Even while attending the 2009 BET Awards in June, EMI Music Publishing executive "Big" Jon Platt found himself in work mode. The president of West Coast Creative/head of urban signed rap phenomenon Drake to a publishing agreement in the chart-topper’s dressing room at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium.
By his own admission, Platt is a music junkie who “works all day and all night” with songwriters and songs. And he means that literally. Between his daily multi-genre administrative duties and devoting evenings to what he calls “my creative time,” the former Denver-based DJ is usually on the go from 8 a.m. until 4 a.m. the next morning. Since joining EMI in 1995 as creative manager, Platt has signed some of the biggest marquee names in urban music, including Jay-Z, Kanye West, Usher, Beyoncé, Ludacris, Rich Harrison and Harold Lilly.
Still relying on his DJ instincts, Platt and his assistant recently signed Universal Motown newcomer Mozella, a singer/songwriter hailing from Detroit. The signing is in keeping with Platt’s “team spirit” approach at EMI. The publishing executive outlines that philosophy as well as the Drake effect and the state of R&B/hip-hop music in the following Billboard interview.
What’s the story behind the Drake phenomenon?
The label frenzy was crazy; the publishing frenzy was really crazy. And that’s because Drake is the whole package: music, lyrics, flow; everything. His “So Far Gone” mixtape is better to me than a lot of people’s albums because it’s all original, new songs. After hearing the music, I flew to Canada and spent about five hours with him. I didn’t think they were making stars like Drake anymore. But I knew right then the kid had it, that special thing.
It’s obviously great for EMI that Drake came along. But it’s also great for the business. We absolutely need new artists—new superstars—to keep [the industry] afloat. When I signed Jay-Z in 1996, he had “Reasonable Doubt, “ which was a classic album. But from that point until now, I’ve always looked at Jay as a great songwriter first and always will. I look at Kanye West as a great songwriter first. And that’s how I look at Drake. Jay-Z was writing songs for tons of other artists and Drake is starting to follow that same route. I can’t really say who else Drake is writing for, but he has written a song for Rihanna’s next project that’s a smash.
What three qualities do you look for in a songwriter?
When it comes to R&B, I’m always looking for great melodies. Someone who can create great melodies has a true gift; it’s the one thing you can’t teach. Then the story and quality of the song come next. The third quality is the eye of the tiger: Are you going to work as hard for yourself as I’m going to work for you? When it comes to hip-hop songwriters, it’s about how compelling and believable your story is.
How would you assess the current state of R&B/hip-hop?
It’s a challenge, just like the overall industry is challenged. Hip-hop has to continue to challenge itself to grow; we need new stars to come behind the stars we have now. But the silver lining is that R&B is back in a big way. The genre has an open lane for new and emerging artists, as well as a lane where older artists can still be successful. Look at Maxwell’s album, selling 300,000+ in its first week. That was a very important moment for R&B. It made the statement that R&B will sell.
An earlier signal was Ne-Yo. He’s not an EMI writer but one of my favorite songwriters. His collaborations with Stargate [EMI songwriter/producers] are beautiful, classic R&B songs. They have brought back bonified R&B songs that don’t need a rapper on them to be successful. People are taking the craft of songwriting seriously and that’s important. Some of our biggest artists from Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers to Stevie Wonder have written their own songs. The industry shifted away from that when it became a producer-driven business. But now it’s coming back in a much-needed way.
Hip-hop and the music industry overall need to dig deep into artist development; to sign people who can have a long career. Hip-hop drifted into a space where labels started buying songs instead of developing artists. It’s a slippery slope when you do that and we’re seeing the results of that now.
But on the flip side, it’s scary for me to think where hip-hop would be without its so-called one-hit wonders. Arguably, they have helped keep the genre afloat. Anyone who would tell you the majority of those songs aren’t hit records is lying to you. Maybe the majority of the acts aren’t necessarily career artists, but those are hit songs. For hip-hop to grow, you have to marry that hit song with the career artist again. We have to find more artists with longevity.
Does Drake possess the kind of longevity you’re talking about?
Who knows what the future will bring? But from where I sit, this guy has the potential to be the biggest thing in music. Look, how do you explain a guy who had no record deal and puts out a mix tape that he chose to give away on the Internet? At that point, his story was supposed to end. But the way he chose to market himself through the Internet worked like a charm. It kept going further to the point where a song from that mixtape stood up as a hit. Kids began requesting it and radio knew it was in its best interests to play that song. And now, 12 weeks later, this kid has a No. 1 record.
This is a cyclical business. Is it time for hip-hop to return to its socially conscious roots?
It’s either a good song or a bad song. Period. The subject matter is really irrelevant at the end of the day. Some people go so hard on trying to deliver a message that they forget to write a good song. If it’s a great socially conscious song, it’s going to be a hit. If it’s a great song about selling drugs, it’s going to be a hit. It’s as simple as that. Drake has a No. 1 record talking about a girl giving him the best sex he’s ever had. But it’s a hit. Most times, people only talk about lyrical content when it’s not a hit and they’re forced to hear it.
What other industry challenges do you see?
The record industry needs to continue to develop executives. You can probably count on one hand the A&R executives who can truly hear an R&B demo—the way L.A. Reid and Clive Davis can—without it being polished and super-produced. That needs to be fixed. Every demo you get from a songwriter and/or producer is not going to be fully polished and ready to come out. Only a handful of A&R execs can hear a great song and know what it’s going to be once they give it to their superstar artists.
There’s another shift that’s also affecting songwriters. Fewer records are being made right now because a lot of material is coming in already packaged and ready for record companies to sign. That cuts out songwriters that we and other publishers have. The other issue involves what I call the whole middle class: It’s gone. The business is such right now that you either have really great material or material you hope will be great. There’s no middle ground anymore. But that’s a whole other interview.
You work with a lot of emerging and hot contemporary songwriters. Are veteran songwriters still viable in today’s market?
I have listened to a wide variety of music my entire life; I’m a music junkie. And along the way I’ve learned the beauty about songwriting; it doesn’t have a shelf life. I work with writers here like Steve Kipner and Rick Nowels. These two have been doing it for 30-plus years and are still at the top of their games. Steve wrote “Physical” for Olivia Newton John and “Genie in the Bottle” for Christina Aguilera. I put him with Puffy’s group Dream and he wrote “He Loves You Not.” And Rick, who’s worked with Dido and Celine Dion, now has a smash with Colbie Caillat’s “Falling For You.” These writers aren’t going anywhere.
What is the current climate for R&B and hip-hop music being used on TV?
It’s not as hot as I’d like. For urban music to be pop music, you wouldn’t know it from its use on TV shows. There’s a huge disparity. In all fairness, some of that might have to do with a song’s subject matter. There’s also the fact that an R&B/hip-hop song can have 10 different writers, which makes that song harder to clear. This is a good business point to be aware of because writers will fight over splits and so on. If someone wants to use a song and those splits aren’t settled, the person can’t use it. Then he or she will move on to another song.
Will the practice of many multiple songwriters change?
I don’t know to be honest with you. If the song is good, I don’t care. It’s not for me to dictate how creativity happens. Our job is to do something with that creativity.
Jay-Z has taken his career into his own hands but he still remains with EMI for publishing. Does an independent artist still need the backing of a major publisher these days?
If you’re a songwriter, you can be as independent as you want to be. But then it’s all on you to do everything at that point. I take pride in knowing that we’re the only music publisher that Jay-Z has ever had. And that’s for a reason. He and I have a great working relationship and we’re even better friends. But at the same time, we do a good job for him and our other songwriters. Otherwise, they still wouldn’t be with EMI. There’s a great relationship between EMI, Live Nation and Roc Nation. We’re all in this together.
Our goal at EMI has always been, and will continue to be, keep the songwriter first. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s never about us; it’s about the songwriter. And I want the spirit of our company to be like record companies used to be back in the day with the mailroom guy or the assistant bringing you the next hot songwriter.
How has the publisher’s role changed since you joined EMI?
When I first started, it was considered a corny job: Who wants to be a music publisher? Now it has shifted into a business that quite a few people want to be involved in. The secret is out as to how great this career is. You’d be hard-pressed to find an A&R person who’s been at one company for 15 years. It just doesn’t happen. In publishing that can happen and you can grow. Plus music publishers are looked to more than ever now to aid the creativity, to help craft hit records. That’s because publishing companies have the ability and resources to develop people whereas the record companies don’t have that everyday ability as much.
What’s one piece of advice for emerging songwriters?
Be the songwriter you want to be and not the songwriter somebody else is.