“Stay With Me,” the plaintive Grammy-winning hit recorded by Sam Smith, was named song of the year at the 19th annual SESAC Pop Awards in New York Monday night and James Napier, who co-authored the song with Smith and William Phillips (aka Tourist) was named songwriter of the year at performing rights society’s event.
“I’m humbled to be here,” Napier told those gathered in the grand setting of the landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. “I wrote probably a thousand rubbish songs before I wrote any good ones. So to have had a few come through has been amazing for me. And just to be able to call myself a songwriter is really all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“What kind of changed [everything] for me,” he continued, “was meeting a young man called Sam Smith. He was 19 years old, working in a pub and neither of really had anything and we developed this songwriting partnership which changed both of our lives.”
The publisher of “Stay With Me,” Universal Tunes, a subsidiary of Universal Music Publishing Group, was named SESAC’s publisher of the year.
“Stay With Me,” which won the Grammy Award for song of the year, was the focus of an authorship dispute earlier this year when a similarity was acknowledged between the chord structure of the song’s chorus and Tom Petty’s hit “I Won’t Back Down.” The matter was settled with Petty and his co-writer Jeff Lynne receiving credit as co-writers for “Stay With Me.”
The evening recognized the SESAC songwriters and publishers of the most-performed songs of the past year in the categories of pop, R&B, hip-hop and rock.
“SESAC songwriters had a banner year in 2014,” said SESAC president and CEO Pat Collins. “The charts were heavy with SESAC songs throughout the year, with names you well know: Charli XCX, American Authors, Disclosure, Alt-J," Young The Giant and others.
For the first time, SESAC presented an award for the year’s most successful song used in synchronization deals. The honor went to “Best Day of My Life,” written by the members of American Authors, which had received some 150 syncs, according to SESAC vp of writer/publisher relations Linda Lorence Critelli.
A major highlight of the evening was the presentation of SESAC’s Visionary Award to Jon Platt, president of Warner/Chappell North America. His honor was preceded by a performance by songwriter Angela Hunte, co-author of “Empire State of Mind,” which she sung in the version Platt heard before he proposed Jay Z adapt and record the anthem.
Chuck D of Public Enemy took the stage to present Platt’s honor. He recalled when the two met twenty-five years ago in Platt’s hometown of Denver at an event where disorganization reigned -- until Platt stepped in. “This brother seemed to be doing nine essential, definitive jobs, all at once, that were necessary and needed for this event to go on,” he said.
The two became friends and Chuck D recalls telling Platt, “Hey dude, you’re that cat; go as far as your eyes can see.” He added, “Denver’s loss was the music industry’s gain.”
Video testimonials "Big Jon" were presented by Warner/Chappell global chairman/CEO Cameron Strang and Warner/Chappell A&R vice presidents Katie Vinten and Ryan Press, along with an all-star lineup that testified to Platt’s influence and impact: Beyonce, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Usher, Pharrell Williams, Rodney Jerkins, and Roc Nation CEO Jay Brown. Also offering tributes were two of Platt’s former bosses at EMI Music Publishing: Martin Bandier, now chairman/CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Jody Gerson, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group.
When Platt first arrived at EMI, but before he was employed at the company, Gerson recalled, “He would go in the tape room and he would borrow DATs [digital audio tapes] from the DAT machine. And I would say, `Wait a minute, I don’t understand. Who’s the guy working out of our conference room and taking all our tapes -- and having meetings?’ It was Jon. He literally showed up and set up office.” Gerson offered Platt his first music publishing job at EMI.
In presenting Platt with the award, Chuck D noted that based on the accomplishments that Big Jon had achieved during his career that even if Platt "was two-feet tall, you would still stand above all." In return when he accepted the award, Platt told songwriters, "I have never confused that you don't work for me; I work for you."
Earlier in the evening, Collins referred to SESAC’s new ownership structure and opportunities it would bring. In December 2013, SESAC’s new majority owner, the private equity firm Rizvi Traverse backed the PRO’s acquisition of a majority stake in Rumblefish, a micro-licensing platform.
Collins said "2014 was a year of innovation and growth," whether that's through its Rumblefish acquisition; the organization's expanded presence in Washington, D.C., or SESAC's move into its new home in Nashville on Music Row in December 2015.
“We are working with our sister company Rumblefish to expand our services in licensing your songs that are performed on social media platforms,” said Collins.
Collins also noted SESAC’s expanded presence and activities in Washington, D.C. “SESAC executives met with the U.S. Register of Copyrights and separately with the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator and also made them aware of the undervaluation of royalty payments made by commercial businesses that profit from your genius,” said Collins. “We are hard at work to increase the value of your copyrights in this marketplace."
And Collins suggested that SESAC writers and publishers make a trip to the PRO’s home city in Nashville. “You should travel down Music Row where you’ll see SESAC’s new global headquarters in its construction phase,” said Collins. “We plan to be in the new building in December 2015.”
SESAC’s move to Music Row, the traditional center of the music business, comes at a time when that district is considered endangered from non-music-related development. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in January added Music Row to its list of National Treasures, a designation given to highlight significant historic places that are considered under threat from development.
“We are very excited to remain on Music Row,” said Collins, “and to do our part to keep the magic of songwriting alive and happening on 16th Avenue.”
Additional reporting from Ed Christman