The May 2013 Publishers Quarterly: SONGS Looks for Big Hits & The Long Term

- May 20, 2013

All music publishing firms live for big hits, but SONGS Music Publishing is also in it for the long term.

For all SONGS founder Matt Pincus talks about his firm’s top songwriters, he more often comes back to music publishing companies that built value through the long haul.

“We are building this company the way publishing companies like Zomba and Rondor were built over a 30-year period, songwriter by songwriter, employee by employee. That’s what we are trying to do,” Pincus says.

By “we” he means his 30-person staff. That includes two employees who are now partners in the firm: Ron Perry, Pincus’ first hire–who now serves as president, heads A&R and built the roster from the ground up–and Carianne Marshall, head of creative licensing, who was hired in 2006.

Nine years in, the company now has four offices in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and London, where SONGS is just making inroads.

“I went to Nashville for four years before I found the right person,” Pincus says of his partnership with high-profile music publishing executive Pat Higdon, and his firm Patrick Joseph Music, and which operates under the name PJM/SONGS.

Also typical of the company’s long-term approach, a very high percentage of the SONGS staff is devoted to creative, with five full-time A&R people. The company also has four full-time synch staffers.

The SONGS roster consists of about 300 songwriters, all in different genres of music. “Diplo is currently our most visible writer,” Pincus says. Others include Devin Tailes, Marsha Ambrosius, Brian Lee, Chiodos, Matt Thiessen, Nelly, Q-Tip, Lacuna Coil, Morgan Kirby, the Devil Wears Prada, Jose Gonzalez and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Along the way SONGS purchased 70% of Pharrell Williams’ catalog and administers its share.

“Most people in music publishing think of it as an asset business,” Pincus says. “We think of it as a relationship business. Music publishing is a human business, not an asset business.”

In fact, that philosophy powered the creation of SONGS. While working for EMI Group as a strategy associate in corporate strategy and business development, Pincus–a former punk rocker who’s a member of Judge, which is headlining the hardcore-themed Black N’ Blue Bowl May 18-19 at Webster Hall in New York–noticed that EMI’s publishing firm was shifting its investments away from songwriter deals and channeling them into buying catalog and radio hits. Simultaneously, he saw hundreds of millions of dollars from private equity and hedge funds coming into seven or eight indie publishing companies. “But the irony of that was that almost none of the funds went into signing songwriters; it all went into investing in existing assets,” he recalls. “So when I was trying to figure out what my next job was going to be, I saw how many writers were available. I decided to go in the opposite direction, signing people who would then make songs.

“We started with rock bands who were selling a lot of albums, like Chiodos and Rhett Miller. The latter signing helped us attract the serious songwriters. Signing Andrew McMahon brought us into a world where major-label artists would then sign with us, while Q-Tip is a really respected rapper and a great producer who brought us into the world where hip-hop songwriters now consider us,” Pincus says. “You will see us working with classic songwriters in the near future.”

In return for helping establish the firm, SONGS’ responsibility includes career-building. Consequently, SONGS runs songwriter forums, where writers work together and comment on each other’s work, and the firm is also on the prowl for key songwriter hookups, which is how “Good Time” came about. “The company put together two songwriters, Brian Lee and Matt Thiessen, who previously didn’t know each other, and they wrote the song,” Pincus says. “One of them had a relationship with Owl City, who decided to do the song, which had a spot for a girl singer, and we-along with Republic Records–got Carly Rae Jepsen to sing. That’s what we do. We are good at understanding what people might want.”

That type of approach allows SONGS to punch way above its weight class, Pincus says. While the SONGS catalog may not contain hundreds of thousands of tunes, Pincus says the firm has the same amount of active songs as a publisher with 15 times the number of songs. “We are the guys breaking writers right now,” he says. “Our goal is to build the leading front-line independent publisher in the world.” For the first time since Billboard began compiling the rankings for the top 100 songs, SONGS has broken into the rankings.