Jay Warner manages the publishing rights for dozens of artists, including James Brown. A six time Grammy Award winner, he won a Grammy in 1991 as publisher of Rick James' "You Can't Touch This". He's the founder and president of K-Tel's music publishing division from 1980-1984 and served as vice-president of the Entertainment Company, the forerunner of SBK-EMI from 1977-1979. Currently, he serves as the CEO and president of the National Music League. He's won twenty-four Gold and / or Platinum records.
Mr. Warner has written a book titled How To Have Your Hit Song Published (Hal Leonard Books) and was kind enough to take some time off of a very demanding schedule to speak with us.
Q - Since you title your book How To Have Your Hit Song Published, how does someone know when they've written a hit song?
A - Well, you know something? Everybody thinks they've written a hit song. You know what it stems from? It goes back to when I was a kid. I'd listen to the radio and I'd hate a song and I'd say to my friends "I can write something better than that." And then we would go and try and write something and think we wrote something better than that. So, I feel that songwriters are optimistic people to start with. They don't start to do something like that if they don't feel they can create something, especially since they're almost always writing about their own personal experiences. It's like a great weight off their shoulders and they are being able to put onto paper something that stimulates them and they feel if it stimulates them, it'll stimulate others. It can be terrible, but when you're a one dimensional audience, you really think your stuff is great. I've worked with a lot of major writers and the one thing every one of them has had in common over the years from Manilow to Rick James and a whole slew of others, is that they always thought their newest song was the best thing they'd ever written.
Q - And was it?
A - It's just the confidence thing. It goes hand-in-hand with being a songwriter.
Q - Does everyone who writes a song need a publisher? Could you do it yourself? Would you advise it?
A - Well, you know something? There's varying levels of answers to something like that, because there are all kinds of songwriters. If you're strictly a songwriter and you don't really have the talent as a vocalist say, or you're not part of a band and you're doing pretty much everything yourself, you're demo-ing things. You have to learn how to do all of these things competitively. When you get to a certain stage, you would definitely need a publisher. For different writers, there are different necessities at different times. A songwriter who is not a vocalist or not in a band or not a good musician and has to do everything form scratch, if he's writing good material and gets the interest from a publisher, it's a good learning experience for seeing what publishers do and don't do on his behalf and how they work with him and how they don't work with him and what he likes and doesn't like, so at some point he may want to publish his own songs. But, he needs some experience to do that, although my book leads you through how you can be your own publisher. On the other hand, bands and single vocalists that are recording and trying to get a record deal, they're better off having an association with a publisher early on, because publishers are often the first layer of talent scouts so to speak out there, finding talent, signing them, using their material not only for the use of the material, but possibly if the artist is talented, trying to get the artist a deal.
Q - How did you get involved in the music business?
A - I started as a songwriter. I was writing in New York. I started writing for Famous music. I was writing for a couple of different companies and at first I was just running around New York City with my songs. Knocking on doors at 1650 Broadway, 1697 Broadway, in the old days trying to interest people in the tunes I had, to see if there was somebody that would pick up something and by virtue of picking up a song or two of mine, maybe signing me as a writer. That was always the goal in those days, to get signed as a writer. Although I played with some bands, I wasn't really an artist.
Q - What years were you running around New York City?
A - Oh, the late 60s, early 70s.
Q - Since your book is revised and updated, when was it originally published?
A - Well, it was originally published in 1978. It's been in print for twenty-eight straight years and in its fourth edition. Because it was the first in-depth text on intellectual property rights, songwriting, publishing, copyrights, licensing and such, it's considered the bible of the industry and I'm really proud of that. It's gotten great reviews over the years and it's always sold over the years because there's always new songwriters. They need to know the rules of this business and this game. There are guidelines that you can follow that take out a lot of frustration.
Q - You have a chapter in the book titled "New Technologies And Their Effects On The Songwriter." What has been the effect of a new technology on songwriters? More revenue sharing opportunities.?
A - Very positive. Obviously there's always a two-edged sword to any new technology. When the audio cassette came out, everybody was panicking that the industry was going to go in the toilet because everybody would sit home and tape off the radio. Well, it didn't come down to that. New technology has allowed for people who don't even have the professional expertise shall we say, to be competitive in the game to some degree by virtue of the internet, by virtue of the internet to record at home. They don't have to raise money to go into a studio to do every demo or everything they want. They can fine tune their things at home or with friends and get a semblance of what they're trying to accomplish. There's more opportunities for more people at even a more grassroots level. In the past it took total determination and years and years to establish yourself or find other people in the business that wanted to help you. This way there's a possibility of getting your stuff out to some people next to Elton John or Puff Daddy.
Q - What's a sub-publisher?
A - A sub-publisher is just like an American publisher only he's in another country. An American publisher needs sub-publishers to collect his monies overseas, to protect the rights on the songs overseas and where possible to exploit the material, put it into local TV shows or films or compilation albums. Because of the way the licensing societies are structured around the world, if you don't have sub-publishers to collect your money or protect your rights...they keep your money. That is, the local licensing societies overseas keep your money and distribute it amongst their own publishers and writers in something they call the black box. So, a sub-publisher is essential for an active publisher. It's not necessarily essential for a new writer because if he doesn't have activity that's getting music of his into other countries, there's nothing to collect.
Q - So a songwriter still needs ASCAP and B.M.I.?
A - Very definitely. But, at the stage where he's got product being released, whether it's in a film or TV show or on a record or any kind of public use, he needs the licensing society to collect his money for performance.
Q - How do you get your song to a TV show or included in a movie? Is that an entirely different aspect of the business?
A - Well, it's a narrow cast aspect of the business that often takes somebody who writes for that style or that area to be able to get into. My book for example tells you how to do a lot of that and gives you contacts to reach out to, with the music you're writing for those kinds of shows. You have to do research. You have to know who's doing what and you have to network. You have to know how to network. You have to know how to reach people. It's a lot of common sense stuff that people would sit there and say "Gee, yeah. That sounds logical. I can do that." But, they wouldn't know how to do it if they weren't taught it. So, there are step by step approaches to making contacts in every area.
Q - How can someone in a small city network with someone in Hollywood?
A - Today, more than ever you can network with people around the world through the internet, through the e-mail system. You can reach people. Obviously it's better to be in some of the movie capitols to go first hand and to see people where you can. But, if you've got worthwhile product, there are ways to network whether it's songwriting associations or whether it's the licensing society you're affiliated with trying to help you. You have to reach out and get other people involved in what you're doing; let them know, let them hear. If they like what you're doing, they'll pass you on usually to somebody else who can help you. That's an important aspect of it. You can be writing something from your living room and MP3 something to somebody today, where in the past you had to send everything by mail and often you didn't know how to contact people. My book has a lot of listings of how and where to reach people in different areas and it shows you what the requirements are. For example, some companies won't take an MP3. But it'll show you how to send them an appropriate package that they will open and pay attention to. They're getting thousands and thousands of packages. It's kind of like how to prioritize your music. It's not just a music endeavor, it's a business pursuit. You have to learn how to do the business.
Q - As the manager of publishing rights for dozens of artists, does that mean you're constantly looking to place songs wherever you can?
A - Very definitely. In any kind of situation. We often work with our writers who are in many cases track record people who are artists or producers or studio musicians to where we co-ordinate with a lot of the things they're doing so that we can go after situations that maybe they wouldn't think to do. One of my guys could be singing on a session with Neil Young and he wouldn't think to bring a song that might be right for Neil to the session. A lot of this is common sense stuff. You have to sit down and strategize.
Q - In the music business, everything starts with a good song doesn't it?
A - Really, it does. I feel it does. Even in today's marketplace where production is pre-eminent, you still need a good piece of music. You hear a lot of good music still coming out of films and out of TV shows and the Pop charts. Soundtrack albums have become more prevalent for good music. Country is still always song oriented. R&B has come back to a good extent in the last few years and that's song driven. So, yeah, you can go a long way on a song. You just have to know what to do with it. See, my book doesn't teach you how to write a song. It teaches you what to do with the song after you've written it. I already assume you've written something good. You have to if you're gonna put the time into it and that confidence and that belief.
Q - I've heard that the record industry is all but dead in Los Angeles. Downloading has killed the music business. Is that true?
A - I don't agree with that. It depends on the style of music. You still have R&B, Rock bands and Hip Hop and Rap extensively throughout L.A. And most of the major record companies are still here. I don't think they'd be here if this wasn't where they felt they could do the most for their benefit.
Q - That's the first positive piece of information I've heard about L.A. in a long time.
A - Well, you know something? The negative publicity comes from journalists who always need something to write. When they see sales down from a year to a year, they forecast doom all the time. And it's true because of the internet in the first four or five years from around 2000 - 2004, the record companies were getting hit by about twenty-five percent reduction in there sales over-all. But, publishers do more than sell records. We license to many different uses from video games to print and sheet music, to films, to TV, so there's no one area that can totally kill you. I think part of the problem is that no one looks at it this way: if you made as a record company, a major $50 million profit last year and this year your profits were down, your income was down 7%. Gee, I cry for you! You only made $42 million profit. But, you're still in profit. So, you'd have to evaluate where the numbers really are and who's crying poverty over what. The other side of it is, the music itself from a songwriters standpoint, because there are more outlets an uses of music today, the songwriter is not strictly locked in to if he doesn't get his song recorded by a major artist on one of the four remaining record labels, that his career is over. If that was the case, there wouldn't be thousands and thousands of songwriters that are making money and having success, all be it not having a song on an Elton John album, but on the reality of there is a great marketplace at a lower level that still can make money for the writer. For instance, the performance income over the last thirty years has continually increased. The airplay money you make from the licensing societies has increased. My desk is a barometer. On the right side of my desk I have two columns. One column was about twelve inches high a few years ago that just had mechanical licenses. Those are licenses with the record companies for the use of a song on a album. And on the next column, it would be a half an inch high. That was the new technology digital licenses and DPDs downloading things and streaming. Those kinds of licenses, which were brand new. Now the licenses balance is increasing on the right, even though the left side, the mechanical side has decreased somewhat. It's being picked up on the other side. There always seems to be, through new technology, whether it was going from the audio cassette to the CD or whatever, there is a new technology that has a paying benefit to the songwriting community. I think you have to have a positive attitude if you're gonna do this business at all.