SESAC and Music Rights

SESAC and Music Rights

This interview was originally published in May 2014.

 

Trevor Gale is the Senior Vice President of Writer/Publisher Relations at the U.S.-based performance rights organization (PRO) SESAC, which has been in existence for over 80 years.Trevor got his start in music as a session drummer in New York City and recorded and toured with superstars Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Williams, Run-D.M.C and a variety of other artists. He also headed his own music production company and was a successful record producer and songwriter before coming to SESAC in 1996 as Associate Director of Writer/Publisher Relations, working his way up to his current position. As Senior Vice President, Trevor is responsible for overseeing the entire SESAC writer/publisher relations staff, and the signing and development of songwriters and publishers in all genres including pop, urban, country, rock, jazz, alternative and Latin. SESAC represents renowned songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, Nate “Danja” Hills, Swizz Beatz, Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains and Rico Love.

 

Trevor Gale

 

 

Trevor talked to me about what it takes to be a successful musician and songwriter in the current climate. He also discussed the finer points of music publishing and shared some tips for artists looking to select the right PRO to suit their needs.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks so much for taking some time to chat, Trevor. From what I hear, you got your start in the music business as a drummer.

 

TG:

 

Yes. I was a working studio touring musician here in New York City for many years. I started playing because I loved The Beatles when I was a little kid, and there was something about music that just invigorated my whole spirit and soul. One day, a friend of mine told me he was going to start playing guitar, and that maybe I should start playing drums. And I’ve never looked back.

 

I started playing with a lot of musicians and artists in New York. I worked with Whitney Houston for about three-and-a-half years. I started when I did her record release concert event, which was at a place called The Bottom Line. At the time, I didn’t know who she was. Because I had been playing with so many people, she was just another artist. We did many concerts together, and of course, then that original record went from being a little single called “You Give Good Love” to a multi-platinum album.

 

I also played with Phyllis Hyman for a bunch of years, Angela Bofill, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Marlena Shaw and Mongo Santamaria. And I got to record with Humble Pie, which was really interesting, because I was a huge fan of theirs. A friend of mine was an engineer, working in the studio with them, and he called and said, “I’m in the studio recording an album with these English guys, and you should come by.”

 

So I showed up, and Jerry Shirley was unable to participate in the sessions they had booked for about a month. Steve Marriott was talking to my friend and asked him if he knew any drummers. I was just quietly sitting in the corner, and my friend pointed at me. So Steve said, “Come here at 6:00 tomorrow, and we’ll see if you’re a drummer.” And of course, I was so excited that I showed up at about 2:30. I recorded on an album called On to Victory on Atlantic Records. I ended up playing percussion on a couple songs on the next album when Jerry returned.

 

I also played for a lot of Budweiser and King Cobra malt liquor jingles and a bunch of other projects, because when you’re a drummer in a place like New York City, playing around a lot, you end up getting called to do a lot of different things.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Well, and a guy who knows how to successfully work as a musician definitely has some tips and experience to share. It sounds like you spent well over a decade as a working drummer. Of course, talent is a big part of being successful, but there are a lot of talented people that don’t make it. What do you think you did differently that a lot of other people didn’t that helped you succeed as a musician?

 

TG:

 

I’ve always considered myself to be very blessed. I have a very spiritual outlook on things and do not think anything happens randomly. But what I always encourage people to do now is to, first of all, prepare yourself, because when you have that moment when someone says, “Be there tomorrow at 6:00, and we’ll see,” and that person is a total badass, you have to find a way to be a badass too.

 

Secondly, you have to network and try to be positive and likeable. Sometimes people are edgy, disgruntled, uncool and selfish. They might be good players, but others will think twice about offering these types of people opportunities.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

So, it’s about being a good “hang.”

 

TG:

 

Yes. People should feel good when they see you. There should be a positive energy around you. That might not sound too technical, but when you think about it, in an ultra-competitive landscape, you want to be the one that people like.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Technical or not, it’s something people forget.

 

TG:

 

I think that idea has a lot to do with finding yourself in positive situations and being able to take advantage of great opportunities. I encourage musicians and artists to open themselves up to music, because we live in a world and work in an industry that likes to segregate and categorize things, but at the same time, great music is great music. So, you need to open your ears and minds to art, because that’s what music really is. You need to understand and hear what other people are doing. Being that open can open a lot of doors for you. It can give you the opportunity to work with people who you would not necessarily expect you could work with. If you do get certain opportunities, the musical platform is not strange to you, and you’re not uncomfortable. For example, when you’re listening to Led Zeppelin albums right next to Kool and the Gang albums or Yes and Carlos Santana, you can fit right into any environment.

 

What’s interesting and great about today’s music landscape is that there is so much diversity; kids grow up hearing a lot of different types of music. I always like to encourage writers and artists and musicians to expose themselves to a lot of different things on their own. You might love salsa music, but don’t throw regional Mexican music, Brazilian music or big band music out the window. If you want to be a working musician, familiarize yourself with a lot of different genres. You don’t have to bathe in everything all day, but drink a cup of something different every once in a while, so you have an idea of what different styles are all about.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

That’s great advice. How does a working drummer end up being the creative liaison at SESAC?

 

TG:

 

That’s a good question. I got a call one day from my attorney, and he said, “Would you be interested in working at SESAC?” And I was confused. I had heard of SESAC very peripherally, because I was a member of ASCAP at the time. So, I did a little research and interviewed.

 

At the time, I had begun to segue into being a producer and a manager. I had my own production company and had produced a couple projects with an R&B group, a rap group and a couple others. Being a producer and manager really drenched me in the whole concept of motivating people, steering talented people down a path when they were all over the place and learning how to take the time to understand the necessary steps they needed to take in order to move forward with their careers.

 

When the SESAC opportunity arose, the concept of a day job seemed a little strange to me, but at the same time, the elements of it came naturally because of what I had been doing for the last four or five years, even though it was on my own dime and my own time.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Well, and you’re a rhythm section player, so by nature, you likely have a talent for organization.

 

TG:

 

Absolutely. As a drummer, you have to be able to do multiple things with one brain at the same time. That helped me a lot. The transition into working at SESAC was interesting, because when I came here, the job was about recruiting people. At the time, SESAC had no urban music department. I tuned in intentionally to my years of networking and of working in New York City and all over the country and said, “I know some of the best musicians and songwriters in the current landscape.” So, that’s what I focused on. I reached out to many people, and the organization grew. The next thing I knew, we went from having one song on the Boomerang soundtrack album to having multiple hits on the chart simultaneously. It came together after a lot of hard work.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I commend you on what sounds like an outstanding body of work. 18 years in the music business in this capacity makes you like the Michael Jordan of music.

 

TG:

 

18 years is a little daunting when you think about it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the music business is publishing. And PROs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making sure that’s established. Can you describe to me what you feel the majority of artists don’t understand when they show up at your door and want to establish themselves as writers and publishers?

 

TG:

 

The one thing artists know is how to sing and dance when the spotlight hits them on stage. They know how to look the part, but they have no clue how the money is supposed to come to them, even though they know they are supposed to get paid. “I’m going to have girls, be on stage, be singing and be in the studio and have a lot of money” is all they understand.

 

But there are a lot of things that go into getting to the place where you are making money. Firstly, you have to know the percentage of your participation on the songs that you create. You have to ask the people in the studio when you are writing the song what percentage of the song credits you should all be getting, agree on those numbers and write them down. That’s called a split sheet. In order for you to get paid from the performances of your song, you have to know on which percentage of that song that you will be entitled to reap the benefits.

 

I end up talking about these types of basic details 100 times per day. I teach artists that as they write a song, they are both the songwriter and the publisher on that song. The money comes in equally to the writer and the publisher. And if you are an artist, no, it’s not the coolest thing in the world to give 100 percent as a publisher to the guy who bought you a suit so you could do a show.

 

The technical side of how artists actually earn money once they’ve written songs that get performed publicly on the radio, the Internet, on television and as part of live performances is incredibly important. On the SESAC website, we break down the ABCs of music publishing and getting paid for your work.

 

It’s really important for artists to learn to take care of their business. A lot of musicians say they are in the music business but then don’t do any actual business. For example, many are confused when I ask them if they registered their songs, or tell them that it’s a problem they didn’t tell me that they moved five times. All of these details will prevent them from getting the checks that they are eagerly awaiting.

 

So, as an artist, you have to take care of business. You have to know what your percentages are by sitting down with everyone you’ve collaborated with. And you have to formalize your publishing company/entity and understand exactly what that means. You also have to have an aerial view of how your business works. For instance, if you wrote ten-percent of a song that gets on the chart for two weeks, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make $700,000. If you are on a label, your record may get dropped. That’s why you can’t be in a situation where you are maxing out your credit cards the second one song starts getting some airplay.

 

A lot of my job involves helping musicians understand how they get paid, because that is our number one job at SESAC – to make sure publishers and songwriters get compensated for the music they make. And for me, an educated member is the best member. Musicians need to understand exactly how everything works, and that six-percent of a song that the record company promoted for two weeks at radio is not going to bring them millions of dollars. They need to understand all the nuances. And I feel great when someone walks away with a big “a-ha” moment about running their career.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

SESAC is the smallest of the three PROs. And there may soon be a fourth PRO. In your opinion, why should an artist choose SESAC over ASCAP, BMI or another similar organization?

 

TG:

 

ASCAP and BMI are really good organizations, and we all do basically the exact same thing. It is great that American songwriters have a choice, because 95 percent of songwriters from other countries only have one PRO in their country. One of the great things I feel SESAC has to offer is that we are smaller. It affords us the opportunity to give a lot more personalized attention to our songwriters. Songwriters, artists and musicians love attention, and the fact that they can call up and get one of us on the phone and actually come and meet with us in person is a huge benefit. We can come to their shows and studio sessions. And people that work with us love that fact.

 

We have about 30,000 songwriters and publishers. ASCAP and BMI both have north of 500,000+ writers and publishers each, so it can be challenging in that situation to get a response to inquiries, have someone show up to their show or showcase, etc.

 

We also pay faster than ASCAP and BMI. So, if you and I wrote a song together and you were on ASCAP, and I was on SESAC, and that song got on the radio, 99.9-percent of the time, I would get that check at least four months before you would. We also now pay monthly for radio writers and performances.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

The personalized attention is definitely really huge for artists. But SESAC represents about four- or five-percent of the marketplace, so I would imagine there is some downside. When a company like ASCAP can go and do blanket licenses for 95-percent of the songwriters in the States and then not necessarily have to pay a third entity, that can be a huge benefit. Does being a member of SESAC exclude artists from some opportunities, or is that just a misperception?

 

TG:

 

That’s just a misperception. The writers here are not excluded from anything. We have a very aggressive licensing department and licenses with all the major networks, venues, etc. Also, the president and COO of SESAC was once the head of our licensing department. And prior to that, he was the Senior Vice President of Licensing at ASCAP for over 15 years. He really knows the licensing world inside and out. But, that is a great question.

 

I really don’t think there’s a downside to going with SESAC. The only thing I would say is that ASCAP and BMI can say they represent some huge artists like Beyonce and Kanye West, so they can use that in their marketing to bring in more artists. For example, if you go back in time a little bit, ASCAP ads on billboards used to just have a list of names of superstars they worked with. It’s a little bit different now.

 

The only thing I can say is a downside to SESAC is that we can’t say we have a lot of huge artists. We do have a lot of great people, like Bob Dylan, Mumford & Sons, MGMT, The Avett Brothers, Swizz Beatz, Rush, Rico Love and American Authors. But the one thing ASCAP and BMI can always pull out of their rabbit hat is a laundry list of big names.

 

A lot of people are not aware of SESAC’s upsides. Otherwise, I think our laundry list of superstars would be a lot longer. Of course, it’s growing every day, because growing our roster is a major focus. When I sit down with musicians, I explain that we pay faster and we also pay more, because we can’t be the little performing rights organization and pay less than ASCAP and BMI. We endeavor to pay competitively. To go back to that example of that hypothetical song you and I wrote that got played on the radio: If you were with ASCAP and I was with SESAC, you might get $4,900, whereas I would get $6,000.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

There is a rumor that Irving Azoff is starting his own PRO. And this has brought up the question: Is the PRO system in the U.S. due for a refresh?

 

TG:

 

I certainly wish Irving Azoff and Randy Grimmett, his potential partner, the best of everything. I think part of their business model is very interesting, because Azoff is already one of the most powerful managers you could ever dream of, and partnering with Madison Square Garden Enterprises dumps a lot of resources into the trunk of his car. I think what they’re both doing is saying, “Come to us, and not only will we open the whole kitchen to you, but we’re also going to open the sun roof, the swimming pool in the backyard and all the other resources.” They said they want to get 40-50 clients for that endeavor, so it could be interesting. How good they will be at doing that is a different story.

 

Obviously, part of Azoff’s tactic is that he can get some big superstars, so people will technically have to pay him to play their songs. But the radio industry is a $16 billion per year industry. And artists only get one-percent of that or less already. It will be very interesting to see how a fourth entity fares in the already very-crowded landscape that doesn’t want to pay any more money.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Do you have any parting words of advice for artists?

 

TG:

 

Songwriters today really need to do their homework by studying great songs and songwriters. And if you are trying to be a working artist, never give up, because the music industry is full of rejection until you write a hit. Then, everyone loves you.

 

I would also say you need to strive for perfection. Music is art and culture. It’s not just disposable fodder. It is what they will dig up 700,000 years from now and say, “This is what the old folks listen to.” And hopefully, they will find something of the same caliber as Duke Ellington, The Beatles and Nina Simone.

 

By way of example, I once played on a record called Murphy’s Law by Chéri. It was a goofy little song, but it went to #1 on the Billboard chart. I just want to encourage songwriters to write the best songs they can, study their craft as much as possible and work as hard as they can. Always push the envelope of art and culture as far as it can go.

 

To learn more about Trevor Gale and the work he does with musicians, visit the SESAC website. You can also check out the PRO via Facebook and Twitter.