By most metrics, the songwriter Ross Golan is riding high right now: Tracks he co-wrote became Top 10 hits for Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Flo Rida last year. But Golan is concerned about the future of his profession, which shapes the music that’s heard by hundreds of million listeners every week.
“We’ve just demolished the middle class of songwriters,” he says. “I had a song on Michael Bublé’s record; that album sold 100,000 copies in that first week, which is a lot. But 100,000 copies brings $9,100 [for songwriters]. Split that between three writers, and you’ve made $3,000-ish. That’s not nothing, but you have to get the second biggest album in the fucking world to get that. Albums are going away, so how do we come up with some sort of income stream for the people who don’t write [Flo Rida’s] ‘My House,’ [Grande’s] ‘Dangerous Woman’ and [Gomez’s] ‘Same Old Love’?”
As part of his effort to help protect the songwriting 99 percent, Golan recently started a podcast called And the Writer Is …, where he sits down with some of the biggest names in the business – Bonnie McKee (eight Number One’s, mostly with Katy Perry), Stargate (10 Number Ones with Rihanna, Ne-Yo and Beyoncé) and more – and talks to them for more than an hour. The conversations are frequently fascinating (try the interviews with McKee and Savan Kotecha, who has co-written hits for Grande, Usher, the Weeknd and many others, to start), as writers discuss the crippling anxiety they feel about matching their past hits, the sexism that pervades the recording industry and how writing hits that help put emerging acts on the map will help a career more than penning a new Rihanna single.
“If people hear stories about these writers,” Golan reasons, “listeners will be more amenable to, ‘Oh, I’ll pay an extra cent per song.'” He spoke with Rolling Stone about his goals with And the Writer Is …; below are excerpts from the conversation.
What was the origin of this project?
I have a book that everybody signs when I work with them, sort of like a yearbook. Maybe it’s ’cause I wasn’t cool in high school that I thought this was a good idea. Everyone has signed it that I’ve worked with in the last 10 years – from Enrique Iglesias to Bon Jovi to Pink to [the] Chainsmokers to Harry Styles to Meghan Trainor. And on the writing side, it has Lamont Dozier and Max Martin and Stargate and Benny Blanco and all the big country guys.
These sessions are super vulnerable, and no matter how big of a writer you are, you still have to walk in and be essentially emotionally naked. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a really intimate conversation with a stranger for nine hours. If people could record that part of the session, they would fall in love with these humans [songwriters]. It’s good for their stories to get out. I think that’s how we move the needle a little bit so people start to empathize with the writers.
Do you feel that songwriters aren’t getting the recognition they deserve?
I think there’s only a small percentage of writers who, when a song is famous, get offended that they don’t get their due credit. It’s not about fame. The advocacy part of it is the fact that I don’t think people realize and recognize how little money is being paid to the people that are creating the music they’re enjoying.
The industry is big on screwing the artist and the songwriter. I’m not against record labels, but in history they essentially invested in the recordings of music and they have exploited those recordings and they don’t necessarily compensate the creators. There is not a real distribution of wealth at all with the creators. For the most part, labels are getting a lot of money and not even really redistributing it among the artists.
You look at the top songs right now on radio – of the top 20 songs, Marian Hill is the only one that doesn’t have a professional writer or producer attached to it. If there’s no money for the development of songwriting, it’s going to be a weird future in music.
“The industry is big on screwing the artist and the songwriter.”
If there was one cent per play or some form of that, the whole publishing industry, the songwriting industry, would be massively successful. Like, [making] money we’ve never seen before. Before, you were willing to put 25 cents in a jukebox, or spend $20 to listen to one song on a CD. But people aren’t willing to spend one cent to listen to a song? My guess is people might not mind it. We’re not asking for something crazy. Maybe people are willing to do that more if they understand who writes the songs.
One of the things we’re talking about is trying to get healthcare for songwriters. If my family gets sick 10 years ago, I’m fucked. I view it as fighting for the writers that I’ve signed that are 23 years old and fantastic. They’re signed to major publishers, but their career is: They better write hits. There is no album track. I sold probably 10 million songs last year between “Dangerous Woman,” “Same Old Love” and “My House.” I had multiple songs on Meghan Trainor’s album and multiple songs on Lukas Graham’s. In 2001, because someone would buy “7 Years,” those songs would be worth a couple hundred thousand dollars each. Not anymore.
Were you an avid podcast listener before starting this project?
I like talk radio. I like Terry Gross. I know Marc Maron. I listen to TED talks, I listen to Dan Carlin’s history stuff, I listen to Serial. I like when you can just listen and feel like a fly on the wall. There’s something to that medium that’s exciting. I can’t think of another way to do that kind of extensive interview.
In the podcast, you suggest that Nashville is much better at celebrating its writers than L.A.?
The first time I met Keith Urban, he came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you for letting me record ‘Shame.'” I guarantee if I walk up to Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj or some of these people who have cut my records but I don’t really know them, their security would knock me out. I’d be like, “Wait, but I wrote –”
If a writer’s never been to Music Row, you’re missing out. Just drive up and down and be like, “Wow, that’s how writers are appreciated.” On the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, BMG isn’t putting a giant picture of [Ed Sheeran’s] “Shape of You” with Steve Mac [who co-wrote and co-produced the single]. That’s what it would be like.
In L.A., it’s the record exec. Underneath is the big producer. Then the great artist. Underneath the great artist is maybe the songwriters. I know a guy where they had a Number One party for the artist, and the head of the label got up and thanked the artist, and the artist got up and thanked the radio guys, and nobody thanked the writers or the producer. They’re somehow oblivious to it.
“People just don’t want to believe that a singer couldn’t write his own music.”
Most of these labels don’t buy us plaques [to commemorate sales milestones]. [Ariana Grande’s] “Dangerous Woman” is a song I wrote at home. It’s the name of her tour, it’s the name of her merchandise, it’s the name of her album, it’s the name of her lead single. I don’t have a plaque. Maybe they’ll get me one; I like them. But there’s just not an acknowledgement. Even Max [Martin; who has written 22 Hot 100 Number One hits] doesn’t get the credit he deserves. And he’s the guy. I don’t think people recognize that we’re all witnessing this unprecedented talent.
Actors are professional liars. Nobody’s mad at Meryl Streep for not writing her script. Somehow singers are truth tellers. People just don’t want to believe that a singer couldn’t write his own music.
In the episode with Bonnie McKee, you guys talk a little bit about sexism in the writing world. Are you going to attempt to highlight the work of more female writers?
One of the sad things is that there aren’t as many female writers as there should be. Simon Wilcox is in four weeks. She wrote “Jealous” for Nick Jonas. Hers might be my favorite story I’ve ever recorded.
I don’t know if you heard the Justin Tranter one, but that was mostly about misogyny. His idea was that there should always be a minority writer or a woman in every session. There’s truth to that. There’s an idea that if you put together an urban music session you get all urban writers, and if you get a pop session you get all pop writers. That’s just gonna homogenize everything. One of the best parts of music these days is that you actually have things like the Selena Gomez and Thomas Rhett duet that’s coming out. I’d love to have more diversity.
Are you trying to bring writers from country or R&B or genres outside of pop onto the podcast?
We just did Luke Laird [a top Nashville writer] last week, that’ll be coming out. We’re going to do one a week, so we’re going to get to everybody. It’s just a matter of time.