Publishing has historically been full of horror stories about artists or songwriters signing away their copyrights for eternity. But Kobalt, an independent outlet, promotes a different model: more flexible deals in which writers retain ownership of the songs they have written, keep more income from their songs than they might elsewhere, and enjoy a high level of transparency, so that writers always know how much money they are bringing in.
For several quarters last year, Kobalt was number two in terms of market share among publishers. That’s because it owns pieces of several massive commercial hits, partly thanks to Sam Taylor, the company’s executive vice president of creative, a champion of songwriters’ rights, and the man who signed the producers behind some of rap’s most popular singles in 2018: Yung Exclusive (Drake’s “God’s Plan”), BlaqnMild (Drake’s “Nice for What” and “In My Feelings”), and J. White (Cardi B’s “I Like It Like That”). “The emphasis on independence has picked up so heavy, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Taylor says.
He spent years in A&R jobs at major labels, but he worried they didn’t always prioritize the songwriters they signed. “At a certain point at my last major stop, it was just about the business,” Taylor explains. “I had a clever writer asking, ‘do you know when my deal’s done?’ I was looking at the deal like, ‘you’re gonna be here for a looooong time.'” So Taylor made the jump to Kobalt in 2016. “[In our deals], there are no tricks,” he says. “And obviously the biggest piece is that you own your copyright.”
Those advantages have been a boon for Taylor as he has helped expand the company’s reach in hip-hop and R&B, the genres that dominate the streaming era. In addition to Yung Exclusive, BlaqnMild, and J. White, Taylor signed Teddy Walton, who co-produced Drake and Chris Brown’s Number One radio hit “No Guidance,” and Jahaan Sweet, who helped craft A Boogie wit da Hoodie’s Number One radio hit “Look Back at It.”
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As the creators’ rights conversation has spread across music, Kobalt has been able to nab popular young rappers as well. “These kids are coming in like, ‘we want to own our copyright,'” Taylor says. He signed Gunna, who has amassed more than one billion streams so far this year, and Roddy Ricch, whose stream count is nearing 800 million.
A successful publisher needs to sign talented writers, producers, and artists — “Sam ain’t afraid of taking out that pocketbook!” jokes J. White — but also to facilitate their future hits. In 2018, Taylor helped connect his producer Al Shux with a session that led to the Grammy-nominated “All the Stars” single on the Black Panther soundtrack. This year, Taylor helped place songs by Andrew “Pop” Wansel, DJ Dahi, and Sounwave on the major-label debut from Mahalia, a rising R&B singer signed to Atlantic Records. “Sam really helps the people that he signs, linking them up with each other, bringing them more opportunities,” J. White says. “He was like, ‘let me know whenever you’re ready to go in with Kendrick. I’ll link you.'”
The major publishing companies have taken note of Kobalt’s success and tried to implement more flexible deals of their own. “Now it’s going to come down to: Who can make things happen for the writer?” Taylor says. “They caught up. Now we’ve got to switch it on them again.”