In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Behind almost every hit song is a team of unstoppable writers. And in 2020, you can trace many of them back to a company called Mega House.
Jeremy Levin and David Silberstein founded Mega House to manage songwriters and producers nearly 10 years ago, out of a Northern Virginia abode, with one best friend for a client. Now, the 12 people on their roster generate some of modern music’s biggest records — from Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and “Payphone” to Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches” and “Treat You Better” to Camila Cabello & Shawn Mendes’ “Señorita” to DJ Snake & Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You.” Mega House writers and producers celebrated huge wins this year with songs like Maroon 5’s “Memories,” which went Number One at Pop radio and is now three-times platinum, and Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” another Pop radio chart-topper that’s now platinum. There was also Weezer’s alternative radio chart-topper “Hero” and Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s quarantine collaboration “Stuck With U.”
Most recently, Mega House’s Ali Tamposi co-wrote eight songs on Miley Cyrus’ album Plastic Hearts — and the company’s The Monsters & Strangerz co-produced “Prisoner,” Cyrus’ collaboration with Dua Lipa. Levin and Silberstein, who already have a single with a superstar artist confirmed for 2021, spoke with Rolling Stone on their wild ride to pop domination.
How did you two meet?
David Silberstein: I moved to Northern Virginia when I was like nine years old, and I moved in next door to this guy named Ammar Malik. He quickly became my best friend.
I got a guitar, I taught him three chords, and he got way better than me. We started a ska band, but I realized very quickly that I was way less talented than the other members — especially Ammar and our trombone player Danny Parker. So, I started managing that band and a bunch of other bands. [Malik would eventually go on to write with Maroon 5, Nick Jonas, and Selena Gomez; Parker is another Mega House client whose credits now include Shawn Mendes and Jessie Ware.]
Also, about a year after moving to Virginia, I went to Jewish sleep-away camp and met Jeremy’s brother, Benny Blanco — and we became good friends.
Later, I went to Virginia Tech, and all my friends would come visit. We’d put shows on, we’d do Mike Posner concerts in a field before Mike Posner blew up — all this fun stuff. Jer came to visit one time with Benny and we super hit it off. Ammar was just playing a couple of tunes in the backyard and Benny goes, “Yo, have you ever thought about writing for other people?”
This was right when Benny’s career was starting to happen; he was getting his first Katy Perry cuts, and we didn’t really understand what Benny did. We were like, “Cool. You somehow make music for these huge artists. That sounds tight.”
Then, I finished college. I was booking shows. Ammar got into his artist project, and then he started entertaining the idea of writing for other people. We went to New York for a writing trip set up by the fairy godmother of Jeremy’s and my story. Samantha Cox, at BMI, set up a couple co-writes for Ammar, and in his second-ever co-write, he wrote the chorus of [Gym Class Heroes feat. Adam Levine’s] “Stereo Hearts” with Robopop. [Mega House now represents Robopop, who produced Lana Del Rey’s breakout hit, “Video Games.”]
We sent that to Benny, and that’s kind of how things started. I called Jer and said, “I’m managing my best friend Ammar but I don’t know anybody in this pop world.” And Jer had been Benny’s day-to-day manager for a minute and knew everyone.
Jeremy Levin: My brother Benny and I have always been best friends. But I’m five and a half years older than him — so, growing up, he was always stealing my CDs and tapes, wanting to know what I was listening to. He just loved music. Ever since I can remember, my dad would yell at him for beating on the table with silverware, making drum sounds, and beatboxing.
He wanted to be a rapper. One time, we were on a plane — he must’ve been 10 years old at the time, “Thong Song” was out, and it was huge. And I see Sisqo on the plane. I go to Benny and was like, “We have to go up to him. You want to be a rapper. All you do all day is beatbox. I have to intro you.” Honestly, at this time, Benny won’t stop beatboxing no matter where we are.
We get off the plane and I see Sisqo waiting for his luggage. I go, “Sisqo, this is my brother. He wants to be a rapper. He can beatbox and rap at the same time. He’s amazing. Benny, hit him with something!” And Benny froze like Eminem in 8 Mile. Sisqo’s sitting there waiting for it, and he never says anything. He literally walks away, and then he starts beatboxing to me. I was like, “I hate you. This was your moment to shine and you blew it. We’re never going to get another chance in music again. This is the end of Benny Blanco.” [Blanco would, of course, go on to be an instrumental force behind Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” “Teenage Dream,” and “California Gurls,” Kesha’s “TikTok,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”]
DS: This is so Jer. He’ll walk up to anybody and go, “Hey, what’s going on? What can we do?”
JL: It’s worked for and against me. But basically, Benny had some interest from Jive Records when he was 12 or 13 and I was taking him to a bunch of freestyle battles, but he slowly started to realize that rapping wasn’t going to work out.
When I graduated from University of Delaware, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And Benny was starting to have success with Katy and Britney. I was working at a telemarketing company for skincare products. This was in 2008 and when it was really hard to find anything. I taught tennis before that and was doing a bunch of odd jobs. I’ve always loved music, and Benny was like “Why don’t you come work for me? I’ll show you the business, I’ll teach you things and introduce you to people.”
From there, mine and David’s stories intersect. Benny told me Ammar had unbelievable talent, I heard the “Stereo Hearts” demo, which was amazing. Me and Ammar met and instantly hit it off. So, David and I formed Mega House with Ammar as our first client.
DS: That’s when Jer stopped working for Benny. After “Stereo Hearts,” Ammar and seven of our friends got this huge suburban house in Northern Virginia. We built a studio in the basement and called it the “Mega House.” All our friends would go there every day after work. That’s where the chorus of “Payphone” by Maroon 5 was written. When we had to come up with a name, it was obvious. Everything we do is about family, it’s all about friendship.
What was the most surreal moment to come out of your time in the industry so far?
JL: Mine was actually when our clients The Monsters and Strangerz had their first Number One song, which was “The Middle.” We went to Vegas to celebrate. And they’re just the best humans. They came from Miami with really nothing, and they were grinding hard for years and years. They had a lot of success through cuts with Maroon 5 and Demi Lovato and other big artists, but they never had that one big hit. When we came on as managers, we vowed to have that big hit together. They’re so talented, we knew it was just a matter of time.
“The Middle” exploded. It was one of the biggest songs of the year. I remember Stef [Johnson] from The Monsters texting me something basically to the effect of, “We love you guys so much. We could have never done this without you. This means the world to us.” I was in a buffet in Las Vegas and I just started sobbing.
We’ve had a lot of Number Ones, but it was the way it happened, it was the time for these guys, it was the sweat equity.
DS: For me, the most surreal moment happened at the very beginning, because there’s something magical about the novelty of this business. I was the director of concerts at Virginia Tech. The last show I booked was Maroon 5. I hit it off with the road manager, and I had a funny interaction with him and Adam Levine. Fast forward like a year and a half later, Ammar has the “Stereo Hearts” demo, and Benny comes to my house in Northern Virginia and starts producing the beat. And I’m like, “Oh my god, this is actually happening.” A month later, we’re in Los Angeles at Conway Studios, and this is my first time ever in Los Angeles. Adam Levine and his day-to-day manager walk in. He was like, “Hey! What are you doing here? Don’t we know you from somewhere?” I’m like, “Yea, I was the guy from Virginia Tech.” I told him I managed Ammar, and that day we recorded “Stereo Hearts.”
They remembered me from college. It was our first-ever cut, and it went Number One. That song is what brought everything together.
What does a normal day look like for you now?
DS: I’m talking to Jer all day. We’re always on the phone. But we’re also talking to our clients — talking about goals, strategy, how and where to pitch songs, how and where to set up the right sessions with the right artists or producers. We’re negotiating contracts and talking to other managers. When it’s not Covid, we’re going to clients’ studios to listen to new music, doing lunches, and doing dinners. But I think a really important part of the job, too, is being a friend and therapist to our clients, making sure they’re in a good mental place. We’re open to anything that keeps them mentally strong, which sometimes means doing less sessions in a week. We don’t want them to burn out; sometimes less is more. Some writers need to go walk around and smell the roses to write that big song. If they walk around for a month and they write one hit song, it was worth it.
“A lot of songwriters and producers — not just artists — write 300 songs a year. The best writers and producers in the world get 10 to 20 cuts a year, and maybe two or three of those are hits. The failure rate is incredibly high.”
What’s the hardest part of the job?
DS: A lot of songwriters and producers — not just artists — write 300 songs a year. The best writers and producers in the world get 10 to 20 cuts a year, and maybe two or three of those are hits. The failure rate is incredibly high. Keeping a strong mental bandwidth is something we deal with, and it’s something our clients deal with. It’s really hard. But as long as everyone’s aware of it, you can’t get down. Every time you create something, it’s an asset and it’s art. Whether it’s commercially viable or not, it’s okay because it’s practice for when you have the lightning strike. But we always talk about it — you’re shooting two percent at best and you’re one of the best writers in the world.
JL: That’s why we always encourage our clients to have a lot of logs in the fire — have a lot of songs out there. Some are going to fall through. There’s going to be disappointment. Someone’s going to say it’s going to be the next single, and it’s not. This happens all the time: I’ll be on a call with another manager and they’ll tell me one of their clients has the next Camila single, and I’ll say, “Well, we have the next Camila single or next so-and-so single.” It’s such a competitive game and everyone is fighting for those top 40 spots on the pop chart.
How did your clients get involved with Miley’s Plastic Hearts project?
DS: Ali worked with Miley first before the Monsters got involved. And that was through Andrew Watt, who executive produced the record and is Ali’s closest collaborator. “Prisoner” was actually based on an idea for a song that the Monsters had done with Jon Bellion and Michael Pollack. Watt heard it, loved it, and brought it in to Miley — and Miley, Ali, and Watt finessed the lyrics to make it more Miley.
JL: The relationship between Watt and Ali has been such a fruitful one on both sides. They’ve worked together on almost every hit they’ve had. They did a ton of songs on the Ozzy Osbourne album; they were working with Ozzy yesterday. It’s just amazing to see what they’ve done since their first big song, which was “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber.
Ali went from co-writing Camila and Shawn’s “Señorita” last year to doing seven songs with Ozzy Osbourne — plus the nine on 5 Seconds of Summer’s album this year? Are most writers able to genre-jump like that?
DS: Yes and no. We have a good amount of clients who can genre-bend. It doesn’t mean every client can; sometimes you’re really good at one thing and you rock that. But Ali loves eclectic music. One of her most exciting moments this year was getting write with James Blake for a song that ended up in an Apple commercial. She can go from indie, to pop, to rock. She’s had country songs too. She’s one of the most versatile, talented writers in the world.
Music is more genre-less than ever before. Does that mean writers and producers have to wear more hats than ever before?
JL: That’s definitely true. Whenever we see country writers, they want to do pop songs. And pop writers want to write country songs. We have a lot of clients that want to get more into hip-hop. The great creatives are able to navigate different lanes, see the trends coming before they actually happen, and jump on them early.
Ammar has had a few country hits now — Lady Antebellum’s “Compass” and Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her” last year. Was exploring the country world a long-term dream that you encouraged him to follow?
DS: Ammar writes a lot of his songs on acoustic guitar. So, when he sends a demo, there’s often a lot of imagination from the producer to say, “Wow, this could work in country. This could work in pop. This could work in latin.” His songs kind of transcend genre because they’re presented in this raw form.
One of Joe London’s first hits was Pitbull’s “Fireball,” but he also had a song with Tim McGraw out around the same time. How does that happen?
DS: There was this crew about seven years ago of Joe London, Ricky Reed, Tom Peyton, Ilsey Juber, and Axident. They’d get together twice a year, choosing places like Joshua Tree or Ojai. They called themselves Start From Infinity. They’d do these week-long writing camps, and every single one got a single. If you listen to the beginning of “Fireball,” Pitbull’s like, “Mr. Worldwide to infinity.” He shouts them out; it’s hilarious. The Tim McGraw song was also written at one of those.
Nashville’s songwriting community has long had a reputation for being tight-knit and exclusive. Have you experienced that?
JL: We have. But you can kind of finesse your way in. There’s a way to make friendships and build relationships — and we’ve done that over the years with executives, heads of labels, and A&Rs. And David actually lived there for a period of time. We’ve always been very careful with how we navigate it, but they’ve accepted us and opened their arms to a lot of our writers.
DS: It’s part of the ethos of our company. We try to work with honestly good humans. And Nashville has a radar for good people. We don’t want to come in hot because we’re not experts there. We’d rather learn from the people there. Our writers go in trying to earn their stripes. We try to be respectful of the process and talk a lot with cool boutique companies like Combustion and Creative Nation.
You meet them on their home turf.
DS: And we’ll swap sessions with them. When they want to write pop, we’re like, “Come on out. Let’s do some sessions in L.A.”
Ali and some of the Monsters co-wrote and produced Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart.” How did that happen?
JL: The Monsters have wanted to work with Dua for a really long time. We definitely chased hard. We hit up [U.K. A&R] Joe Kentish and her manager Ben Mawson, who we’ve done stuff with in the past with Ellie Goulding. An opportunity arose, and it seemed like the session was going to be The Monsters and Strangerz, Ali, and Dua. I realized it was a great session but thought we needed to get Watt in there as well. We pushed really hard to get Andrew in. We got them together, and they literally wrote “Break My Heart” in one day.
Dua’s such an incredible artist, and the guys have high hopes that they’ll be heavily involved in making her new music.
DS: That “Break My Heart” moment helped get Dua on “Prisoner.” I don’t know if that would’ve happened if not. It’s mostly the same crew.
When you’re cranking out a lot of ideas in the songwriting world, it’s easy for songs to fall through the cracks. Have you had big songs that almost didn’t come out?
JL: It happens all the time. I think 13 different artists cut “The Middle” before we actually landed on Maren Morris in the ninth inning a month before the song was supposed to come out. And then it aired as a Target campaign at the Grammys.
DS: That song almost didn’t happen. “Chains” by Nick Jonas was cut by multiple people too.
Other massive artists have cut other big songs, you think it’s about to happen, and then it doesn’t. It can be demoralizing.
Every big writer maybe has five songs a year that causes everyone on the team to go, “That’s a hit! We have to handle this like a golden egg, because it has to become a single with the right artist.” And sometimes those songs have really long journeys. If it’s not going to be the right artist at the right time with the right push, we’re very protective.
JL: We’ll have these special songs for pitch, and there will be multiple A-level artists that want to cut the song — and that’s been happening more and more recently. Part of our job is navigating that, and sometimes it involves securing songs by putting things in place like kill fees. Only certain songs are singles and a songwriter’s only currency is their songs. If you promise us it’s going to be a single and it’s only a promise — even if we’re good friends — we need more than that. These songs could be worth millions of dollars. We have to put stuff in place, maybe contractually, that says these songs are going to come out when the artist’s label or management says they’re going to come out.
Do most of your songwriters write full-fledged songs for pitch? Or do they usually collaborate in the room with the artist?
DS: We’ve had a lot of success with pitch, but I’d say it’s 50/50 for us. “Stitches” was a pitch song; Shawn Mendes is not a writer on that song. That’s the only fully-outside song he’s ever taken and it’s also, I think, his biggest song.
A lot of songs will be a partial pitch — like we pitch it and there’s a chorus and then the artist comes in and writes the rest. That’s like how we work with Maroon 5. We have five of Maroon 5’s ten biggest songs of their career. We’re very close to them. “Moves Like Jagger” was the first-ever song where Adam took an outside idea. He’s obviously a capable hit songwriter — but now he’ll take outside ideas and make them his own, and we love that. Same with Shawn now. We’ve had four of Shawn’s five biggest songs. Some of the other ones he either co-wrote from the jump or we sent him a chorus — there are different variations.
How do you find new clients?
DS: I think a lot of it comes from our writers writing with other people or hearing about other writers. We get sent stuff from different PRO people, different publishers. There’s also an artist/writer we’re incredibly excited about that we’re talking to about possibly publishing, and [employee] Haley Evans found them on TikTok.
JL: It’s a lot of word of mouth. Our business is like any other business; when you’ve had success, people want to be on the team that’s been successful.
DS: Randomly, Ammar’s lawyer, Todd Rubenstein — the first lawyer we worked with, who also does Robopop — he’s the one who called us to say, “Hey, I just picked up The Monsters. You guys should manage them.” We’d known them for forever but they had just parted ways with their manager.
Did you sign anyone this year?
JL: We did. We signed Gian Stone and Casey Smith.
DS: Gian did some vocal production on “Break My Heart”; he’s an incredible vocal producer. But he also truly produced and co-wrote Justin Bieber & Ariana Grande’s “Stuck With U” and Marshmello & Halsey’s “Be Kind.”
JL: And Casey’s an amazing topliner. She had a few on the Jonas Brothers album, including “Cool.”
DS: And she did Ashe’s “Moral of the Story,” which has done incredibly well this year.
JL: Obviously, we have a lot of big songs but we’re really excited about developing talent and finding new writers and producers. We’re always willing to meet with anybody. And I think that’s an important thing for managers. No one’s too small to meet with. You never know who’ll go from working in the mailroom one day to being the president of a company the next.
What are some of your goals for next year?
JL: We really want to expand our publishing business. We’re talking to a few people right now who we’d love to work with and seem very promising.
Some of our best friends in the publishing world are Casey Robison and Kenny MacPherson, who run Big Deal — and now Hipgnosis with Merck Mercuriadis. We have three clients signed to them.
DS: We’re also close with Donna Caseine at Reservoir, Amanda and Katie at Sony/ATV, and John Chen at Warner/Chappell. I think we’re just trying to find one-offs, where we find a writer we really want to publish and bring them to one of the bigger companies and do it together.
JL: We just never want to grow too big where we’re not involved with our clients on daily level and we’re not accessible. We could have 100 clients, but that’s not our game plan. We never want to have so many clients that they’re wondering where they’re going to get attention from.
DS: We want to continue to stay inspired on all fronts. We also want to develop executives. Seeing [employee] Greg Golterman have his moment with [client] Luke Niccoli, who just had the Number One iTunes song with Gwen Stefani, was so fulfilling. I want him to have ten of those next year, and I want Haley to have those. She found one of the publishers we’re talking to; that’s big.
JL: Then there’s catalog sales, which have dominated the headlines this year. We’ve done a few really big catalog sales, and our goal is to continue to do those when they make sense. We think that now is a great time to be selling, based on the capital gains tax being where it is and interest rates being really low.
DS: Sometimes it makes total sense and sometimes it doesn’t. But just being able to at least bring those opportunities to the table is great. And I feel like we were a little bit ahead of it; we did some of those deals prior to it being so popular — including one for Ammar Malik with Merck.
JL: Here’s how we see it: You start off with a client and build, build, build, build and the catalog sale can be the culmination of all that hard work. And it’s something that can’t be ignored in the music business right now.