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Blighty Beat

Despite the challenges of arranging songwriting sessions in lockdown, publishers have nurtured the creativity of their signings through innovative thinking and making the most of writers’ increased time to create. There’s a sense that the global industry will continue to be better connected in the future, which will lead to a greater diversity of music. Insight comes courtesy of the interviewees below.

Sony/ATV Head of A&R Sarah Lockhart has been working of late with rising star Beabadoobee and rappers Pa Salieu and Shaybo. She also recently signed Manchester rapper Aitch. Lockhart started her career in publishing as an A&R exec at EMI, later co-founding radio station Rinse FM and its affiliated label. After deciding she wanted to return to publishing, she joined Sony/ATV, where she was promoted to her current position earlier this year.

Sureeta Nayyar is Senior U.S. International A&R Manager at Universal Music Publishing Group. This year she collaborated with Burna Boy on his debut album, Twice as Tall (Atlantic), which hit #11 on the U.K. album chart in August. Nayyar is looking forward to getting back into the studio with her producers Cadenza, MOHR, Felix Joseph,PRGRSHN, Gibbo and Jay Weathers as part of her global writing camp, Nightshift. She started her career in management, spending seven years in the field, then made the transition to publishing.

Warner Chappell Music U.K. A&R Manager Darryl Parkinson has enjoyed success with Top 10 songs for Joel Corry, Nathan Dawe, Ramz and Russ & Tion Wayne. He joined Warner Music on the label side straight from university, serving as an intern in brand partnerships, then moving onto the commercial team. In 2016, after spending two days a week interning in A&R at Asylum Records for Ed Howard, Parkinson joined Warner Chappell Music as an A&R scout. His recent signings include DJ/producer Dawe, who recently hit #3 with “Lighter” f/KSI, singer/songwriter Harlee and drill/rap producer Gotcha.

Lisa Cullington is VP of Creative at BMG U.K., where her signings include Frances, who co-wrote Dua Lipa’s “Hallucinate,” production team Red Triangle, songwriter and artist Sam Preston (acquired through a joint venture with Jo Charrington and Nick Raphael) and Sarah Blanchard, from songwriting collective The Six. Cullington started her career at Sony/ATV, then assumed roles at BMG, Universal, Zomba and V2 Publishing. During her time at the “new” BMG, she’s made waves with songwriter/production trio TMS (who wrote the U.S./U.K. #1 “Someone You Loved” for Lewis Capaldi), Kamille (Headie One, Jess Glynne, Clean Bandit, AJ Tracey, Little Mix, Mabel) and Tre Jean Marie (Dawe).

What impact has the coronavirus crisis had on your work this year and on publishing generally?Sarah Lockhart: The backbone of what we do hasn’t changed —focusing on the songwriters and optimizing their environment to ensure they’re able to write the best songs they can. In 2020, because there’s been no live business, there’s been a greater focus on songwriting and making music; the ability to write without the booking agent knocking on the writer’s door distracting them has been interesting. It’s obviously a huge negative from a cash perspective, but from a creative perspective, it’s been a positive. Also, people have had the time to take a breath and review the trajectory of their careers; there’s been more consideration of whether they are in the right creative space, going in the right direction.

Sureeta Nayyar: Everyone is learning how they work best under the present circumstances. I’ve been really impressed by how well both our writers and our UMPG team have made the transition. I work with amazing people who’ve kept me inspired. As the international A&R, I travel a lot so not traveling has taken some getting used to. But it’s not stopped me from staying connected to the world. We are a global company—there is always a way!

Darryl Parkinson: At the start of lockdown, I called everyone on my roster to get a sense of how they were feeling and how we could best help them work. We’ve had some really successful Zoom writing sessions, and one of my writers was even involved in a virtual writing camp organized by our Latin American office. For me, I miss being around writers, being in the studios, going to shows, catching up with people, being in the office and connecting with the team… Being in lockdown, you feel more than ever how much of a relationship business this industry is. On a more positive note, as people haven’t been able to get to the studio to collaborate, they’re coming to us for a beat or a topline so they can stay creative during the lockdown.

Lisa Cullington: It’s obviously different and not easy. Some writers have children, as I do, so that’s been a challenge. But you make it work. At first, there was blind panic. No co-writing was happening. But very quickly, writers, managers and publishers came up with lists of who was working remotely, and we found a new normal. It really only works, though, if the writers/artists know each other beforehand; the best way has been for them to meet remotely for a coffee or call, then start sending ideas back and forth. With the latest rules in place, writers are beginning to social distance in the studio. Being a creative in publishing is a very social job, so it’s been hard working from home all the time, but at least everyone is in the same boat.

How do you see the current situation affecting the business longer term?
SL: The pandemic has modernized the industry, brought it into the current, which will equip it better for the future. It’s feeling more connected as a global business, more agile. When I’m in a room in London talking to someone in Tokyo, it’s virtually the same as talking to colleagues around the corner. Apart from negotiating the time difference, interacting digitally has made everything feel more local. Writers and producers are more receptive to working remotely with people globally.

SN: It’s also reinforced the importance of the publisher’s role. For many writers, we are key to the A&R process, whether that’s serving as a sounding board or as an extension of management. No matter how we’re involved, the writers see now more than ever how we’re always looking for new opportunities for them and their songs.

LC: The lack of live has had an obvious impact on performing writers, but it’s also having an impact on non-performing writers as the artists they have cuts with aren’t touring, so performance income has declined. But we have been able to make significant introductions for our writers to their U.S. counterparts and vice versa. I’ve also found they’re more open to starting new relationships now that it doesn’t require travel.

What’s the most exciting development you’re seeing? 

SL: One of the things that excites me is that musicians, artists and writers who want to remain independent and own their own rights, they see that working with a publisher is empowering; it can expand their relationships, protect their rights and their legacy. So we’re helping them develop their work, helping them get the creative where it needs to be, but also helping them navigate the politics, handing down the knowledge, sharing our experience. We can help them avoid creative compromise because we understand the culture. That part of the relationship is one of my favorite things about publishing.

SN: The creatives are always exciting, but now, how they’re developing ways to share their music, especially globally—it’s inspiring. They understand the importance of meaningful collaboration, and that’s one of the most important ways we add value and support, by connecting them. Of course, that also creates new income streams.

DP: The increasing globalization of the industry is without question great for us. The ability of our writers to get cuts on songs that become global hits is really exciting. Great ideas and songs can come from anywhere, and I’ve seen those ideas become international songs.

LC: Dance music is back! It’s great for our writers as DJs are very open to taking either full songs or just a cappella vocals, which can result in some really interesting collaborations. Georgina Upton on my team signed 220 KID in lockdown, so we’re currently working closely with him and Polydor on sessions. It’s actually a really exciting time. We’re now seeing a lot of briefs about positivity, having fun, up-tempo songs—no down-tempo, depressing songs about quarantine, please!

What are your plans heading into next year and beyond? What should we be looking for from you?
SL: I don’t like the current circumstances, of course, but I like when we’re tested, when the rhythm is not always the same. Within corporate businesses, there can be a way of doing things that just goes around and around and before you know it, 20 years have gone by. So I’m really keen to continue the positive disruption and keep challenging the way we do things and responding to the music however it unfolds.

SN: My plan is to keep refining and improving what I’m doing. I’m most excited about the producers I get to work with. The music they’ve created during quarantine has kept me going. They are the best. I love all of them. Watch this space!

DP: I plan to continue working closely with my roster to help them achieve their ambitions. I’m really lucky to be able to do what I do, and I’m grateful for everyone I get to work with. I’ve got big hopes for all of them next year. Keep an eye out for Nathan Dawe, Harlee, Au/Ra, Lily Moore, Gotcha, B Young, Kasai, Mokuba Lives and DJ Spinall.

LC: I intend to keep on finding exciting new talent. We pride ourselves on being very proactive with our writers, adding value to what they’re doing and taking them to the next stage of their career. There are some very exciting songs in the pipeline. Stay tuned!