Interview with AL SMITH, publisher at Cherry Lane Music Publishing for Black Eyed Peas - Jan 13, 2004
"The consolidation of radio into the hands of big corporations is one of the factors that contributes to kids downloading music."
Based in New York, Al Smith is Vice-President of Creative Services at Cherry Lane Music Publishing and the publisher for the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas (US gold).
Here he tells us about Cherry Lane and its current activities, what he is looking for, sources of revenue for publishers other than records, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a publisher?
I grew up in Michigan and moved to New York in 1988 to work in the music industry. My eventual goal was to become an A&R rep, so I did a series of music-industry jobs: I worked at Tower Records, at the legendary concert promoter Bill Grahamís management, at Billboard, and as a sound engineer at CBGB.
I got my first job at a record company in 1991, as an assistant at Atco Records, and then became an A&R rep at Atlantic Records, where I worked for five years. I went on to work as an A&R executive at V2 Records for two and a half years before I eventually found my way into publishing in 2001. Iíve now been at Cherry Lane Music Publishing for two and a half years.
What experiences have shaped your skills as a publisher?
Most of the jobs in the music business donít require previous experience. The only prerequisite is that you love music and that you are prepared to be obsessed with it on a full-time basis. I didnít know how to make records before I became an A&R person and Iíd never been involved in publishing before becoming a publisher.
When I first came to Cherry Lane I saw that the creative department needed to be brought up to date musically, and that became my main focus. Figuring out what would make sense for the company was a process of trial and error. After being at Cherry Lane for just four months, I went after a publishing deal with the highly sought after Norah Jones.
Although Norah Jones had not yet proven herself to the entire music community, there was a huge buzz about her. Unfortunately, Cherry Lane wasnít at that time ready for a deal of that magnitude.
Can you tell us a bit about Cherry Lane Music Publishing?
Milt Okun, who was a record guy, started it over forty years ago. Milt discovered John Denver, recorded all his records, and started Cherry Lane Music Publishing as a place to represent and take care of John Denverís songs (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files Ė Ed.). Over the years, weíve picked up a fairly significant roster of well-known writers, such as Ashford & Simpson, Harry Belafonte, Tom Paxton, film and TV composer Jack Lenz, and so on.
We have a significant amount of business in film and television. We have deals with Icon Pictures, which is Mel Gibsonís production company, and with John Malkovichís production company. We also have publishing deals with such major sports franchises as World Wrestling Entertainment, NASCAR and the National Football League.
The companyís emphasis has drastically changed in the last couple of years. At present, our main aims are to maintain business with film and television and to look for writers who may develop into the next generation of composers of music for film and television, and to acquire more contemporary artists like The Black Eyed Peas.
Our head office is in New York, and we maintain a presence in Los Angeles and London with subpublishing offices and relationships all over the world. The company is still owned solely by Milt Okun, who lives in Los Angeles.
One of your objectives is therefore to find and develop artists?
Yes, because it makes sense nowadays. Savvy publishers are taking on areas that record companies donít have the resources or the inclination to take on anymore, such as developing artists. These days, if youíre at a record company you need artists with potential hit songs on their demo and who are fully developed in terms of their image, knowing who they are, who they want to be, and where they want to go.
Many artists donít fit this category, however, and thatís why a lot of publishers look for acts who are unsigned and shop them for deals. They can help develop their skills and they also work with up-and-coming managers to help them develop careers. We like to get into situations in which records are already signed and scheduled for release, but weíre also looking to invest in artists early, help shop them and go along for the ride.
What songwriters are currently signed to Cherry Lane?
Black Eyed Peas is the most contemporary act that we have. Apart from those already mentioned, we represent 25 % of the Elvis Presley catalogue and we co-administer the Sammy Cahn catalogue. Sammy Cahn, wrote songs for Frank Sinatra amongst others. As Iíve stated before we definitely are interested in acquiring contemporary acts.
What is your function within the company?
Iím the music guy, whether that means producing music for NASCAR, looking at a band or working with a composer. The company needs somebody who can relate to the writers, who can talk their language, and who can go into a studio and maintain relationships with record companies. Thatís my job. I work with all types of music, because TV, for example, requires a wide spectrum of genres, including rock, instrumental, orchestral and electronic music. I need to be able to understand and be up to date on all of these.
The good thing about publishing is that you donít have to specialize in one particular genre of music, as you do when working at a record company. When youíre an A&R rep at a record company, youíre a rock A&R person, or an r&b A&R person and so on, whereas in publishing, you just deal with music.
Do you focus on artist/songwriters or commercial writers?
Both. A good thing about publishing is that, although not everybody has the ability to be a rock star, there are many other ways to make a living in the music business. You can score TV commercials, create music for advertising or be a composer or jingle writer. All these roles are necessary and valid.
At what point does it make sense for an artist to sign with a publisher as big as Cherry Lane, for example?
We have seventy-five people working for us, a small number in comparison to the number of people working at EMI or Warner/Chappell, for example. Whenever artists feel that they have enough material that warrants representation, thatís when theyíre ready for a publisher.
I really love working with acts early, before theyíre signed. I like helping by being an objective listener when theyíre trying to write songs. Not knowing whether theyíre going to get the record deal or not is an exciting challenge. I also enjoy working with acts who are more established. There isnít an ideal time: artists really need publishing when they feel that other people can support and enhance their career.
Can you give us an example of an artist you are currently developing?
Right now, we have a joint venture agreement with a management company called TuCasa, which represents many Latin American acts. Thereís this kid called Jean Rodriguez, who is twenty-three years old and a bit like Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias, although a little more ďstreetĒ. He has an unbelievable voice, he is a good songwriter, and he is getting better everyday. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants and he is working very hard to get there.
Iím working with him to make his songs as good as they can be and talking to labels about potentially signing him. He doesnít have a deal and Iím working with his management to help him get to where he wants to go.
Have any pitches worked perfectly in the past?
When we signed Black Eyed Peas, we felt that the album was amazing and that there were many songs that would be ideal for use in television, film and commercials. We sent a copy of the songs to Apple Computers, who were doing a big campaign to promote the iPod at the time. They used one of the tracks, ďHey MamaĒ, in one of the very first iPod commercials. It worked beautifully: it was exactly what Apple was looking for and the TV ad was very creatively done.
How involved are you with the songwriting and producing?
It depends. When itís someone like Jean Rodriguez, who doesnít have a record deal, I have a lot of input. I spend time in the studio and I tell him whenever I think that something is not quite right and then we discuss the issue. In that type of situation, I have a lot of input.
How did you first come into contact with Black Eyed Peas?
In 1997, when I was working at V2, somebody sent me their demo. The demo was amazing and I wanted to sign them, so I flew to California to see them perform at UCLA in the student union. My label, however, didnít believe in them, so the band ended up signing to Interscope. I have, however, stayed in touch with Will Adams, the lead singer, over the years, and when I heard through his management company that the publishing for the album was available, I went for it.
Did anything other than the fact that you loved their music contribute to your wish to sign them?
Yes, my relationship with Will. He is a really great guy and an artist who really gets it. He works hard, heís very creative, and heís an individual whom I really respect musically. I also thought their album was amazing and that ďWhere Is The LoveĒ was a big hit song. It was their third album, so they werenít novices. I really felt that Will had evolved as a songwriter and that what he was doing could be extremely successful in commercial terms.
What are the most effective sources of new talent?
The relationships that Iíve cultivated over the years with booking agents, managers, writers and critics. My personal network has generally been the key to finding talent, along with my own obsessive behavior. Iím constantly listening to music on the radio and online, and constantly buying new records and reading magazines.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. If people spend time finding out who and where I am and they want to send me a tape, Iíll listen to it. I get about five a week and I listen to all of them eventually. If I just get it out of the blue, it may take me a couple of weeks to get to it, but if itís from somebody who knows me or is referred to me by someone I know, I listen to it immediately.
What do you look for when listening to a new songwriter/artist or band?
What Iím listening for is someone whoís created something thatís interesting. There is, however, a dearth of creativity in the music industry right now. I like music that is different and has a point of view. It could be any style of music, as long as itís done really well.
What characteristics and qualities do you generally expect to find in songwriters?
Songwriters need to understand the essence of the song, and they need to understand structure. They must be able to write a good chorus and understand the basics of songwriting. Further than that, a little personality and originality always helps. Many artists donít understand what makes a really good song. It all depends on what youíre trying to do: Iíll listen to something from a composer very differently than I would to a demo from an artist who wants to be the next Britney Spears.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of the songwriting itself?
Just be really into music and be open to objective criticism. Many artists get really insular and donít place their work in context. Always be a student and listen to other peopleís work and keep up with current music and be receptive to ideas.
What does a contract with a new writer generally include?
Most commonly, itís a 50/50 co-publishing venture, which means that we own 50% of an artistís songs. The terms include an advance, if itís warranted, and an x number of years that weíre going to be involved in the artistís career. An advance is given if, for example, the artist has a body of work that weíre interested in exploiting.
The number of songs an artist needs to deliver varies from five to twelve, even to fifteen. Contracts generally span at least three years and ideally five. We donít have a standard template for a deal, however; it just depends on how the relationship evolves and how comfortable everybody feels.
What key issues should aspiring songwriters be aware of as far as music publishing is concerned?
They should just learn the basics. Nowadays, thereís no excuse for not being aware of basic music-industry issues, because there are so many resources on these topics. You can just go online and learn what the essence of a publishing or record deal is, or the essence of a relationship with a manager. The stuff is everywhere, so there really is no excuse for not knowing. Further than that, itís a question of finding people whom you can work with.
Have your songwriter/artists ever come in contact with the ďcontrolled compositionĒ clause that is often included by record labels in artistsí contracts?
Yes. Itís not really my domain though, so I let Business Affairs deal with that. There are lots of things that record companies do that I think are bogus, but as an independent publisher Iím not focusing on changing the world right now. For artists to be able to avoid that clause, they need to have music that the label wants badly. Being desired by a number of companies provides artists with the leverage they need in order to be creative when it comes to making a favorable deal.
What do you think of the practice of putting songs on hold?
In certain situations, it is justified. If I have a relationship with somebody and they tell me that they really like my song and they ask me if I can take it out of circulation for a certain period of time, then I can do that. Thatís just business as usual; people put songs on hold all the time. If somebodyís interested in using my song, Iíd be stupid not to do it. Iím not going to keep the song out of circulation for months on end, but if somebody needs two, three weeks to make a decision, then thatís not a problem.
Would you agree that there is a need for a standard contract in which the rates and time periods for holds are stipulated?
No, I donít think so. Thatís just part and parcel of having relationships with people in the industry. I try to avoid paperwork like the plague and I donít need another piece of paper to communicate something that I can discuss with somebody in ten seconds.
New artists are often dropped by major record labels when their debut album fails to bring in a profit, because major labels are owned by shareholders who do not have the patience to wait for an artist to break over the course of three albums. Is your situation any different?
Yes, because weíre not solely dependent on record sales. Thatís not our primary way of making money. If a record doesnít do well on a label, we can still exploit the songs through film, television, advertising, video games, ring tones and a variety of different media. Thatís the beauty of publishingitís not as dependent on a label making the record happen.
We can therefore give new songwriter/artists more time, because there are more ways in which we can work with their material. A big consideration of mine is whether I can still help an act if their record doesnít happen. I always ask myself that question before I get involved with an act, because I need to know that I can work their songs in other places if they donít get that MTV hit.
How do you think the Internet and legal downloading will affect publishersí business model?
It has yet to be determined and the debate rages on. Obviously, people want to get paid for digital downloads. The genie is out of the bottle however, technology is moving forward and ultimately I think that the Internet will be the best thing thatís ever happened to the music business. There will be a solution that ensures that all the participating parties, including publishers, get paid, so Iím very optimistic about the future.
There will be avenues for exploiting music that we havenít even thought of at this stage. Three years ago, no one thought of making money from a ring tone, but now it has become a significant business. I think that three years from now thereíll be ways of experiencing music that we cannot even envision today.
What do you think of radio stations and their playlists?
Radio is very disappointing nowadays. The consolidation of radio into the hands of big corporations, such as the Clear Channel and Infinity, is one of the factors that is contributing to kids downloading music. Radio stations are clearly not satisfying their audience. The music that was played on the radio used to be different in different towns, but now you can go from New York to Los Angeles and it all sounds like one station. Thatís terrible! Playlists are very limited, and they donít show the scope and breadth of what consumers want to hear.
If you could change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would significantly downplay the influence of MTV and radio. If we could get away from that influence, and the industry was forced to look at other ways of breaking artists, the music scene would be more creative. Until the industry shuns the old-school mentality of, ďIf itís not on radio and TV, itís not going to happen,Ē the problems will continue.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
In December 1993, I was working with this great rock band that I had signed called The Melvins. They were opening up for Nirvana in Denver, Colorado and I was onstage with Nirvana, standing next to Kurt Cobain whilst he was singing ďSmells Like Teen SpiritĒ to an audience of 15,000 people. That was certainly a great moment!
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
Something involving music. I donít know if Iíll be at Cherry Lane, or if Iíll be in publishing, but Iíll be working with music somewhere, either making a record, managing an act or working at a music company. Thatís what Iíve been doing, thatís what Iíve been put on this earth to do and thatís what Iíll continue to do.
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
Read On ...
* Black Eyed Peas songwriter Julie Frost on signing with EMI Publishing