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Interview with BILLY MANN, songwriter and President of Creative at BMG, and RICHARD BLACKSTONE, Chief Creative Office at BMG - Mar 14, 2011

“What I find awful is when people say that they are ‘just like X artist or Y artist.’ Any artist that has a 'me too!' strategy is devaluing themselves."

picture In the space of a mere two decades, Billy Mann has gone from street busking to producing and managing big recording artists and on to becoming one of the industry’s most influential creative executives. To mark his latest endeavour, being appointed President of Creative at the ever expanding BMG North America, one of the world’s leading music rights companies, HitQuarters caught up with Mann, and his newly appointed colleague, former president of Warner/Chappell and Zomba Publishing and now BMG CCO Richard Blackstone, to talk about BMG’s new multi-revenue stream focus, starting out as a songwriter in the current climate and the lesser known role of A&R in publishing.

Billy, your new role as President of Creative at BMG involves “leading efforts to attract, develop and sign new talent”. How do you go about discovering new talent, and what is it in particular that you look for?

Billy Mann: The points of discovery for artists today are clearly different than they’ve ever been in the history of music, and that has to do with the technology changes and how trends can build.

Frankly, we also used to listen more, not just to music, but to all of the information and all of the fans and all of the multitude of dialogue that go on when an artist is out there delivering their work to the people, and that can be anywhere from a nightclub or YouTube or through the traditional means.

At the core it will always come down to great music, great artists, and that connection. Now, what’s going to be the challenge for all of us in the industry is making sure that we are including all facets of an artist career, because that will, one: reflect the value that they’re going to have in the future; and two: make us the best most competitive company.

When looking at any artist I always ask, ‘Who are your fans, what can they count on you for, what do you stand for and what is your point of view? In terms of sound/production/texture, is your music unique enough to carve its own lane in this incredibly competitive environment.’

What I find awful is when people say that they are "just like X artist or Y artist." While it's comforting to have a point of reference, any artist that says that and has a "me too!" strategy is devaluing themselves. The best talent has a voice - and hopefully a lyric - that articulates what typical people cannot and that is, in part, why we look to them to be a part of our lives.

Sometimes that articulation is simply to party, sometimes it is deep introspection and sometimes it's just to rock out and go for a run. Whatever it is, people are searching all the time for that connection. Fans, consumers, A&R executives, managers, brands, TV shows, films, clubs ... that's why music will never die; it's intricately woven into how we connect and relate to each other.

Why did you decide to join BMG?

Billy Mann: As BMG is blossoming in a really healthy way, to go with that comes the building of a creative team. Having worked globally and on an international basis in a leadership role, I was really excited about working for BMG as it’s in growth mode because they’re able to custom-make a company that is reflective of the environment.

Richard, what’s the significance of bringing a musically creative talent like Billy to a company on the rise like BMG?

Richard Blackstone: If you look at the people who are involved in the company, it’s very music-oriented, all the way from the CEO at Bertelsmann [Hartmut Ostrowski] down to the worldwide CEO Hartwig Masuch - these two guys played in bands when they were younger, and so music is a very critical part of it. The relationship one-on-one with songwriter, producer, artist, is really very important to who we believe we want to be.

Billy, I hope, sends a message to everyone just how serious we are at having really the best opportunity to have not only the discovery process on the creative side but also kind of the management and the maintenance of those relationships and the exploitation of those asset songs. We feel really fortunate that Billy saw the vision and now shares the vision, and he’s going to play a extremely important role in helping us shape the dialogue that we have with the creative people that we will be working with. Billy brings a really unique confluence of skills and experience together, given that he was a songwriter, an artist, a producer, and an executive.

What is it you want to offer your creative talent?

Billy Mann: Artists today are infinitely more savvy and more aware of the business. They’re more in touch with how to reach their audience; they are in an every day dialogue with their fans through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, through means of communications that never existed in the past. They know what they’re doing.

Our job then needs to help secure the best possible platform for what they do, and build opportunities that are different than the average. For example, Richard led on the signing of Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) joining BMG, which is the perfect example of how we’re trying to open up the world to the people we work with in a way that is less traditional than deals that have been done in the past.

Richard Blackstone: When we started talking to Yusuf, it was just to talk about music publishing, but when it got into the real conversation, we ended up talking about ten to fifteen different revenue streams, projects and possibilities, and only one of which really focused on music publishing.

He has now gained enough confidence in us to open those doors so that we cannot only have conversation with him but help support him in those other areas and in some cases take those on for him and lead. This is an extraordinary example of an artist of his level really opening up his business to us and his trust.

Billy, if you were starting out as a songwriter today then how would you approach the music industry?

Billy Mann: First off, in this environment, any songwriter or artist has to really ask themselves why am I doing this? This question is complex for any number of reasons.

Like the music industry, today a ‘songwriter’ can be a lot of things. While at the core we romantically link it to Cat Stevens or Carole King, today's songwriter is walking into a far more competitive world than ever before and -just like A&R is changing - the skill-set is changing.

Outside of Nashville's more traditional ‘music row’ - and even there - today's ‘songwriters’ are sometimes a couple of guys who work in Logic or ProTools and just make ‘tracks’ all day and all night long. Today's ‘by line’ writers are sometimes copyright holders because their beats are so amazing, not because of their guitar playing or melodies, per se.

So it really comes down to finding out why you are doing this and to what end? Is it love or money or fame? I'm not judging anyone who loves music, but loving it and making a living doing it are two different things.

For one, I'd learn the business you are trying to infiltrate. Read a lot. Read Don Passman's book ‘All You Need To Know About The Music Business’, read ‘Hit Men’ by Fredric Dannen to learn about the dysfunction in the foundation of the modern music industry, and read ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell.

Realise that you need to invest serious time into your craft. Prepare for rejection; 90% of your life as a songwriter will be people judging you, your creations and most of the time they will reject you. I've lived it and it can hurt - and it never ends. Even legends write songs and get rejected.

Beyond that, find believers anywhere you can and when you get them, never let them go. You need one fan to make two. If you want to test your material, use the internet. And be smart: protect your copyrights and don't sign anything without getting an advocate to advise you first!

BMG Rights CEO Hartwig Masuch recently said that the days of A&R in the music industry are numbered and that its role in rooting out new and original talent is lessening in importance. What is your opinion on this?

Billy Mann: To be clear, there is a distinct difference between that which was old school A&R of yesterday and that which is A&R today. Hartwig was surely referring to the evolution of A&R versus the extinction of A&R and creative leadership.

With both Richard Blackstone and my appointments, BMG's commitment to recruiting creatives for leadership roles is obvious. When I joined, a huge part of BMG's allure was Hartwig's passionate belief that empowered creative leadership is the only way a music company can thrive, and in this changing environment A&R is definitely mirroring the environmental change.

It used to be that A&R was the gateway to the public. Is this true today? Absolutely not. Today's A&R executive has skill sets that reflect a completely different and ever-changing environment. So while, thankfully, it still comes down to instinct and vision, a good set of ears and a great song, there are some incredible tools that marry instinct with insight.

Take or, for example. Today, every artist has an instant showcase available to A&R on demand through YouTube, … not to mention Facebook, websites, tastemakers, blogs, Myspace, Spotify ... where do we begin? A&R as we know it is changing in the same way that the industry as we know it is changing. The basics will always remain the same, but the skill set must evolve with the marketplace.

It is common for those outside the industry to associate the A&Ring of artists entirely with the record label rather than the publisher. Can you tell us what aspects are involved in the development of artists and songwriters?

Billy Mann: For people outside of the industry, you are absolutely correct. Interestingly enough, this assumption has always worked to the advantage of publishers who remain more stable and yet very much involved with the creative development of artists. If you look in the glossy magazines, it’s rare that you see publishing executives vying for their photos with the artists, and yet often times much of the development of artists comes from songwriter/producers alongside their publishers.

For example, one of BMG's incredibly talented and versatile songwriters, Busbee, is both writing for and with big name artists like Katy Perry, Rascal Flatts, Timbaland and others, but is developing artists as well. Busbee immediately looks to us, his partner, for support with everything from networking to feedback to showcases. This isn't uncommon.

I've been so fortunate over the years to develop songwriting skills alongside a wide range of artists, but the most interesting and challenging publishing experience was working with Art Garfunkel, who is a wonderful poet and who happened to have one of the greatest songwriters in history as his partner and benchmark.

Artie always wanted to write more than he had in the past and this particular project (‘Everything Waits To be Noticed’) was very much about the artists, songwriters and publishers - in this case, a wonderful boutique publisher in Nashville called Major Bob - working incredibly close together in bringing the project to life. Everything from working in their writing rooms with their writers, to the publishing staff brainstorming ideas - all of it came from the partnership with the publisher.

Providing this intimate type of support to artists and songwriters will be my biggest personal challenge at BMG and it is the one that excites me.

How does record company A&R differ from that of a publisher?

Billy Mann: In terms of function, A&R inside a record company is definitely more intricately involved in guiding a release through that label's particular ‘nervous system’ in partnership with marketing and oftentimes research that is obsessed over when it is going to the street with a release.

Each company is different, but A&R in a record company can sometimes spend as much time being inward facing as they are outward facing. A creative publisher - and I'd like to think of each A&R executive as ‘a publisher’ - can both be more speculative and more opportunistic.

While historically publishers look to record sales as the main food group of income, publishing income has always been the most diversified and deals with artists and songwriters on the most flexible levels. What's exciting about BMG is the elasticity to each and every discussion we have on a project-by-project basis.

Do you have any particular goals that you’d like to achieve at BMG?

Billy Mann: As a songwriter, I would know when I have a publisher out there hustling for me, making it happen, and I know when you have a publisher that is taking a passive position. A personal goal for me is to take the hustle and the accountability that songwriters and artists face every day to work in terms of the culture of the creative team that’s out there working as advocates for the writers and the talent that we represent.

The new creative team of the future is pushing people to be as accountable as the artists we represent, because our artists spend 90% of their time facing rejection - even the big ones. They either face it in the press when someone doesn’t like something or just when they’re trying to make things happen for themselves in the marketplace.

What are your own ambitions for the future? Can you see your career moving in any more interesting ways?

Billy Mann: I’m not your typical executive, and I admit that openly and I embrace that about myself. It’s a lot to talk about market sharing, it’s a lot to talk about the breadth of the company, but to me we want to have fun; I want it to be a profitable experience but I also want it to be a passion-driven, fun experience for everybody, and that’s always going to be what my next move is going to look like.

interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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