As the songwriter of multiplatinum hits for Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, One Direction and Demi Lovato, among many others, Ross Golan’s schedule was already full when he started his podcast, “And the Writer Is …” in January 2017. At first Golan thought he was creating a niche product for the elite songwriter community, but as he approaches the weekly-ish podcast’s 150th episode, his interviews with guests ranging from Benny Blanco and Finneas to Julia Michaels, Bebe Rexha, Emily Warren, Peter Frampton and Daniel Lanois have racked up millions of downloads.
Golan squeezes his producing and hosting duties into a schedule based around back-to-back songwriting sessions, where a day of working remotely via Zoom can include executive producing the U.K.’s New Hope Club at the top of his day, then jumping into a session with folks in Nashville after lunch and finishing off the day with a session in Los Angeles. This, alongside running his company Unknown Music Publishing and being a vocal advocate for songwriters. Golan added another Zoom session to his calendar to speak with Variety about “And the Writer Is …” and the future of his line of work.
How do choose your podcast interview subjects?
If you want to understand how white privilege is magnified in the music business, have a podcast where you’re interviewing hit songwriters — there are a lot of 5’10” white guys out there. It’s important to show all songwriters, but it’s also important to show you can be anybody and succeed, and to look outside the pop community and be part of the entire songwriting community.
How has the podcast evolved over time?
The C-suite artists and writers come to us now. One of the hardest things for artists — specifically songwriters — to understand is how fragile “legacy” is. We should all worship Paul Anka and Babyface, but ask a young writer if they know who those people are or any of the songs that they wrote, and they probably won’t. We all want to be known by future generations, but we all think that our generation is best. The podcast shines a light on different generations and how all the struggles are similar.
You focus on your guests’ struggles as much as their hits.
It’s always the stuff before and after the hits that’s the most fascinating. What did they have to do to get to that first hit? What did they have to do between that first hit and the second hit? What happened when they never got another hit again? There isn’t a lot of information from great writers and great artists about how they survived really hard times. Those things are so much more interesting, and human, than the actual hits.
What songwriting trends have you observed over the past year?
A lot of the trends are a result of people recording in the same place they sleep. Everyone’s doing the same kind of production because they’re doing it with the same tools. I’m excited things are opening up because people will be back in front of humans, and that will change how they write.
As a topliner, what’s been working for you in recent times?
The fact that you can mute on Zoom! A lot of songwriters will sing the first thing that comes to their mind. Everyone in the room says, “Nah, that’s not the right thing.” By the time you edit it, they’ve already moved on. But if I put on mute, sing through it and edit it, it sounds pretty close to what I want it to sound like. Then, more often than not, I’ll hear, “That’s a really cool part.”
Do you feel the music industry is lagging behind changes in technology?
Technology moves much faster than any industry can, not just music. Unlike television and film where there’s a visual component, music is a collection of sound waves. It’s complex when what we’re selling is so hard to grasp. We’re trying to find the value of that, both as consumers and creatives. What’s amazing is there’s more consumable music than there has ever been. There’s a democratization of the success of music where the consumer chooses successful songs. It makes it so whether it’s an independent or major release, you have more of an equal footing than you used to have. There are a lot of advantages right now. You can live in many places on the planet and you can write and record and release a song from the comfort of your own home. That is where the music industry is way ahead. If you do a film or a television show, you can release it on YouTube, but you can’t release on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu. You can put your music on Apple Music and Spotify. As an industry, we are more progressive than our other counterparts. Those worlds are so limited and ours is infinite.
What is the impact of the democratization of music on its creators making a living wage?
When we get the next judgment for the Copyright Royalty Board, it’ll be the first time we’ve been able to use the Music Modernization Act in a way that should, and will, benefit songwriters. What will be really significant is if the rates change. If there’s any adequate, accurate, equitable result, songwriters and the publishing industry should see quite an economic boom. I’m really hoping, not just as a songwriter, but as an advocate, that we will we can partake in this golden age of music in a way that’s fair, in the way that everyone else is partaking in it: artists, streaming services, record labels and venues.
Can you illustrate how different the scenario used to be for songwriters compared to the current time?
There was a point where you could have the 10th song on a Guns n’ Roses album, and you would make enough money to retire. I remember meeting somebody who had a 50% song on Backstreet Boys’ Millennium and two more 50% songs on Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again. If you do the math with each of those albums selling 20 million copies, he made almost $3 million on three album cuts. In order for you to do that for 50% of a song now, you’d have to have an absolute radio smash, and you probably would have to be the producer of the song to get any of the revenue on streaming for it to even make a dent. There’s no question that things have to change.
How do you feel that change can happen?
As a member of Songwriters of North America (SONA) and Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), and being on the board with National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), we all realize we are not getting paid an equal amount. The rest of the industry sees it, they just don’t agree with how they can take care of it. Nobody wants to get rid of their piece of the pie. Hopefully, because of the Music Modernization Act, we are going to get an increase in pay. This will be something the industry might complain about when they make a little less money, but nobody’s going to argue that the end result is a more equitable community. Nobody can possibly think what songwriters get paid on a hit Spotify song is fair, not even people from Spotify.
How did your podcast motivate you to become actively involved in the Music Modernization Act?
If it isn’t for songwriters who are willing to risk a little bit of their future success for the betterment of the community, maybe some things wouldn’t change. We’re a young enough community that if we stomp loud enough, over time if we can fix some of these music industry injustices, the assumption is that social evolution will move in the right direction. A lot of songwriters are really powerful. A lot of songwriters know governors and a lot of songwriters know senators and a lot of songwriters know representatives. When you start calling the biggest songwriter per state, and you have them calling a senator, they get through. That’s what we did. We raised the money, put up billboards in the hometowns of certain senators and representatives and we were relentless because we realized this is a once in 109-year opportunity.
Why do you think the Music Modernization Act passed?
You have to pass the Music Modernization Act when there’s a Republican House, Republican Senate and a Republican president, which is bonkers. But they tend to protect intellectual property as property. Here’s a genuine opportunity to pass real legislation for the first time in many years, because we can get the House and the Senate and the President to all sign on to this. It ended up being unanimous, because it was the right thing to do.
When songwriters come together for a shared cause it’s a powerful thing.
I always say, “In Nashville, songwriters have kids, and in L.A., songwriters are kids.” In other cities, songwriters are much more savvy in business because they have families. Here in LA, and in the pop community, everyone thinks it’s cool to not be knowledgeable. Once we explained what the Music Modernization Act was, people realized it was much cooler to be knowledgeable. It was exciting to watch everyone share ownership of it.