‘Everyone’s a Publisher Now’: Warner Chappell’s A&R Chief Ryan Press on Competition, Diversity and Signing Lizzo
The longtime A&R rep on work ethic, diversity and competition
Singing did not come naturally to Ryan Press, son of longtime Temptations tenor Ron Tyson. “I tried,” recalls Press with a laugh. “Some teachers lied to me and said I sounded good. But that talent skipped over me.”
What Press does have, however, is the ability to find, sign and connect songwriters, producers and artists. The Philadelphia native launched his publishing career in 2006 as a consultant at Notting Hill, then spent the past decade at Warner Chappell Music in a succession of A&R roles, working with writers and producers like Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Mike WiLL Made-It, Tay Keith, Ross Golan and PartyNextDoor.
Now, as Press marks six months since being named president of A&R, U.S., at Warner Chappell, where he oversees everything outside of Nashville, he’s living up to his track record by acquiring several high-demand signees. He has already signed producer Turbo, Stone Temple Pilots and 2019 breakthrough artist Lizzo to join a substantial songwriter roster that includes twenty one pilots, Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, Katy Perry, Saweetie and Portugal. The Man.
Press credits former Warner Chappell chairman/CEO Jon Platt, and current co-chairmen Carianne Marshall and Guy Moot, with “recognizing something in me that maybe I didn’t know in myself” when it comes to his leadership role. “He told me that I’ve made it to a certain point in A&R, but if I wanted to have a career for the next 20 years, I needed to develop a skill set as a leader,” says Press, sitting in his sunlit Los Angeles office. “I’m not looking at this as having big shoes to fill — I’m just trying to create my own path.”
Since taking on your new role, has the adjustment period been what you expected?
The biggest thing I had to digest was that there was no more looking to another person for the yes or no. It’s on me. The training wheels are off. I’m also being judged on whether I can develop other executives the same way I’ve proven myself in developing songwriters. Instinctively, I want to A&R everything and still be 2009 Ryan. But the focus now is making sure I’m bringing up other people. From a leadership standpoint, with any meeting I take, I always rotate in someone from my team to provide another perspective and make sure they’re being exposed to experiences that will prepare them to be leaders when it’s their shot. It’s about keeping different energy with me, whether younger or older, a different set of ears and eyeballs — and not feeling like I’ve got to know it all.
What added pressure — if any — have you felt as a black executive navigating your career in the music industry?
That actually played a part in my title as I was negotiating my next role. I didn’t want to be confined to just urban music. I felt the contributions I had made were universal. It goes back to how I was brought up: The Temptations were a pop and R&B group. I definitely carry the thought that I need to do and be more as an African American in this position. I honestly feel like I’m going to be judged differently, unfortunately. On the flip side, I also want to make sure I’m carrying the responsibility properly to allow others to have the opportunity that I was afforded.
Do any early music memories shape your work ethic?
Seeing my dad perform on Motown 25 and going on the road with him. I was raised by my mom, but being able to travel with him and watch how the Tempts’ music affected people all over, I got to see the world as a bigger place and to dream bigger. Looking back now, I also learned a lot about the music business and didn’t even know it. We would be on these 20-hour bus rides, and as soon as we got to the hotel, Otis [Williams, group co-founder] would have them rehearsing. Otis would stand at the dressing room door and shout out fines [at bandmembers]. I’ve seen them go onstage with only three or four Temptations. I definitely learned the show must go on. My dad never missed a show. Seeing that dedication taught me a lot. I get why they’ve been performing for 50 years.
Have you seen more women getting signed as songwriters and producers?
Yes. There has not really been a lot of that in the business, unfortunately. We have the female writing-production duo NOVA Wav, whom I’ve been developing and working with for more than three years. They’re changing the narrative, helping to break down more walls for women working in the production space. Lizzo is also a new and important female voice in our business and will be for a long time. She’s a career artist who writes, sings and raps. In an age where I feel like people can get away with not having it all as an artist, she really embodies the total package.
As the business has grown, companies and investors have become more interested in publishing. On a scale of 1-10, how competitive has the publishing industry become?
Ten. Everyone is a publisher now. I think to a certain degree it’s unfortunate for songwriters, because people that aren’t experts in this have become capitalists in a way. They become more about the money and not about songwriters and his or her talent. There are a million publishers at this point, and from that perspective, it’s harder. Ten years ago, there weren’t that many publishing companies or that many indie companies. Every writer-producer is a publisher, and the deals have become more challenging as well.
What music trends are bubbling up?
Afrobeat is real. The U.S. is just catching up to it, but it’s happening around the world. Caribbean music is going to come back to the forefront very soon as well. And I’m seeing people wanting a little darker feel to pop music with Billie Eilish and others starting to have success.
Beyond great ears, what else does an A&R executive need to stay relevant?
You have to be a sponge, never feeling like you’re too good to learn other things that can help carry your career forward. It’s also about passion and hard work. Either you love it or you don’t. This is a lifestyle for me, 24/7. There is no plan B.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.