Sony/ATV Chief Martin Bandier Talks Spotify, Buying Motown and EMI, and Ed Sheeran’s Unreleased Songs (EXCLUSIVE)

Martin Bandier isn’t just chairman and CEO of the world’s largest music publisher, Sony/ATV, which has The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Carole King, Kraftwerk, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Hank Williams and Stevie Wonder among the thousands of songwriters in its repertoire. He isn’t just one of the most formidable music publishers of all time, with a career that stretches back to the early ‘70s and includes building SBK and EMI Music Publishing into powerhouses. And he isn’t just the architect of some of the biggest deals in the music industry over the past three decades, including EMI Music Publishing’s purchase of the Motown catalog, spearheading the consortium that brought EMI Music Publishing to Sony/ATV for some $2.2 billion, and just last year, leading the Sony Corporation’s $750 million acquisition of half of Sony/ATV from Michael Jackson’s estate. He’s also the founder of the Bandier Program, the highly respected music-business program at his alma mater, Syracuse University, which last year Billboard named one of the “12 Elite Music Business Schools Shaping the Industry.”

Unlike most programs, Bandier keeps its graduating classes at a small size it feels the industry can absorb — around 25 students each year — and brings in a battery of professionals as guest lecturers, ranging from alums like CAA managing director/head of music Rob Light, iHeartMedia president of entertainment enterprises John Sykes and Cornerstone cofounder Jon Cohen, along with Britney Spears/Miley Cyrus manager Larry Rudolph and Sony Music EVP/general counsel Julie Swidler. It grew out of an already existing program at Syracuse’s Crouse College of Music that was limited to music students, but was founded with a grant from Bandier in 2006. Under director David Rezak (who was named Variety’s Media Mentor of the Year in 2015 and retired last year), acting director Ulf Oesterle and assistant director Lisa Steele, it has become an incubator for young industry professionals, including SB Projects’ Michael George (who discovered EDM star Martin Garrix and was featured in Forbes’ 2017 “30 Under 30”), Brooklyn Bowl head talent buyer Lucas Sacks, ATO Records’ Jeanette Wall (who also manages indie acts Mitski and Pwr Bttm), Zeke Silvera and Gabz Landman (A&R for Island Records and Artist Partners Group, respectively) and not least The Chainsmokers’ Drew Taggart. And with its recent move to the university’s renowned Newhouse School of Communications, even more synergies are possible.

Bandier himself meets with each graduating student at the end of the year — and last week, after he’d done that, he sat down for a Q&A in front of around 200 students that was moderated by Variety’s music editor (and Syracuse alum and occasional Bandier guest speaker) Jem Aswad.

You’ve said that you got into music publishing because you had long hair?
(Laughter) I know it sounds little weird, but I graduated from law school and went to work for what I thought was a very stuffy law firm. Soon after I started the senior partner came in — there must have been 200 lawyers there and I was the only associate who had long hair — and said, “We’re involved in a music publishing transaction and we think you listen to music. Would you like to work on this transaction?” He was only looking at my hair, not my face. And me, being the dopey young 23-year-old kid that I was, said “Yeah! I listen to music all the time!” Soon, I became addicted to the whole concept of music publishing and rights.

You [students] have such an advantage over people like myself — I understood nothing about the business and I had to learn along the way. I tried to explain it to my parents: I was smoking at the time — thank God I stopped — and I would blow out smoke and try to grab it with my hand and I’d say, “That’s kind of what music publishing is — you can sort of see it but you reach out to grab it and end up with nothing!” (Laughter)

But a huge part of publishing is finding ways to get money out of that smoke.
That’s true, we’re a billion-dollar plus music-rights business, [Sony/ATV] owns the rights to 3 million of the world’s greatest songs, and its our job to collect the revenue that’s created by them, to exploit them, create new avenues of revenue for them. I remember my parents saying, “You say you make money when a song gets played on the radio, how do you know what gets played the radio?” I said “I don’t know but I’m going to find out.” It’s a wonderful business and not as easy as it was when I first started.

Speaking of which, how has streaming changed the ways you do business?
I think that streaming is like the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that it virtually wiped out the revenue created by the sale of physical [product] and digital downloads; the good news is that streaming is up 67 percent year-on-year; the bad news again is that we — songwriters and publishers — don’t make as much money from streaming [as from sales of physical product]. But it will clearly be the predominant force for a long time to come.

The price for streaming has pretty much been set: $10/month for premium service. So where would that additional money for songwriters and publishers come from?
I think there are a couple of things that can happen. Number one: In America songwriters and producers are constrained by the compulsory license. That means someone doesn’t need permission to use your songs or your content, they can use it at a predetermined rate, and it’s usually not a market rate — it’s not a free exchange between you and me where I say it’s worth X and you say it’s worth Y and we settle on Z. There’s a value that’s been determined by Congress and a copyright royalty board, and it’s never satisfactory. [The U.S.] is the only place in the world where compulsory licensing is in effect; the rest of the world has free and open negotiations. So songwriters are not being paid fairly.

Also, there’s a disproportionate sharing of the revenue. I always say if you write the words and melody for a song, why should you be paid less than the person singing it? I don’t think that’s fair. And a third thing is that performance income — which is generated when songs are played on the radio, TV in a bar or in any venue — is collected by performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI, and those rates are controlled by a consent decree that was entered into with the federal government 75 years ago. I think the world has changed in 75 years! So I think if we could do away with the consent decree that hampers and restricts the revenue collected by songwriters and music publishers you’d have a major change right there.

The power players in our business aren’t really music people anymore — they’re tech people. Billboard’s number-one Power Player [for 2017] is [Spotify CEO and cofounder] Daniel Ek. Yeah, he has a great tech application, but I don’t know if he ever found a songwriter or a musician or ever had a creative music idea. So it’s not like the guy who is the head of an agency or an A&R team. Our company had the No. 1 song in the U.K. for more than a year —Drake and Ed Sheeran and [The Chainsmokers, Clean Bandit, Mike Posner and James Arthur]. I think that’s a really powerful accomplishment. Maybe the fault lies with the songwriters and publishers like myself for not being as vocal — if you look at publications like Billboard or even Shazam or anything with songs on it, rarely do they tell you who the writers are. I think we’re remiss in that we don’t force that [issue].

Who are some artists you’ve worked with who are very savvy about their business?
Pharrell Williams is one I’ve always found to be cooperative and bright, he understands the business and the politics of the business and how he can be helpful. For example, I spoke to him about [attending an important industry event] and asked him if he would mind being honored. He said “I don’t know, I’ve got so many things going on,” and I said, “I think this would be good for you and it would be good for the industry because you’re a solid citizen.” He said, “I’m in.” I think there are people like that who understand the value of their image and what they can do. Taylor Swift is another who really gets it, Carole King is another, Sting is another, and someone I’ve known for a long time. [In 2003] his manager came to me and said that Jaguar wanted to do a commercial with the Sting song “Desert Rose,” and they were going to include a chyron saying what the song was — their budget for advertising was enormous and they were going to advertise on primetime TV. He said “I’m not taking any money, for it would you grant a license?” And I said “If he’s not taking anything I won’t either.” And because of the exposure from that commercial, that album [“Brand New Day”] sold 7 million copies and was his biggest hit — and this was a guy who’s had some hits. That commercial was the start of an amazing run for him and brought back his career.

And just two weeks ago we listened to about 20 songs that didn’t make Ed Sheeran’s album — and every one of them was like, “Gee, this is a great song! Why didn’t the guy put this one on there?” He’s a great songwriter who will write songs that will endure for a long time.

Have you placed any of those songs?
Yeah, we’ve placed two of them already, I think. [Sony/ATV declined to provide further details, despite persistent and repeated questioning.]

What makes a great music publisher in 2017?
There are lots of different services a publisher provides, including collecting your money and paying properly and on time and understanding the value of the assets being created by you and your works. I think [Sony/ATV] has the greatest synch department in the world, who spend all their time looking for opportunities for our songs in films, commercials, TV, the stage — we’ve had several stage shows, which have literally changed our business. We had [“Mamma Mia!”], the Abba stage show, which ran for many years, and “Jersey Boys” [featuring the music of the Four Seasons], which only recently closed after a 10-year run on Broadway. We did the Carole King show, “Beautiful,” which is still running and doing incredibly well, we had “Motown: The Musical,” for which the music was incredible.

We were the first company to have a synchronization department. My wife had a friend [Sharon Ambrose, who passed away in 1997], who ran an agency and had some tough luck. [In the late 1980s at EMI], I said to her, “If you could sell artists for TV shows and commercials, you’d be incredible. Come to work with me, spend as much time as you want learning what advertisers and film and TV companies need and want.” It took her 18 months, but I believed so strongly that selling songs was no different from selling an artist, and soon the floodgates opened. People would say “What’s the secret?” I wouldn’t tell anybody, and it took years before somebody realized, “You know, they have a synch department.”

So I think we’re not afraid to step up to the plate and invest in those ancillary rights that separate us [from other publishers], and we’re not afraid to fight for our songwriters. I’m the least contentious person you’d ever want to meet and I find myself in arguments with the Department of Justice and the heads of Spotify and YouTube; I can’t say I argue with the folks from Apple, but I think it’s interesting that Apple doesn’t just have a music business, they do very well selling other products. Spotify has just one business.

But I think you need somebody who treats songwriters’ work with reverence and tries their best to make one and one equal three.

Have you thought about moving into later generations with musicals — like maybe a disco one, a new wave one, one with ‘90s music?
The thing is, 75 percent of the Broadway audience are middle-aged women, so it’s difficult to come up with something other than past hits. Our stage and theater group went to see a reading of the life story of the Temptations, one of the great Motown bands who had incredible hits and an incredible story. We’re working on an adaptation of “The Monkees,” which has great music. We have lots of others that I could mention, including some of the classic disco songs. But it takes a long time to develop shows and to put together a book that makes sense. We’ve been trying to figure out a book for The Beatles for the longest time, but we don’t want the music to be trivialized, so we haven’t found that yet. We’re getting close with one group that has an idea that we’re buying into — we’ll see.

What do you look for in young executives?
First of all, you have to really love music. If you want to be an A&R you need to remember lyrics and melodies, if you’re in licensing you have to be aggressive and not shy, but at the same time respectful of your peers and the music you’re representing. No one can predict hit after hit. It’s like baseball, 1 out of 3 you’re doing quite well — other than The Chainsmokers, who seems to have one hit after another and it’s totally baffling to me! (Laughter) I don’t mean that negatively, I think they’re pretty amazing, but who’d have thunk it? [Bandier Program graduate and Chainsmoker singer/songwriter Drew Taggart] learned a lot here — he certainly learned enough here to take advantage of me in a business deal! Two of my protégés, both of whom worked for me for years, one of them, Jody Gerson, runs Universal Music Publishing and Jon Platt runs Warner/Chappell [Sony/ATV’s biggest competitors]. I love them, they’re like my kids — and they wanna kill me!

What are the most challenging deals you’ve done?
Trying to buy Motown[’s publishing unit, Jobete] from Berry Gordy, who has since become a good friend, was a trial by fire. He was very concerned about his babies — not just the songs he wrote, but Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder and Holland-Dozier-Holland. He said “You’ve gotta sell those people on why you would make a difference” and I was able to do that, but it was not an easy task to tell Diana Ross that it was not about her [celebrity] but about the songs. That was a difficult negotiation and task, and finally I said “Why don’t you just sell half the company to me and I’ll make the other half worth twice the amount?” He’s a pretty smart guy and he said “I’ll take that deal.” And the other half was worth twice the amount and he made so much more money [when EMI bought the other half in 2004] and got great comfort from the fact that his babies were in good hands. There were hardly any [synchs] that came out of Motown until we started working on it.

EMI was another one. When [Sony/ATV] acquired EMI [in 2012] we put together a consortium of people to fund it. Unlike the very first acquisition I made — I think it was a $15 million acquisition and I probably borrowed $14 million from the bank — this was $2.2 billion, and it was not an easy task to put together that type of financing. It was an incredible array of songs and worth every penny, but it was a difficult transaction and a lot of juggling, and at the same time Sony is a Japanese company and a lot of their rules and regulations are very different from those in America.

But it all worked out. If something was easy, everyone would be doing it.

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