Meet Ryan Tedder, the Secret King of Pop Who Doesn't Look at Royalty Checks (Cover Story)

Jair Sfez

Ryan Tedder photographed in Paris, France

The Undercover King of Pop: He made more than $2.5 million writing songs last year, but doesn't know it. Now OneRepublic's lead singer, who claims to never check his money, is music's most prolific writer/producer.

Minutes after getting off a Paris stage, Tedder, 34, gets right back to work -- at his other job, as a songwriter for hire. His friend Hubert Blanc-Francard, half of French dance duo Cassius, swings by the dressing room to catch up. Tedder has completed two songs for Cassius' next album, which is shaping up to be an all-star compilation that includes remixes of Pharrell, Cat Power and Phoenix's Thomas Mars, as Tedder eagerly will tell you. Eager not just because all those acts have a hipster cachet that OneRepublic does not, but because as opposed to some of the work Tedder is doing, the Cassius project is not top secret. Working with the biggest stars in the business, as he did with Beyonce in songwriting sessions for her last album, often comes with a strict NDA. "I think I can talk about this," he says, which will become a refrain when we meet two days later in Paris' Place des Vosges.

Ryan Tedder Covers the March 22 Issue of Billboard -- Click Here to Get a Copy

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The current tour is OneRepublic's biggest in terms of both dates and production, and it includes two legs in Europe and a second leg of U.S. amphitheaters, an upgrade from last summer's run of smaller outdoor stages. And it all has to be carefully coordinated with the rest of Tedder's professional obligations. His friend and fellow hitmaker Benny Blanco offers a perfect snapshot of Tedder's whirlwind life: "One time I was with Ryan, and we were cutting a song. He asked me to come in to cut a song. He was in the middle of recording strings for Adele. He was recording strings for Adele, at the same time recording me, and then 15 minutes later, he had to take a helicopter to the airport so that he missed the traffic. Then he took a jet to perform, and then he had to be back the same day to perform in another country. So he had two shows, two sessions and a helicopter. This was in New York City. It was insane. That dude is everywhere at once. I think he has stunt doubles or twins or something."

It would all be a lot simpler if only OneRepublic hadn't hit a new stride in recent months thanks to "Counting Stars," a No. 2-peaking hit that topped 2007's "Apologize" as the band's biggest hit and propelled the album Native to gold sales last month. Meanwhile, Tedder has been steadily -- and somewhat stealthily -- building up his dual career as an in-demand songwriter/producer ever since he and singer-songwriter Jesse McCartney penned Leona Lewis' 2007 global smash "Bleeding Love," which spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and racked up 4.7 million downloads in the U.S.

He also co-wrote and produced Adele's top 20 hit "Rumour Has It" and was among the first people she started working with on her feverishly anticipated third album; his "Halo" became a signature ballad for Beyonce in 2008, and she tapped him again for 2013's "XO"; and former tourmates U2 have just completed sessions with Tedder for their long-in-the-works 13th album.

While OneRepublic has been touring Europe for the past month, Tedder has continued his creative tear. He recently finished two singles for Ariana Grande's sophomore album, a new OneRepublic single called "Love Runs Out," due for release later this spring, two songs for the forthcoming debut from Mikky Ekko (the songwriter and hook vocalist on Rihanna's "Stay") -- and, oh yeah, a song for Taylor Swift's next album. "I did one or two other songs that I'm leaving out," he says before later confirming his latest finished product, a dance anthem with vocals from Elton John, produced and co-written with Swedish House Mafia's Sebastian Ingrosso and Axwell for an as-yet-undetermined project.

What's a Tune Worth? Tedder's Songwriting Income in 2013:

U.S. mechanical and radio airplay royalties for 7 songs by OneRepublic, Beyonce, Ellie Goulding, Maroon 5, Demi Lovato and The Fray

Royalties for OneRepublic U.S. sales and digital streaming payments

Producer royalties for U.S. sales of hit singles by OneRepublic, Beyonce, Maroon 5, Demi Lovato and The Fray


TOTAL = $2.5M

"He's made great records, yet why he's so different is, you don't see these guys usually going around producing Adele or Beyonce -- he's so diverse," says Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, who signed OneRepublic in 2007 and paired the band with Timbaland for the breakthrough remix of "Apologize." Adds Iovine: "There have been people like him in the past -- whether it be Todd Rundgren a long time ago or a Dave Stewart -- someone who comes along from a great band and has gone on to produce other people, but he's spread it out a lot. He's gone to multiple genres, which is very difficult to do."

Many of the songs started out in other cities at other times -- the John collaboration more than a year ago, the Swift session in late January during Grammy Week -- but Tedder draws upon the inspiration of the road to put the final ribbon on his tracks. "Counting Stars" initially was born out of the week he spent in the Hamptons working on Beyonce's top-secret album but was completed months later when he was in Santorini, Greece, with Noel Zancanella, a rising writer-producer signed to his Patriot Games Publishing.

"It's the most productive tour I've done, and we've still got another month," he says. "It is expensive -- I'm renting another bus half the time in Europe, which'll cost you an arm and a leg. I'll rent studios in Amsterdam, Prague, Berlin, Paris -- I just finished two songs for the Cassius project here." Later that night Tedder and his wife of seven years, Genevieve, their 3 ½-year-old son, Copeland Cruz, and Genevieve's mother will join Cassius' Philippe Zdar for dinner in Montmartre, a chance to mix a little business with family time.

Even in Paris, there's no avoiding Tedder's many songs hitting the airwaves. In the past six months alone, he has charted Hot 100 hits for Maroon 5 ("Love Somebody," peaking at No. 10), Ellie Goulding ("Burn," No. 13), Demi Lovato ("Neon Lights," No. 36), Beyonce ("XO," No. 45) and The Fray ("Love Don't Die," No. 60), in addition to the impressive run of "Counting Stars" -- currently in its 20th straight week in the top 10 - enough to make him the top-ranked songwriter on Billboard's Publishers Quarterly for Q4 2013. He's also one of the biggest-earning, often sharing writer-producer credits that net him 50 percent to 75 percent of a song's earnings, sometimes more, which added up to an estimated $2.5 million last year in the U.S. alone.

Not that Tedder keeps track. The Tulsa, Okla., native swears he's never looked at a royalty check since his very first -- $7,500 in mechanical royalties for co-writing and singing on Bubba Sparxxx's "She Tried" from 2003's Deliverance.
"I can't start thinking about the money," he says. "I've been with [music rights administrator] Kobalt since day one. I signed because of the transparency that you could go online and constantly see your flow. They can verify this -- I have never signed in. I have this weird jinx-y [thing] where if I start thinking about that and start focusing on how much I'm making..." Tedder pauses to semi-­correct himself. "At the end of every year I ask my business manager, 'What did I make this year?' and my goal is to match or beat the year before. And that's it. I don't know when my last royalty thing came in."

His first big opportunity arrived in 2000 at the age of 20, when he entered an MTV TRL competition called "The Free Lance Talent Search," hosted by 'N Sync's Lance Bass. He won with an acoustic, Babyface-ish ballad called "The Look" and was introduced to Justin Timberlake (who remains a close friend and business partner; Tedder is an investor in Timberlake's New York barbecue joint, Southern Hospitality). But when a promised record deal fell through, Tedder was practically back to square one.

After spending two years "mining my sound" through a mix of influences he sums up as "American gospel rock meets anything British," he began finding work as a topline songwriter and signed with Timbaland's Mosley Music Group. The MTV experience taught him a valuable lesson. "When I won that [contest], I knew I'll never play guitar as good as John Mayer, and I'm not gonna have more fans than Justin Timberlake or be in a boy band. And I asked myself, 'What do you actually listen to? What is your favorite music?' And the things I was listening to by that time, my sophomore and junior year of college music, was British rock, Jeff Buckley and Muddy Waters. To this day, the album I play the most is a Muddy Waters compilation. It's spiritual and uplifting but it's dirty at the same time. It's in the dirt, and that's what I want."

Still, there remains a relative anonymity to Tedder that has kept him from the superstar path currently enjoyed by Adam Levine, who also is at a career high with both Maroon 5 and his own ventures thanks to his role on The Voice since 2011. Levine has been sharing the wealth with Tedder in recent seasons, however, including helping Tedder land a half-season stint as his guest mentor and the chance to pen the show's first original song for season-five winner Tessanne Chin.

Tedder says that his current level of notoriety is ideal. "I don't get hounded, I don't get chased, I don't usually travel with security, and I still feel relatively like a normal person. The day that I can't go out and walk around Paris, I'm done. I'm not joking. If I can't do what I've done the last five days, I'm done."

"I've now learned the hard way [that] just having a hit song doesn't equal having a hit song," Tedder says of working with other artists. "There are so many other factors: timing, profile, rollout, press, doing promo with an artist who doesn't like to do promo, not getting the song to the licensing department early enough to get any traction. It depends on all these different metrics. I don't have the time or the wherewithal on every single song to put out an all-points bulletin to my licensing department, and I'm kind of getting to a point where I'm fatigued. Less is more: Just do less songs. It's unfair to say for better artists, but certainly better situations."

He alternately admires and envies his peers Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Blanco (Maroon 5, Katy Perry), Greg Kurstin (Pink, Kelly Clarkson) and Greg Wells (Adele, Mika) for the luxuries that having one day job affords. "They wake up every day and they can walk across the hall or drive to their studio because they're not on the road," he says. "So Benny's developing four artists right now, and there are moments where I'm like, 'Man, I'm jealous of that.' But I can't functionally do that."

His imprint with Interscope, Patriot Records, through which he signed and developed two artists, Nikki Flores and Kay, has slipped off his radar. "I think I still have one, I don't know if it's folded or not," he says. (Iovine confirms the imprint is still active: "It's just a matter of being attended to -- he's got a lot going on.") However, if he were to sign a new artist again, it would be someone like Lorde ("I would love to write with her"), or Of Monsters and Men ("they're pretty awesome"), or his most recent obsession, Irish folk-soul singer Hozier ("when I heard 'Take Me to Church,' I was like, 'You gotta be freaking kidding me!"). He wants to sign someone self-contained, he says, "where all they needed was someone to put out their awesomeness. But I don't need to conquer every single corner of the music business or feel that I have my hands in everything. I don't want money bad enough to do that, or the amount of undue stress that's caused from developing artists."

Wherever Tedder ends up deciding to apply his talents, he won't suffer for a lack of options. "Ryan has his pick of many, many models," Iovine says. "Ryan can do anything from playing a concert, playing an arena, write or produce for other people, he could do a label. He's got the talent and the drive and the personality to do any of it. It depends on what he wants to do, or if he wants to do all of it. He's one of those guys -- he's got that kind of bandwidth. Not everybody has that. It's hard to find."