Billboard's First Hitmakers Roundtable: 7 of Music's Top Creatives and Influencers on the State of Pop, 10-Second Attention Spans and the Song of the Summer
In the music business, the single has long reigned supreme, but these days, it's not about selling downloads or albums by the thousands, but rather registering streams in the hundreds of millions. That means the pressure is on for creators to prove their might beyond a traditional radio hit. Impacting Spotify playlists, Pandora algorithms and grabbing an increasingly elusive listener in a matter of seconds are the orders of the day, with labels, publishers, artists, producers and songwriters vying for a slice of an ever-shrinking pie.
To assess the current state of pop and the market forces that shape it, Billboard gathered seven top creatives and influencers for its first Hitmakers Roundtable. The players: Mike Posner, 28, and Julia Michaels, 22, the singer-songwriters behind, respectively, the top five Billboard Hot 100 hits "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" (No. 4) and Selena Gomez's "Good for You" (No. 5); Kid Kelly, SiriusXM vp pop format programming; Ron Perry, 37, SONGS Music Publishing president and co-founder of RECORDS, LLC; and three A&R executives: Mike Caren, 39, Warner Music Group creative officer and Artist Partners Group CEO; Wendy Goldstein, Republic Records executive vp/head of urban A&R; and Chris Anokute, 33, A&R consultant for Epic Records and founder of Young Forever.
The septet, nearly all of whom have worked with one another in some capacity, sat down in the penthouse of the London West Hollywood in Beverly Hills on May 31 to talk shop and trade war stories. From their predictions for the next big trends, to the politics of divvying up writing credits and the chilling effect of 2015's $5.3 million "Blurred Lines" copyright infringement verdict (which is being appealed), nothing was off limits during the group's two-hour-plus conversation.
How has songwriting changed in the last five to 10 years?
Chris Anokute: Artists are becoming songwriters, and songwriters are becoming artists. Look at Rihanna's last couple of albums. She's featured as a writer on many songs. On her first three or four albums, she was barely writing on any. I think artists want to take more control over what they want to say, and, obviously, with the royalties that you can make as a songwriter with airplay, it could be in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions [of dollars] with a hit record.
Julia Michaels: Stylistically, things are becoming cooler. People are trying different things and combining genres. The Weeknd's "Can't Feel My Face" is very experimental. It's pop meets urban meets indie meets alternative.
Is there a difference between a hit record and a smash?
Wendy Goldstein: A record is a smash when other people call and say, "Holy shit! What is that?" With a hit you don't get those calls. A smash is something that changes everything, like "Uptown Funk!"
Ron Perry: You can have an urban or alternative hit. But until it crosses over to all formats, it's not a smash.
Anokute: From a sales standpoint, if you sell more than 2.5 million to 3 million singles in America, that's a smash. A lot of platinum records sell 1.3 million copies and are massive hits. They're top five records, but they don't cross over internationally. With records like "Uptown Funk!" or "All About That Bass" that end up selling 4 million to 6 million copies in America and 10 million worldwide, it's very clear those songs are smashes. Your grandma is singing it. If you speak English or not, you know the song. They stop time.
What's the shelf life of a producer or songwriter?
Goldstein: It depends how much that person changes with the times and how innovative they are. Look at Pharrell [Williams]: He's had hits, he's been cold, and he's come back again. It's the same thing with A&R executives, record executives, recording artists, songwriters -- that person has to want to fight back, rebound and stay in the game.
Mike Posner: I've been ice cold. A lot of people considered my career as an artist largely over. Two albums got shelved. But I've made music since I was a little kid, and for the majority of that time, I wasn't paid for it. So I will always be making it. I also write a lot of songs that other people don't want to sing, like "I Took a Pill in Ibiza." The first line is, "I took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii I was cool." There's no one I can pitch that to. (Laughs.)
Anokute: Radio cycles. Right now, programmers at top 40 are leaning more urban or rhythmic. Five years ago, it was all Dr. Luke and Max Martin shiny pop.
Michaels: Now it's just Max Martin. (Laughs.)
Why has Max Martin had such long-standing success?
Anokute: I've worked with Max. We've had maybe seven No. 1s together, all with Katy Perry. He has always studied American pop music, and he's a very smart businessman. If you look at his MXM camp, he has 25-plus writers; the best musicians, beat guys, drum programmers ... He's the ultimate collaborator. That's why he's still on top, because he knows he can't do it by himself. Max will literally have five, six, seven names on a record as writers because he shares the wealth.
Mike Caren: His success is about his passion for music. Max is still curious, inquisitive, open-minded and always challenges himself. He doesn't need to do it for the money! (Laughs.)
When you suspect you have a hit, do you hold on to it? Is there an A list and a B list in terms of matching a song with an artist?
Posner: I have an A list that's me and a B list that's everyone else. (Laughs.)
Goldstein: At Republic, we say, "Never let a hit leave the building." If it doesn't fit on [a record] I'm personally working, I'll send it to the other A&R [executives] there.
Wendy, what's the longest you have held on to a song?
Goldstein: It's very rare that you sit on something for a long time -- two, three, four years -- and pull it back out again. If I think a song is strong, I try to flip it really quick. The best example of that was "Bang Bang." It was written for Ariana [Grande]. She cut it, and she hated it. So I sent it to [Republic executive vp Rob Stevenson], got Jessie J on it and then sent it to Nicki Minaj. I made them finish the record anyway. And then I was scared to send it to Ari. So I sent it to [Republic Records chairman/CEO] Monte Lipman and said, "Play this for Ariana." When she heard it, she was like, "I want it back."
Anokute: I sit on songs all the time. I spend every weekend going through my "Available" folder in my iTunes. I've got tons of songs by writers that I work with that I still love. I just haven't found the right homes for them. A perfect example is "Not That Kinda Girl." I was pitched that song when I was working at Island Def Jam. I had it in mind for three years. I always thought it was a hit. Then I had an opportunity to pitch it to Fifth Harmony and [Epic Records chairman/CEO] L.A. Reid [and executive vp A&R Joey Arbagey]. That song prompted [Epic] to hire me, and it set the tone for their new album. It was the first track they cut.
What is the song-shopping process like today?
Perry: For songwriters, it’s increasingly important to pick artists who are going to cut their song as a single, and labels that are going to work it in the best way possible. Otherwise, you’re going to have a song on an album that just sits there, and unfortunately in today’s business, you only make money via performance [royalties] for the most part, and with [movie and TV] synchs.
Anokute: That's unfortunate for us in the A&R position because sometimes I'm fighting with a publisher or a songwriter because I want a song so bad, and they're saying, “Is it going to be a single?” How am I going to tell you that? I don't know yet.
Caren: The people who make those promises are doing it with their fingers crossed behind their backs.
How much does each of you rely on research at work?
Kid Kelly: I believe in research after I listen to my instincts.
Goldstein: Research is knowledge; knowledge is power. You have to look at the research to see what people are consuming and gravitating toward. It's not the sole factor in determining the next single, but it definitely gives you a good blueprint. You can see why and where regionally a record is big and in what formats. At Republic we have used research more than most labels. I think labels are now catching up to where we were 10 years ago.
Anokute: I found a record when I was visiting my parents in New Jersey. I was listening to Hot 97 [WQHT] and heard this Kent Jones record. I couldn't find it on iTunes, so I Shazamed it, and it was top 10 in eight markets. I sent my boss an email and said, "This record is not available for sale, and it's a hit. Look at the research." It turns out Epic was already talking to DJ Khaled's We the Best label about a potential deal. [Jones is signed to We the Best, and Epic now distributes the label.]
Caren: Theoretically, research is amazing, but as an industry we still have a long way to go. It's like driving a car looking only through your rearview mirror. There is only a limited amount of the population that buys downloads and a very limited percentage of the population that uses Shazam. So you're talking about researching iTunes buyers and Shazamers, not the general public.
Perry: The public does not always react to a record immediately. DNCE's "Cake by the Ocean," which I'm not involved with, did not start out very well. But [Republic Group president] Charlie Walk believed in the record, and that is important.
Goldstein: That's a good point. We put that single out in September and got like 40 [radio] adds, which Charlie could do in his sleep. It wasn't really selling and then certain lucky things happened for the song. It had always been a synch favorite, so it wound up on a huge T-Mobile campaign. That was a twelve-week buy from Thanksgiving until after Christmas, and a good chunk of the song played. In addition to Charlie believing in it and us grinding it out, that really connected the dots for the song. It's the longest record we've had.
Kelly: It's doing quite well on our Hits One channel. We couldn't get to [the next single] “Toothbrush” because this one was doing too well.
Goldstein We really went for No. 1, and part of the reason why I think we peaked at No. 2 was how long the song had been out there. There was deterioration at radio on the front end of [the song’s success] and it was hard to keep it all going. And, going back to what is a hit and what is a smash, the song not only had staying power, it was huge worldwide. It is still going up in a lot places. It was No. 1 in airplay in the U.K. and in Germany.
Given the "Blurred Lines" verdict and the recent case against Led Zeppelin over "Stairway to Heaven," accusations of lifting hooks and plagiarism seem to be more common. Do you have to be more careful about that today?
Posner: That ruling is absolutely detrimental to creativity. From what I understand about Shakespeare -- which isn't a lot -- there was no copyright law when he was writing. He sampled at will, and it wasn't seen as a bad thing.
Goldstein: Who was The Beatles' biggest influence? Their early records sound exactly like Chuck Berry. They didn't get sued back then for doing music that sounded similar or was inspired by an earlier song. Too many lawyers became involved, and too many people are chasing money. Whether [the case] goes to appeal or not, everyone thinks that they can [sue] now, and that's why it will have a lasting effect.
Perry: When there's less money and fewer hits, [songwriters] start trying to take a piece of everyone else. There used to be more money for the middle market.
Anokute: The problem Robin Thicke had was he was drunk and high and --
Goldstein: He did not help the case.
Anokute: He was like, "Yeah, I was listening to Marvin Gaye."
Goldstein: Then he threw his producer [Pharrell Williams] under the bus.
Posner: Tons of people inspire my music, and now when I do an interview, I'm scared to say who they are. I'm scared to give gratitude to the people that, if I hadn't heard their stuff, I wouldn't be able to make music.
Julia, an indie artist named White Hinterland is suing you, Skrillex and others for allegedly stealing a vocal loop of hers without permission for Justin Bieber's "Sorry." But aren't the vocals yours?
Michaels: Mine, yeah. It's crazy, and Skrillex posted a video on his Instagram where he says, "This is Julia Michaels' a cappella demo of 'Sorry.' " He shows the whole process of how he took my ad libs and made it into a vocal chop [a technique used by such acts as Skrillex and The Chainsmokers in which a section of a vocal track is "chopped," digitally manipulated and used repetitively in a song]. He was like, "If you want to post this, go for it." So I posted it, and Bieber's fans thought I was the one who was suing. I got hate comment after hate comment on my Instagram. It's so crazy that these people are so willing to blindly bash something they know nothing about.
How has the "Blurred Lines" verdict changed the way you do business?
Goldstein: We have an in-house musicologist, and with any new record, it has to go through this really rigorous system to even get on the release schedule. And sometimes things get by him.
Perry: I was in the studio with Nelly recently, and he sampled himself from a prior song. He said, "It's good." I said, "No, it's not good. There are eight other writers on that song." He said, "But I wrote those words." I told him, "It doesn't matter." We cleared it because we had to.
Anokute: If you start with four people in a room writing a song at the same time, copyright law protects it as an even split. But if I started in a room with you, and I only wrote one word, I still own half of the song. I've been in situations where there were three writers in the room, the third writer did nothing, but he or she gets 33 percent.
Michaels: I had this happen with a song where the guy got 5 percent for literally producing the bridge. And as the song got bigger and bigger he was like, "I want 40 percent." It took three months for us to figure out how to make everybody happy.
Julia and Mike Posner, what are the sonic and cultural differences that you encounter when working with the major labels groups?
Michaels: I wouldn't say that one is better than the other, I'd say one could be more passionate than the other.
Caren: I’d like to comment on that. Obviously, I work a lot with Atlantic and Warner, but as a publisher, I work with other companies, and when someone -- and really, it’s almost everyone -- asks, “Is this artist right for this label?”, I always say that a label isn't a thing. It’s a group of people and it depends on who you’re working with at the label. Somebody can talk about a bad experience they had with a label, but they're really talking about a bad experience they had with a couple of people.
Is it easier or tougher to sell a song?
Anokute: It's harder now than it's ever been to sell a song, because there's not enough real estate. There are not enough artists being put out commercially, so most writers and producers want their songs to be cut by artists who are either successful or have some type of radio traction. If you write an album cut for an album that sells a million copies -- and tell me five albums that sold a million copies last year -- your royalty will be a few thousand dollars. And you have to wait 18 months for that money to come in after that album went platinum. So most songwriters and producers are starving trying to get cuts because there aren't enough singles to go around. The real revenue is in the big radio single because they pay performance royalties, and the big revenue is in a big synch. So now you find a lot of songwriters writing for commercials. I've found a lot of songwriters pitching for Empire because at least they knew their music was coming out, they were getting fees and they would make a few dollars on mechanical royalties.
Perry: It's increasingly important for songwriters to pick artists who are going to cut their song as a single and labels that are going to work it in the best way possible. Otherwise, you're going to have a song on an album that just sits there.
Anokute: That's unfortunate for us in the A&R position because sometimes I'm fighting with a publisher or a songwriter because I want a song so bad, and they're saying, "Is it going to be a single?" How am I going to tell you that? I don't know yet.
Caren: The people who make those kinds of promises are making them with their fingers crossed behind their backs.
What's the next musical trend?
Caren: I'm looking for fiction. I think back to [David] Bowie, Black Sabbath and Talking Heads ... There was fantasy. And outside of hip-hop there is not as much of that as there used to be. I would also like to hear more musicianship. It used to be the lead guitarist was just as important as the lead vocalist.
Kelly: Songs will get shorter, and the intros to those songs will get shorter. A lot just start with vocals.
Goldstein: Yeah, the way people are hearing music now -- whether it's on their phones or Snapchat -- you have to grab that person in seven to 15 seconds. It definitely has an effect on production.
Caren: Songs used to have much fewer words in them. The average hit song in 1968 had 160 words. The average song now is more than 300. It probably has a lot to do with hip-hop.
How do you listen to music?
Posner: I listen on my headphones most of the time ... to Spotify and sometimes iTunes. I listen on my phone, but I just bought an old iPod with the wheel because I hate listening to an album and [being interrupted by texts]. I try to listen to at least an album a week.
Michaels: I listen the most when I'm in the car, because living in L.A., you are always in traffic.
Anokute: For pleasure, Pandora. I find it's the best way to listen to music without trying to find it. For discovery, Spotify. I tend to go through playlists and other charts to see what's playing. But I'm also a radio consumer. I listen to radio every day. I love Sirius. (To Kelly) I have to tell you, I think you guys discover and break a lot of artists. And I love top 40 radio: KIIS-FM, Power 106 [KPWR] and KROQ. I've never been the type of consumer to buy albums.
Kelly: When it comes to emerging stuff, I'll have it burned onto a CD, and then I'll play it in my car because I think that's mostly where the SiriusXM audience is right now. I like to drive around with it and get that vibe. When I'm home, I have Sonos ... I stream music as well. I have Amazon Prime and an Echo, so I'll just say, "Alexa, play me a song."
Caren: Every Thursday night at 9 p.m., when iTunes turns over, I listen to all the new releases -- hip-hop, pop, alternative, songwriter. I listen to Hits 1 with my kids. They love it. But my favorite is, if somebody I respect, like Mike or Julia, sends me songs, I put them on a playlist that I call "triple A," then I upload it to my iPod and listen to it out of the office, while I'm jogging, on my mountain bike or at the beach. And when I meet a talented writer or artist, I say, "Let me raid your hard drive. Pull up all the sessions of things you forgot about or never finished. Make me a flash drive with 300, 400 songs." I'd rather listen to 300 songs for five hours than take five meetings.
What's the song of the summer?
Kelly: Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!"
Perry: Desiigner's "Panda."
Michaels: (To Posner) "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" is up there. I'm not normally a person that hears something and is like, "Holy shit. That's amazing." I've only done that twice, with [The Weeknd's] "Can't Feel My Face" and your song.
Posner: (Blushes) Right now, I'm listening to Billie Eilish. She has a song called "Ocean Eyes." I play it over and over. I heard she's 14 years old. I can't believe how good she is.
Anokute: I don't think it's a summer song, but it's been on my playlist for probably six months and I'm obsessed with it. It's this kid, Gnash. The song is "I Hate U, I Love U." I think it'll be one of the biggest records of the year.
This article was originally featured in the July 23 issue of Billboard.