Wolfgang Boss is no stranger to finding hits that work their way around the world. The German-born, London-based executive vice president of A&R at Sony Music has signed or steered many platinum-selling songs over the past decade, but he has enjoyed the biggest success of his career in the past few years thanks to a trio of international smashes.
“I’m in the fortunate position now to sign things that I’m personally excited about and that I also think can become a Top 10 hit in at least one European territory,” the hitmaker tells Variety via Zoom from Dubai, where he is riding out the pandemic while still working for Sony.
Some of the veteran A&R executive’s credits include Dynoro’s re-work of “In My Mind,” the Imanbek remix of Saint Jhn’s “Roses,” and Regard’s “Ride It” (with Sony-affiliated label Ministry of Sound). All the songs follow an ever-increasing trend of electronic music “flips” of past EDM or R&B hits, and Boss is making a killing off the move (the executive has his own imprint at Sony, B1 Recordings, allowing him to profit handsomely from the masters). His latest “flip” find is by Spanish DJ HVME (pictured above) — an update of Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps,” which has so far racked up 200 million streams on Spotify alone between two different versions currently coursing through the veins of music fans worldwide.
“There are a lot of hip-hop songs that have very strong commercial hooks, but hip-hop can sometimes polarize in countries like France and Germany,” he explains. “Commercial radio won’t play artists like Future or Travis Scott or things like that there.”
Enter: the “flip.” Travis Scott’s original version of “Goosebumps” came out in 2016 and was a traditional rap song, not an electronic dance/pop crossover. In 2017, it was among the most consumed songs of the year across all genres and formats. Says Boss: “HVME’s ‘Goosebumps’ doesn’t use the whole song; HVME just takes the hook-y parts, it’s half as long, and it just uses the catchiest elements of the song. People are looking for something new. … They want something ‘cool’ like that.”
And while there are thousands of bootleg remixes and re-works of older (and recent) R&B tracks uploaded daily to YouTube channels such as LithuaniaHQ (where Boss found HVME’s un-cleared bootleg of “Goosebumps”), as well as TikTok, the trick is knowing which ones can actually work on a global level. “It’s not about the amount of streams — what I look at is the skip rate,” says Boss. “And more importantly, the collection rate, meaning how many people who listen to a song add it to their own collections or playlists. It’s always a combination of good data, and classic A&R’ing, because there are a lot of songs that have good data, such as a low skip rate, but if the song doesn’t excite me, I won’t sign it.”
It’s not lost on Boss that many of the remixes he signs are all from essentially unknown bedroom producers, often from countries few Americans or Western Europeans have ever been to, such as Lithuania (where Dynoro lives) or Kazakhstan, where Imanbek is from.
“Years ago, you would have needed an amazing recording studio and the right recording studio engineer, but now, any one of these bedroom producers can have a hit,” he says. “They make a production and I sign them without them actually having the full rights to the vocals, and that’s when my job starts with clearing the vocals, or samples…. I’m basically signing bootleg remixes.”
It’s a strategy that is sometimes risky, but more often than not, works out for the Sony executive. For “Goosebumps,” he wasn’t initially sure he could get Travis Scott’s full support for the updated electronic take on the track.
“The song started as a bootleg and showed great KPIs,” he says of its key performance indicators. “I listened to it and thought it had great potential, but I also knew to try and officially clear this as a cover might be a ‘no’ from Travis Scott, and we can’t just release a bootleg on Sony. So I called Sylvia Rhone, who is the label boss of [Sony-owned Epic Records], and told her I thought the track had potential. Keep in mind, this is around the time ‘Roses’ [Imanbek’s remix] was doing well all over the world, so that helped, too.”
Rhone came through, helping to convince Scott to record a brand-new version with his vocals on HVME’s track.
Says Boss (pictured below): “Sylvia Rhone sat down with Travis, and obviously by then he noticed the track, especially once the track was added to Today’s Top Hits on Spotify. He and his team agreed to make a new version with him.” Boss confesses that the process was made easier since all the players were “inside the Sony system.”
“Goosebumps” is currently rising on U.S. radio charts (it just entered the top 25 on this week’s Mediabase pop radio airplay chart), and has already reached the Top 20 in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.
“Me and my team, we have kind of a reputation now to be able to find hits,” says Boss. “So, if we go to radio and say, ‘This is the one that we really believe in, please follow us’ they often do.” He points specifically to Imanbek’s remix of “Roses,” which delighted radio programmers nearly everywhere last year.
So what’s next for the Sony EVP? Boss says he is excited about a new Dynoro and 24kGoldn collaboration that is due out sometime this spring or early summer.
“I’ve been working on this song for a year,” he says, noting that he was a fan of and has been working on tracks with 24kGoldn since long before the rapper’s “Mood” became a hit around the world. Boss has also signed Dynoro directly. “He’s here now In Dubai doing studio sessions,” Boss reveals. “There’s actually a lot of songwriters from London here because they are trying to avoid lockdowns.”
Asked which country most excites Boss musically in terms of future “flip” hits, he answers: “Russia. They are so open in regards to rights there. It’s so common in Russia even for radio stations to take a track, then make a mix, and then just make another mix and play it on the radio. They don’t like slow songs in Russia, so they just remix pop songs and are very carefree with that. … And they just don’t have the mindset where everything needs to be cleared. … It gets put out on YouTube or VKontakte [Russia’s domestic version of Facebook] and that is the kind of environment where creativity blooms.”