Interview with FREDRIK OLSSON, owner of Razor Boy Music Publishing - Apr 30, 2013
“Writers not at the Dr. Luke top level don’t get the same level of attention at the majors, whereas at a small indie they get 100% love all the time.”
Major publishers have the money and might to get almost any top songwriter and producer they want, so it’s no wonder that finding and nurturing the up-and-coming talent themselves is not always the priority.
In this exclusive interview Fredrik Olsson, owner of Razor Boy Music Publishing, argues that small indie publishers are better for young writers because they can give them all the attention they need to grow and prosper. The huge success previously unknown Razor Boy writers have enjoyed is a testament to this claim: Nervo wrote David Guetta’s breakthrough hit, Jo Perry created Top 5 UK act Stooshe, Stefan Örn wrote a Eurovision winner, and the roster has enjoyed numerous No.1s in Japan and South Korea.
Olsson also reveals how such a small company managed to break into the lucrative Far East market and why he’s attracted to native English songwriters.
How did you come to establish Razor Boy Music Publishing together with the renowned songwriter/producer Anders Bagge?
At that time I had been an A&R for eight years at EMI Publishing Scandinavia, and in the business for about twenty-four years doing A&R, senior A&R and marketing for a lot of record labels. I’ve worked for both independents and majors, and I’ve had my own production company.
One day in early 2008 Anders asked me if I wanted to start a publishing company with him which he would fund. I said: “Yes let’s do it!” So we started it together in June 2008.
And what was the original philosophy of the company?
I wanted to start a small, boutique-type of company with not too many writers. I wanted to focus 100 per cent on a few really good ones that I believed in.
Can you explain the set-up of Razor Boy?
The staff is basically me. It’s a one-man show. Although Anders and myself are co-owners, Anders is a silent partner; I’m responsible for running the company in all aspects, everything from signing to developing. I’m both a manager and a publisher because I both manage and publish the writers.
We have around ten writers working full time, and maybe three or four of them have been very successful, contributing on a really good level for the last five years.
The administration for the world is via Kobalt.
Where did the name Razor Boy come from?
I’m a big Steely Dan fan and it came from a song on their 1973 record, Countdown to Ecstasy. It means a tough guy in the ghettos, but I didn’t choose it for that reason, I chose it because of Steely Dan.
What are the key skills you need in your particular role as publisher?
You need the instinct to find new talent and the ability to develop it for the current market. They’re the most important skills for any type of creative, whether at a publishers or a record label.
Some of the big publishers just have a big chunk of money and then buy into things like a stockbroker. They buy catalogues and they buy hot writers that have already proven themselves in the market. But that’s not my type of way of working.
I try to find talent very early and develop it before anyone really knows what it is, which is what I’ve done with Nervo and Jo Perry, for instance.
On top of the creative music side of the business you also need a business mind as well, where you understand about business strategies etc. and how to run a company like this in general.
Nervo were the first writers you signed to Razor Boy. How did you find them?
I’d worked with them at EMI. When we I decided to start Razor Boy, the girls told me that their deal was up with Sony/ATV and that they wanted to work with me.
At the time they weren’t certain about whether to continue in the business. They’d been with Sony for a while and nothing had really happened on a big level, they’d just had some minor cuts here and there. I persuaded them to take another run.
And why did you think they were a good match for Razor Boy?
I wanted to start with two really good top liners. I liked what they did; I liked the sound, their energy and attitude.
I was also looking for someone outside of Sweden. Swedes are well known for their melodies and productions but when it comes to lyrics you have to be humble and understand that it’s obviously much easier for an American or English writer to write a great English lyric. So I wanted to have writers who wrote in English as their mother tongue because it’s good to have this type of mix in the roster.
At the same time as I was signing them I was in touch with Max Gousse, who back then was managing at Music World Entertainment, which was Beyoncé’s and Kelly Rowland’s management. Max asked me: “Do you have any good top liners, because I want some new writers for Kelly Rowland for our new record?” I pitched some songs and showed him the Nervo songs, and he really liked them, and so said: “Can we put together a session with them and Kelly?”
We booked a session in a hotel room in London. Kelly said to the girls: “I met David Guetta in the summer and got some really nice backing tracks. Can we try writing on this one?” They wrote the song When Love Takes Over using that backing track, which became a huge worldwide smash hit.
The hit broke David Guetta, gave Kelly a new career – and also broke Nervo as writers. If you have a huge hit like that everybody wants to get on board – we got involved with Ke$ha, Kylie Minogue and Armin van Buuren – and that opened their whole career.
As a new company starting out, what did you learn from that success?
I learned how important it is to have big hits [laughs]. It can be so tough being a small publisher because you don’t have a big catalogue to rely on. The type of company I run is dependent on constant hits to keep it afloat. So having a hit like that not only opens many doors, but also generates money that pays your rent for while and keeps you calm. I mean, that song is still helping me four years later! I learned that those are the type of songs you need, not a hundred small ones.
Signing songwriter Jo Perry out of the UK was an unusual move. She has recently enjoyed a lot of success in the UK with Stooshe – how did you originally discover her?
It was my friend and business colleague Mattias Råsmark who told me about Jo. He said: “You should check her out. She has her own studio and she’s very creative.” I got in touch with her that way and started to hook her up with some of my writers in London, and then invited her over to Sweden for a week. She liked what I was doing and I liked what she was doing, and basically from there I signed her, without having any cuts in the pipeline.
She spoke about this girl group, Stooshe, and showed some early demos and some pictures. I said: “This is interesting!” And I liked the other songs she was doing. I basically signed her from instinct.
That was of course very good because when we released Stooshe in the UK that became a huge success. One of the biggest hits last year was ‘Black Heart’ which sold like 500,000 downloads, and broke them. Now we’re doing a lot of stuff with her. She’s developing some other new acts and the new Stooshe single and album are coming in May.
Can you explain what your role as Perry’s publisher has actually involved?
Like with everyone else I’m pitching her songs hooking her up with producers and writers etc., I’m developing stuff with her. We have a creative mutual relationship with things that we’re doing, throwing ideas back and forward.
Perry was reportedly close to signing with a major publisher – what made her choose to sign with a small independent like Razor Boy?
Writers that are not at the Dr. Luke top level don’t typically get the same level of attention at the majors, because they’re not prioritized. Whereas at a small indie they get 100% love all of the time.
So I think Jo came to me because she felt that this is a company that’s going to put a lot of time and effort into her career and back her up in her decisions. She followed her heart and is now established and up there with the big names.
So you’re saying that less established songwriters will benefit from greater attention from a small publisher than they would a major?
Majors have a huge roster and it’s like having a huge roster of players at a football club. At Barcelona if you’re choosing a player to play all of the time, you’re going to choose the best ones that deliver something great every time, so you’ll choose Messi, Iniesta or Xavi. And it’s the same with a record label or a publisher – they obviously focus on and prioritize their top writers and so the other ones, even if they’re good, would probably benefit more at a smaller company where they can develop themselves in a good way and get full attention.
If you go back to the footballer analogy, there’s a lot of great players out there that would be better off not playing at a big club full of stars like a Barcelona but rather a smaller club where they are the star and get the greater attention. This is the same thing with writers. With that said, that player or writer can be the next Messi or Max Martin as well.
And what is it you cannot offer songwriters that the majors can?
The majors can offer much more money than an indie. That is the difference.
Let’s say you have your career up and running and you have a great manager and know that you’re going to generate a lot of stuff on your own – then you go to a major and say: “Do you want to have 10-15% of my publishing?” They’re then going to pay them a huge advance. That’s how it works. That’s how majors build their market shares.
You are obviously very selective about who you sign. What would make a perfect fit for Razor Boy at the present time from both a creative and financial perspective?
I would love to find another top liner. And my dream now is to find a production team, a Smeezingtons type of team, who can write songs, arrange, produce, and do everything.
If you have that team then you don’t have to run around and hook them up with every writer and producer in the world. You go to them and say: “Hey, write this song!” [laughs] It’s not hard to find that type of set-up, but it’s hard to find someone who is really world class.
On a more general level, what aspects attract you to a potential writer?
Basically, as a writer, producer or whatever, they have to be really good at their craft, but it’s also important for them to be good people as well. Have a professional attitude and conduct all the time.
You also need to have a strong mental platform to really cope with how the business is. For instance, you might have hundreds of great tennis players with essentially the same level of raw talent – how they serve, hit their forehand etc. – but what differentiates them is how strong they are mentally. If you don’t have that mental strength of a Federer when the going gets tough then you’re never going to make it as a writer.
So how can you assess their mental strength when you don’t really know them?
Sometimes you’re so hypnotized by how good the songs are that you don’t really care [laughs]. But I do as much research as I can. You try to find out from other people, and you meet them and try to find out what they’re like as people and what their outlook on things is.
It’s really hard of course, because people change. I’ve seen people who were really humble with a great work ethic, and then once they’ve made some money they’ve started to flip out.
What sound or style are you looking for at the moment?
I’m looking for interesting, talented writers and producers and artists who create good, well-crafted music.
I like people who understand the history of music, who know about everything from Miles Davis to Metallica. The type of writers and producers who are really musically oriented and who are always able to deliver something interesting.
I like new ideas, but it doesn’t always have to be a totally new thing, just something where you feel it comes from the heart and where you can hear something special in what they’re doing. It might be a classic-style pop song, but you’re reacting to it because of its personality and originality.
It’s like having ten artists painting the same house with the same colours, and getting one where their talent gives the house something special that sets it apart from the others. That’s the same with music.
How do see music developing in the near future?
I think the market is going to see bands start coming back again. EDM will stay around but there’ll be a backlash that will see it lose its dominance. There’ll also a greater focus on great melodies and singer-songwriters. Bruno Mars is a perfect example of a hit writer who is using classic melodies and chords that hark back to classic stuff from the 60s and 70s which always stands the test of time.
Can you offer any advice to unsigned writers in terms of what they should be doing to get on the first step of the career ladder?
First of all they have to understand that they need a lot of patience. It’s going to take a lot of time, effort, and blood, sweat and tears to get through.
Of course, you get these fairy tales where people have hit the charts very fast, but that’s very rare. 99% of the artists and writers have been working years and years before they’ve hit the big time.
You need to have a really strong and structured work ethic, you need to listen to other people, and be humble. Try to have good people around you who can share ideas, with whom you can throw ideas back and forward.
Don’t rush into deals if you don’t feel that it’s right from the beginning. It’s not good for the publisher, manager, record label, and it’s not good for yourself.
You have to have social skills and if you don’t then you need to work on it. When you’re a producer or writer it’s very handy to be able to develop good relationships with artists and people in the studio. You want to be a guy that people love to work with. You also need to have good social skills when dealing with labels and publishers.
And obviously, you need to develop your sound and your writing skills.
Can you give any examples of the kind of creative involvement you have with your writers and what do you do to try to encourage the creative output of your writers in terms of successful collaborations?
You need to have writers who have the ability to create something on their own. I don’t think any writer can write something good if someone is sitting in the studio and controlling them like a robot.
But if they’ve written something then I can provide some input. I might say whether the song is finished or not and we might do some changes here and there – or say that it’d be better just writing a new song. Usually I’d have a range of ideas on changing specific details in the song if I consider it worth doing, that comes with song by song.
The other thing is I’m hooking people up with different people. If I have some top liners then I try to hook them up with suitable producers, and vice versa.
And on top of that, you try to share ideas on different projects that people are doing and you pitch their songs. When you believe a song is a hit song you send it to important A&R people and managements around the world.
One of your writers’ songs (‘Running Scared’ by Stefan Örn) won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011 and you’ve had two potential Swedish entries for this year’s event. Is Eurovision a good platform for songwriters at the moment?
It’s only a good platform for certain songwriters. It’s good to be there and it’s a good income, but I think the quality of Eurovision still isn’t very good – it’s still too much like a circus. It doesn’t have anything to do with the real music market because you don’t find that type of songs in the charts. The quality is not really credible enough.
If you look at the last twenty years, how many have had big hits? Loreen (for Sweden with ‘Euphoria’ in 2012) and Lena (for Germany with ‘Satellite’ in 2010) had big hits because those songs were normal pop songs that could have been released in the market with anyone, and both were really good artists.
When it comes to that song, ‘Running Scared’, I think the song was good but the artist (Ell & Nikki for Azerbaijan) didn’t deliver – they weren’t that interesting.
Your writers have been enjoying great success in Japan and South Korea. As a small company how were you able to expand into such areas and what challenges did you face?
You need an agent or a publisher in Japan who you rely on, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good people there.
I had a deal with Avex, with a guy called Hide Kawada who helped me, and now I’m working with Hide Nakamura from Soundgraphics, who is my guy there and he’s really good.
My deal with Kobalt is only for collection and admin for the world – they don’t do any type of creative work for me. But in Japan I use Soundgraphics who I am pitching to, and they are pitching my songs there. We’ve have some huge cuts there in the last couple of years – a lot of No.1 single and albums for some of the biggest acts like Namie Amuro and EXILE in Japan, and Girls’ Generation in South Korea.
Do western songwriters face any particular difficulties in writing for artists from a culture that seems very different to their own?
The J-pop thing has been very specialised because you need to write to fit the formula, using special types of song structures that are not really an Anglo-Saxon style of writing. So you tailor make things for those types of acts.
But lately the whole market in Japan and South Korea has been changing into something very Anglo-Saxon. They’re looking for songs like we are releasing here. So for me it has been easy to pitch normal pop songs and get them picked up.
You might find they’ll make a Japanese or Korean adaptation, but recently a lot of acts have even been cutting songs in English. For instance, Namie Amuro has been cutting all my songs in English there.
It’s a very interesting market and we earn a lot of money there. We get a lot of cuts, and they’re sometimes selling more than in the UK and the US. In terms of market share it’s like no.2 in the world right now after the US. The Japanese and South Korean market is very important for us, and luckily enough we’ve been very successful, and we’ve a lot of stuff coming out now in this year and in the future too.
As a small publishing company not following the corporate route, Razor Boy has achieved so much on an international scale. Given the current level of industry consolidation, is it a difficult time to be an independent publisher or are there reasons to be positive?
It depends a lot on the expectations you have and what type of set-up you have. If you’re employing like fifteen people then yes, it’s going to be really tough. But if you can keep it on a sensible level and have some hits here and there, and get on the radio and get great airplay and stuff like that then you’re going to make it.
So the indies nowadays have real big potential, because as a publisher we’re not always dependent on the mechanicals – the big income for us is still the airplay.
And I don’t think that the market in itself is that bad. You have to remember that we’ve been spoiled in this business for the last forty to fifty years. From when the album came in through the CD era, it was just fantasy numbers; people were making so much money, it was over the top. Now, we’re back in the sixties, a time when you made money, but it was dominated by singles rather than albums and there were a lot of indies around.
How many songs do you get recorded per year?
Per year I’m not sure, but for the last four to four and a half years, we’ve cut nearly 250 songs. We’ve a little over a thousand songs in the catalogue, so a 25% rate is quite good. And then we’re talking about the really big cuts and hits down to the smaller ones.
What are you future plans for Razor Boy?
We have some plans that I can’t really tell you about because they’re a bit of a secret [laughs]. But in general, we’re trying to find some more great producers and writers and just build the catalogue further and continue the success that we’ve had in getting big singles and cuts in different territories across the world.
Whether we’ll get more investors in and build a bigger company by buying catalogues and bringing in more writers I’m not sure. That is something that could be done, but right now it’s business as usual the way that we’re doing it.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Stooshe creator Jo Perry on choosing a small publisher over a major
* Songwriter Stefan Örn on writing the Eurovision Song Contest winner