So I’m back from Los Angeles, where I spent last week at the ASCAP Pop Awards (big shout out to my friends Mikkel and Tor from Stargate, who were named ASCAP’s Songwriters of the Year) and at the ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO. If you follow this blog, then you know from last week’s posting that the EXPO is the songwriting event of the year, drawing thousands of songwriters, A&R people, producers and artists to three-day convention that is rich in information, songwriting star-power, and networking opportunities. Despite the economic woes, this year’s EXPO seemed bigger and better than ever– a great opportunity to see a lot of friends, sign some copies of my new book “The Billboard Guide To Writing and Producing Songs That Sell”, and pick up some new insights and information from the panel discussions I attended.
I also participated in a panel entitled “Publishing Songs In An International Market”, along with publishers Ben Groff, from Kobalt Music, Ten Ten Music chief Barry Coburn, and star songwriter (and an old buddy of mine) Jeff Franzel. It was a good group of industry people, well-moderated by ASCAP’s Sean Devine, and I think most who were there found it informative and maybe a little eye-opening. So for those of you who couldn’t make it to LA, I thought I’d offer a quick summary of a few key points. It’s not quite the same as being there– but then again, you don’t have to fight the LA traffic to read it. Here are four themes that emerged in our discussion about spreading your business beyond your home territory:
1. To be in the songwriting or publishing business in 2009, you MUST be part of the international industry.
If you want to put it bluntly, there’s just not enough money left in any one territory, even one as big as the United States. If the fish are getting smaller, then you have to catch more of them, and the only way to do that is to cast a big, big net. We live in a global universe, and America’s Billboard Hot 100 reflects that, with a presence from Norwegian writers like Stargate, Swedes like Max Martin, British bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol, French DJ’s like David Guetta and Latin artists like
or Shakira. In the same way, European, Asian, and Latin charts feature songs by US artists, writers and producers, often in collaboration with writers from those foreign territories. Panelist Jeff Franzel had recently written a song with an Italian composer, to a lyric by none other than Pope John Paul II, which was sung by Placido Domingo and Josh Groban and released in Italy, and now all over the world. How’s that for a cultural mix?
If you’re a classical cross-over writer, you can’t ignore international stars like Bocelli or Charlotte Church. If you’re an urban writer, you bring a unique skill that writers outside of America struggle to replicate– you could do a huge business in Denmark, Stockholm and Tokyo. Country writers, with their finely crafted lyrics, often find a welcome home in England, working with acts like Westlife and Gareth Gates. American metal bands may find more favor in Europe than in the US, just as some American DJ’s are better known in Asia than in the US.
Most of the challenge of music publishing is finding where your catalog fits in the marketplace– and it may not be in the country in which you happen to live. Don’t limit yourself. Be aggressive in exploring all options, around the world.
2. Do Your Homework.
You’ve probably heard this one before from me. But this point came up again and again from every person on the panel. There’s no easy answer to the challenge of international music publishing. You’ll need to analyze and identify the most active international markets for your style of music, and the ones that are big enough, and organized enough to actually generate income. For instance, if your biggest market would be China, you’ve got a problem– no one has yet managed to collect money out of that territory. You need to look at the international charts in Billboard, check out some of the radio playlists or broadcasts from various countries (available online), and start to learn what sounds and styles work in each market.
Once you’ve picked your spots, then you’ll need to research possible partners to help you break that market. If you’ve already done a worldwide publishing deal with a major company, then it’s probably a matter of trying to contact the company’s local office in that particular territory. If you publish your own work, then you’ll need to reach out directly to A&R people in the foreign territory or find a sub-publisher in the region who is interested in representing you. You might want to attend an international conference like MIDEM to make some of those initial contacts, or check out MySpace.
3. You better be mobile.
Having identified a particular international territory where you think your music can work; you can pitch songs yourself, reach out to sub-publishers, or try to establish contacts with the creative community in that country. But if you really want to break in, the best strategy is to get on a plane and go there. There is simply no substitute for a first-hand understanding of a particular market, a familiarity with the production sounds and an empathy with the cultural sensibility of the audience. First, try to lay the groundwork by making a few contacts in the A&R or songwriting community via the telephone or internet. Then, think about scheduling a writing trip to actually spend some time collaborating with local writers and soaking up knowledge of the market.
Without question, the most successful example of conquering a foreign market in which I’ve ever been involved was Stargate’s spread into America, about four years ago. Already well-established hit makers in Europe and the UK, Stargate began their attempt to move into the US market with a trip to NYC, largely organized by Sony ATV Music Publishing. During that first trip, Stargate managed to work their way onto the radar screen of virtually every NY A&R exec– more importantly, they had a chance meeting with Ne-Yo, which resulted in “So Sick”, which would become their first major US hit. What made the trip work was (a) a small, but committed team on the ground in the new territory, combining the efforts of Sony ATV and Stargate’s amazing management team of Tim Blacksmith and Danny Poku, (b) the dedication of Stargate themselves to spending significant time in the territory, staying a month at a time on a regular basis (c) a studio “homebase” that was already a center of activity for songwriters, artists and producers, in this case a studio at the Sony Studios complex (d) a willingness to work with a wide variety of collaborators and to develop and adapt their “sound” to the local market.
Of course, the benefits to Stargate and Sony ATV of crossing Stargate into America are obvious. But there are similar stories every day, albeit on a smaller scale. US writer Jodi Marr bolstered her songwriting catalog by doing Spanish translations in the Latin market, and then hit it big by breaking her artist, Mika, in Europe. UK writer Steve Robson has become a Nashville songwriting star through his work with Rascal Flatts. Italian composer Leo Z has had repeated success with US artist Josh Groban. US urban writer Teron Beal has just launched his own artist career— in Scandinavia!
Somewhere there’s a place for your music– you just have to find it. A willingness to think beyond your own borders is essential to a successful songwriting and publishing career. It’s time to get out and see the world!