|(Photo by Kristin Chalmers)
Industry Profile: Billy Mann
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Billy Mann, founder/CEO, Green & Bloom | Topl1ne; and chairman, Manncom.
Billy Mann may be one of America’s most celebrated songwriters and producers, but he is also now carving out a significant niche for himself in the new-styled music industry as a successful business entrepreneur.
Mann heads the management firm Manncom, as well as Green & Bloom | Topl1ne, a publishing co-venture with BMG Chrysalis Rights Management.
Over two decades, Mann has worked with about every leading contemporary popular artist you can name, including: P!nk, John Legend, Celine Dion, Take That, Martina McBride, Backstreet Boys, Cher, Kelly Rowland, Jessica Simpson, Teddy Geiger, Ricky Martin, Anastacia, Art Garfunkel and many others.
Raised in inner-city Philadelphia, Mann attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA). He began his career after meeting producer Ric Wake in New York, and signing with A&M Records’ imprint DV8.
Two solo A&M releases, “Billy Mann” (1996), and Earthbound” (1998) tanked but, nevertheless, Mann was on his way as a producer, songwriter, and as an industry consultant.
In 2001, Mann founded Stealth Entertainment, which kick started the careers of Andy Zulla, Christopher Rojas, Teddy Geiger, Esmee Denters and Pete Wallace.
Having joined the board of EMI Music in 2007, Mann became chief creative officer in 2008 and, following several other promotions, oversaw the struggling major’s A&R for the world outside North America and the United Kingdom. He is credited for spearheading market breakthroughs of David Guetta, Pablo Alboran, Bebe, Juan Luis Guerra, Tiziano Ferro, Panda and others.
In 2011, Mann became president of creative, BMG North America (since renamed BMG Chrysalis Rights Management), overseeing creative staff in New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville in managing the roster integration of recently acquired companies, and leading efforts to attract, develop, and sign new talent.
Mann is now concentrating on his own production and songwriting, as well Mann as further developing Manncom, and Green & Bloom | Topl1ne.
How do you balance your creative and business lives?
I have a three prong career. I’m a songwriter, and a producer. The other piece, which is the executive side, is how do I take my experiences, and build things that will be good for other talented people; and be everlasting enough for me to be elegantly transition into as I age in this business where people don’t age with much elegance.
That’s why you launched Manncom, and Green & Bloom | Topl1ne?
That’s part of it. I have seen a lot of people who write and produce; and I admire and look at a lot of the younger songwriters, and producers that come up. I recognize that when I was 23 or 24, I was out at the clubs every night of the week. I was booked on two sometimes three writing sessions a day. It was the (creative) grind constantly. But I was working in studios where if you wanted to multi-track you had to find a studio that had a Studer (recorder). Now you can do it on your iPhone or on your lap top.
There are more songwriters around today, and they are phenomenally talented, so it’s really competitive, which I love. But what I came to realize is that I really enjoy young talented songwriters, and I enjoy trying to take the experiences that I had and empower them, and be a supportive force for them. That serves two goals for me. One, under personal fulfillment, it’s incredible when you work with a songwriter that you believe in, and you see their dreams happen, and you can be part of that. The other side of it is that if you can be a part of it, and you are investing in them, and you can provide scaffolding for them creatively, and financially, and you can do it in a soulful way, then you create something that is good for them, and it’s something that you can build into a business.
You started Green & Bloom | Topl1ne about three years ago.
Now we represent over 3,000 copyrights, and nearly 50 songwriters. We have songwriters that have songs on everything from Eric Clapton to David Guetta and John Legend and Pink to the Saturdays to Gary Clark Jr. to Mindy Smith. These are great people I’m working with. I feel energized because it doesn’t cannibalize the songwriting and the producing that I want to do. It allows me to choose the things that I want to do as a writer/producer more, and also apply a lot of my experiences in a more productive way than I would if I was chasing after every project.
Manncom is a management company?
Manncom is really focused on managing a small number of producers, and developing artists. A lot of times those artists come from the publishing side of the business. For example, we have an amazing young band from Brooklyn, Oh Honey which is a duo with Mitchy Collins, one of our songwriters, and a great singer. He teamed up with Danielle Bouchard, who is a super talented singer, and they are (collaborating) with another one of the writers, and producers that we manage, Christian Medice. They are all super young. They started Oh Honey, and we have helped support their efforts to put together their repertoire. They were playing clubs in Brooklyn, and Manhattan. When they grew to a certain spot where they needed management, it was a natural fit for us (to be involved) because we had a relationship with them. We were able to augment their efforts, and get them a deal with Atlantic Records working with Craig Kallman, Julie Greenwald and Mike Easterlin there.
How much office staff do you have for the two companies.
We have about 7 people. I’m in Connecticut. We have space in New York, and LA. BMG (BMG Chrysalis Rights Management) has been our admin partner and JV (joint venture) investor in Green & Bloom | Topl1ne . We have been really fortunate to work with their (U.S.) team and their international team.
This sounds similar to what you did with Stealth Entertainment in the ‘90s.
From the management side, yes. Stealth was profitable. We did very well because we focused on brand partnerships. We were developing talent, but the real focus was not solely being about selling records. With Teddy Geiger, we had a Top 10 album (with “Underage Thinking” in 2006). We had Top 10 singles, and MTV awards but the core of our revenue was generated by partnerships with brands and other companies around Ted. The reason why Stealth never graduated into a publishing company was because I was then still stuck under the terms of my old contracts.
[In addition to developing talent, Stealth had tie-ins with Seventeen magazine, Columbia Records, SonyBMG Special Projects, Target, and Levi's.]
You launched Manncom, and Green & Bloom | Topl1ne after departing EMI Music.
I left EMI totally happy, and took a few months to figure out what I wanted to do. I needed to decide what I wanted in my life. Financially, I’m secure. I’m very active in charity work. I needed first to be a husband, and a dad. Then I realized what I wanted to do. I’m very young. I’ve had a lot of hits. I worked with every artist you could possibly want to work with. I was only 41. What am I going to do? It caused me to further ask, “What is it that I believe in and what do I want this to be?”
What I really want to do is to take the experiences that I had and try and apply them, and build a music company. That is something that I wish that someone had done for me when I started. For it (the company) to have a sense of community, and have it be collaborative. To teach artists and writers about their business, and how to approach the business in a different way. Provide scaffolding for them, and leverage. Not working for them, but teaching them how to fend for themselves which I wish someone had done for me when I started. Fortunately, I was just scrappy enough to figure it out, but a lot of artists aren’t.
How did those around you react to you changing your career course?
I was 100% backed by the artists in my life, by BMG, by my family, and by my friends. It has been amazing for me. I have stayed a part of BMG. I’m in business with them and I still feel very close to the company. At the same time while building the company (Green & Bloom | Topl1ne ) and building an incredible roster with an already rich little catalog, I’m writing and producing John Legend, Pink, Cher, and Seeed. In the process I’m active on platinum Top 10 records around the world.
When Stealth Entertainment was acquired by EMI Group in 2007, you joined EMI as both creative advisor, and as a member of the operating board. You were subsequently appointed chief creative officer, and president of both new music a&r, international, and global artist management.
By the time you joined, EMI had been acquired by Terra Firma Capital Partners. EMI was a company that had been under threat of sale for over a decade. By this time EMI was profitable, but the debt load would lead to its death knell for Terra Firma.
You said something really important. That the company was very profitable. But under the debt, it didn’t matter how profitable it was. The markets during that period shifted so drastically. It’s not unlike what happened with a lot of Americans who bought homes at (high mortgage) rates that they thought would never kick in. But they did. Then all of a sudden it didn’t matter if their salary met the (loan) criteria initially. They were now subject to terms that, frankly, are insurmountable.
[Citigroup, the American multinational banking and financial services corporation, took full ownership of EMI Group from Terra Firma Capital Partners on Feb. 1, 2011. EMI sold its recorded music operations to Universal Music Group for $1.9 billion, and its music publishing operations to Sony/ATV Music Publishing for $2.2 billion.]
Guy Hands, the founder and chairman of Terra Firma primarily gets blamed for EMI’s downfall. Unfairly judged?
He became a pretty convenient kicking post for that era. On the other hand, there were some decisions that were made as a whole that reflected a misunderstanding of the way the music industry works.
Like his dealings with the roster’s artists and managers?
I think that with the treatment of artists that the messaging was terrible. One of the people who deserve a little more cred than he got is Elio Leoni-Sceti, the CEO brought in under some pretty tough circumstances. You have to imagine that they brought in a guy from outside the business while the (music) business itself was bleeding. The sky was falling from the top. Meaning that there were these bank covenants, the bank (debt) load, a private equality firm, Citigroup and whoever else has invested in this all pushing pressure down on the company to perform. Then underneath, you had really unhappy artists, and an organization that was, frankly, in chaos. And here comes a guy who is a complete outsider. I personally give him a lot of credit for being daring enough to take the role and imposing whatever methods that he knew—which probably were not the most music industry friendly— to stop the bleeding. And to try to get things under control.
With your EMI positions, you were able to work extensively in Spain, Italy, and Germany.
Absolutely. I can only say that I was cast in the right place. One of the big challenges that happened was that the U.S. and the UK companies led by Nick Gatfield needed to deliver hit artists. That’s where a lot of the success needed to come from to drive the company forward around the world. Outside of Katy Perry and Coldplay and what (EMI Nashville president) Mike Dungan did in Nashville, all of which pre-existed Terra Firma, the U.S. and UK companies--the U.S. company in particular, really struggled to come up with much because it was under such duress.
Well no artist or manager wanted to sign with EMI.
Right, but on the international side, I take incredible pride in what the team that I worked with achieved. We broke David Guetta (worldwide), and Tiziano Ferro in Italy. We had Bebe in Spain. I signed Pablo Alboran with an amazing guy Simone Bosé (GM, EMI Music Spain) who passed away suddenly last year. One of the best guys I've ever met in this business, and Pablo became the biggest new artist in Spain in probably 10 years. While Pablo was a tremendous success for EMI in Spain, in Australia they broke Empire of the Sun, and in Germany we had Helene Fischer who's a megastar in Schlager music. I could go through on the international side the successes. I give a lot of credit to the working people in that company who in the face of all these executive changes at the top just got on with it.
You are credited with taking David Guetta from being a top DJ to being a global mainstream artist after you heard “When Love Takes Over”
When I met David he had sold 137,000 albums. He has since done better than that (laughing). When I first met David, I was in Paris, jumping into a taxi to see Coldplay. In the taxi David, said, "I want you to hear this.” And he put his headphones on me. He and I had never met, and he had no idea that Kelly Rowlands and I are so close. She is one of my dear friends and is someone who knows me and my kids. I have worked on several of her albums. She's just a very dear person to me. I I hear the piano lick that is very Coldplay sounding piano, and then I hear Kelly's voice come out and I just thought--separate from the fact that I loved the song and I know the Nervo Twins (Miriam and Olivia Nervo) who also wrote it with them, I thought, "This is something I have to fight for." I was so lonely traveling around the world at the time, and being away from my family. Hearing Kelly's voice on that record was like getting a call from an old friend I just looked at David and said, "We are going to go and get this."
You worked at EMI for four years and under three CEOs. The last one being Roger Faxon. Why did you leave EMI in late 2010?
Roger was very good to me, and they wanted me to stay. They gave me an offer to stay, and stay on in a global role. I knew that it was coming to an end. I don't think that Roger had it in his heart that he genuinely wanted to stay at the company. I had a really nice relationship with Roger, but I think that during the years that I was at EMI, I really took refuge in the working people of the company. I knew all of the people around the world. I cared and I still care about them. I knew them and their birthdays and their spouses and partners. I really worked incredibly hard to build a relationship within a company where it was increasingly centralized when it should have been more decentralized.
How do you look back at your EMI tenure now?
I've always said that it was like falling in love with the girl of your dreams who decides to change to a fundamentalist religion while you are planning the wedding every year. Pink was carved out of my deal, and I had a very successful record with her. When I went to the Grammys in 2010, Pink performed “Glitter In The Air” which she and I wrote, and that I produced. It was the same night that David Guetta and “When Love Takes Over” won a Grammy (for Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical). That was huge career highlight for me and my wife being there.
After you left EMI, you signed on as an executive at BMG the following year. “They keep pulling me back” syndrome? What was behind that decision?
BMG as you know is a very fast-moving publishing company. It is led by Hartwig Masuch, (CEO) who is a really decent, soulful human being. Between Harfick, Richard Blackstone (CCO) and Laurent Colbert (president North America) who I adore and the leadership around the world which is made up of extraordinary people, it felt like there was an opportunity for a global music company to take shape being free of the legacy of challenges that the established music industry had to and continues to contend with. I was inspired by that. At the same time, they allowed me to be an entrepreneur, and build Green & Bloom | Topl1ne and continue to write and produce.
Despite challenges this seems to be a great era for pop music songwriting.
Listen, I think that music is only going to be great, and how we find, experience, consume it, and work with it, that’s a moving target. But the music itself is always good.
You have worked in both the corporate and independent sectors of the music industry. Are we not living in an era where songwriters and publishers are being screwed more than ever?
Has there been a time in modern music industry history when the artist and the songwriter haven’t been a little bit screwed?
A lot of that was within the industry itself with rip-off recording and publishing deals. We are in an era in which businesses are seeking to operate on the backs of music creators, music publishers, and record labels.
Right. I would say that we are living in a time when the consumption of music is healthy, but the balance of distribution of revenue is chaotic. In the short term, it’s going to feel pretty awful for a lot of facets of our industry until we eventually acclimate to this new technological music, and intellectual property world that we are entering into. I don’t think that it is as simple an answer as, “Yes, we are all getting screwed.” At the moment, it certainly doesn’t feel very good. But I have to step back at look with a little longer lens. These kinds of changes are happening in all kinds of businesses.
Nevertheless, the recording industry was the first media sector to feel the full impact of the Internet, and technology-empowered consumers and the first to face a borderless global ecosystem that defied control or monetization.
There is no question that in the entertainment business that the music industry has been the canary in the coal mine that everybody chooses to ignore until it’s kinda too late.
Songwriters not being properly paid has been a tradition within the music business.....
That still happens.
I know it still happens but we are also seeing businesses being built on the use of cheap music. Their business model is, “How can we get out of paying creative people?”
You have been with a number of music publishing companies over the years.
And I have consulted for several. By the way my entry into the corporate role. It was not pretty, Larry. I got the “Jerry Macguire” from everybody who knew me in the business. They all clapped their hands and said, “You are going to do great.” Then they whispered to each other, “I give him two weeks.” But strangely enough, and maybe it’s my Philadelphia upbringing that is actually what motivated me so much to be able to achieve.
What factors cause the corporate music world to keep hiring you?
I think that the strange “prison law degree” that I got in the early part of my career. When I say “prison law degree,” I mean that I signed a series of agreements when I had first started out that included my publishing, me as an artist, producer, and performer that were pretty aggressive. They were very aggressive agreements.
This was in the mid-‘90s?
Yeah. I had to unravel and dismantle all of that. In so in doing, I was able to learn a lot about the business side of being creative person. I loved it, and I was very fortunate to have some incredible mentors who encouraged me to go with it. While I was writing, producing, and working my songs like any other songwriter to get on record, I also had a pretty amazing group of people along the way that helped further my education on the business side. A lot of those people realized that (knowing business) is not for everybody, but there have been some wonderful pairings in our industry on a business level when creative people understand the business and partner into these companies.
Your contracts in the 1990s were with English record producer Ric Wake?
Yeah. By the way, I am eternally grateful to Ric in believing in me in those early years. I had no money. If you have to decide between not being able to eat and someone believing in you..... I will never forget that.
That was the trade-off in those days. Give up certain things, and an artist or songwriter would receive an entry into the music industry. Ric also likely better crystallized your career direction. If you hadn't met him you may have stayed a singer/songwriter.
Having met him I was still a singer/songwriter, but if I had not met him I probably would have been a really good piano bar singer/songwriter. I didn't run into working on the executive side of the business. I took my time. Initially, it started when I was hired by BMG International to consult and executive produce some records in Scandinavia and Europe. Then I began consulting for other companies including Zomba, and Warner Chappell.
Was this when you were living in Europe?
Yeah. I would be there for four or five months at a time.
This was after releasing your two solo albums with A&M Records?
It was right after the first album (“Billy Mann” in 1996) that I started exploring Europe. It was over the course of several years of consulting so many of the major companies, almost all of them, that I got acclimated to what happens inside (a major company). But of course, you don't know what it is until you actually get in there with both feet.
Someone with extensive knowledge of the American music market, you would have been a rarity in Europe then.
Ironically what that did for me was to really set the table for my role when I was later president of EMI International. I was then able to walk into that role with 15 years of relationships with managers and artists all over Europe that I otherwise would not have had if I didn't have that time living abroad writing, producing and executive producing projects.
Did the failure of your two A&M albums lead you to realize you had to be something more than an artist?
I have such a different view of myself today looking back at myself as an artist. The truth is if I were who I am today as a record executive at a major label then in the early '90s, I would not have signed me as an artist.
I would have signed me as a songwriter, and as part of an A&R team as a producer. But I don't think that I would have signed me as an artist. I certainly would never want to offend Al Cafaro who was the chairman of A&M at the time, and who signed me, or the pretty amazing executives at A&M and PolyGram who fought hard for me. But I don't think it (being an artist) was my natural calling, Larry.
Even after its sale to PolyGram in 1989, A&M was still a cool label to be with.
It was a special time. I was there toward the end of (A&M record promoter) Charlie Minor. The executives that were there, they were incredible people. But looking back I can tell you there was one time that I was on tour with Jann Arden and Patti Griffin and, as I was watching just how awesome Patti was onstage, and how easily she delivers her craft and thinking, that part of it is not me. What I knew was that I loved music, and I loved writing and producing. I had grown so much, and I got such an education. The question was, “Can I apply the education I got, and apply my creativity to build a longer term strategy so that I could build a family life from music? I don't look at the artist period as something that I regret, but I do look at it. I really use that experience to help me to evaluate and gauge talent that comes my way.
Meanwhile, your mother got to meet one of her favorite artists Carole King when she co-wrote with you, and appeared on your “Earthbound” album in 1998.
That was the best part of that time (laughing). Being able to introduce Carole to my mom. The experience of working with Carole King was wonderful. She's obviously a legend. She is truly that beacon of light type energy that you would hope that she would be.
Having those two albums fail must have been devastating. Was working in Europe a search for a new career direction?
Honestly, it was the artist that took care of me more than the business. When I first went to Europe, the person who got me engaged in Sweden was Sting. I was on tour opening for Sting on the Mercury Falling Tour. He was so good to me. He encouraged me to explore Stockholm while we were there. That was life-changing for me. Similarly, Carole King, and Keb’ Mo--somebody else that I toured with--were artists that I connected with as a musician and as a writer. They provided a lot of support and comfort to me that didn't make me feel like.....I was definitely a failure as an artist but, in terms of being a musician and someone who has a chance at building a life with music and we're talking about 20 years ago, it was really the musicians and the artists with their compliments that really were my first line of defense.
Was the concert in which you opened for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in Barcelona in that time period?
It was around the same time. That was a big one. I will always be open with you Larry. It is not a secret is that I had gotten married very young and...
You lost your first wife Rema to stomach cancer nine months after you were married. I realize that
So it was really on the back of losing her to cancer. I was a young widower. I couldn't have been 25. What I remember opening for Page and Plant in Barcelona was the incredible generosity of both Jimmy and Robert; but particularly Robert. After the show, we went back to the hotel, and sat at the bar for hours and talked about old blues records. He could tell, whether he knew through my manager at the time or not, I think he could tell that I was hurting. He was a very compassionate force.
In 1977, Robert had lost his 5-year-old son Karac to a stomach virus. So obviously he would have empathy with you.
Were you being managed by Simon Cooke then?
I was, and Simon was doubling tour managing for Robert at the time. That's how I got the opportunity.
I've heard the title track of "Earthbound."
You're the one.
It is one of the purest confessional songs I’ve ever heard.
I wrote it in New Orleans in about 10 minutes in a pretty divey hotel on tour. What I got out of that song was that as human beings, we can fake being strong, but we are pretty lousy at dealing with loss. I've been really fortunate to be able to put that song out there. This is going to sound like a strange thing to say, but the songs that I have been about loss have given me more life than songs that I have written about life. In that I've gotten remarkable feedback and support from people who randomly reached out to me, wrote to me, connected to me, got lyrics tattooed on themselves. "Earthbound" was of a learning process for me because it was a very honest moment that I put out there. That taught me as a producer and taught me as a songwriter to make sure that I do everything in my power to keep something as honest as possible. Even the cheesy stuff.
There was talk of "Earthbound" being made into a film.
It was made into a film inspired by an incredibly talented woman, Gren Wells. Gren took the song and made it into a one woman show in L.A.called "Earthbound" about a woman in the heart of her life gets diagnosed with cancer who falls in love, and then winds up not making it. She turned that one woman show into a screenplay which turned into a bidding war with multiple producers. After 8 years the movie was then made (in 2011) starring Kate Hudson, Kathy Bates, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gael Garcia Bernal. A totally all-star cast. The film was "A Little Touch Of Heaven." The producers sent me the movie to look at because they wanted the song.
How was the film?
It is such a colossally bad movie. This was after 8 years. It is so bad and they had so bastardized this movie. Poor Gren, I felt so bad for her. I had to call her after I watched this piece of shit. I think I said something to her along the lines of, "If a movie even slightly connected to my own loss in life can't make me shed a tear, there's not a chance in hell that this movie will see the light of day." It is somewhere in the bottom of a DVD bin in Aljezur (Portugal) right now.
["A Little Bit of Heaven'" received daunting reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 4% based on reviews from 50 critics. American critic Peter Travers gave the film zero stars, calling it a "droolingly stupid weepie."]
How was the stage play that Gren wrote and directed?
What she did was quite amazing. By the way, she's now in the top 10 list in Variety of directors to watch this past year for a movie she wrote and directed called "The Road Within" starring Zoey Kravitz, Robert Sheehan, and Dev Patel.
Another song of yours that has touched people is "You Are The Only Place."
"You Are The Only Place" is one, yes. Josh Groban and Nick Lachey both recorded that. There is a song that I wrote with Anastacia called "How Come The World Won't Stop." There's also a song on Pink's latest album “The Truth About Love” (2012) called "Beam Me Up" which is about the loss of a child. I cannot tell you the hundreds of emails and tweets that I have gotten for that song.
You do a lot of co-writing. What do you get out of co-writing?
I just like the collaborative spirit of music. It can be wonderful. It can also be really hard. Sometimes I write songs on my own, and sometimes it’s nice to have someone that you trust, and take the ride with them. Now in the writing (hit songs) they put three people in a room. Then they add two people, and they take their piece apart. Then they add another two people. That doesn’t really resonate as much with me.
As both a producer and co-writer, you took singer Art Garfunkel to Nashville in 2001. An unlikely pairing it would seem on the surface.
Art loves the quality of the musicians in Nashville, and the record that I produced with him (“Everything Waits to be Noticed” on Blue Note Records) is one of the crown jewels of my producer career. It was actually on 9/11 (on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001). 9/11 was our first day of tracking.
An incredible experience hearing that voice out of studio speakers?
Well, you know he’s a complex guy. As you get to know him, you have to remember that there’s Art the human being, and then there’s Art, the voice. There was nothing like turning that reverb up and turning the lights down and listening to Art sing pretty much anything. It was amazing experience. He’s a very dear friend, and a one in a kind voice. He sang at our wedding.
You've had a long collaboration with Pink. Four albums.
More. “Try This,” “I’m Not Dead,” "Funhouse,” “Greatest Hits,” and "The Truth About Love.” Then we did some soundtrack stuff. We did "Happy Feet Two." She is one of my best friends, and one of my life partners. Beyond the music that we have been able to do together, she is constant reminder to me that people can have extraordinary talent. and can also be extraordinary people. Her development, and success as an artist was not compartmentalized as it relates to her success as a woman, as a person, and as a mom. She is as brilliant and talented a mom as she is brilliant and talented an artist. In fact, I would say that in any rivalry, the mom will win and the artist will lose.
Like you, Pink hails from Philadelphia as do Joan Jett, Stanley Clarke, Boyz II Men, the Roots, Jill Scott, Hall & Oates, and the Sound of Philadelphia crew. What makes Philly such a breeding ground of musical talent?
I don't know. It must be in the water. When I went to high school. I went to CAPA (The Philadelphia High School for the Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA) in the South Philly projects. I went to school singing in gospels choirs with Boyz II Men, and G. Love (& Special Sauce), Ahmir (Thompson) and the Roots, Marc Nelson, Tamika Patton, and Joey DeFrancesco. It was just one killer (talent) after the next, and it was all in this very concentrated period of time. Philadelphia is a great city to be from but I wouldn't want to live there again. People in Philadelphia will tell you like it is. When you meet people from Philly, we are pretty direct folks. If you are up there singing, and you are not doing well, they will boo you off.
CAPA started as an integration school in rented quarters in 1984.
Yes. At the time I was there it was still experimental. The school had been shuffled around locations. At the time we all went there, they had found this school, Palumbo Elementary in the South Philly Projects on the border of the Italian market. and the 12th Street housing project. So we shared the school. Students came from all over but we shared the school. There was an elementary school there; and a small special needs school. It was an incredible experience and a lot of cool people all pushed together in this pretty shitty neighborhood.
Did you attend college?
I did. I went to Hampshire College in Amherst (Massachusetts). I had finished high school in three years. and I did college in three years. I was 19 in my senior year of college. It wasn’t because I was bright. It was because my family didn’t have the money to keep me in school. So I worked delivering pizza for El Greco’s Pizza three nights a week. Then I did the graveyard shift as the operator for the school five nights a week. And I took double credits
Majoring in what?
Majoring in literature and political science. My college experience is such a blur to me. All I know is that I made my grandmother happy that I got a college degree. She passed away at 101. She was really my best friend for most of my life.
How big is your family?
My parents split up when I was really small. I have a whole army of step brothers and sisters. But I was the youngest of three from my biological parents.
You started playing piano at 5. Was it your sister Karen who was writing poetry that inspired you to explore writing?
Was she any good?
Well, we thought so then. She’s probably better now but at the time not bad.
By 12, you were playing in local bands. Did you play Philly clubs like The Electric Factory?
I remember Larry Magid, who is a big concert figure in Philadelphia. The Electric Factory changed venues. I performed at The Tower Theatre. I played Chestnut Cabaret. I played Grape Street Pub in Manayunk which is now a really nice developed area. When I started gigging there at nights, I used to show up at open mics (the Philly Area House Concerts) run by a really talented guy Nik Everett who’s still around. An unsung singer/songwriter/hero of mine. I also played at Zanzibar Blue ("Philadelphia's Premier Jazz Club"). I was there with people like James Poyser of the Roots, and Veronica Underwood. I was also mentored by Grover Washington Jr. as a teenager. As much as you can get out of the Philadelphia music education I got a lot out it and grew up with incredibly talented musicians.
You later worked with your Philly heroes, Hall & Oates.
I did. Working and touring with them. I wrote their first #1 after many, many years, “Do It For Love.” At the time, they were real pioneers because they released their own record independently (on U-Watch Records) with independent distribution and wound up with a #1 single on the radio (reaching #1 on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart.)
Besides delivering pizzas at college. you worked in telemarketing, as a valet parking guy, and as a futon salesman.
Every job you could do, I did them.
You got fired as a futon salesman because you slept on the job.
I worked at a futon shop in San Francisco. I lived there for several months. It was a great job, actually. But that’s a true story. I was playing in a club in the Mission District called The Albion Room. I would play late, and I didn’t get paid much. I’d get $17 or $20 bucks or whatever a night. But the owners would give you beer.
While in San Francisco, you busked, but only received about $5 a day until you met a young couple who told you their history, and you offered to write them a song on the spot for $5. After they heard it, they gave you $10. That day you made $378 pitching tailored songs to couples.
I think that was the day that I figured out two things. One, necessity breeds innovation; and two, that I was going to be okay. That’s one of the reasons why the Oh Honey’s song “Be Okay” resonates with me and has done so well is because I knew that I was going to be okay. I knew I could make a living doing music. I didn’t know how but when that happened I thought I’d figure it out.
You almost went bankrupt in the early ‘90s but you were saved by a $100,000 performance royalty check for the song “3 is Family” recorded by Dana Dawson that had reached #9 in the UK, and #69 in Germany.
A terrible song, but it saved my ass. It totally saved me. I had no idea it had reached Top 10 in Britain. I was preparing for bankruptcy. I had this accountant Jeff Lubchansky who was for prepping me for the end of the world. Then I got this check in the mail. Thank God. The first Top 10 single I ever had. It was a song that I wrote by myself on EMI. It was promoted, and broken by the guy I ultimately replaced at EMI, JF Cecillon.
You and your wife Gena watched your son Jasper receive the first pen from President Barack Obama in 2011 after he signed the Combating Autism Reauthorization Act in the Oval Office. An extraordinary moment for you?
The biggest achievement of my life. Bigger than any song. Advocating for your child....There’s no way to describe what that was like for my wife and me except to say that when my son was diagnosed with autism in the early 2000s, and my son is only semi-verbal, at the time, I want to say it was 1 in 200 kids were diagnosed with autism. Today, it’s one in 68 children.
You are a Board member of Autism Speaks.
I am. My relationship with the President began when he came to our home in 2007. A lot of people warned me that politicians will say anything, but they won’t follow through with anything. At least around the issue of autism the President has absolutely kept his word to me in a very imperfect environment. They just reauthorized the Autism Bill into law, and it was just signed by the President (on August 8, 2014 as The Combating Autism Reauthorization Act of 2014 or Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education, and Support Act of 2014 or Autism CARES Act of 2014).
It was a really interesting experience advocating for my son, advocating for families and also realizing that it is more than just families and realizing that there are individuals on the spectrum that need to be heard. Some of which can advocate for themselves, and some of them can magnificently advocate for themselves.
Has having a special needs child impacted the way you handle your career?
It made governance and decision making for me easier. As an executive in a company, if somebody comes to me with a problem or an issue, I know that the problem or issue is that we are not dealing with a Middle East crisis, but something usually petty or ridiculous. When you have the perspective of a child with a disability, you just say, “You’ll work it out,” and move on to whatever is next.
For anyone in entertainment with children, a priority has to be taking care of the family first.
I would go one step further. I think your first priority if you have a family is to take care of your family. But the assumption that everybody has the capacity to take care of their family is always not particularly fair in some cases either. I wanted to be there for my family. Secondly I wanted to figure out could I have it all? Can I write songs for big artists and produce big records and can I develop talent and can I build a songwriting community that is lucrative and meaningful? If I don’t try doing that and I have the luxury, experience and the resources to do that then I am succumbing to a club that, frankly, I wouldn’t have joined in the first place.
As you have said in conference speeches, “Live The Hit Life.”
Yeah. That was it, honestly Larry. Encapsulating this (career) as a whole I know so many writers; so many incredibly talented people who are obsessed with, “I just want to have a hit. I wanna hit. I wanna hit. I want that hit song. That hit song.” You know if you are half-way talented, and good with people, and relentless you will get that hit song. The thing is, by the time you get that hit song, what you don’t want to do is look back and realize that every other facet of living was sacrificed for that moment. A wonderful moment, but it is not going to keep you warm at night.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.” Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.