Eric Beall is the author of The Billboard Guide to Writing and Producing Songs that Sell: How to Create Hits in Today’s Music Industry,as well as Making Music Make Money: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Music Publisher (Berklee Press) and a music industry veteran, having held senior Creative jobs at Zomba Music, Jive Records, and Sony/ATV Music.. He’s worked with a wide variety of artists, writers and producers ranging from NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears, to Andrea Martin, The Script, Stargate Productions, and the Jonas Bros. Currently, he is Vice-President of A&R at Shapiro Bernstein, one of the industry’s most respected independent music publishers, where he’s brought in hit songs like “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, “When Love Takes Over” by David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland, “Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae and “Too Little Too Late” by Jojo.
I met Eric while in LA for the ASCAP music expo in April and thought an interview with him would provide some great insight for musicians and anyone interested in the music industry, it turns out I was right!
DM: I read “Making Music Make Money” before hearing you speak at the ASCAP expo. Which is why I figured it best to grab a front row seat. I knew it was going to be extremely informative and you didn’t disappoint. Why is it important for you to participate in events like the EXPO that helps educated artists?
EB: I actually started as a songwriter and producer– that’s what I did for about 15 years, when I moved to New York. I was signed to Zomba Music for a few years, then to Rondor Music– then I had my own label and publishing venture for several years. So I feel very at home at events like the ASCAP Expo, and it’s important to me to do whatever I can to help the songwriting community.
I really don’t consider myself much of an expert on either the craft of music or the business of it– I’m learning all the time, just like everyone else. But I have had the unique experience of having worked as both a songwriter, and on the other side of the desk as a music publisher. That experience on the A&R side has given me a different perspective on songwriting and the business of songwriting, and I often feel like I would have been a much better songwriter if I knew back when I started what I know now. So I feel like I should use any opportunity I have to share some of that perspective with other up and coming writers.
DM: Honestly, your book is the best music industry book I have read since Donald Passman’s classic “All You Need to Know About the Music Business.” In both books its obvious that the foundation of the music industry was not constructed to benefit the musician. With all of the information available to new artists the trend doesn’t seem to be changing. Besides technology lending a helping hand, is there anything being done to level the playing field for the working musician?
EB: Thanks so much for your kind comments– I’m glad you liked the book. To be honest, the music business is by and large a business set up by gangsters at the expense of musicians and creators– that’s it’s history, and when you look at what’s happening with things like Pirate Bay and YouTube, I’m not sure it’s changed one bit. Honestly, I’m pretty outraged when I see a multi-million dollar business like YouTube built almost entirely around music and paying virtually nothing to the creative people that make the music. It’s no better, or maybe worse than what a lot of the indie record guys did to artists and writers in the Thirties and Forties. Likewise, the National Music Publishers Association recently made a settlement with the record industry where the publishers received over 250 million dollars of “late payment” money, which is royalty money that has never been paid out by the labels (some of these payments have been due for over a decade). When you look at the list of people who are owed money under the settlement, you realize that the labels have simply been holding this money for years as a means of improving their cash flow– it’s basically stealing. No matter how much progress is made in terms of empowering artists, it seems that the game itself always remains the same.
I do think the internet has helped to even the playing field slightly, by allowing artists to promote and sell their own music. Especially for artists that already have a real following, the internet has made a record label far less necessary. It’s also made it easier for individuals to pitch their music to film & television, and to access information about the industry. But unfortunately, the truth is that the challenge of breaking through to the mass audience with your music is so big, that most musicians and songwriters will do or agree to almost anything in order to have an opportunity, and that makes it very easy for them to be taken advantage of. It never seems to change much.
DM: Dance music seems to be the default when society is unsure of what they want to hear next, and pop music is in a transition phase from hip hop to what ever is next. Being in your position, you have your finger on the pulse of where music is headed, any predictions for what will define the sound of this decade?
EB: I’ve actually been anticipating the return of dance music for several years now– happily, that’s what led us two years ago into doing a deal with Chris Willis, who has the new David Guetta single “Gettin’ Over You” with Fergie and LMFAO, and then also led us to doing a deal with David Guetta, who we publish in the US. Obviously, David has had incredible success over the past two years, with “I Gotta Feeling”, “Sexy Chick”, and “When Love Takes Over”. I think the combination of recessionary times and the fact that hip-hop fell into something of a creative “rut” made the perfect opportunity for dance music to rise in popularity for a mass audience. It’s also worth noting that it was really the hip-hop community that brought dance music back to the pop charts– we started hearing more and more sounds borrowed from the techno/dance world turning up a couple years ago in some of the Southern hip-hop records and also artists like Kanye West. Then obviously, the Black Eyed Peas really brought it to the forefront this year.
As far as where music is headed for the next decade, that’s always a very tricky proposition. We’re actually coming out of a decade that was one of the least defined that I can remember– there were really very few sounds or artists that I could say “defined” 2000-2010. Perhaps our society has become fragmented to the point where it’s not realistic for one particular sound to dominate the market in the way that it had in the past. But the music I’m keeping an eye on these days is stuff that’s more raw and stripped down, maybe more politically-oriented lyrically, and a little more singer-songwriter or rock-band based. I think dance music always leads to that sort of backlash. At the same time, I think Jamaica will be the next hotbed of creativity in the urban/dance world, Latin music will finally breakthrough again to the mainstream, and we might finally see the first Asian superstar in the US market. Right now, I’m a little cautious about investing in hip-hop, indie rock or dance– I feel like those markets may have peaked.
DM: You probably covered 95% of the questions I had about publishing in your book and the other 5% at the expo, so I’d like to ask questions more about you if that’s ok. Being as in tune with your area of expertise as you are, what are the advantages of continuing to work for Shapiro Bernstien vs just working for yourself?
EB: I love working for Shapiro Bernstein on a number of levels– part of it is simply the enjoyment of working with old friends, some of whom I’ve known for more than twenty years. Also, you do have to be honest, and acknowledge that there is a massive advantage to working with a catalog that is full of hits from the past 100 years– that kind of consistent, steady cashflow allows you to make a lot of moves that you couldn’t if you were starting a new company from scratch. Obviously, my book, Making Music Make Money, is all about the value of starting your own publishing venture, and I really do believe in that. But there’s no question that it takes a while to build up a catalog of hits, and often quite a while to get the money rolling in– an older company like Shapiro has some huge advantages in that respect. Also, I enjoy working with a team– it’s great to have a film & TV expert in LA, or an international songplugger in Europe, to bounce ideas around and try to come up with new strategies.
DM: Let’s talk about Berklee. I went there for a one week summer guitar course and have not stopped talking about the place since. You teach and design courses for their online division. Is it really possible to learn this stuff in a college course, or is better just to grab your book and hit the ground running?
EB: I don’t know if it’s ever really possible to learn anything in the music business completely from a classroom experience. There is nothing like the school of hard knocks to give you the realism you need to be successful. This was not a business developed in universities or run by scholars. Much of it is based on instinct and trial/error.
That said, there is a huge amount of knowledge that is part of music publishing– understanding the income flow, the various facets of licensing agreements, the way you collect money around the world, and the kind of people you need on your team. My class, Music Publishing 101 is really built to be a step by step guide to starting your own music publishing guide– I designed it specifically so that by the end of the 12 week semester, your company should be pretty much up and running. All of the assignments are very practical and aimed at helping you tackle the next step for your own company. Happily, I’ve had a number of students who have been able to take what they did in the class and build on it to the point where they have successful music publishing components to their business. I’m not much for theory and philosophical arguments in general– my class is a pretty down and dirty, realistic look at what it takes to build a publishing company.
DM:Now as smart as your are, I have to ask what was the biggest hit that you passed on and why?
EB: Wow– there are so many over the years– I’m embarrassed to say. A lot of them are things that I recognized as hits, but just wasn’t able to persuade the company I was at to move on aggressively– I remember meeting Rihanna the second day she was in the United States, before she was signed to a label. I and my colleague at Sony Records came back immediately and said to our respective bosses: “We have to do this”. That was on a Thursday. But on Friday, she met with LA Reid and Def Jam, and by Monday the deal was gone. Sometimes you just aren’t able to react quickly enough to grab what you want. I missed Jason Derullo as well– that came to me early, but it didn’t yet have the singles in place. Those can be tough, because as great as he is, you just don’t know if someone is going to come up with the right record. Still, I should have been able to see what an amazing performer he was and understood the potential. This business is full of regrets.
DM: Recently you began offering consulting services, any success stories that you care to share?
EB: Actually, I’ve just started the service and I’m very excited about it– it’s an opportunity for me to work with people on a creative basis that goes beyond just listening to songs and critiquing. Instead I’m able to look at their business, talk about opportunities and give some advice about areas they might want to look at pursuing. I just did one session with a writer who is part of an indie rock band, but halfway through the meeting, she also mentioned that she has a business doing children’s music. I encouraged her to develop that side of her company, and mentioned her story on my blog– turns out that an entertainment executive in Japan follows the blog and reached out to her about her children’s music, to talk about some kind of joint venture. Crazy. I tell everyone: I’m good luck.
DM: I have witnessed you break down multiple random songs given to you during a Q & A to the point of making suggestions of how to market the music based on the psycho-graphics of a potential listener within seconds of hearing the songs for the first time. Are you still able to just listen and enjoy music as a fan?
EB: I do– but honestly, sometimes it gets a little difficult. It’s easy in the business to get so caught up in the demographics, marketing, and craft of songwriting that you forget to just listen and enjoy. Sometimes I gravitate a little more toward jazz or classical music, just because it doesn’t really conform to all of the things I deal with during the day, in the pop music world.
But it’s funny– last weekend I needed to go to see one of our bands, Mission Hill, who was performing at a big radio show for a top station in New England– it was one of those events with twenty top artists on the bill, each doing three or four songs. They had Ke$ha and Jason Derullo and my friends The Script, who I signed to their first publishing deal years ago. Of course, the audience was mostly 14 year old teenage girls, and I stood out like someone’s dad at the high school prom. But to hear songs like “Tic Toc”, which is just such a perfect pop song, in front of that audience, or to watch fantastic performers like Jason Derullo or The Script really deliver the good live– I was like a kid again. I kind of rediscovered the power of great pop music. That happens a lot– you get burnt out a little, and then you hear that song that just brings it all back.