Jim Vellutato is Vice President of A&R for Sony/ATV Music Publishing in Los Angeles. He is one of the most recognized executives in the field. Vellutato was involved in placing and releasing songs for many hit artists, including Pink, Carrie Underwood, David Cook, Josh Groban, Fergie, Leona Lewis, JLS, the Black Eyed Peas, Fantasia, and Daughtry. Under Vellutato, and in part because of him, well over 75 million albums have been sold worldwide. His current roster of hit songwriters is made up of J.R. Rotem, John Shanks, Walter Afanasieff, Rune Westberg, Zac Maloy, Evan Bogart, Chantal Kreviazuk & Raine Maida, Midi Mafia, Louis Biancaniello and Billy Mann.
MBJ: Where did you start?
Jim Vellutato: I graduated from UCLA, and then worked in the tape room at Chappell Music. This was 1984 and I have been in the music business ever since.
MBJ: What is a typical day of a music publisher like?
JV: Music is really a worldwide industry, and I see this day to day. In the morning
I make calls to New York, Nashville and London and catch up on current news with Billboard and other media. My job is all about connecting people, so I spend a lot of time calling A&R personnel and managers to see what songs their acts are looking for. Then I speak with songwriters, and find out their availability. After a few days of going back and forth (where, when, and how much it will it cost), I look for a budget approval. I set up sessions, check that they run as scheduled, and that people are showing up on time. I spend most of my time putting what I feel is the best combination of artists, writers and producers together.
MBJ: How would you describe your job?
It’s always been really tough, because it’s such an easy market for people to get into. Anyone can buy an instrument and write a song, and of course, believe they write better than anyone else. But very few of the songs will be competitive enough to make it. That’s where the A&R people come in: their job is to go through thousands of songs in different styles of music, weeding out the best product.
MBJ: How has the business changed?
JV: For a publisher, I think the greatest change is in the field of Artist Development.
Before, record labels would get involved with artists early on; it would take them two to three years to develop and hopefully release an album. Now very few labels get into artist development, and the job has been taken over by managers, producers, and publishers. Even publishers can’t develop artists the way they used to (luckily, in our company we have had more opportunity to do this). As for song placement, ten years ago there were many more artists signed to labels so we could bring our producers and songs to the artist. There aren’t as many artists getting signed anymore, so there are fewer outlets for the songwriters to get their songs recorded and cut.
JV: I think that the music business has actually gone back to the way it originally was. There would be an artist someplace working on songs that would get noticed, usually by a small radio station. I grew up with the Beach Boys, who found their target audience and grew organically. I feel like we are sort of coming back to that. Artists find their audience, record labels are discovering that, jumping on the bandwagon, and helping break those acts nationally and internationally. It’s a lot easier to get noticed if you are proactive and can do it all yourself. If you take the initiative before attempting to go to a label, and are aware of how money is generated, and begin your career on your own, the label is just one more partner rather than the all empowered gate keeper.
MBJ: Where are publishing companies headed today?
JV: Well, not that long ago, there used to be a signing frenzy for new acts. If an act already had a record deal, the publishers would fight to get their publishing. However, now, with so few acts being released, it is much more difficult. There are artists that have record deals, but there is no assurance that their albums will come out. They may release a couple of singles, and depending on whether they get traction or not, a decision will be made about the record release. This makes it challenging for the publisher, for they essentially have to choose a winning act. A lot of major publishers will hold back and wait, to see what’s going to happens and if a new act breaks. There are few artists that are so unique that publishers want to get involved before there’s even a record deal. But there has to be a buzz and great music.
Besides, there are no guarantees anymore that your hit will have album sales. Although performance royalties from radio are our biggest source of income, mechanical royalties are still very important to us and they are falling. This impacts our signings. For instance, very few rock bands are getting signed to record or publishing deals, because rock is not selling that well and radio stations aren’t playing it. Instead, urban acts are getting a lot of singles played but do not sell enough albums. Now, when signing an urban artist or producer, you have to base your deal on how many potential singles, not albums, you are going to have. It has become a singles driven business in that regard. Overall, return is pretty high, due to all the revenues we make, but mechanical incomes are almost nonexistent for a lot of these artists.
Also, major labels are now looking to publishers much more than they used to, because the right song has the ability to get that artist noticed. Again, it all comes back to the song. Now is a great time for songwriters, because if they come up with something unique and different, every A&R person, publisher and manager is on top of them.
JV: It has to have a unique concept–that’s the main thing. By looking at titles, you can get a lot of information. Today, I was going through songs for Carrie Underwood, and I saw “I’m Good For Your Heart” and “I Love What You Do” , which are typical titles. Then, I got a song called “A Town In Colorado,” and that instantly got my attention, just because I wanted to hear the story behind it. It turns out that that song has a great story and would be a great for her.
MBJ: What are the A&R functions of a publisher?
JV: A&R is still mostly taken over by the record labels. However, when an artist is looking to make a record, labels will often put on a songwriting camp, where the artist will invite a bunch of writers who will write with that particular artist. What they found with these camps, however, was that they were getting good songs, but not hit songs. That’s when my staff got involved. Rather than doing a camp with the artist, we do a camp for the artist. We find the best writers we can put together, and have them spend a week writing songs. Recently we’ve done this for Leona Lewis, Justin Beiber, Big Time Rush, and Carrie Underwood. We have had many records with songs from these camps. The labels are still involved, and occasionally will suggest a songwriter for a particular a session, but it is really our company that is putting everything together with the help of the label A&R executives and the managers. Our publishing company spearheads of those efforts to be proactive.
MBJ: Do you find yourself working in one genre more than others?
JV: All types of music come across my desk. I tend to lean a bit more towards pop, urban and rock, because since we rely heavily on radio airplay, that’s the style that gets the most attention. Los Angeles has turned into the center of the music business, at least the creative music business, and it has always been about pop and urban music (although this may be changing). Nashville has always been the center for country music, but I find that country and pop are closer than they have been in years.
Right now we are leaning towards pop and urban music, and singer-songwriters rather than beats leading the charge. Pop rock, rock and other styles that have less of a beat orientation are going to start making their comeback. Strong rhythm and tracks are still important, but not the most important factor as they have been in the past. And we work with all different types of writers. The current interest is urban dance, but that too is beginning to change and evolve from straight dance to interesting combinations.
MBJ: What about publishing in LA vs. publishing in Nashville?
JV: In Nashville, with the major publishers, you still have the opportunity to get a songwriting contract without having a record coming out. Deals are different there and help develop songwriters but can be financially taxing on the company
In LA, there are small publishers that deal with developing writers, but it seems like the majors wait until a songwriter has some substantial record release out before they will consider signing them. This makes it a little harder on the publisher, because you have to get in early with these songwriters, stick with them and help them, and try to get them to that level where they will get the attention of the executives who approve the signings. If you do that, the loyalty of the writer to you is strong.
MBJ: What does the future look like for publishing companies?
JV: We, the publishers, continue to make a significant amount of money with songs. Our income is not dependent on record sales, and not entirely dependent on how well the artist is doing in the market. We still make money by getting songs licensed, placed in film, commercials, and TV, and releasing them abroad. So, those monies are definitely going up. Again, it goes back to the songwriter. If they are writing great songs that impact people, then those songs will eventually get placed somewhere.
A lot of our artists and songwriters are known for getting records made here, but the international market has really been opening up and creating a lot of fabulous opportunities for them. We just had a songwriter have a hit song in Taiwan, and she got placed in a Coke commercial. In the past, this wouldn’t happen as much, because the focus was on the US. Writers now realize that there is a worldwide market out there.
MBJ: Where do music supervisors fit in to the publishing business?
JV: We have a whole staff of people in our film and TV department who communicate with music supervisors. Their job is to create relationships with them. Most songs used by music supervisors are hit driven, but there is a huge market out there for less obvious music and sound-alikes. If a supervisor can’t afford to pay for a Beatles or Lady Gaga song, they then look for a replacement. We ask our writers for certain popular styles, so the companies who use the music can then pay what their budget allows for the best music possible, which in turn creates extra revenue for all, including the original songwriter.
MBJ: What is the competition like among publishers?
JV: All publishing companies are under the same pressure right now, which is to deliver hit singles. The major publishers used to work with just their own writers, and if there was an artist they were trying to get hits for, it would be all EMI or Warner Chappel, Universal or Sony/ATV music. It is no longer like this, and the business now looks to combine the best writers for the project, signed to a major publisher or not, for a hit single.
MBJ: How does Sony compete with niche catalog publishers that say they can target songs better with specialized marketing?
JV: The major companies have an advantage because we have so many different styles of songs, and can fill any project needed. Smaller publishers do have price advantages. They produce CD’s within a given style and fill background music at very little cost that TV companies can afford. On the other hand, there is no way you can substitute a great song. When you use one, it can take a “B” film and turn it into an “A” film. I’m not sure the smaller publishers have the quality we have in our catalog and top music can take a scene to a whole different level.
MBJ: What is the process of signing a songwriter?
JV: We first get the music and evaluate it. We speak to their attorney and figure out the different angles of the deal–what they are asking for and what we are willing to offer. Negotiations last about a month before money, retention, number of songs to be turned in, and the future options/terms of the deal are decided upon. There was a time when if you had a record deal, publishing deals would get outrageously expensive, and often times, detrimental to the songwriter. The more money they would get up front, the more they would have to produce, which isn’t always the best option. The urgency of having to ‘make it’ is no longer there.
MBJ: What are some emerging trends in the publishing and songwriting world?
JV: In the music business, what ends up happening, is that when you have an artist that explodes in a certain style of music, such as Lady Gaga, a lot of labels try to replicate that success. From this, a lot of music starts to sound alike and people eventually get bored with it. Lady Gaga is at the top of her particular genre of music. I’m not sure if anyone will be able to surpass what she has done so far. Soon, people are probably going to start looking for another style of music that they can get excited about.
MBJ: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming songwriters?
JV: Many of the writers and artists we sign write songs, make demos, and then create a relationship with a publishing company executive to develop their songwriting skills and artist image. The music needs to be of a high quality, which is important to get the interest in the first place. The writer then has to keep writing new music and show that they are improving and developing under their own initiative and not depending on other people to create their career.
It’s not about the number of songs you write—it’s about the quality. If you write twenty songs, that doesn’t matter to me. I want those one or two that can launch you as a writer or producer. Put your best material forward, and be sure it is completely prepared and ready before you do so. What I suggest is to write twenty songs, have people you feel you trust and are comfortable with listen. Together, pick two or three, and prepare some really good demos. Spend $500-700 per song on the demo, or, if you can, do it yourself. The demos have to be competitive. Mike Posner, for example, now with us, did all the recordings on his own; he was selling a lot of albums independently before a label or publisher got involved with him.
MBJ: What about some advice for music business students?
JV: The key is timing. There are a lot of opportunities that come up in this business, and if you are persistent and stay in touch with your contacts, an opportunity will open up. That is the profile of the person that usually gets the job. Besides that, those with the most initiative are the ones that stand out. There is always room for the best.
By Kerry Fee