Where did your musical journey start?
I started out my music career as a singer and guitarist in London in a hotel band. I had left New Zealand at the age of 17 and emigrated to the UK as my father passed away and at the time my brother and sister lived in London. I freelanced in London for some years doing session work, back up singing and touring. I was fortunate to work with some amazing artists, among them; Daryl Hall, Cyndi Lauper, Elton John, Celine Dion, Tom Jones and Lulu. I had several day jobs in between when times were tough but all in all, I was a singer for just over 10 years with a little songwriting on the side. The Pet Shop Boys tour was the major turning point for me. It was an incredible experience being on a world tour with them in 1991 but I realised I wanted to settle down and get an artist publishing and record deal. The record deal didn’t happen as the trend was signing teenagers at the time and I wasn’t a teenager but I got my first publishing deal in 1992 and started writing full time. In fact, at the same time I was asked if I wanted to go on the road with Pink Floyd but I turned it down (the tour was more money than the publishing deal but it was time to make some sacrifices). After that first publishing deal, I signed to Hit & Run Music (Phil Collins/Genesis owned, publishing company) then Warner Chappell, which was when “Genie In A Bottle” was written. I’d had a few hits in the UK up until then but never a worldwide hit so it was a game changer in terms of progress and it opened some pretty big doors. We were really broke when I made that writing trip to write “Genie” with David Frank and Steve Kipner, but I’m sure glad I did. It was the first song we’d ever written together so the stars were aligned in our favour that day.
What made you jump from performing to writing?
I wanted to be an artist from the very beginning but realised somewhere down the track after having some success as a songwriter, that this was an even better fit for me and where I really belonged. I’m a bit of an introvert and like my privacy so I’m happiest in the studio creating. I’d been writing songs since the early 80’s but never considered that I could write for other people so when I started getting cuts I was hooked. Songwriting is my therapy and definitely my happy place. I think I’d be a basket case without it.
What would you say the difference is in industry between a publishing deal back then and now?
Publishers back in the 90’s were willing to sign and develop writers if they saw potential, they were mentors and career shapers. They took chances and invested on a hunch. Sadly, few publishers have the big bucks to take chances these days or time to develop new writers, it’s more about a guaranteed return on their investment. Also deals are tougher to fulfil for songwriters, they are stuck in publishing deals for longer periods of time and having to stretch their advance from what they thought would only be three years, to end up being more like 10. I know many writers that have to get other jobs to pay the bills just to survive, it’s way harder out there. The real biggie is that there is less money around for publishers and writers since streaming and the digital age blindsided us, none of us saw that train coming. We are all aware that there are huge profits being made today from music being used on so many more platforms but we are not seeing that reflected in our royalty checks. SONA is lobbying hard for the MMA bill to pass so that laws are put in place and songwriters and artists are able to earn their fair share of those profits too. (I’m so grateful I was part of that 90’s boom, you could earn a decent living just from album cuts, can’t live off album cuts anymore).
What would be your advice for a modern day songwriter just getting started?
Write with the artist where possible, pitching songs to outside artists is playing the lottery. Write up! Get in a room with a writer/producer who has more experience and a better strike rate than yourself, find a champion or mentor. Perfect your craft and learn everything you can about the creative and business side of music, knowledge is power, you have to be savvy to survive. Get your face out there, nurturing relationships with A&R people/managers/artists, real face time matters so don’t sit in your studio or home expecting the world to come to your door. Be reliable and pitch up to a session or a gig when you say you’re going to, your reputation is everything and this business is smaller than you think so respect everyone. You are your own best marketing machine so do as much as you can on social media but don’t be annoying! Join SONA, you won’t regret it and you’ll learn a lot!
What are you up to now?
I recently sold one of my song catalogues which gives me the freedom to get involved in the projects I’m passionate about. I’m working with Pen Music Group and have been writing a project to pitch for TV/film with UK writer/producer Robbie L’amond which has allowed me to get back to some singing. Also working with new management, Pendustry and involved in writing and developing a couple of artists over the next few months with some other producers. I’m also excited about my new venture, Song Writer Camps (www.songwritercamps.com) with my friend and collaborator Richard Harris. We are both really passionate about the craft of songwriting, mentoring and passing on our experience to a new generation of writers. Our first camp focuses towards aspiring artists and songwriters wanting to improve on their writing skills. It’s later in the year October 15th at The Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, people are already signing up from around the world so we are looking forward to it.
Tell us what you’ve got going on w/SONA?
I got back from Washington DC with our steering committee a few weeks ago, as we went to lobby the halls of Congress together. We met with some Senators, congress men and women about supporting the proposed MMA bill and talked about what it means to us first hand. We also performed some of our songs in their offices which was a lot of fun, it was like SONA on tour. It was an amazing experience and an honour to do this trip, something I never expected to do, especially coming from New Zealand.
I love what SONA represents and stands for and the group has grown steadily in the three and a bit year’s we’ve been going. I personally, have learned a great deal, not only in terms of the politics of the business but about community spirit and what a change you can make if you band together. I’m so glad to be a part of this passionate and selfless community of creators who invest their time to the greater cause and more than proud to be in the trenches with them. We are doing all we can to support the MMA bill but we always need more members to sign up and get involved so we are that bigger voice. The MMA passed through the House last week but it’s the Senate next, that we need to lobby hard for. It’s crucial for songwriters and artists to be more engaged and unified than ever been before if we expect things to get better.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” - Mahatma Gandi
SONA took its first DC field trip in March! It was a long time coming. We had gotten good at poignantly-written emails and at waking up for conference calls set for 10AM Eastern/7AM Pacific (ouch). But 3000 miles away feels like, well, 3000 miles away and nuance, intent and connection can all get lost in the space in between when you’re shouting to be heard from that distance. We’ve known we needed to get face-to-face with legislators for a while. It took three-years-worth of membership fees and donations to save up enough to send 8 of us on the SONA Executive Committee across the country to the Capitol to “walk the halls” - which is literally what you do when you visit the offices of legislators. Congressional offices are spread out among several buildings and connected by underground hallways. Pods of 4 and 4 SONA-ites split up to visit with Republicans and Democrats, Senators and Congress members. And while some were extremely up-to speed on copyright issues and dove right into the weeds with us, others needed to be educated on the basics, you know, that there are “two copyrights associated with a song - the sound recording and the notes and lyrics.” We took about 25 meetings, between the 8 of us and came away with several co-sponsors and promises of yes votes on our pending legislation - the Music Modernization Act (or the MMA - gotta have an acronym!).
A few weeks later, on April 12th, a bunch of us Super-Nerds woke up early (7AM, ugh) to watch the live feed from the House floor as the Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the House version of the Music Modernization Act, as it was presented by Chairman Bob Goodlatte. That was step 1.
Then, on April 25, 2018, Step 2 happened – the full House vote! Again, Team Copyright Nerd (West Coast-style) linked to the live video feed from the House Floor to watch many of the same legislators we had met the month prior speak so movingly about music and its creators and about how our profession needs to be sustained and compensated more fairly. We (SONA) got specifically named by Congressman Doug Collins and Congresswoman Karen Bass, and many other legislators we met with mentioned the visits from songwriters as having an effect on their votes. Amazing. And then, a full House vote was called on the MMA and after a short debate on the floor, passed UNANIMOUSLY!!! You can watch it for yourself here: http://houselive.gov/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=12075 (Starts at 5:19:33)
As cynical as we can all get about politics, it has been inspiring to see the bipartisan efforts and support this bill has created. While many compromises were made to get to this point, we are excited about the progress we’ve achieved. That is all thanks to YOU, our SONA members and supporters - whether you’ve contributed through a membership fee or donation, signed a petition, shared on social media, or joined us in person at one of our meetings - the grass-roots, self-supporting, DIY-ness of our organization has been truly meaningful to legislators in their decisions to help us. Now… ONTO THE SENATE!!!
Meanwhile, SONA has prevailed in its fight against the Department of Justice on the matter of 100% licensing! After the Second Circuit ruled in favor of the BMI’s claim that fractional licenses are the industry standard supported in their consent decree in December 2017, we filed a voluntary dismissal without prejudice of our claim, meaning that we have withdrawn our claim but if there is a time in the future that this matter is once again up for argument we will be able to fully pursue and defend our position. The DOJ let its March 2018 deadline pass to file an appeal in the BMI matter, and we now feel confident that the issue is settled as a matter of law. Please read the SONA Lawsuit FAQ for more details.
From SONA’s Executive Committee
SONA Songwriters, Composers, Donors and Friends,
On December 20th, 2017 Congressman Doug Collins of GA (R) introduced the Music Modernization Act into the House of Representatives. This bill has been a long time coming. I probably don’t have to tell you that songwriters have been struggling under below-market, repressed royalty rates because of outdated regulations and loopholes in copyright law for way too long. Entire companies and business models have been built on these disadvantages to music creators, and in response, SONA was founded in 2015 to fight back.
Despite our newness, as the “little advocacy organization that could” - a grassroots, all-volunteer workforce with zero outside funding - SONA had a seat at the table to express our ideas and concerns for many of the negotiations leading up to the introduction of this bill. We observed first-hand that the most contentious points were hard fought for and compromised over. The MMA is the result of months of that back and forth between the DSPs (Digital Service Providers like Spotify and Amazon) , publishers, songwriters and the PROs, and we intend to stay in the conversation in order to exert influence over industry customs and specific details that arise as the bill gets implemented.
Meanwhile, we are going to support the bill as it has been introduced, because it eliminates the NOI (Notice of Intent) loophole and contains crucial performance rate-setting reforms, along with many other benefits. (Please see the attached chart for a more detailed breakdown of the changes the bill promises to make).
SONA believes that - on balance – the MMA will help songwriters! If you are interested, please take a look under the hood at what the bill accomplishes - the before and after - and decide for yourself if you'd like to personally support and share it with your fellow songwriters.
You may have already read social media posts advocating enthusiastic support of the MMA. We are also excited about the potential of this legislation, and we’ve worked hard to get to this point. But we have a much more nuanced, inside view of it than what we’ve seen on social media so far and wanted to clarify SONA’s position directly to you - our membership - in the hope that you will make a clear-eyed and informed decision for yourself.
And if, upon consideration, you agree with SONA’s executive committee, along with an historical number of PROs, publishers, labels, industry trade associations and creator organizations, that the bill moves the needle in the right direction towards fair compensation for music creators, please feel free to sign this petition of support and share it.
Let’s continue our mission to #gettherateright together!
Onward and upward!
Michelle Lewis and the Executive Committee
Songwriters Of North America
This newsletter's SONA member profile is on Steering Committee member Adam Dorn!
Q) What kinds of cool projects do you get to work on?
A) Originally I come from an artist and full songwriting background, so it's been weird to transition out of that into writing music to where it's about serving the picture.
These days I do all instrumental music and underscore. The projects range from music for a pixar amusement park ride to music for documentaries...TV/Film.
Q) Why did you end up moving into Instrumental music?
A) The lovely realities of our royalty-based music industry. After a successful run of licensing, royalties for my music (full songs) from my artist career began dipping and fees started going down.
I was always a guitar player as well and started to reached out to music supervisors to drum up work for instrumental music and it was a really slow process. People assume that if you do one thing, that’s all you are able to do. Slowly, through persistence and my skill set, I finally started getting them to stop thinking of me as Adam the artist or remixer and to give me a shot a other stuff.
Q) What would be some advice you would give to up and coming songwriters with regards to making a living doing music?
Being in the music biz has always been difficult. Always like rollerblading up vaseline mountains. The constants that I think are important to songwriters, producers and musicians are building a good community and constantly strive to learn more about the tools you can use and theory of music. Constantly write with other people, collaborate and immerse yourself. And don't forget to make some simple goals.
When you're first starting out, figure out a way to get yourself around people you admire in a non-stalker way. I'm a 2nd generation musician. My dad wrote a letter to head of capitol for Ray Charles saying he had some ideas. I wrote a letter too when I got old enough to people I admired. You'd be amazed how much access you can get by simply reaching out.
An don't forget - a good attitude, good work ethic — will get you a really long way. Work always has points in time when it slows down. Always keep exploring your creativity.
Q) Why is being part of SONA important to you?
It's all about community, educating, supporting eachother and hopefully effecting change legislatively. It's a also a great community that’s there for one another to offer support and advice.
It's truly been an incredible experience to be surrounded by people who I would never have crossed paths with. I'm happy that I'm not too sheltered in my own studio to not have met such a soulful community.
SONA is as much about the community as the people who are trying to make changes against the evil people — this is who I choose to be in a fox hole with.
Our first Summit in April 2015 was basically organized on a dare. After an initial meeting with (our now legal advisor) Dina LaPolt, where she gave us a skeptical side-eye when we told her we could gather 100 songwriters in a room to talk about challenges facing our profession, we were on A MISSION. And we pulled it off!
We learned a lot that first year. We learned even more last year. We’re not event planners. We are songwriters. Luckily for SONA, our steering committee and passionate crew of show-er uppers are quick studies and not surprisingly, world champion collaborators. This year’s Songwriter Summit, held at legendary Los Angeles recording studio, The Village, was beyond anything any of us ever thought we could accomplish.
Food! Drinks! Silent Auction! Intimate live performances of massive hit songs! Standing room only! Mind-blowing powerpoint on royalty extrapolation and analysis!! Take our word for it on that last one, people.
Chris Horvath’s powerpoint presentation had people both on the edge of their seats and then on their feet. “I never thought a casual comment I made during an interview would be a headline in Variety,” said Chris after Variety printed a summary of our event the next day with the all-important pull quote from his comments:
“God love the superstars, but this isn’t about them.”
And therein, you have the true and heartfelt mission of SONA: To save the middle class of songwriters from extinction.
Thanks to our corporate sponsors, BMI, ASCAP and PRS and many cheers for the generous donors to our silent auction:
Sound Revolver Studios
Don’t sleep through the revolution. Come with us as we work to change the world!
Sometimes the issues surrounding getting paid in a digital world seem unsurmountable for songwriters, who would much rather be writing another song than thinking about this stuff. But #SONA is determined to be part of the solution. Here we are last night at the latest SONA Salon at the lovely Shelly Peiken's home where we wined, dined and talked with independent music publishers.
This month's SONA member profile is on Jack Kugell! Check out an exclusive Q&A with him below:
Q - Jack, you've had a highly successful and long career in the music industry as a writer and producer - what are some things that you’ve seen change over the years?
A - You used to be able to support yourself with album cuts, even if you didn’t have the lead single. Sometimes an album cut alone could support you for about a whole year while you continued to write on records, hoping for that single. Now you need to get a single to make any money and even then it's nothing close to what it used to be. In addition to that, now you are also seeing many more writers listed on songs which continues to split up the pie.
Q - You've had a ton of music featured on TV and in Films, but you mentioned to me that a lot of money tends to get lost if you aren't watchful. What’s the best way to stay on top of getting paid for your music appearing on TV and in Films?
A - No one is going to care more about your money or creative property than you will. If you know something is airing, jot down the date/time and 9 months later when your statement comes in make sure you got paid for it and if not call somebody. You are reliant upon someone turning in a cue sheet for you to get paid and mistakes happen all the time. Reach out to the production company, reach out to your PRO to see if they got cue sheets. But you have to stay on top of it. It's your money and your creative copyright. You can't assume people are taking care of it for you.
Q - Given the current musical climate, if you were starting your career now what would you have done differently?
A - Probably gone to law school (kidding) - although having that degree now might make me a better viable executive. I would say that you have to be a lot more well rounded these days. Don’t just program beats, learn instruments. Maybe learn to produce in addition to writing songs so that you can support yourself doing music instead of having to get a ton of side jobs.
Q - Any other thoughts Jack?
A - In relation to SONA, I'd just like to say that I'm really proud to be on board with Shelly, Michelle and Kay and to have come on early since the beginning. Hopefully we can make a difference so that this career that we all love — future generations of writers can continue to do what they love without a side job.
Jack's official bio:
Jack Kugell has been one of Sony Music Publishing's most versatile songwriter/producers for the last 23 years: his work spans the Pop, R&B and Country arenas - to name a few. Jack’s work has sold a combined total of 19 million units, and counting. He has worked with artists from all over the world, reaching number one more than a dozen times in many different countries.
Jack was first signed to EMI Music Publishing in 1993 but as the son of producer Marty Kugell ("In The Still of The Nite"), his first musical experiences took place as he watched his dad write and record in the classic studios of New York and Los Angeles. By age eleven, Jack knew that he wanted to be a songwriter, and what started as a hobby soon became a full time career.
Kugell's first success as a songwriter came after he penned the perennial Christmas song "Hey Santa!" for The Wilsons and the theme song for "The Carnie Wilson Show." Jack is perhaps most recognized for his #1 chart-topper "Valentine" recorded by Martina McBride, co-written with Jim Brickman. "Valentine" became a #1 AC hit as well as reaching Top 5 on the Billboard Country Singles chart and earned multi-platinum status for both Martina McBride and Jim Brickman's albums. Artists Jack has worked with include: Christina Aguilera, Kesha, J.Lo, Fergie, The Pussycat Dolls, Jim Brickman, Martina McBride, Jessica Simpson, Sean Kingston, Mary J. Blige, Wayne Brady, Taio Cruz, 98 Degrees, All-4-One, Anastacia & Michelle Williams to name a few.
Jack along with his partners Jamie Jones and Matt Wong, are songwriters/ producers collectively known as The Heavyweights. As a production team, The Heavyweights have delivered hit songs to amass collective record sales of over 35 million units. They most recently enjoyed being a part of the Disney "Descendants 2" soundtrack which debuted at #1 on the iTunes Album charts worldwide. Their cover of “Love Is A Battlefield” for Grammy-nominated Shanachie recording Artist Maysa, was just released to radio as the lead single from her current album.
The Heavyweights other endeavors include writing and producing Shontelle’s "Battle Cry", which received the historic honor of being an official theme song for the Obama campaign, as well as being included on the official Obama Campaign CD. The Heavyweights also wrote and produced Wayne Brady’s critically acclaimed debut album “A LONG TIME COMING”, which resulted in a 2009 Grammy nomination for Brady’s vocal performance on the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come”. In 2015 the Heavyweights work resulted in their second GRAMMY nominated vocal for Hidden Beach Recordings Artist, Angie Fisher, for the song "I.R.S."
Jack, along with The Heavyweights, is currently developing talent, having recently signed artist Tay Beckham, to their new Imprint HEAVYWEIGHTS Entertainment in partnership with Empire Distribution. Jack continues to consistently write great songs and put his stamp on great talent.
If you were a pre digital songwriter you’ve been navigating a whole new terrain. If you’re still operating under Old Rules (as I catch myself doing on many occasion), you may be wondering why the plumbing isn’t working the way it used to. Read more ->
“there is only one question for the Court to resolve: whether the Consent Decree contains an express prohibition on fractional licensing. The answer to that is plainly no. The District Court’s decision should be affirmed.”
Q: How long have you been a full time songwriter for?
A: I've been a full time songwriter for 6yrs. I started off as an artist in Miami and noticed that a lot of my songs were getting cut for other artists and I decided to go in that direction instead of continuing to be a recording artist.
Q: How would you say you've approached the industry a bit differently that's contributed to your success as a songwriter?
A: I've learned to use publishers as allies. I'm not looking for the traditional publishing deal where you sign and they own everything you do, it doesn't really make sense anymore. Sometimes I'll sign single songs to a publisher, but I've found that not having an overall publishing deal allows me to be more flexible and independent.
Q: In terms of making a living as a songwriter - I know the question of how to ask for (or if you should ask for) songwriting fees comes up a lot. How do you feel about songwriting fees?
A: I think you should always assess the situation, but always make sure that you know your own worth. There's no one answer, each situation is different. If there's a project budget, then its fair to ask to get a songwriting fee. Everyone is getting paid. The studio, engineer, producer. Other times, if you really like or believe in a project and think that it might open more doors for you, then maybe you decide to just do the session. But you should never feel bad about asking for a fee if people are getting paid.
Q: Do you have any advice for a new writer who has been invited to a writing camp for the first time?
A: Be very open to collaborating but don't be afraid to express your ideas. Go all out - write like you are writing by yourself. Have fun and enjoy the moment. It's also important to network and continue to make connections. Knowing how to work with other people is essential to being successful as a songwriter.
A FEW GOOD MEN (AND WOMEN)
By Adam Gorgoni (Composer, Founding member of SONA)
Professional music writers write better music. There…I said it.
OK, I’m aware of more than a hint of snobbishness in that statement and that I am making a value judgment that others may not share. But I believe it is true, and I want to argue here for the social value of the professional middle-class music writer. That we will all be worse off, individually and as a culture, if the profession is allowed to go the way of the horse and buggy, if the soundtracks to all of our lives are created only by the mega-writers, the robots, and the amateurs.
A few caveats: I do not mean to disrespect the super-successful who got to the top of the food chain and stayed there. Max Martin. Diane Warren. Hans Zimmer. There will always be a small elite group at the top. And more power to them. But they can’t write all the songs and score all the films.
Similarly, I don’t mean to denigrate the hobbyists…. In fact, all of us who write music professionally were once amateurs, kids who loved music and dreamed of a career as a songwriter or a composer. The human race only produces a Mozart or a Stevie Wonder a few times a century. The rest of us have to start from scratch.
And let’s be honest, back then, when we first started out, most of us weren’t very good. We had to spend years honing our abilities, studying, practicing, studying, practicing, and then studying and practicing some more. We wrote HUNDREDS of mediocre songs that never saw the light of day. We tried and failed. Most of us didn’t make it. We weren’t talented enough, or lucky enough, or persistent enough.
But in the pre-digital age, if you were able to beat the odds and build a career, you could support yourself while you got good. Every once in a while you got lucky and somebody recorded your song, or you placed something in a TV show, or you got hired to score an independent film. You were able to eke out a living while you improved your skills.
And you did improve. You learned how to set up a great hook, or how to deftly weave a melody around a character’s dialogue. You developed what talent you did have over time and soon you had grown expertise: an enigmatic combination of perseverance, instinct, and inspiration that produces excellent, memorable work.
Let’s get real: we’re talking about music, that wonderful magical alchemy that has moved human beings since we were chanting and banging drums around fires thousands of years ago. It’s vital. It’s in our blood and bones. The physics of the cosmos vibrate according to its mathematical relationships. We literally couldn’t live without it. As a society, we need it to be the best it can possibly be.
And I would argue that most of the music that really moves you, that stamps itself indelibly onto your life, was written by professionals who paid their dues. When ET and Elliot took off on that bicycle ride, your heart would have stayed on the ground without John Williams’ score. Would that moment have had the same impact if it had been accompanied by a computer program, or a music library, or someone experimenting with software in their spare time? The same is true of the other movies and TV shows that have had lasting impact on your soul. The composer, spent years learning how to create music and marry it to film in just such a way as to make you laugh or scream or cry.
And the songs you love, the ones you remember from your high school prom, or danced to at your wedding…yes, some were written by the artist who performed them. But how many of them were written by someone fooling around in their bedroom and then posting them to YouTube? Not many. Rather, most were written by professional writers whose names you will never know and whose voices you will never hear, but who poured much blood and sweat and many tears into those exceptional songs, made them possible, gave you that elevated experience.
Think of it this way: would you want to receive open heart surgery from someone who learned how to do it on the internet, or have an attorney who didn’t go to law school and was trying their first case defend you at your murder trial? No…you would want the best you could get. The John Williams of heart surgeons. And if he or she was booked, you would want someone perhaps less famous, but who was similarly skilled and experienced (albeit not as touched by God.)
That’s who we are…the thousands of nameless and faceless hard-working small businesspeople. As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, and I paraphrase: “You want us on that wall, you need us on that wall,” writing the music that turns your black and white life to color, pen the songs you sing with your kids in the car, the melodies that resonate within your most precious memories.
We writers are not looking for sympathy. We choose the artistic life and we embrace it. And we know we’re not alone in facing job dislocation caused by technological change.
But here’s the last crucial point: we don’t make typewriters or cassette players. There is still massive demand for our product. More people are consuming more music in more ways than ever before. Record companies are having their best quarters EVER. The tech companies that profit from our labor are at the top of the Fortune 500. But our slice of the pie has shrunk to the point where even young writers, even if they are successful, will not be able to buy a house, send their kids to college, save a little for retirement. Sadly, that means there will be way less meaningful music in the world.
And as the saying goes…you get what you pay for.