Interview with GREG SOWDERS, Senior VP of A&R at publishers Warner Chappell Music for Nickelback (US No.1) - Feb 13, 2006
ďI can spend time working on developing an artist before they go to a record company.
Ö says Greg Sowders, Senior Vice President of A&R for Warner Chappell Music Publishing in California, USA.
As a publisher, he signed Nickelback before they broke and has also worked with Staind, The Black Crowes, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Rufus Wainwright, Trapt and Smash Mouth.
Read how a publisher can help an unsigned band fulfill their dreams, how publishers have gone from owning songs to partnering bands, and why bands have to be very careful when selecting their team.
What experiences have shaped your skills?
What an A&R person should understand is the emotional connection that an audience has with an artist. In 1977 I started playing drums in a ska-band in Los Angeles. After that I toured all over the world and made records with a band that was signed to Island Records called The Long Ryders.
When you stand on a stage or when you record an album and release it, itís like having an election. People vote for whether they like it or not. To me, without that experience of having made records, played on them, produced them or written songs, it would be very difficult to understand what that relationship between an artist and an audience is.
As senior vice president of A&R for Warner Chappell Music Publishing Iíve managed the organization's rock, alternative and urban music divisions, working with influential artists including The Black Crowes, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Nickelback, Staind, Rufus Wainwright, Trapt and Smash Mouth.
Is one of your main objectives as a publisher to find and develop artists?
About twelve years ago my focus shifted from trying to place songs in movies to trying to find and develop talent, whether thatís traditional songwriters or songwriters who play as artists.
Most of my writers have started out as artists. Chad Krueger, the singer and main songwriter of Nickelback, has the opportunities that being in a successful band brings - opening doors and letting other artists hear his music and say that they would like to write with him. Rufus Wainwright hasnít had a commercial appeal but has been so respected as a writer that other people have asked him to write with or for them.
Maybe another record company or manager will ask us how to contact someone. Sometimes people will make contact directly with the songwriter or his manager. My job is to always come up with new ideas and be helpful in making contacts for them.
After a band has become successful, what is your role?
Some artists want to have a lot of attention and interaction with me. Some just want me to make sure that they get paid correctly. In a close relationship my job is to challenge them to pick from the best songs they can and to push their career further.
Sometimes itís about changing the sound on the next record and striving to move forward. Sometimes itís about offering them collaboration with somebody else to freshen things up. Or sometimes if they donít need any help creatively then my job is to make sure that the record company continues to market and promote the artist the best they can.
Who chooses the team around a band?
If the band is starting out, they have to be very careful selecting their team. The first choice would be who the attorney is, then maybe a manager, and then usually a record company before a publisher.If I get a young act that I think I can develop myself Iíll help them pick the best songs they can and help them record. Iíll even help produce them in the studio. I will suggest a good lawyer they should hire or a manager that is honest. I may even try to help them to get a record deal.
At what point does it make sense for an artist to sign with a major publisher?
If a young artist hasnít been to a label yet, they might look at making a publishing deal early on. Record companies sign an artist in January and by September they hope to have a hit record out. Thatís not a realistic period for a young artist to grow and develop. I can spend time working on developing an artist before they go to a record company. We have an extensive catalogue, and we donít have to live or die by all our new signings. When a young artist makes a publishing deal it takes pressure off.
A lot of the attorneys in the US will tell a young band not to make a publishing deal. I find thatís not correct information. In the old days, music publishers used to own other peopleís songs. Nowadays, our deals have reversions in there. We become partners. We rent their songs for a period of time.Can you give us an example of an artist you are currently developing?
I have a singer/songwriter named Joe Purdy. He was referred to me by a mutual friend, a manager. I saw him perform about a year and a half ago in a small club in Austin, Texas. I thought his songs were very sincere with good lyrics and melodies. Like a young James Taylor meets Ben Harper. I offered him a publishing deal. Weíve recorded an album and were able to place his songs in TV shows like Lost and Greyís Anatomy.
He hasnít signed to a major label and has already recouped his deal and made money. He has been on soundtracks and has a high profile on iTunes in America and Europe.
We will start his own label and put the record out ourselves. Because itís not a modern rock act, I believe I can get more done for him working in a more boutique type atmosphere. We have more focus than a major.
What is the working process like with a new artist?
I speak with their lawyer or manager first and tell them Iím interested in meeting the band. The first thing Iíll do is to look at the guys. Look at how theyíre dressed. Try to have some understanding of who they are and what they like, what their culture is and what fans are listening to their music. I tell them that I also used to make records and tour.
They like to know that because itís very intimidating for a young artist to come to an office and meet some guy behind a desk that theyíve never seen before. No one has ever told them anything about publishing. I try to educate them a bit, and then Iíll ask them what it is that they mostly want to achieve in their career.
The most important thing they must understand is that publishers are their partners. Weíre not trying to own their music. When you sit down and tell somebody for an hour about all these complicated legal matters, itís difficult to understand. But after a while they start to have some practical experience. They will see what it means when you collaborate, and where their royalties come from.
Do new artists take much notice of publishing companies?
Some of the younger artists are seeking out publishers even before labels now. The bigger record companies have had a difficult time breaking new artists. The radio in America is conservative and restricted. MTV in the US plays less and less videos. Artists have decided they want to make music but donít want to give up all these rights to the labels.
By coming to a publisher, they realize that they can receive an advance that will help them with their financial issues. Publishers can help them grow at a slower pace so that whatever their success is itís more realistic and can last longer. They donít have to rush to have a multi-platinum hit on the first record in order to maintain a career.
What would have happened if Nickelback had not had a publisher?
When we signed Nickelback they didnít have any hits at all. The money we gave them helped them to survive, stay on the road and focus on what they were doing. We helped the label out by providing extra money for promotional use to keep the songs on the radio. We brought opportunities to them that they wouldnít have had on their own. Itís very difficult to say what it is exactly that made them successful.
How did you first come into contact with Nickelback?
I got a phone call from their manager, Bryan Coleman. He asked me if I would be interested in working with a mainstream rock band that was signed to Roadrunner Records. Itís unusual for a band like Nickelback from Canada to be signed to Roadrunner, which was known for having extreme metal bands. When they played their first American record, it didnít have any big radio hits on it.
But I said there was something about their sound that has a commercial appeal. We gave them a relatively small advance to sign with us. When the next record came out, ďHow You Remind MeĒ was a very commercial radio hit. Roadrunner got sold to Island/Def Jam. It was a stroke of good fortune, because Island/Def Jam was able to blow it up to an international hit.
Did anything other than the fact that you loved their music contribute to your wish to sign them?
They were opening up for another American rock band in a small club in Dallas. And even though nobody knew who they were I could tell they were very confident and professional on stage. They connected directly with their fans. They didnít try to be too clever. They didnít play over their heads. The kids at the show who liked them were average teenagers.
I have bands that are for the hipsters and cool underground. I have acts that are for the mainstream. And itís my job to understand the difference.
At first a lot of people didnít care for a rock band from Canada and they didnít think Roadrunner could break a big hit. I had to learn that even if the other people say they donít like it, or donít think it would be popular, I still have to trust my own instincts.
What did you work on with them?
We worked on their songwriting and their business. Talking to the label about what was going on. Trying to get their songs in movies and on TV shows. Making sure their royalties were paid correctly. Most importantly, building a good relationship with the actual people in the band.
Do corporate imperatives inevitably clash with art?
Itís important that the artists or at least their representatives understand that whatever money they demand from the company must be balanced by the companyís ability to make money. I donít like companies who tell them what kind of records to make.
Artists should express their art the way they want to. Once theyíve created the music, and the company supports them and has let them make their music, then itís important for the artist to let the company sell it. Thatís the trade off.
If the artist owns their own label or theyíre working with an indie label, they will have more opportunity to do it their way. If they go to a major label or publisher, they have lesser control, but they will reap larger financial benefits. Itís a compromise.
When the artist is looking for a label then itís important for their manager and attorney to understand the personality of the artist, and to make sure that the label or publisher understands that personality. I try to be very artist-friendly. I try to put their needs first and the companyís second.
Is the responsibility for releasing songs shared between the songwriter and the publisher?
If we have a songwriter who is not an artist, the publisherís responsibility is to get the best songs from those writers and go to the labels. And also to make sure that they find the biggest records possible and the best recording artists to record that song.
For an artist that writes and records their own music, my job is to make sure that I know when theyíre making a record, that the label understands that Iím a partner, and that we get all the information about how theyíre going to promote the record. Also to make sure that all songs are registered, and that the royalties are paid correctly, if the record sells.
How important is it that the production is already good at the demo stage when pitching a song?
The production is getting more and more important for a songwriter. Some of the other A&Rs at the labels or the younger artists are not experienced enough to hear a song without production on it. If I brought a song to somebody who was looking for a fancy American Idol type ballad and it was a simple vocal and piano, they might not understand what it would sound like with strings or multiple voices on it.
Sometimes we have to record a demo in the style of the artist that weíre pitching to. Thatís frustrating, but you have to make it sound contemporary - especially if the artist or A&R at the label is listening to hundreds of songs.
How important is it to have a relationship with an A&R or manager in order to get your song taken?
Very important. There are so many publishers and songwriters, and not many A&Rs and labels. So they get hundreds of calls. There are A&Rs that Iíve known for ten or fifteen years - if thereís somebody new, Iíve to go get to know them.
I want them to understand that I have integrity, what writers we have here, and that Iím not going to waste their time by bringing songs that arenít very good. I can bring them the best songs, whether itís a song from a writer or from a guy in a band, and I can make collaborations happen.
What are the most effective sources you use to find new artists?
A reliable lawyer or manager, or somebody who goes to a club in Dallas and weeds through all the amateurs to find me something thatís very good.
Because my background is playing live music, when I watch an artist perform live it helps me to understand more about what they want to do.
American websites like MySpace, PureVolume or other filesharing services/peer-to-peer networks are good sources, when I know thereís music out there. Me or one of my scouts will listen to it. Two acts have already been signed from Myspace.
Due to the rules with our business affairs weíre not able to select unsolicited material, which is unfortunate. But nowadays, a young artist will find somebody to help them solicit it from a proper channel. It doesnít have to be a lawyer or manager. I could meet somebody at a club; a friend or just some contact.
What does a contract with a new writer or band generally include?
For a writer it will include a specific amount of songs over a period three years time, usually. They get money each year or for each album as an advance against the royalties. It will be for a period of ten to fifteen years of a reversion.
For a recording artist it will include three albums we record with new material. One album plus two options.
We do co-publishing deals, which means that we co-publish a part of the song. A typical deal would be 75 to the writer and 25 to us.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of the songwriting itself?
First of all they have to feel that they have a unique talent for writing words or melodies. Something they havenít heard before. If they think they can write songs for a country artist, rock artist or urban hip hop songs, they have to have a realistic view of who they would like to record their songs.
To get to a big company they have to have had some cuts somewhere or had a publishing deal with a smaller publisher. They must educate themselves and work their way up. The first song you write is usually not your best song. It takes some experience.
How does Warner Chappell differ from EMI or Universal?
Weíre always a bit more focused on taking care of the writer and the tradition that they have.
Warner Chappell has a longer history. Chappell Music goes back to publishing Beethoven sheet music. Chappell is an old English company that merged with Warners, who started during the late 40s/early 50s with the songs coming from all the Warner Brothers movie soundtracks. It includes Cole Porter, the Gershwins, James Brown, Eric Clapton and older catalogues. EMI and Universal are newer catalogues. Over the last five or six years theyĎve grown because they have acquired more copyrights.
How much do the publishing companies generate in comparison to record companies?
Publishers make money on a very different scale to the record companies. If we have the whole record we make less than an American dollar per record. If we have only one song or a portion of a song, we make less money. The record company owns the whole record and they make a portion of the sales price.
Because our catalogue is so large and it goes back to old songs, we have the opportunity for commercials, film, TV and other licensing opportunities besides just record sales. We also get paid performance royalty when songs are played on the radio.
While the record companies make a larger percentage of profit, our catalogue is so vast and our resources are so great that the income we generate can be bigger than record companies because itís stretched out over more assets.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would try to get the creative people at the record companies and the publishers to work more closely with their artists to come up with an album of twelve great songs instead of one or two singles and filler.
I would go back in time to when the Internet started and filesharing began, and I would find a way for the record companies and the publishers to cooperate with each other to find a way to charge for music on the Internet instead of waiting and fighting. Itís not too late, but we missed an opportunity to teach a whole generation of young fans that music has value and that they shouldnít take it for free.
When I grew up, rock & roll meant everything to me. I donít know if music is as important as it used to be, because there are so many distractions. I feel like making music thatís important to the youth culture again.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Playing Glastonbury festival last year on a reunion tour with my old band The Long Ryders. To see all our old fans and to realize that the music I made twenty years ago was still relevant. It made me feel like I donít do this only for the money.
As a music publisher it was receiving Song of the Year Award for Nickelbackís ďHow You Remind MeĒ from BMI as the most performed song of a particular year. Thatís a really exciting professional goal.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Roadrunner A&R Ron Burnam on why he signed Nickelback
* Nickelback's manager Bryan Coleman on Nickelback's good manners
* Monte Conner on being an A&R innovator at Roadrunner