After having discovered what makes an American music publisher sit up and take notice of a demo, David Bibbey turns his attention to the likes and dislikes of the home‑grown variety — Dominic Walker of BMG.
Dominic Walker is Professional Manager of the music publishing division of BMG Music, an international company which encompasses varied interests in the music and entertainment arena, including music publishing and such record labels as RCA, Arista and Ariola, and whose artist roster includes Annie Lennox, M People, Kylie Minogue, Crash Test Dummies, Take That, and Clannad, to name just a few. Dominic met me at his office to explain what BMG Music Publishing are looking for when they sign a new writer. My aim was to compare his views, as a UK executive, with those of Brian Jackson of EMI New York, featured in parts 1 and 2 of this series. And to be honest, I was even more interested to know what Dominic would think of my songwriting! As with Brian Jackson, Dominic had agreed to hear my demo and give me his opinion.
Dominic's office is small and crammed with cassettes, files and papers. After we had sat down and I had set up my DAT recorder, I asked him to tell me about some of his functions in the giant BMG organisation.
What would a typical day be like for you?
"Every day is different; major label A&R is more an extension of the marketing process nowadays. You may be working with an act by booking gigs for them, or you may be speaking to radio people to get some coverage, or speaking to anyone to try and achieve the goal. Or you might be going to see a writer in the studio, where you've booked them with another writer who is also an artist. There's no set routine."
As a publisher, part of your business is signing new writers. Is there a target number of writers that you would want to sign in a given period?
"No, not at all. It depends on who you see and like; if you think there's a brilliant tape and you think all the other factors are in place and you know you've got the time to do it and you've got a vision for it, then you do it. I'm a creative person, I don't put numbers on how many I'm going to sign. I leave that to the people in the suits."
Is there any kind of pressure upon you to sign artists?
"The pressure is that your artists have to work, they've got to make money for the company. That's where you get pressure. But that's fair enough."
So those that you've already signed have got to be performing?
"If at the end of the day they're not successful, but everyone's done their best, then nobody can be blamed. There are too many people sitting there and not doing anything, just trying to keep their jobs, I think they should get out of those jobs and make way for people that do want to get on with it. A&R is about having the balls to say 'yes, this is great, let's do it' and even when it comes to the first album, when it's not sold as many records as you think it should, still believing in the band and sticking with them."
How easy is taking that kind of a stand based on your faith in an artist or band?
"Things are getting far more corporate; business is controlled by five major companies. You may have decisions being made in Japan or Germany — they may be looking at figures and saying 'OK, they've cost us this much so far, they've sold 10,000 records — drop 'em'. Even though bands like REM, U2 and Def Leppard would all have been dropped by those standards. So that's what you're up against, and in that sense they're killing the business. Artists which do become huge, world‑wide selling artists, are not being nurtured, they're being killed off too soon. What's been happening is back catalogue on CD. They've been selling the same things twice to people; they're running out of those back catalogues and what are they going to turn to now? Time is not being given to the marketing and building of artists. There's so much pressure to deliver right away — if not, get rid of them."
When you do sign somone, what kind of money is involved?
"Each situation is different. You're trying to tailor that situation for a group or writer or solo artist. You want to make their life as comfortable as possible to assist them achieving goals. It could be anywhere from nothing to £100,000."
Do you discourage big advances?
"At the end of the day you have to put your money where your mouth is. You can't mess about, but by the same token the artist needs to be aware that you've got to make all this money back, and they should be thinking more long‑term than that. Some artists might think 'yeah, I want to go and do a bank raid, get as much money as I can now. I've got five minutes of fame or whatever, so I'll just take what I can.'"
Regarding royalties and payouts, once the money starts coming in, as a writer, what's the split?
"The splits vary depending on the terms of the deal but it's probably about 70% to the artist, 30% to the publisher. Royalties are passed on once you've recouped your balance. You try and get the best split you can."
What's the typical length of contract signed, or typical length of development time that you would give someone?
"There's no typical length of development time, because you'll stick with somebody as long as you can see momentum there. If there's always some momentum and the deal is manageable in terms of the risk money, then you'll keep going with it. But if things come to a grinding halt then what can you do but give up? A typical length of contract would be one year, with three one‑year options, I would have thought. Some want more, some less. If you were to ask for four one‑year options then you would be pushing it."
Does a great song make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Is it obvious?
"Yes. There are millions of things out there which are total rubbish and a few things which are good. What you're looking for is an even smaller percentage, which is brilliant — and it is glaringly obvious."
So something genuinely good is going to get taken up?
"Someone will take it up. Sometimes you have to pass on something because it's in the same area as something else you've got. There are also other factors you have to consider — you might not be able to work with the act's management, or they may be signed to a record company who you know aren't going to react in the right way... Firstly you have to have brilliant songs and a brilliant talent, but the luck of the music business is getting all those other factors into place as well, all at the right time."
How many artists are willing to give up what they passionately wish to do with their songs in favour of your advice?
"If I'm saying things which the artist strongly opposes, or if I have an idea for a particular artist and say 'this is where I can see you going', and they totally disagree, then I wouldn't sign them. What's the point in that? It's hard enough as it is, there are so many other outside factors to consider that if you're not getting on — forget it! There are plenty of other people. It's about relationships, it's about their attitude and their vision. It may be totally different from yours and you might think: 'in that case I don't see it happening'. You may be totally wrong in terms of success, but let someone else find out, they might get on with them."
If you come across a writer who performs on a demo tape, who writes good songs, but you could have someone performing them better, do you mix and match writers with artists?
"It's up to them to do that — why should I do it? There are too many people that think the music business owes them a living. It doesn't owe anyone a living. It's hard and you need to be competitive. So you have to be self‑critical if you're a writer."
So if you're recording a demo and you're unhappy with the way you're performing it, should you get someone who can improve on the performance?
"Yes — it's up to you to make that happen. If you can't make that happen — go and do something else."
I think a good writer makes a formula for one particular song, and then next time tries to break that formula.
How hungry are artists for songs?
"Well, A&R men at record companies who are putting together songs are very hungry for it; they get hit by loads of things which are wrong from publishers, partly because of a lack of communication and partly because people are sending songs 'off the shelf' and not really taking the time to go and sit and talk to the A&R man, run certain writers by him and really involve him in the process. So I think they are desperate for good songs; everyone is, and there is a shortage of good material. They'll hear lots of album tracks but they want to hear singles."
Is there a particular type of song or music that you personally have a a passion for? Is there anything in particular that you're looking for?
"No, just something that's brilliant — it goes right across the board. Something that's brilliant will always stand out. I think, through publishing, that your taste does broaden. I think you learn to appreciate all sorts of music. When I was writing songs, I was so blinkered to other sorts of music that it ultimately hindered the songs I was writing. I think if you've got a broad taste in music and you can appreciate all sorts of music, particularly if you can appreciate what's in the charts at the moment and then relate that to what you're doing, then you're going to be a better song writer."
Would you say as a writer you need to develop a style and stick with it, or be varied?
"It's whatever your passion is for. Do what you believe in, because ultimately that's what you do best. But while you're developing that craft and while you're learning to do what you do best, don't be blinkered about anything. It's no good just saying 'I don't like bands like Take That, they're just popular in the charts' — they've made some great records. Listen to it properly without any pre‑conceived ideas and then come back and see how you can improve your stuff."
Is there a structure that you would say works in writing a song?
"What, you mean like a format? I think a good writer makes a formula for one particular song, and then next time tries to break that formula."
What do you recommend regarding demo tapes — how many songs, how fast to get into a song? What about outside presentation of the tape case and inlay; does it make any difference to you?
"Not at all. Let the music speak for itself, then if someone really likes the tape and they say 'oh, I'd like a picture', then you can do something."
Dominic plays the first song on my tape, and just as the first chorus begins, he fast‑forwards to the next song.
"I'll tell you what I think after I've heard them all."
With the same brief hearing he fast‑forwards again. On the third song he listens to the chorus completely and begins listening to the second verse. He stops the machine there.
"The songs aren't good enough, they have the same old chords, and lyrically I don't think it's anything special. You've got to think about what's happening in the charts — how do you relate these to what's happening nowadays? If you're writing this as the artist, it's not good enough — the voice isn't good enough, and you either take a knock and improve, or decide that maybe it's not good enough and try a different tack. If you're thinking about doing covers for other artists, why are they going to want to cover a song like that? I could write a song as well as that."
To learn something from you, what should I do? What advice would you give?
"Firstly, go away and write some better songs. If you're serious about being an artist, I don't think you'll cut it, because I don't think your voice is good enough or distinctive enough, personally."
At this point, I told Dominic that I would still continue writing, bearing his advice in mind. He was kind enough to present me with an Ivor Novello award from a nearby office. It was one which had been awarded to Annie Lennox, but I can dream!
Would you always want to see a live performance before signing someone?
"Quite often I will, because it's more tangible then. Realistically you've got to get up off your arse and create something more tangible than a demo in your bedroom — otherwise why are people going to be interested in you? Instead of wasting your time sending tapes to A&R men, get some gigs, get some press in, spend your time doing self‑promotion. Then you'll have record companies phoning you. You've got to do it for yourself. Why should anyone else do it for you?"
Do you look at audience reaction?
"The customer's always right. I sit in A&R meetings with record companies and I feel sometimes that I have to say 'look, you can't lose touch with the public, don't ever patronise the public.' So many of these people only have friends within the business, their life is within the business, all their records are free — when was the last time they went out and parted with £12 to £15 for a CD? How do they know how that feels out of your pocket?"