are the primary markets that we target outside the US.
About half of our clients have major publishing deals and our publishing arm, called Music Trust Publishing, administrates the publishing for the other half. We also have subdeals with a couple of companies overseas. We perform contractual services on our producer and publishing agreements. We have an in-house council that helps us, although we also farm some legal work out.
Do you also work with artists?
We have an artist development division and weíre developing a number of acts through our producers. Several of the producers who are signed here also have their own production companies, which we assist them in, and theyíre developing a number of acts as well. Some wonderful artists and records are emerging from all this.
How does the management of songwriters differ from how a publisher might work with them?
Essentially, itís the same. Major publishers employ a number of creative people and each of these might be responsible for thirty to fifty writers. Under such circumstances, they are often not able to prioritise a number of those writers. But weíre smaller, so weíre able to spend a lot of time with our clients, which means we have a greater input on the creative aspects of what they are doing.
We also generate a big portion of our revenue from shopping songs, so in that respect weíre very similar to publishers because weíre both trying to get cuts with artists, and film and TV synchronizations. Weíre just a little bit more hands-on in terms of our interaction with our producers and writers from a creative point of view.
At what stage does a songwriter start to need a manager?
In todayís climate, many songwriters need management from the start. If they try to submit songs themselves and they donít have a publishing deal, a lawyer, or management, itís generally not going to get heard. And thatís how it works with artists as well. At the same time, the writer really has to have something going creatively for a manager to take him or her on, whereas artists often just need someone to set schedules and provide guidance.
Do you take on clients from outside the US?
We actually have a couple of Danish producers with whom weíre doing a little bit of co-venturing right now and weíre always open to hearing more. There are a number of great Danish and Swedish writers and producers, but they have to tune their ears in to whatís going on in the US market, because things have changed here, especially in the pop genre. Those guys were hugely successful for a number of years with acts like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and NíSync, but the sound has changed drastically here, and even pop is much more urban and hip-hop-orientated.
Many of those guys havenít been able to turn that corner yet, which is not saying that they canít, because they have excellent musicians, producers and songwriters over there, but they need to become more aware of whatís occurring over here.
We have a network of A&R reps who we contact on a regular basis. We also work with publishers, especially the ones who publish our writers, and artist management companies. Weíve also just opened a small London office and have established a UK rep for Genuine, so weíll be shopping and soliciting producers and songs there as well. For us, this is still primarily a business based on relationships, and those we have established with different artists, companies and A&Rs are particularly important.
How do you find talented new songwriters and producers?
I hear about them through our clients, and once in a while I find something through a demo submission. Iím always open to hearing new songwriters and producers, because I believe in the future and the future is the next guy up to bat. I donít think that the industry can continue to rely on the same five or six name producers. Those guys get expensive, and I think that inevitably everybody is looking for that new sound or song, and thatís what keeps the business interesting, the fact that thereís always a new kid coming up. And of course we want to be the ones to find that new kid!
What do you think of the quality of the unsolicited material you receive?
Out of ten thousand CDs in the last couple of years Iíve found maybe two or three things, r&b, and thatís about it. Iím the kind of guy who can hear a song, whether itís somebody singing acapella or somebody playing on an acoustic guitar; I donít need to hear a full production. Unfortunately many decision makers donít get it unless itís a near finished product.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for unsigned artists and songwriters?
Itís a great tool, but songwriters and producers must be realistic and compare themselves to whatís going on out there as we speak. The competition is extremely tough; the game is changing as a result of downloading and labels are not signing as many artists or making as many records as they used to.
What are the most significant traits of successful producers and songwriters?
Lyrics are very important in songwriting. Songwriters are not going to say anything that hasnít been said before but they have to come up with new concepts, new ways of saying it. They have to be able to keep peopleís attention and tell them a story thatís interesting and that they can relate to and then finish it off with a great hook, something that someone will remember and want to sing along with. If you want to hear some really great songwriting, listen to some of the country songwriters. Thereís a lot of pain going on in country songwriting and it translates into r&b as well.
Producers should also find new ways of presenting unique-sounding productions. They should never imitate what Timbaland or the Neptunes are doing, for example, because theyíre the ones who are known for those beats. Producers need to create their own sound. Especially on the urban side of the street, producers will hear, for example, a Just Blaze beat, and then those particular vocal snippets begin showing up in their tracks. Flattery is great, but it wonít get you noticed. However, it will get you dissed for imitating someone elseís style.
In general, labels and artists look for something unique that is going to make them stand out above the rest. Itís not easy, but Timbaland started a revolution, the Neptunes started a revolution and even Babyface did so back in the days. They all had production and songwriting styles that were unique to them. People need to take time to think about how theyíre going to present their songs and productions if they really want to get noticed and become the next thing.
At what point would you sign a producer?
Weíve signed producers who didnít have anything but their own unique sound and style. Often it has been a music style that we didnít yet have here, because we are keen to represent a wide range of genres. I look for someone with the type of track that we donít already have and try to plug him in with our lyric and melody people, or our publisher and A&R contacts in hopes of expanding his or her collaborations. Itís a different ball game with hip-hop, because everything is based on someoneís delivery of a rap over our track, even though a lot of hip-hop tracks are now being written as songs.
Do your clients generally have their own studios?
Yes, most of them with Pro Tools.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of the songwriting itself?
If you think youíre a songwriter, you need to study songwriting. Study some of the big writers out there and get together with people and collaborate. Initially, you will feel stronger as part of a team and you will learn from the collaborators youíre writing with.
Listen to whatís going on out there because song structure has changed dramatically, especially in the urban arena. You also have to decide what genre you want to write in; it must be a genre that you feel comfortable with. Once you have become confident of your skill, you can start moving into other genres. There aren't many people who can write across the genres, but weíve been fortunate enough to represent people who can write pop, urban, country and even alternative material.
Are the contracts between producers/songwriters and managers similar to those between artists and managers?
Itís similar, but our revenue stems mainly from mechanical royalties, ASCAP and BMI royalties, producer fees, producer royalties and film and television synchronization fees.
Once producers and songwriters are signed to you, do you ever support them financially so that they are able to focus on their music?
Generally not. Many of them have jobs when they start with us. I encourage people to stay in their jobs, because it's important to have some sort of support system. Everybody needs to learn to be self-sufficient and an ongoing financial support system would hurt us financially.
Should major labels commit to new artists for a longer period than they do in practice?
My view is that thereís no artist development at labels anymore. Theyíre relying on production and management companies to take care of that and to hand over those artists only when they are ready to be presented to the market place. Itís not like back in the Motown days, when an entire artist development system was in place. The majority of labels donít operate under that pretext anymore.
Marketing a record, not just making it but supporting the artist in terms of the videos, radio promotion, tour support and everything else, is a huge financial investment for a record company. Artists never see that when they come into the market, they just think itís great to have a record deal. They donít realise that it takes a minimum of one to three million US dollars just to take a look out there and get started on the first single/album recording, promotion expenses included.
If a label is not able to generate a success story out of a record, then I think itís their prerogative to drop the artist. You canít blame a label if they canít afford to make these huge outlays of money on artists who donít perform. Granted, not all artists get a fair shot from a promotional standpoint, because artists are prioritised.
Considering record labels are less and less concerned with developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, who do you think will be primarily responsible for scouting and developing new artists in the future?
Production and management companies, as I mentioned before, are becoming the labels' talent scouts, and this has been going on, especially on the urban side, for quite a while. Perhaps you don't see it that much in the pop or rock genres, but I'm sure you will in the near future, because labels are downsizing and they just canít get out there and check everything thatís going on.
Labels know that not all of these companies are great, but there are a number of them that can act as a turnkey in terms of developing artists and bringing them to fruition. Weíre going to see continued deals from the production side especially, but theyíre inevitably going to be less expensive deals.
If artists share the costs of making the album with their record labels, do you think they
should also share ownership of the masters?
It depends on how much they bring to the table. In any business environment, whoever has put up the money gets the biggest stake. The only way youíre going to be able to own or share ownership of the masters is if you come to the table with masters that the record company perceives as viable enough to put out on the market. Plenty of people are doing it on the hip-hop side: they make records and begin to sell them in their territory, creating a sales base, and then the record company come in and do either an imprint deal or a joint venture deal. Under these circumstances, the artists do own their masters.
What royalty rate do producers generally receive from record companies?
Itís generally three percent, but some of the superstar producers may get from five to six percent.
Do your songwriters ever come across the controlled composition clause that is sometimes a feature of artists' contracts with record companies?
Labels always try to force that clause on songwriters. It's essentially the record companyís way of retaining 25% of the publishing on the mechanical side. Our writers usually get 100% of the statutory rate on all compositions on the record. Their publishers will also insist on it. There are certain instances where the artist is under a three-quarter agreement and thatís a slap in the face for the writers. Iím a very adamant supporter of songwriters. They make their money from publishing and no one deserves to take their publishing away from them for nothing.
How do you think the Internet will affect the music business?
When it comes to downloading, itís no different from stealing a CD from Tower Records. At the same time, I think that the record company has traditionally been the rebel child in terms of its perception in the governmentís eyes, especially during the time when the government was putting pressure on the record company to provide parental guidance stickers on certain products. The record company seemed to balk at that for a while and I just have this theory that the government has not forgotten about that. I think that thatís why the government hasnít come in to assist record companies, hasn't made an effort to police the Internet and ensure that the copyrights of writers and the copyrights of masters are protected. They donít care about it.
Record companies are going to have to come together to lobby Congress and a policing arm will have to be set up to protect digital copyrights on the web. It may entail hiring people to go in and disrupt file-sharing sites, for them to hack in on a daily basis to disrupt them, so that kids finally get tired of surfing to get free products.
Do you think artists will be able to sell their music directly from their own web sites?
There's a big chance of that, particularly now that the major labels are in a state of shock so to speak. The independent spirit is alive and kicking and there has probably never been a better time in the history of music to start an independent label.
What aspects of the music industry are in need of drastic change?
Iíd like to implement better ethics in the business and make the way the business of music is conducted more professional. Iím not speaking in terms of the labels, Iím speaking in terms of producers, songwriters and managers. Thereís just a very large and vicious circle of people who are really trying to get one over on people and I think that at the end of the day weíd all be better off if people were more honest in business.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 yearsí time?
I think weíll see a sharp growth in our Music Trust Publishing, because publishing is the strength and future of the business. Even as record sales decrease, publishing is still going strong because there are still opportunities in film, TV, video games, advertising and any other new formats of recorded music that may emerge.
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
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