2017 Songwriter's Hall of Fame event at The Grammy Museum with (left to right) Donna Caseine, Barbara Cane, Casey Robison, Dan Wilson, Ross Golan, Jennifer Knoepfle, Jack Antonoff and Mary Jo Mennella (front row) Bonnie McKee, Scott Cutler and Kenny MacPherson
Songwriters write songs, singers sing, and record labels put out records. So you'd be excused for not knowing what a publishing company exactly does in the grand scheme of the modern music business.
Big Deal Music has some of the biggest names in indie rock on its roster (Sylvan Esso, Ray LaMontagne, Sharon Van Etten) and some of the most successful pop songwriters working today (Dan Wilson, Joe London, John Ryan). So I was excited to talk with president Kenny MacPherson and partner Casey Robison about the basics of music publishing and how indie artists can make a splash. Here's our chat:
Danny Ross: What exactly is the role of a publishing company?
Kenny MacPherson: Publishing companies are the gatekeepers of a songwriter's works — to protect their copyright and collect all forms of income on their behalf. Every songwriter needs something different creatively, so you have to be chameleon-esque in working with personalities.
Casey Robison: A publisher's job is to sign composers who are writing songs and to exploit those copyrights — whether it's working music into film and TV, working with outside artists to cut songs, helping to release albums, or helping writers to be at their best creatively.
Ross: What does “exploiting a copyright” mean exactly?
Robison: If you have a big pop song, the majority of the income will come from terrestrial radio play, mechanical royalties, and increasingly from streaming. It's been interesting over the last couple of years to see how streaming revenue is progressing every quarter. Film and TV synch placements are important for pop, but they're also important for indie artists and bands. With a big pop song, you can see significant foreign revenue, but with country music it's more domestic.
Ross: I think people don’t realize that tech is on the opposite side of the musicians they love on key issues. Can you speak to that?
MacPherson: I'd like to hope that music has meant a lot to Mark Zuckerberg, and the people at Facebook and Google, and that they’d respect content-creators across the board. A world without music would be a very dull place. I think there's a fair market value for songs. If someone used the content of some of these brands without proper compensation, they'd probably sue your ass off.
But I'm optimistic. There's always going to be someone who wants to listen to music and write songs. Plus, now companies like Spotify are hiring people to work directly with the songwriting community. And Pandora, Apple, YouTube are looking to people who have publishing backgrounds. We have an opportunity to have our voices heard, but it will take some time.
Ross: Big Deal’s roster is very diverse. It includes indie artists like St. Vincent, but also pop writers like busbee. What’s the ethos behind it?
Robison: We wanted to create a community that shares a certain aesthetic. Most of our writers are creatively left-of-center and were initially artists themselves. We’re signing writers, artists and bands rather than relying on catalog for the most part, so I think having a diverse roster is important for that reason.
Ross: Teddy Geiger made news this week that they are transitioning. I think it's very courageous and I couldn't be more proud of the songwriting community for embracing them. How did you start working with Teddy?
Robison: Teddy used to be an artist and was looking more to focus on writing songs for other artists. When we started working together, part of my role was to re-educate people, "Teddy is so creative, they're different than you'd expect. They're a lot edgier than the artist they were marketed to be on a major label." But Teddy Geiger, Daylight, Dan Wilson in Semi-Sonic — all were in bands before they were writers. It's a really interesting, defining feature. It's something I really look for. It gives them a certain perspective going into a room.
Ross: Not only did we lose a great songwriter in Tom Petty, but we also lost soul singer Charles Bradley who was signed to Big Deal. What was Charles likes?
MacPherson: He was a loving soul. Everyone that works at Big Deal always talked about Charles's style and how he gave the best hugs. He always had a kind word, and he'd want to know how you were doing. It was a great loss. And Tom Petty spoke for a generation. Heaven wins again.
Ross: How did you get started in music publishing?
MacPherson: I started in Scotland. I think the first single I ever bought as a kid was Roy Rogers's “Happy Trails” on red vinyl. Then The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Van Morrison had a great influence on me. When your head opens up to it, there's such a wealth of great writers. They're all poets in a different way. I was in a band and realized very quickly that I was better at organizing the gigs than I was at performing.
I moved to London and soon met a few legendary music publishers, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, who wrote songs for Cliff Richard. And they were the first to tell me that I should learn about publishing because it was the "gentleman's game."
I went to UCLA, was hired by Warner/Chappell in New York, then left for Chrysalis in 2002. We rebuilt the company until it was sold to BMG. In all honesty, it hurt to put the years, time and love into something and find yourself out of a job. We forgot that we were just employees. I'd never done anything else but be in the music business, so I had to decide whether I still had the vim and vinegar to start again. Fortunately with a couple of my original partners we started Big Deal in 2012.
Robison: I grew up around it. My dad is a drum tech, he toured with everyone from Quiet Riot to Billy Idol and he's still on the road today. So I grew up around tour buses, bands and artists. I love the culture, the personalities, artists and songwriters. When I graduated from USC, I ended up getting a job at Chrysalis Publishing — an independent publishing company with artists like Ray LaMontagne and My Morning Jacket.
Then I ended up accepting a job at BMI, which was like grad school for me. I was simultaneously working with really big successful writers like Evan Bogart and Bonnie McKee, but also taking calls from young people just starting out. For example, Ross Golan [recently profiled in Forbes] was an artist who had been in bands, but he started doing writing sessions for other artists. My role at BMI was to help connect him with other songwriters who were at a similar place, with established writers or with industry people that could be helpful.
Ross: What exactly is a performing rights organization (PRO)?
Robison: The role of a PRO is to license music and pay royalties to songwriters. But the creative reps have an ability to help songwriters be proactive in their career because of their vantage point. My job at BMI was impartial because I wasn't looking to take a cut. It's a different relationship than if I was a manager or an agent, where I'd be sharing in ownership.
Ross: So how did you go about helping writers?
Robison: I first met Joe London when he was the guitar player in an indie rock band in San Francisco. At first I was helping him find show opportunities, connecting him with other young writers, talking to record labels about the band, and giving him feedback on music he was sending in. So when the band broke up I put together a larger strategy, pitching his songs to get placements. Since then, he's had meaningful success as a pop writer, co-writing "Fireball" for Pit Bull and "Wiggle" for Jason Derulo. But he also wrote "Die A Happy Man" by Thomas Rhett, which was the BMI Country Song Of The Year.
Another good example is Ricky Reed, who was nominated for Grammy Producer of the Year. He randomly cold-called me with an administrative question. I was really impressed with his artist project called Wallpaper and I loved the songs. A few weeks later I had lunch with Mike Caren at Warner Brothers, and he was looking for talented writers and producers. So I sent him the link to Ricky’s MySpace page, and he's had great success ever since. Just helping him connect the dots got the ball rolling.
Ross: Since you joined the Big Deal team, what’s the biggest hit you’ve been a part of?
Robison: Probably “Stitches” by Shawn Mendes because we published 100% of it. It was written by Teddy Geiger, Danny Parker and Daylight, and my direction to them was to just have fun and be inspired. Out of that, they ended up writing a huge pop song. We couldn’t have recreated that if I gave them more specific direction. “Die a Happy Man” was also a really big song. There have been a lot of songs that have generated a lot of revenue, but I think it's most meaningful to have a defining song for an artist.
Ross: Does a songwriter have a better chance in the industry if they're also a producer?
MacPherson: Whatever skill set you can show as a talented person, you show. There are some people who are very successful called "topliners," and they don't really play an instrument or produce. But they've got a talent. I met people who are technically brilliant across the board who can play any instrument but they can't construct a song.
Robison: Mostly I'm listening for lyric and melody. In fact, some of my writers just send me iPhone Voice Memos. They're like sonic doodles, I love getting those. But if you also produce, you may have more opportunity. Teddy Geiger and John Ryan are both very good producers as well as being very good songwriters. Everyone's competing at a high level. You have to be better than most others in at least one thing. Being a jack of all trades and a master of none doesn't lead anywhere. You should be the master of at least one thing.
Ross: Does it help for songwriters to specialize in a specific genre?
Robison: Picking a lane is important. But usually the thing you're most passionate about is what you're best at. So know what you do best, because there are very few people who do everything great. If you first and foremost want to be a country artist, then you should probably move to Nashville.
Ross: There's a dearth of rock music right now in the charts. Do professional songwriters collaborate with rock bands?
Robison: Often times the regular collaborators with indie artists tend to be producers, because bands are more self-contained. But times have changed — now what a producer contributes is more likely to be called "songwriting," because they’re involved in both getting the best sonics and crafting the songs.
MacPherson: And I don't think the era of Lennon/McCartney was better than the era now. The world has changed, technology has changed. Music is the emperor’s new clothes — it's reinterpreted. The structures have been there for an eternity, and they're adapted by the new generation of songwriters.
There's no rule book, and that's partially what makes it magic. The way artists can create stuff on a laptop without using an organic instrument doesn't mean it's better or worse. If it can connect sonically with a human being's brain and soul — then that’s fantastic.
Ross: How does an emerging songwriter find community? In my experience it’s easier said than done.
Robison: Country is king in Nashville, for example. It's a music city where you can find open mics and easily identify publishing companies and record labels. Eventually you will meet other relevant country writers and industry reps. If you're in L.A., there are a handful of venues where bands are playing who are maybe two or three steps ahead of you. Like The Satellite, The Troubadour or The Bootleg Theater. You can literally just walk up to the stage afterward and say, "Hi, my name's Casey. I'm an artist like you. I love what you do. Can we grab coffee sometime? How did you get this show? How did you get a booking agent?"
If you're a songwriter, the Durango Songwriters Expo has panels and open mics. At one of those conferences, my friend Carla Wallace at Big Yellow Dog said, "I'm excited about this young girl named Meghan Trainor." Carla ended up signing her. So there is accessibility — it's what you make of it.
Ross: Wrapping up, what are three pieces of advice for emerging artists who want a publishing deal and a career in songwriting?
Robison: First, join a PRO and establish a relationship with a rep. You should look for events to play, and opportunities to meet other songwriters and industry representatives. Second, it's ultimately about being happy and having a career that's sustainable. Everyone's different and there are no rules — that's something I like about the business and creativity in general.
It's hard to be creative and inspired for long periods of time. Dan Wilson is a great example of perseverance. Third, part of how I decide to sign writers is if someone has written with two or three of my writers. Then they say, "You should sign this person because I want to work with them more often."
MacPherson: And learn how to advocate for yourself. Be professional, don't make excuses, figure out how to contact people. I know it's a fine line between being a nudge and being persistent. You need to grow a second skin because it's tough. A lot more people fail at it than are successful, so be ready to deal with rejection. And always strive to be the best you can. All of this is true for life.
Danny Ross formed the band Babetown with his wife, Jess. They met on the NYC subway; had 15 minutes of fame covering Ryan Adams in the style of Taylor Swift; and just premiered "Swoon."