“Every single week of quarantine, I’ve executed a contract by signing it on my phone,” says Sony/ATV Nashville CEO Rusty Gaston. His sentiment is echoed by many other music publishers — which, even as their label counterparts slow down on new signings, are ramping up deals.
Labels are feeling the need to be protective of their resources during this uncertain and unprecedented period, and developing a new artist can appear quite risky given the current (and rather desolate) landscape. But veteran artists who are already signed need more material in their arsenal than ever in order to feed the digital beast and remain relevant. From a publisher’s perspective, fresh ideas from talented songwriters are currency right now.
Sony/ATV, one of the biggest publishing companies whose clients include Ed Sheeran, Kanye West, Dolly Parton, Queen, and Joni Mitchell, has been signing “far more” than before, SVP Creative Jennifer Knoepfle tells Rolling Stone in comparing current happenings to the time before shelter-in-place orders went into effect.
As Knoepfle puts it, publishers and labels are “pretty different in terms of how [they] work with talent. A lot of who we work with are actually people behind the scenes writing the songs, and I think there will always be a demand for songs. There’s also a demand, specifically, for tracks and beats and things like that.” Since artists aren’t able to tour or promote music that’s already out, they have a surplus of time to devote to writing and making new music, which would mean the demand for songwriters and collaborators in that sector is higher than before.
In understanding what goes into signing a deal with a label, an act’s talent as a performer has to be taken into consideration. (Moreover, they often have to be media trained and ready for the public eye.) Publishers, for the most part, are just concerned with the quality of the songs. “Publishing is so song-based. There have been plenty of artists that I’ve come across where I’ve seen them play live and it wasn’t great,” says Knoepfle. “But they had great songs.”
She adds that Sony/ATV is being very aggressive at the moment. “I think we’re moving quickly to get deals done,” she says. “It’s still very much like business as usual. Let’s get great talent in the building regardless of the times. Eventually, we’re gonna come out of quarantine and we still want to be armed with the best talent.”
“It’s completely eye-opening how effective every company can be during this time of quarantine because you’re pushing technology to what it’s actually intended to do,” adds Gaston. “And everything is working.” He thinks that, with songs, “you feel something whether it’s coming from Spotify through an earbud or if they’re singing it live in the room … or if it’s coming through the television or your computer. If a song is connecting in this type of environment, it shows its strength and power even more.”
Gaston points out that, particularly in Nashville, the act of pitching songwriters’ material to artists has not slowed down. “Labels are listening to songs. Artists are listening to songs. New artists, mid-level artists, and superstar artists are all quarantined just like the rest of us. They’re getting on Zoom and writing quite a bit because they’re not on the road touring right now. In the publishing world, our action and activity is really up.”
Over at Warner Chappell — the publishing group that won over breakout star Lizzo last year — co-chair and CEO Guy Moot says their signings have continued along at the same pace. “You can’t keep creative people from creating,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It’s in their DNA, and songwriters are working through this crisis – in some cases responding directly to the pandemic with very powerful material. Over the past few months, we’ve added amazing talent like Santigold (Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator), Sean Douglas (Thomas Rhett, Lizzo), Dat Boi Squeeze (Roddy Ricch), and others to our roster, and we’re constantly seeking out original voices to bring into the fold.”
He also points out that they’ve fully embraced the new era of virtual pitches, which is making their business more global. “Deals have been done via Zoom and other video chat tools, and we recently completed virtual signings in France, Spain, and Brazil,” Moot shares.
“Our Sync and A&R teams recently hosted a virtual songwriting camp that brought together writers from the U.S., Germany, and Latin America,” he continues. And one of their most recent efforts involved setting up more than 20 video ‘First Date’ sessions in Spain, where writers who’d never met before created new music together.
Universal Music Publishing Group — where Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Billie Eilish all have deals — is also expanding their global horizons. “UMPG is using this opportunity to put together sessions that are more global in nature,” explains David Gray, who shares the role of co-head of A&R with Walter Jones — both of whom have noticed a steady continuation of signings. “We can have an Australian artist and a New York writer in a session together and no one has to travel.”
Moot admits that not being able to hunker down in a studio with a production team isn’t easy for everyone, but he says they’re finding ways to adapt. “For example, some of our writers are using TeamViewer – a platform that lets a producer or someone else control a songwriter’s computer remotely to cut vocals.”
Gray agrees, sharing that topliners who once had little interest in recording are getting software like Protools, Logic, etc. “They’re learning to create their own vocal chain for competitive demo quality recordings,” he says. “And artists are looking back at their songs that were close to great and digging in and making them better.”
As for the mid-tier artist/writer who might not have the equipment they’re used to using in their creative process readily available at home, major publishing representatives assure Rolling Stone that they’re prepared for that. Need a mic? Your publisher can ship one to you. “We’re here for our writers on a case-by-case basis on how they need to create. We’re trying to be supportive on that level, because we know that for a lot of mid-tier artists, they don’t have the same luxuries as some of these other people, but they’re still incredibly talented. We’re trying to support them however we can — whether that’s by getting them a ProTools setup or helping them with vocal production.”
As far as musical placements in TV, films, and advertisements go, those have also remained consistent — at least for now. “We’ve seen minimal changes, despite the current environment,” Marni Condro, SVP of Film & TV at UMPG, says, noting the delay between when production filmings and release date. “What’s interesting is we’re seeing more requests for songs that speak to our common experience during quarantine – with themes about resilience, hope, and assurance,” says Moot.
“We recently licensed ‘Home’ by Greg Holden and Drew Pearson (originally by Phillip Phillips) to Tylenol for its ‘Stay Home’ commercial, which praises first responders,” Moot continues. “In a moving ad, Facebook is using our song ‘People’s Faces,’ by Kate Tempest and Warner Chappell songwriter Dan Carey, while Virgin Media UK is licensing ‘Keep Your Head Up’ by Ben Howard to help tell the story of how people are coming together in this difficult time. New situations breed new opportunities, and the music community is rising to the occasion, as it always does.”