The Songs Behind Lorde’s Songs
Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff
When 17-year-old “Royals” singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor—known to the world as Lorde—took the stage to celebrate her Grammy victory for Song of the Year on Sunday, she kept her comments brief.
“Thank you to everyone who has let the song explode,” she said, moments after becoming the youngest musician to win a category other than Best New Artist. “Because it’s been mental. Universal, Lava, Songs Publishing … and my family, thank you.”
It seemed reasonable enough that she’d want to express gratitude to her record label and her closest relatives. Then there was that other name, Songs Publishing. The company might have been the least recognizable of the bunch, but it may play the largest role in her career going forward—and happens to be quite an interesting story in its own right.
In November, Songs signed Lorde to a worldwide co-publishing deal worth a reported $2.5 million. That sum was less than a few of the bigger players in the industry offered the young singer-songwriter, and the deal put a spotlight on a publisher that’s been quietly taking a different approach to the business for quite some time.
“We feel like a band that’s been touring for nine years,” says Matt Pincus, the company’s founder. “And then all of a sudden, we have a radio single and people are like, ‘Did you hear this new band?’”
Pincus launched his company in 2004, two years after earning an MBA at Columbia Business School. Previously, his résumé included positions at EMI and New York Magazine, as well as a stint as the bass player in hardcore band Judge. With Songs, he wanted to create an agile entity capable of outmaneuvering the lumbering publishing giants that dominate the industry.
Over the past decade, he has placed bets mostly on up-and-coming songwriters, investing early in their careers and fostering collaborations between signees. That was the case with “Elastic Heart,” a song by Sia that featured Songs acts The Weeknd and Diplo–and appeared on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Other songwriters on the roster include Nelly, Bright Eyes, Dev, Q-Tip and Jose Gonzalez.
“That’s part of what we do,” says Pincus. “All great publishing companies have a community of people around them. That’s when magic happens. When you’ve got a certain critical mass of relationships with writers, that’s when you get unexpected things going on, collaborations.”
There are two main financial components to a musical work: the master recording, which is usually owned by a record label, and the rights to the underlying composition. The latter is typically owned jointly by a songwriter and a publisher who administers it, collects royalties from record sales and airplay, and attempts to license it for use in film, television and commercials.
That’s the case with Songs and its writers, including Lorde, whom the company first discovered in January 2013 when a new hire named Corey Roberts noticed the young New Zealander’s work online. He quickly alerted Ron Perry, Songs’ president and head of A&R.
“I stopped everything I was doing, freaked out, got in touch with management,” says Perry. “Essentially I just went to New Zealand and started a relationship with Ella and her management.”
The visit was the first of a dozen or so by Perry to see Lorde at locales all around the world. With each one, he grew more impressed with the 16-year-old who was clearly “wise beyond her years.” In June, Songs made an initial offer that served as a starting point for negotiations.
Meanwhile, “Royals”—a song that Lorde wrote with Auckland native Joel Little in 2012 after seeing an image of George Brett in National Geographic—made its U.S. debut and began a steady climb up the charts, culminating in a nine-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard charts this fall.
Perry and Pincus stayed focused. Even as some of the biggest players in publishing piled on lucrative offers, they kept in touch with Lorde, attending her concerts and connecting her with writers on their roster, including Diplo and The Weeknd.
“It’s not purely transactional what we do,” says Pincus. “We’ll start making phone calls before the deal’s done.”
The approach certainly seems to have resonated with Lorde. Given her current success (in addition to her Grammy glory, she joined the likes of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry on FORBES’ 30 Under 30 list), she would have unquestionably gotten plenty of attention from any publisher with whom she signed.
It’s always a risk to go with a smaller player in the business and to accept a smaller check. But Lorde is betting the nimble Songs can continue setting up collaborations for her while scoring lucrative licensing deals that resonate with her vision–even after her initial buzz calms down.
“We’re interested in the Ella O’Connor business,” says Pincus. “We’re not just buying hits, we’re not out there just taking the ride for this album and then who knows what we’ll find after that. … We think she could be a decades-long artist.”
With signings like Lorde, Songs seems on track for a similar run.