Interview with RON PERRY, President and Head of A&R at Songs Music Publishing for Lorde, Diplo, The Weeknd - Feb 28, 2014
“[Lorde] is a very creative person and wants creative people around her. She doesn't make decisions based on money. That's also how we built SONGS as a company."
If the Song of the Year Grammy winner is signed to your publishing company then you must be doing something right. And if you can beat off bigger money rivals to win their signature then you are doing it the right way too.
SONGS Music Publishing isn’t the kind of publisher that simply stockpiles all the biggest names, but one that seeks out the cream of the songwriter and producer crop, known and unknown, and aids their creative progression, spurring them on to produce greater work. Its exceptional array of talent, including The Weeknd, Diplo, Q-Tip and Bright Eyes, as well as Lorde, is a testament to this philosophy.
HitQuarters speaks to its president and head of A&R Ron Perry about winning over Lorde, how songs collaborations are decided and why radio is more important than ever for breaking artists internationally.
You’ve worked for Songs Music Publishing since its founding in 2004. What are some of the major changes you’ve noticed since that time?
Well, since we didn’t have any writers, artists or employees, it was just me and Matt [Pincus] signing acts and building a business.
Since that time, the music business has changed dramatically. Between 2005 and 2007 an act could have no radio and still sell between 200,000 to 400,000 albums domestically. But today, terrestrial radio’s role is more critical than ever - selling huge numbers of records without any radio is almost impossible.
I thought the internet lessened the importance of radio?
Radio is still vital for breaking records. The internet is great for discovering new artists and building a fanbase, but you need radio to break an artist on a worldwide scale.
How did you find out about Lorde and what made you want to sign her?
I found out about Lorde before anything was released on iTunes. It was probably around January or February of 2013. My A&R guy (Corey Roberts) sent me a link to her music I couldn't believe the lyrical depth of her songs. I knew right away that I wanted to be involved with this writer.
Lorde signed a publishing deal with Songs in November 2013. I’ve heard that your offer (reportedly $2.5 million) wasn’t the biggest on the table, so why did she decide to go with you?
Ella is a very creative person and wants creative people around her. She doesn't make decisions based on money. That's also how we built SONGS as a company. Creative is always first and the deal is secondary. She knew that we would be a great team and would bring her the right opportunities.
What ideas do you have for developing her in the future?
There are a few things on her plate right now. She's a tremendous songwriter outside of what she does as Lorde, so she's going to do that soon.
When you’re looking for new talented writers what attracts your attention?
We have big writers like The Weeknd, DJ Mustard and Diplo and then we have lesser-known writers, who are also successful. For me it's all about the music. We live in a world where music speaks for itself. If a song is incredible, I’m interested.
Lorde and The Weeknd are examples of artists that just put their music up online and the world reacted to it … Great music cuts through more now than ever before.
Are there any more specific qualities a writer needs to have for you to want to be involved with them?
For the most part I prefer left of center stuff. Urban, alternative, whatever. My personal taste is for things that are not quite so obvious and I think our roster speaks for that.
Songwriting is obviously a big deal. We don't sign lots of writers here, so it's important for us see the entire body of work to understand the kind of partnership we are getting ourselves into.
When you talk about a body of work, what kind of numbers are important for you?
Numbers are important in building a deal. But they are not a deciding factor whether you should sign somebody or not.
Obviously a developing writer would get a different deal to someone that has songs in the charts.
Let's say you stumble across a great well-crafted song that sparks your interest in the writer, what are the next steps?
If there are several writers on a song, it’s important to find out each writer’s unique contribution. As in, who did what on the record - melodies, arrangement, lyrics, production, etc. Once you know the writer’s strengths, you can try and put them in different scenarios that can complement their talent.
If you have five people working on a song; one did the arrangement, one the production, one the lyrics, one the composition and one the topline. How would you rate the importance of each aspect?
A great song requires all those ingredients. Occasionally a writer can do it all and sometimes you have writers very talented in their individual skill. Personally I'm a melody person. That's the first thing I listen for. It doesn’t matter what the initial production is like, I try to listen through it and get to the melody.
Nowadays it seems the producer is getting a greater share of the publishing ...
And they deserve it. They might play piano part, a riff, or a beat that could really inspire the melody writer to write something incredible. Then they put the record together.
If you get a producer in on a record where the song is already written, do they get a cut of the publishing?
It depends on what he or she does. If they substantially changed the song, with a different chord progression or something of that nature, then they’ll likely get a share.
Coming back to the situation with the five co-writers in the room together writing a song. How do you split the cake between them?
My feeling is, you never know who did what in the room and so if there are five people in the room you generally split it five ways.
Have you had problems in the past where the writers couldn't agree on the split?
I think every publisher and manager has dealt with that in the past. It's very common.
So how do you deal with such a situation?
You talk to all the parties involved and try to get a perspective. See how the stories line up and try to be fair across the board. It's really important to see things from a long-term perspective. There's no point in fighting over a few percentage points at the expense of a working relationship that could prove to be valuable in the future.
If you have a 50/50 split on a record and one party says they don’t want the song used in a commercial, for example, then what happens?
All involved parties and publishers have to agree, no matter what the percentage.
Lorde signed her first publishing deal with you a year after her debut EP was released. At what point in an artist or writer’s career does it make sense to seek a publishing deal?
Every situation is different depending on the writer. It could happen after a record deal, after an album has been released or before any of those things. It depends on what the artist's needs are.
Publishers seem to get interested in an artist once a record deal is on the table. Why is that, and is it something that attracts you?
Generally speaking people are interested in that situation because there is some sort of guarantee by a major label for a financial commitment to the music.
There have been plenty of instances where we got involved before a record deal, and in some instances we’ve actually helped secure record deal. Others have done the same.
In terms of electronic dance music, what makes you interested in the producers and DJs?
Diplo is a well-known producer and DJ. It’s only interesting for us from a publishing perspective if the DJs are actual music producers...we don't make money from DJ gigs and of course not every DJ is a producer.
Aside from Diplo, we also publish DJ Mustard, who is a great DJ, but also one of the biggest producers on Urban radio right now. He currently has 5 of the top 10 songs at the format.
Some of our other producers include, Morgan Kibby, aka White Sea, as well as Q-Tip, who is currently executive producing the new Kanye album, Dan Heath who does a lot of Lana Del Ray's stuff including "Blue Jeans" as well as songs on her new album, and a really talented R&B production duo, Jenna Andrews & Dillon Pace, who are killing it for us.
How did you find Morgan Kibby and what was the development process?
I heard her song "Overdrawn" from her first White Sea EP (“This Frontier”) and thought it was the jam. She was also on tour with M83 and co-wrote "Midnight City" and other songs on the album (“Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”). We signed her before Midnight City exploded.
She's one of the very few female producers out there. She’s a musical genius, and it was just about allowing her to do what she does best. We hooked her up with Greg Kurstin and Mark Ronson, but mostly she wrote and produced her entire album herself. My A&R exec, Taeko Saito just had her work with Kanye. Matt Pincus and I loved her album “In Cold Blood” so much that we decided to put it out ourselves in a venture with Crush Music.
How do you find out how good people are in a collaboration situation?
Sometimes we’re in the studio listening to what’s going on and observing, but mostly, all publishers just put writers in a situation and see what they come up with.
How do you decide on the collaborations? For example, how does it work with Diplo?
Sometimes I set them up, sometimes it comes from his management (Kevin Kusatsu and Teamwork Management), or Diplo himself. He is a great guy and has a lot of great relationships.
How did Diplo’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg come about?
Through Diplo’s relationship with him. They figured it out between themselves.
Do you have any examples where you set it up?
Off the top of my head ... I set up a record called Elastic Heart, which was Sia's and Diplo's, and I added The Weeknd. It was a single that didn’t work (ha!) for the Hunger Games soundtrack. I had Pharrell and Diplo work together on a song called “Aerosol Can" that's on the next Major Lazer EP. I had Diplo, Katy Perry and Sia do a great song called "Passenger" that's on Britney's album and hopefully will be the next single. I hooked up Diplo and 2 Chainz for a bunch of stuff on his last album.
I had Q-Tip do a great record with Disclosure which will come out shortly. I helped Nelly get on a record with Miley Cyrus that’s on her album…
For DJ Mustard, one of my A&R guys hooked up the "Headband" record he did with BOB which is now platinum, an upcoming Flo Rida song – which my A&R exec Greg Johnson helped with – an upcoming TI song, a song he did with Kanye on Rick Ross' record. Lots more.
For The Weeknd, there’s lots of great upcoming features that haven’t been announced yet…
How do you find a good match for a collaboration?
It’s all about the music. One needs to have understanding what each artist/writer is about personally and musically. You can’t throw two people in the room together just because one is a writer and the other is a producer, that’s usually a complete waste of time. I’d rather my writers work two day week on high quality projects than six days a week just to fill a calendar.
I’m really excited about what our writer Marsha Ambrosius is doing. She’s been in with Dr. Dre, Kanye, Usher, Q-Tip. Man, she’s good.
Matt Thiessen (who co-wrote Owl City’s “Good Time” and “Fireflies”) has an awesome record he wrote with Katy Perry and Stargate. It feels big.
Brian Lee, who also co-wrote Good Time, several Lady Gaga songs as well as the last Icona Pop single (my A&R exec Katy Wolaver helped put that one together), has one of my favorite records coming out that he wrote with DEV. MNDR & JD Walker have a big song they wrote for Kylie Minogue song called “Les Sex”…
How does it actually work? Does the artist come to you and ask whether you can set up a session with X?
It rarely works that way. I feel like the great sessions don’t just come out of the blue. I have a collaboration meeting with my A&R staff once a week and we just brainstorm ideas for our writers. I actually find that to be more important than looking for the next act to sign.
You have over 100 writer groups on your roster. How are you able to give everyone the right amount of attention?
We have quite a few artists here, but we literally only have a handful of producers and/or writers that work or are interested in writing for other people in pop or urban music. We have an unbelievable ratio of writers to creative executives. We also only sign a few things a year and look very carefully on who we add to the roster. So when a great collaboration opportunity avails itself, there are only a few internal options.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
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