Justin Tranter, Writer of Justin Bieber's 'Sorry' and DNCE's 'Cake,' Talks Songwriting Career at MIDEM 2016

Jon Platt and Justin Tranter speak at the 2016 Midem Conferences.
Devise-Champeaux/Image & Co

Jon Platt and Justin Tranter speak at the 2016 Midem Conferences. 

Jon Platt has been one of the publishing industry’s biggest players for the past 20 years, first at EMI and since 2012 at Warner/Chappell, where he was promoted to chairman/CEO late last year.

'Sorry' Songwriter Justin Tranter Owns His Sexuality and the Pop Charts

He’s worked with Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West and Drake throughout most of their careers. And under his watch Vance Joy, Echosmith, Jay and Beyonce and, especially, the fast-rising Justin Tranter, have thrived at Warner/Chappell. In Billboard’s most recent Publishers Quarterly, the company had its best showing in 10 years, holding down the No. 2 spot with 22.6 percent market share. 

Tranter spent 10 years as the frontman of Semi Precious Weapons, who were championed by many -- most prominently Lady Gaga -- but met with limited success. But his career took off once he began focusing on songwriting under the tutelage of Platt and co-head of A&R Katie Vinten at Warner/Chappell. Working primarily with co-writer Julia Michaels, his hits include his first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 (Justin Bieber's "Sorry") along with hits in January after a top five hit by Selena Gomez ("Good for You," No. 5 and “Hands to Myself,” No. 7, Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” (No. 10) and DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” (No. 9).

At a keynote moderated by Music Business Worldwide editor Tim Ingham at the MIDEM conference on Saturday (June 4), Tranter and Platt talked about how it all came together. See some of the highlights below. 

How did Tranter come to your attention?

Platt: We were going through the roster and everyone seemed ready to drop Semi Precious Weapons -- there was a big bidding war and it was a substantial deal. I started asking probing questions and when I finally asked, “Can anyone in the group write?” no one seemed to know the answer! I said, “I think we should meet with them and find out.” I had heard the lead singer [Tranter] was a writer, I didn’t know if he was a good writer or not, so I asked Katie Vinten to set up a meeting with him. She came back and said, “He played me some songs, they’re pretty good,” and I said, “Should we keep him?” She said, “Well, they did that big deal, I don’t want that [pressure] on me,” and I said, “Hey, we didn’t work here then, it’s not on us!” She kinda tried to get business-y on the deal, as a lot of A&R people do -- that’s kind of a messed-up part about the biz now, to be honest. So the option was a certain amount of money. I said, “Can he make this amount of money back? Forget about the past money, I don’t wanna lose another penny on the deal.” And she said, “Yes he can.” So we picked up the option and she just started working like crazy putting him in sessions and they finally got some traction when he had the breakout single with Fall Out Boy. 

In reality, there was a lot of luck involved. But there was also this syndrome that I talk about the music business quite often: There’s so many people who have been doing it for so long and they know a lot -- myself included, to be honest, I always have to police myself. You know too much for your own good sometimes, and you know so many reasons something won’t work and you’re right about those reasons, but in being right you fail to look at the one way it can work, and that’s all he needed, was the one reason it could work. 

What is it like to give away a song like “Sorry,” instead of having a hit with it yourself?

Tranter: It’s awesome! When I was young, of course, that idea horrified me, and I have to say that I’m not a firm believer in “everything happens for a reason.” I think if you work your ass off everything can happen for a reason. But when I look back on everything, I am so grateful that I tried so damn hard to be an artist and failed pretty publicly, because now I don’t want it. When I‘m in a session now I have so much fun being like, “What do you want to say?” Whether it’s the artist or a co-writer -- that’s a whole new thing, because I had 10 years of doing, wearing, saying exactly what I want and I wore some really great stuff! I love to give a song away, but a lot of younger writers really struggle with that, they want the shine and they want people to know that it was their idea. But luckily I’ve been through that so I can just focus on helping other people. 

Platt: I approach execs like a approach songwriters. I don’t usually chase the superstar songwriters that are already hot -- it’s good business to do it sometimes and we all have to, but for 20 years I’ve been known for developing songwriters and signing them at the beginning of their careers. A lot of people know a lot of the songwriters that I’ve worked with -- Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye, Drake, it’s a pretty overwhelming list -- but I signed them all at the beginning of their careers. I take the same approach with executive talent. I mean this with no disrespect, but I didn’t want recycled executives. I feel if you keep doing the same thing with the same people you’re gonna get the same results. So I want to give young people a shot.

[When it comes to working with writers], it’s not just me. [The attitude in] A&R is like, if I signed Justin, he’s my songwriter, that’s how it works at companies. And one of the first things I did at EMI was say, “These aren’t your songwriters -- they’re EMI’s, and everybody should be able to work with them.” Even if I do everything right, it’s still only my point of view. Who’s to say Katie or someone else doesn’t have a point of view that can help Justin? A writer should get the best of the company, not just one person.

Justin, what’s next for you?

Tranter: This is the dream, to make money off of what you love. It’s a lot of hard work, but there’s also a lot of hanging out with friends and drinking, but there happens to be a microphone on. What’s next is just to keep writing as much as I possibly can, but with the DNCE “Cake” situation I really got to dig into that. I was there for the first couple of days and help crack the code of the sound with Joe Jonas, one of my song titles became the band name, and I put the bass player from my old band [Cole Whittle] into that band, and that kinda sparked this amazing thing. I really love being there to help create the whole thing, so I am signing a couple of artists and developing a couple of acts very slowly and surely and that’ll be the next step. I think a lot of people make the mistake that once they get the big mainstream success they were looking for, they launch a T-shirt line or something. [Laughter] You make music, not T-shirts!