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

Ryan Tedder photographed in Paris, France

Jair Sfez

"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."