At BMI Awards, Sting’s ‘Breath’ Takes All-Time Honor That ‘Meant to Be’ Means to Steal

Imagine Dragons and Martin Bandier also received top kudos.

Bebe Rexha and Sting67th Annual BMI
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If you think Bebe Rexha’s and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” is already an earworm, be afraid, be very afraid. At the BMI Pop Awards in Beverly Hills Tuesday night, the performing rights organization gave Rexha an award for co-writing the song, which was named the performing rights organization’s most played song of the year — and then Barbara Cane, BMI’s VP of worldwide creative, suggested the tune could enjoy everlasting life beyond that. “It’s starting to begin its chase to ‘Every Breath You Take’,” Cane told Rexha.

That wasn’t just an arbitrary comparison. “Every Breath You Take” was also being honored Tuesday, for having become the most played song in BMI’s repertoire. Sting came to perform an acoustic version of the all-timer, which BMI president/CEO Mike O’Neill pointed out was the latest in a very short list of songs that have enjoyed that honor. The first time BMI calculated its most played song, O’Neill said, it was Graham Nash’s “Our House,” of all things, in 1978 — and it stayed on top until it was overtaken by Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday” in 1994. Two years later, the Righteous Brothers’ smash “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” took the top spot, a position it held for more than 22 years.

“Trudy, would you say your husband’s a little competitive?” O’Neill asked Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, from the stage. He recalled talking with Sting two and a half years prior when he received BMI’s Icon award in London and telling him that “Every Breath” was creeping up on “Lovin’ Feeling,” like the stalker song it is. “Mike, what’s number one?” O’Neill remembered Sting asking. “How far behind am I? How long will it take me to get there?”

If Rexha asked O’Neill how long it’ll take her to overtake Sting for the most played song on the BMI rolls, no one was saying. Rexha did let loose with a string of happy profanity as her impromptu acceptance speech upon “Meant to Be” being named as BMI’s topper for this year.

Sting’s was not the only performance from an honoree at the dinner ceremony at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Imagine Dragons, who received the President’s Award, did a three-song semi-acoustic set following Dan Reynolds’ impassioned speech about inclusivity.

The other top honoree did not sing. That was Martin Bandier, the recently retired head of the word’s biggest publishing company, Sony/ATV Music. Bandier was getting the Icon award, previously given to such songwriters as Paul Simon, Dolly Parton, Carole King and, as previously mentioned, Sting. “Tonight is the first time we’re honoring a member of the business side as our Icon,” O’Neill pointed out, calling the exec “someone in our industry as deserving of this accolade as anyone who came before him.”

Most of the ceremony was devoted to non-lifetime achievements. Sony/ATV won for music publisher of the year. Songwriter of the year was announced as a rare tie — a surprise, until the dual winners were announced, as co-writers Ali Tamposi and Andrew Watt both had the exact same four qualifying songs putting them across the finish line: “Havana,” “Let Me Go,” “Wolves” and “Youngblood.”

Sting tried to put the all-time honor for “Every Breath You Take” in context. “It’s 1964. I’m 13 years old. I’ll give you some time to do the math,” he said. “I live in a little seaport town on the northeast coast of England… I will hear a song on the radio that, to this day, I think is one of the greatest songs, the greatest records, ever made. The song is ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ by the Righteous Brothers… It blew my 13-year-old mind. I’m telling you this because the idea of a song of mine somehow superseding that one — at least in terms of performance and airplay — is simply not credible. Yet, here I stand.”

The former Police frontman gave a nod to a veteran songwriter in the room. “We’re already standing on the shoulders of giants, those who came before us. Mike Stoller, I’m talking about you,” he said. “They passed the ball to us, and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, so we run with the ball, and suddenly we find ourselves ahead of the field. It’s only temporary — I know this! — but it feels damn good. … There’s a rare nobility in this profession that is more than just mere entertainment. And I believe it has something to do with the form of a song. There’s something mysterious and powerful encoded inside that form of verses, choruses, a middle eight and a coda. This form somehow gives people comfort and solace in the most dire circumstances — personal, emotional, political. Whatever is encoded in that form is immensely powerful. And our job as songwriters is to work within that form and create touchstones in the emotional landscape and memories of those who listen, creating a semblance of all that out of apparent chaos. That’s noble and important work, everybody. Long may we continue.”

And from there, it was on to awarding the 50 most played songs of the last year, which included such ennobling titles as “IDGAF” and music publishing companies as Songs from a Dong Music … as well as such arguably more emotionally uplifting copyrights as “What About Us,” “Praying,” “The Middle” and “God’s Plan.”

Imagine Dragons, pop’s reigning good guys, certainly seem to exemplify the Sting ideal, with their acceptance preceded by a video showing the group’s work with causes like the cancer-related Tyler Robinson Foundation and diversity-championing Loveloud.

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“Man, it feels very corny and very strange to sit there and people are like ‘Look at all you guys did! You’re bad-ass!’” said singer Dan Reynolds. “People are saying, ‘Good job of giving back a little bit of money. Good job with your incredible privilege of raising awareness.’” He said the band was standing on the shoulders of some very adjacent giants. “I’m married to this incredible woman who’s been working her ass off for a long time in the industry. And our industry is still diversifying; it’s still trying to be more diverse and make it easier for women like my wife, who was told to sexualize herself for years, and she didn’t, she didn’t get into that — and she didn’t make it in this industry. And people like (co-writer) Justin Tranter, who was never allowed to be as queer as he wanted to be, and now he is, and he’s celebrated … We’ve been impacted by women who have been neglected in this industry. We’ve been impacted by people of diversity who’ve been neglected for their sexual orientation. So it takes very little effort. It feels a little bit like, ‘Damn! But thank you.’”

Puzzling in real time over whether to reel off a further list of thank-yous or not, Reynolds finally opted out. “Geez, there’s so many people,” he lamented. “There were a lot of labels that passed on us. Maybe I should just blast them instead of thanking (people),” he added, to laughter. “Atlantic! You passed on us! That’s a true story.”

Bandier’s appearance was preceded by a tribute video that included stars like Taylor Swift, who said, “You’ve always been behind the scenes making sure other people got to achieve their dreams… I’m one of those people you championed.” Before he accepted the award, Bandier was serenaded by Steve Tyrell singing “Stand by Me” (with perhaps a bit of trepidation: “The guy who wrote this is back there,” the singer noted, referring, as Sting had, to Stoller).

In his acceptance speech, Bandier looked at his hefty Icon award and said, “I feel like this bucket is something you give to somebody who wins a horse race.” More seriously, the publishing veteran said: “Keeping up with this ever-changing, complex business, driven by the digital age, has been nothing short of invigorating and sometimes aggravating. … [But] I have a mounting optimism about the new world. While there’s still plenty of battlegrounds that remain for songwriters, I think we approach these issues with the buoyancy of knowing that the music business is thriving at a rapid pace again, and we’re finally back in the growth business. It took us a couple decades.”

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On the red carpet, Bandier — who served at the helm of Sony/AVT for 12 years after long stints heading the SBK and EMI publishing companies — was candid in his quasi-retirement thoughts.

Reminded that he was still on a long victory lap, Bandier quipped, “I think I’m ready for a couple more.” And, of course, he’s not actually retiring — just retiring from Sony/ATV. What’s next will “be something with music, but it’s a process and I would be making a mistake if I spoke out of turn.” He’s bullish on music, he told Variety. “This business is growing at an amazingly rapid pace. For the first time in decades, all of the problems we had in terms of privacy, of albums being broken up into singles — all behind us. People are investing in music content and paying some crazy prices. Streaming has changed our world. If you look at the future, the number of paid subscribers is growing in leaps and bounds. If you’re lucky enough to think about 2030, there will be a billion and a half subscribers.”

Sounding equally bullish was O’Neill, who said that the income BMI is collecting for songwriters and publishers, which set records last year by topping a billion dollars, will add up to an even greater figure when their fiscal year ends in June, since they’ve already passed the billion point with a ways to go. “When we finish 2019 in a couple months,” O’Neill said, “records will fall again.”

With additional reporting by Roy Trakin.