Today he's the CEO and chairman of Warner/Chappell Music, head of WMG's Music Publishing and Catalog Development division and manages the Los Angeles-based Warner Bros. Records. But less than two decades ago, Cameron Strang was running New West Records out of his house as the indie label's only employee. Before that, he was just a fan.
"I was fortunate because I didn't get married until later in life," Strang said to much laughter during ASCAP Expo's "The Art of Publishing: Master Session" at the LOEWS Hollywood Hotel on Thursday. "From a career standpoint, I had a lifestyle where I could spend a lot of time [working]. I didn't have kids to put through school. I lived in an apartment."
The youngest of five children whose father dabbled in opera as a hobby, Strang was exposed to a variety of music as a kid. He took business and law in college, but after a brief stint as a litigator in Canada, he decided that wasn't for him. Music was his passion and the desire to "live a happy life." He estimates New West has released nearly 200 albums.
Under his stewardship, the label issued multiple Billboard 200 charting albums and racked up several Grammys. The catalog includes a great deal of Americana, roots rock and country from the likes of Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam and Old 97's. Strang's Southside Independent Music Publishing company (home to Bruno Mars and Kings Of Leon, among others) was acquired by Warner/Chappell in 2010. New West announced a partnership with Warner's ADA earlier this month.
"When you get there, on your first day, you get a binder with everybody's picture and their name underneath it, all 400 people," he told the crowd of mostly aspiring songwriters about taking on the CEO job at Warner/Chapell. "You start trying to memorize everybody's name." Despite the 32 offices around the world, the 450 employees, and the 1 million copyrights, Strang insisted that he's taken the indie label mentality with him and tried to run it like a small company.
"We high-five in the hallway when we hear a cut or get a No. 1," he said. "We still have fun and enjoy it."
Strang told Randy Grimmett, ASCAP's EVP of Membership (who moderated), that he sees the primary function of a publishing company as "service to songwriters. That's what we all signup for when we start. We are 100% focused on the service to the songwriters. If you're a new songwriter, that would be everything from education, creative services, introductions to people, advice, creative feedback, access to studios, access to all of the relationships that we have, financial services. Our interests are really aligned with our songwriters. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% going to the writers. Once we get through that negotiation, which is hopefully brief, we all get to work together."
Strang's hands aren't so much in A&R anymore as they were at New West and Southside, but he trusts the men and women at his company who handle that. He talked about Chris "Brody" Brown, who co-wrote Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You" and Bruno Mars "Grenade." An LA Weekly profile on Brown was titled "From the Compton Crips to the Grammy Stage." "Not to give away all of our secrets, but in addition to musical ability, we really want to understand [who we sign] as people. I think we signed Brody on his 18th birthday and had met him even earlier. His musical talent was extraordinary."
Strang insisted there isn't any one particular method for discovering new talent. Music comes in the office, music is found online, staffers are invited to gigs. He answered one audience member's question about access by pointing out that it's not necessary to get your music straight to the top person right away. "Every big A&R person hears about every band he or she signs from somebody else," he said. "It's very rare that a guy walks in and plays a song for me. It's usually the assistant of the promo guy played it for this guy, who showed it to this person he has lunch with, who…"
His biggest piece of advice for folks looking to score publishing deals: be patient. "You have to understand that, like with any profession, you have to work very hard. You have to expect it to take that level of commitment."