December 8, 2015
SONGS Music Publishing Pres. Ron Perry is a huge Mets fan, so he was excited to tell fellow Amazin' diehard, All ACCESS News Editor Roy Trakin, about meeting Matt Harvey at a recent concert for the company's centerpiece client Abel Tesfaye, better known as pop/R&B crossover superstar The Weeknd. Since launching SONGS in 2004 with Founder/CEO Matt Pincus, the duo have built the company into the leading indie co-publisher by market share, hovering around 5% with clients including The Weeknd, Lorde, Diplo (and his spinoffs Major Lazer and Jack U), DJ Mustard, Chromeo, Q-Tip, Nelly, Duran Duran, X Ambassadors and others. They recently launched a record label, RECORDS, with industry vet Barry Weiss, distributed by Sony's RED, signing Nelly, iLove Memphis (of "Hit the Quan" dance fame) and, most recently, buzzin' Birmingham, AL, rock-soul outfit St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
What were you doing before you joined [Founder/CEO] Matt [Pincus] in 2004 at SONGS?
I used to play in bands growing up in New York City as a lead singer and songwriter. Once I realized I wasn't that good, I just needed a job. I worked at EMI Music Publishing up in the tape room and had some other menial scouting gigs, but couldn't get a full-time position. In the summer of 2004, I met Matt and he gave me my first real shot.
How did you first meet?
Through our mutual friend Harry, who knew I was looking for an A&R job, and Matt was looking to build a company. He had the idea for SONGS, but hadn't really hired, or signed, anyone. We met for lunch at a restaurant on 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue, and I thought, "Yeah, this sounds pretty cool ... Do I get an office?" He said no, but I agreed anyway. Matt previously worked at EMI and had the idea that the market was undervaluing contemporary writers who weren't being serviced properly and believed this was a niche that we could fill. We literally started with nothing ... no catalog, no employees. Matt had a desk he was renting from Nettwerk, and I was just a 24-year-old kid ... I told him, "Sure, I'll sign some shit." We became partners and the rest is history.
You seem committed to maintaining SONGS' independence.
Absolutely. We're in it for the long haul and by adding RECORDS, we're interested in recreating the Zomba/Jive strategy -- find, develop and break artists independently, while using internal resources available to us from the publishing company to do so. Our first single by Nelly (which is now Gold) is a prime example as it was written and produced by our published writers. St. Paul & The Broken Bones has been signed to SONGS for a while and signing to RECORDS was an extension of an incredible existing relationship. We have the luxury of not having any outside investors pressuring us for immediate financial results, which gives us the ability to develop our roster over a long period of time.
You've also made a deal with Barry Weiss to run RECORDS, someone who is more than familiar with the Zomba/Jive role model.
Sure, it makes sense to have Barry come here and do it all over again. I've learned so much from him in such a short period of time. I mean, he's a legend and one of the best record men in history, period. He signed and developed Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, A Tribe Called Quest. It's nuts. He also reminds me of Larry David.
You've been pretty successful with RECORDS so far.
It's still early, but I guess you have to start somewhere. Our first signing was Nelly, a publishing client whose single, "The Fix," is almost Gold, Top 10 at Rhythm, and starting to break at Top 40. The second signing was the "Hit the Quan" record by iLove Memphis, which is approaching double-Platinum sales. St. Paul was our third signing, and they've already sold over 100,000 albums, toured with the Rolling Stones, etc. They'll put out a new album sometime next year. A couple more signings should be announced shortly. Very few independent labels are going to be able to do the promotion and marketing job that we can with Barry.
What was the breakthrough moment for SONGS?
We built this company over a long period of time with career artists. Signing Q-Tip was a big deal to us. Signing Bright Eyes, Jose Gonzales and Jack's Mannequin was a big deal to us. Those are acts that may not have had pop hits, but they had sold hundreds of thousands of albums and had significant cultural relevance. They were really important to us early on when very few believed in SONGS. That put us on the map in the early days when no one believed in us or what we were doing. Our first worldwide pop hits were around 2011 or so with Dev songs like "In the Dark" and "Like A G6," then we had a bunch of homespun hits like Owl City's "Good Time" and others. Then I signed DJ Mustard super-early before he had really put any records out (he's since produced over 25 million singles wroth of hits), then Diplo, The Weeknd and Lorde shortly thereafter ... it's funny that they all became successful at around the same time. Now we're signing the next group of superstars
What's it like working with Lorde?
Ella has become a dear friend of mine. But as we were getting to know each other, she made it pretty clear that money didn't drive her, but having a trustworthy creative partner did. Her music inspires me and makes me better at what I do. I'm telling you ... she is going to be one of the most iconic artists of our time. I've never had as much fun as when we co-A&R'd the entire Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 soundtrack together in two months. Also, the video for "Magnets," her new collaboration with Disclosure, was completely her idea. She's a little genius. She actually just performed "Magnets" with Disclosure on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago and killed it. I think Ella and I are just hitting the tip of the iceberg as a creative team. Just wait until you hear her new music.
The market for film, TV and commercial synchs is becoming an increasingly important profit center for writers and music publishers.
We're so lucky to have Carianne Marshall as our partner and head of synch. She's been with us for nine years, and is the best synch person in the business. At his point, our catalog has less than 10,000 songs, but Carianne and her team know each and every one of them. No other publisher can say that. In a world where songwriters can only make significant money on Top-10 radio songs, syncs are more important than ever.
The Weeknd's success story is particularly interesting.
Abel is a phenomenal writer. It's no coincidence that the biggest song on this album so far is "The Hills," and that is all Abel, leading the same group of collaborators who worked on his previous albums, "Kiss Land" and "Trilogy." A lot of credit does go to [A&R execs] Wendy Goldstein and Nate Albert from Republic Records, who asked him to jump on the Ariana Grande song ("Love Me Harder"), which was the initial breakthrough for him at Pop radio. Republic also hooked him up with Max Martin, who produced "Can't Feel My Face," and Charlie Walk has done the radio promotion job of the century.
In terms of our involvement, I brought in Labrinth and helped with a Weeknd song called "Losers" on this album; this great Disclosure song, "Nocturnal," featuring The Weeknd; as well as Sia's "Elastic Heart," which Abel jumped on and is now multi-Platinum. On the synch side, getting him on the "50 Shades Of Grey" soundtrack was a real partnership between us and Republic Records. Carianne Marshall was the first person to suggest including The Weeknd in the movie to Mike Knobloch at Universal Pictures. Abel's managers, Cash and Sal and his XO team of Lamar and Manny, are some of the hardest-working and best music people in the business. They live and breathe Weeknd 24/7 and deliver huge opportunities, which is fun to watch. But most importantly, Abel has built an enormous fan base on his own, made a conscious decision to go pop, but at the same time, has stayed true to his core.
Did you envision SONGS being as successful as it has been?
No. When Lorde won her Grammys a few years ago, Matt and I couldn't believe that was happening. It was pretty emotional; our road hasn't been easy. We really wouldn't be able to do it without the incredible infrastructure and executive team that Matt brought in, including
Carianne, Rob Guthrie, Mitch Wolk and Tom DeSavia. It really allows us to compete with the majors. However, we're still in a rapidly moving business, so you can never relax. It's all about the next hit, and the one after that. You have to keep moving forward.
What is the most creatively fulfilling part of the job for you?
Definitely having a direct creative relationship with our artists and songwriters. Giving feedback, sending emojis. Making shit happen. Some of my ideas may not even be publishing-related, but if it's good for the artist, it's good for me. With RECORDS, I love having our own promotion staff and getting real-time battlefield information. Our RECORDS promotion staff also occasionally works our published records, which is real fun.
Who have been the major influences on your career path?
Charlie Walk is one of my closest friends and has transformed Republic into the #1 label in the world. He's brilliant, artists love him and there no one better. I owe so much to Matt Pincus; he not only gave me a shot, but has also taught me to be a real executive, not just an A&R guy who wears sweatpants. Also, Barry Weiss and I now speak about 40 times a day and I love it.
How did you end up as a character on South Park?
I actually have no idea, though South Park follows me on Twitter. I've never had any sort of interaction with those guys. I just showed up on there as Lorde's A&R guy. I'm hoping they kill me off at some point.
As a Mets fan, you had to have mixed feelings about co-publishing "Royals"?
Ha ha, no mixed feelings at all. It may be the smartest and most culturally relevant song of the decade.