Pulse Music Turns 10: Indie Publisher Talks Label Plans, Going Global & Why They're Not for Sale
Co-CEO's Scott Cutler and Josh Abraham have a lot to say about signing philosophy, Rick Rubin's instincts, and why their strategy doesn't include scooping up classic catalogs.
On the wall of Pulse Music Group's second-floor conference room within its offices in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood hangs a plaque certifying sales of 100 million units from 50 songs co-written by the publishing, management and music services company's stable of 100 clients.
"We hit that mid-2017, so we're ready for a new plaque," boasts songwriter Scott Cutler, who serves as Pulse's co-CEO with producer Josh Abraham. The pair, along with songwriter Anne Preven, founded the company with $90,000 of their own money in 2008.
By that time, Cutler and Abraham had already enjoyed plenty of success: Among the songs co-written by Cutler, 55, (along with Preven, 53) are "Torn," first recorded by their band Ednaswap before Natalie Imbruglia's version earned a Grammy nomination in 1999, and Beyoncé's Oscar-nominated "Listen" (from Dreamgirls). Abraham, 45, has produced dozens of acts ranging from Weezer and P!nk to 30 Seconds to Mars and Kelly Clarkson. With their creative backgrounds, the goal for Pulse Music was to start a venture for creatives run by creatives, with the early days of innovative, independent companies like A&M, Island and Motown as the inspiration.
Pulse's initial roster of four writers quickly yielded hits like 2010's "California Gurls" for Katy Perry, co-written by Bonnie McKee, which earned a Grammy nomination the following year; and "Animal" for Neon Trees, co-written by Tim Pagnotta, which peaked at No. 13 on the Hot 100 and reached the top of the Alternative Songs chart, the band's first No. 1.
In 2014, a partnership with Japan's Fujipacific Music gave Pulse a multi-million-dollar infusion to fund ongoing growth. In addition to a 2012 joint venture with Nashville's Creative Nation, run by top songwriter Luke Laird and his wife, Beth Laird, Pulse launched partnerships with Rick Rubin's American Songs in 2014, Marc Anthony's Magnus Media in 2016 and, earlier this year, with former Prescription Songs senior vp Beka Tischker's new company, Wide Eyed Entertainment. Recent deals include 7-figure pacts with multi-platinum artist Ty Dolla $ign and Nashville-based songwriter Barry Dean, who extended his original 2011 contract through Creative Nation.
In its first decade, Pulse has grown to approximately 10,000 copyrights and nearly 30 employees. Abraham and Cutler, who met more than 25 years ago after Abraham responded to an ad Cutler placed in a local newspaper selling studio equipment, say gross revenue increased 205 percent in 2017 over 2016 on the strength of such hits as Camila Cabello's "Havana" and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" remix featuring Justin Bieber. And the expansion shows no signs of slowing down, with a new record label and further international development still on the horizon.
"The truth is, I don't know how to do anything else," Cutler says. "If Josh hadn't said, 'Let's start a publishing company,' and my songwriting career had slowed down, I would've been in a bad place. What would I do?"
In the past year, Pulse writers co-wrote "Havana" (Starrah) and the "Despacito" remix (Marty James). How do you leverage that massive success?
Abraham What happens [for Marty and Starrah] is more important than what happened to us. Writers typically grind it out. They have sessions to the point where they burn out, but this puts them in a position where they can really have a career. The sessions don't go to waste and they're not burning ideas and they're working with people at their level.
Cutler Fujipacific Music funds us and it's always good to be able to tell your partner that you're having a massive, meteoric hit.
What is your signing philosophy?
Abraham For me it was always gut, but it's also delegating to our A&R staff's taste, because if it was up to Scott and myself, we wouldn't have picked urban when urban just popped.
Is your gut what led you to sign Ty Dolla $ign earlier this year?
Cutler He has a massive song with [Post Malone's] "Psycho" now. We didn't sign him because we knew that song was coming and we made a rational business decision, we signed him because we thought he was the most talented person out there.
Do you foresee hip-hop’s dominance continuing?
Cutler Trends are happening. Sometimes we’re seeing them happen before they happen; Josh is very good at that. And sometimes we’re just in the flow so, all of a sudden we’ll look up and go, “wow we just signed 10 urban-leaning, hip-hop things.”
Abraham I think we’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of genres as we sign different artists or writers, and when you see a spark or a lot of energy around it, we sign a couple of others in that area.
What is Rick Rubin like as an A&R source?
Abraham What I picked up from Rick was how he dealt with artists. He was shaping songs like a publisher should do. I always thought of him as the greatest publisher. Rick's taste is unparalleled.
Cutler He'll [say] something like, "Oh, we should sign GoldLink," and then GoldLink pops. "We should sign DRAM," DRAM pops. "We should sign Run the Jewels," the next show they play, they blow up. [American/Pulse has Run the Jewels' El-P, though not Killer Mike].
Early on, you linked with Creative Nation. Why was it so important to have a footprint in Nashville?
Cutler I got that Luke Laird was the Max Martin of country music. I never thought the idea would be for us to go to Nashville and try to hang out a shingle. It just didn't feel that that was the honest way to do it. I thought, "These people that are there committed to that culture and my job is to find somebody to be connected with."
Why did you move into Latin with Magnus?
Cutler Maria Egan, who runs the publishing company under Josh and [me], went to Cuba on vacation and came back and said, "We gotta get into Latin." And then another A&R person [here] ended up finding that Marc Anthony and Michel Vega wanted to build a publishing company and I got Michel on the phone and said, "Let me pitch you on why you should do it with us."
What's the division of duties between you two?
Cutler Josh is a magician, so he goes out into the world and says, "You know, we should do this thing with Rick," or, "I'm gonna talk to Beka." Josh is very in tune with culture and he spends a lot of time with art and collecting and taking photography. I've become kind of a deal-maker. I didn't realize that would happen. So Josh will create an idea, I will try to make it happen through some kind of a business strategy, and then Maria takes that.
Abraham I'm really good at the A and the Z part. The B to the Y, not so much.
You both come from creative backgrounds. What was the hardest part about learning to run a business?
Cutler When I was in a band, I was in charge of the band. Josh would run studio sessions, so we always had a basic level of business in our creative lives. So this some how came naturally, but when I started it, I didn’t know that would happen. Day one I didn’t say a word, I just sat here like, “Oh shit. What do we do?” It was basically just Josh and I walking around trying to figure it out... Josh used to say to me, “There will be a day when you won’t need to have written a song to feel good about a song.” And it did happen. But now this whole thing is like a song to me. It's creative, completely. It’s just bigger.
Where do you see growth coming from?
Cutler There're three places we wanted to focus on: The U.K.; the whole Latin American market with Marc, which is just everywhere there's Latin music playing, which can be Mexico, Medellin, all over the place; and then Asia, because of our Fuji partnership. We have sub-publishers everywhere.
Many indie publishing companies are swooping up catalogs for the classic songs. Why isn't that your strategy?
Cutler Anyone can buy a catalog. That's the truth. Catalogs tend to be financial transactions. If there's a catalog for sale, everyone's gonna dive in and try to buy it, and somebody's gonna offer $5 more, and they're gonna buy it. We don't do that. Not that I wouldn't love to have a bunch of old songs. For us, the key is to build the catalog that somebody would look at one day the way you look back on an old catalog where you're like, "There's the James Brown songs..." We're gonna have that catalog.
Are you for sale?
Even with the incredible multiples we're seeing now of up to 20 times net publishers' share?
Cutler We're never gonna stop running Pulse. Catalogs are built to sell at some point. That's pretty common. But what would I do the next day? This is what we do.
Pulse is in the formative stages of starting a label. What will that look like?
Abraham It's so early. We are definitely going to invest in the master side of the business. We have [six] studios. We hear incredible songwriters who are artists. We will be taking advantage of what's in front of us.
Cutler I can tell you exactly what I think it's gonna be. I think it's gonna be global-leaning, urban, Latin-blending music.
What keeps you up at night?
Abraham Always thinking about what's next. What's the next movement? What's the next big song that we have? Who should have it? Who should we pitch it to? I'm always firing off, internally.
Cutler I just don't wanna fail anybody. That's some part of my DNA, for what it's worth. You can talk to my shrink. I don't wanna fail. Nor does Maria and nor does Josh. "Am I doing a good job with that person, or have I done this?" That's what keeps me up. And my partners in Japan. I wanna make sure they're happy. I wanna make sure everyone's happy.