Interview with Trevor Gale from SESAC
By Dani Felt (September 1 2016)
Today, we’re welcoming Trevor Gale, Vice President of SESAC, which represents thousands of songwriters and publishers and their right to be compensated for having their music performed in public.
They have headquarters in Nashville and offices in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and London. SESAC is one of the top three organizations to support songwriters in all genres including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Bryan-Michael Cox, Bale’wa Muhammad, Omarion, Swizz Beatz, Jason Perry and Angela Hunte to say the least.
The goal of this interview, to receive your wisdom and guidance as a music industry veteran so that music artists checking out our site, Creative Spotlights can truly succeed in the music industry being inspired. So welcome!
Trevor: There’s a lot of things to keep in mind if you want to be successful in the music business. Most of them are pretty simple. Most of them are pretty straightforward.
CS: I’m sure our readers will appreciate the wisdom from someone who has been there, done that and accomplished so much for supporting artists with your work!
So my first question is this: What would you say are “some keys to success in the music industry” that an artist needs to commit to whether they’re aspiring or they’re in the midst of a music career, promoting… touring, etc… What should they 100% focus on?
Trevor: That’s a very good question. The first thing that I do say to many, many artists and many, many musicians every day is don’t be afraid of hard work.
#1: The music industry, no matter how you slice it is very rewarding but most of the time, the real reward comes at the end of a long drive of hard work.
It’s like you have to back out an expensive Cadillac through a very narrow driveway that has these granite walls on either side and there’s a new paint job on the car and you have to get it through without too many scratches. It’s very difficult to not get the scratches, but it’s also very difficult to not get discouraged when you do get the scratches. It’s also very ‘relieving’, so to speak, when you actually get the car out of the driveway.
It’s kind of like what the music business is about…It’s a challenge, a never-ending challenge. So you have to not be afraid of hard work. You have to never give up. Never give up. You have to have an enormous amount of confidence in yourself, but that confidence has to be based in reality. That confidence has to be based in the fact that you know you put in the work and you’ve done the homework, so to speak and you’ve really developed your craft and your ability to a certain level. That’s what it has to be based in, not like, “Oh, my girlfriend said I was good, so I guess I’m good.”
Those are the first three or four things I would tell somebody because just like anything in the entertainment field, you’re going to start with just rejection. Everyone is going to say, “No, you’re no good. Get out of here!” Even if you’re good, they’ll say, “Wow! You’re great, but I’m not looking for a tall great guy that can sing good. I’m looking for a short person who just does that,” or whatever. So, it’s… yeah.
CS: That’s amazing advice that you are sharing. Your analogy is definitely original, it does take a lot of confidence and self-awareness for an artist to claim their musical gifts and have a do-or-die mentality of passion for their career, you know? So tell me about the mission of SESAC and how it all started.
Trevor: SESAC is a performing rights organization. We make sure that songwriters, as you said, get paid for their public performances. What that means really is that when your music is performed that you created (you created a song), it actually is your intellectual property.
You dreamed up that song. It was created within your intellect and it’s your property. So intellectual property, when that song is performed in a night club, on a radio station, on a television station, on the Internet provider, on an airline, a cruise ship, anywhere where to gain access to that place or venue, someone had to pay money, then there is theoretically, a royalty or a payment that is now due to you because your intellectual property has been utilized to sort of draw people in.
I always use the analogy of ‘cheese on a mousetrap’. The reason why radio stations play music is not necessarily because the radio station people actually like music, they play music because they like money and they know that if they play music that the people like, they’ll get listeners. The more listeners they get, the more they can charge advertisers who advertise on their station. You know what I mean?
If they can tell the advertisers (i.e. Pepsi, Coke, Chevrolet, Kentucky Fried Chicken or whoever it is) that they have six million listeners, then their fees goes up.
So that’s what we do. We make sure songwriters get paid for the usage of their music in at those types of situations.
And those types of situations, I might just add, have vastly expanded and blossomed. Initially, it was clubs and bars and radio and then television. And now we have this whole Internet world and viral world, so it is there as well.
CS: Yes, definitely a lot more layers there nowadays and artists in my opinion, shouldn’t be afraid of branching out and expressing their branding in multiple ways to get exposure and influence.
I did notice that you also use very sophisticated technology at Sesac to keep track of the songs that are out there from your artists that you worked on signing and representing.
Trevor: Right, right. Basically, we use a system called BDS, which is a company called Broadcast Data System. They’re sort of a sister company of the Nielsen company. When you hear television ratings and successful television shows, you hear about ‘high Nielsen rating’, well the same people have another company called Broadcast Data Systems and they measure and account for the number of performances that songs have on radio and in some music-intensive television networks.
We use that technology. We use them to track the performances of the songs that we represent. That is very, very accurate. We’re very satisfied with that system and it’s worked out very well for us.
CS: That’s amazing. Well, let’s look at your start with Sesac! I know that you started with SESAC in 1996 as the Director of writer/publisher relations. And then you swiftly moved up to Vice President. Next to Senior Vice President, impressive!
I’m sure our readers would love to know how the music scene was back then in the day in 1996 compared to how it is right now. You’ve seen it all! Plus, you also have your own musical background as an independent record producer, songwriter and drummer that has toured with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Williams and Run DMC and CEO of Gale Warnings Production Company, a full-service music production facility in NYC.
Trevor: It’s interesting because the music scene has changed a lot. Music, necessarily, hasn’t changed a lot and what it takes to be successful in music hasn’t really changed that much. But the scene of music, parts of the music business have changed a little bit. Before, when I started at SESAC in those sort of days and times, you got a record deal. The record company promoted your record if you’re fortunate enough to have them do that.
And then you went on the road and you performed and you became famous, so to speak, based on the success of your songs.
That still happens to some degree today, but as we know now, the Internet is the way to go. It’s everything. It’s just taken over. It has changed some of the methodology and some of the processes of how you become known for your music, but at the end of the day, there’s also a shallowness to the Internet.
I think the Internet is a great thing and it creates great access to music and access to different artists and such. But at the same time, because it creates so much access, it’s something that doesn’t have weight. “We love you. We love you” and the crowd is then, “Okay… now, I’ll go and listen to somebody else.”
CS: Yeah, nowadays anyone can put a song on their Facebook page and YouTube and all that!
Trevor: Next week, I’m kind of listening to somebody else like, “I heard you. I saw you. Get out of here. Leave me alone.” It wasn’t so much of that back in the day when you only had the more traditional ways of promoting artists. It was a little bit more of “If I like you, I like you” back then. Not “If I like you now, I like you right this second. I might not like you ten seconds from now.”
It’s so much access. It’s just so much coming at you. It’s so much – you know, touching, there’s so much feeling, there’s so much hitting you, there’s so much there that you don’t even have time to know an artist and to get to understanding artists.
Even though the Internet allows you to kind of do that because you can search back, “What was their first record? What was their record before that first record? What was their demo?” It allows you to dig deep, but most people, they don’t dig that deep because they’re busy going to the next thing. It’s a challenge.
So that, the scene of music, as you say, how has it changed? I think the enormous access that the Internet provides also takes away from the depth of my association with an artist.
CS: Yeah, I agree. Now the artist is much more a hands on creative entrepreneur in a sense. Internet provides all this self-promotion for anyone person that it can get cluttered with so many new artists to the table…
Trevor: When I was a kid, I used to listen to Santana records. I used to play the record until the groove wore out basically on the record, you know what I mean? But now, if I listen to Santana, it’ll tell me, “Oh, you like Santana, you’re going to like this guy” and before I know it, I was listening to Santana for a minute, the next thing I know I’m listening to some other guy…and then some other person, which is cool. But now I’ve gone away from that artist that I really was interested in the first place and now I’ve started listening to what something is telling me I’m going to think is the first artist.
It’s a very subtle, but not so subtle change to what has become the music scene. It takes away I think from the intensity of the fan-base.
It’s funny because in some ways, people will argue and say, “A true fan now is really a true fan,” but it’s just a little different I think because of the amount of access to all the music we have.
It’s good in a lot of ways because it enables new artists to get heard, so it’s always a fabulous thing. The challenge of it is the fact that the whole society, so to speak, has become disposable a little bit and this quick, “Oh, I chew that gum. It loses its flavor in two seconds, I get another piece of gum.”
When you buy a gum now, it’s like they give you 40 pieces of gum in the box and the little thing. Back in the day, you’d buy the chewing gum and it’d have five sticks of gum in there if you’re lucky and you’d chew that for like a week or something, or three days or something. Now, because it loses its flavor in ten minutes, you go through the box in a half hour.
It’s kind of that way with some of the music. It’s very interesting.
CS: Great points! I interviewed Jason Boyd, producer of Justin Bieber’s records, and he was saying the same thing. He was like, “Oh, nowadays, people have ADD with music.” It’s just everything is so commercialized in a way and its like, “Okay, what’s the next artist or next sound.” They jump around.
Trevor: Back in the day an artist would come with an album, they would tour, they would take a break, they would record another album, it would take them a while and then they’ll be like, “Oh, my God! So and so’s album is coming out.” You would really wait for that. It’ll be exciting.
Nowadays, it’s like the artist come out with new albums it seems like every two weeks. You can’t even keep up what album that song is from because they’re constantly putting songs out there…because they’re so afraid that the people will forget them and go away, their fan base will wane and dissipate that they’re constantly putting more songs out. It’s a very strange and interesting phenomenon.
It’s also interesting from another perspective that because of the different layers and levels of the uses of music and access to music that songwriters have opportunities to at least have a little bit of a difference and more options as far as streams of income are concerned.
CS: Yeah, I’ve been saying that as well. Some great opportunities especially if they have the right team around them.
Trevor: There’s more songs being used in films and TV. There’s obviously more channels on television. It’s just a little bit more opportunity. It’s still not perfect. It’s still not the way we all really want it to be, but the light is a little brighter a little bit, just a little bit.
CS: Well, there’s more freedom. They have a little more freedom in their brand management and their marketing. Social media helps a lot too.
Trevor: Yeah, it’s interesting.
CS: “At labels today, there isn’t artist development or mentors like there used to be in old days…” like Ray Charles was with Atlantic Records…
I thought that was really great because I, myself am a life and business coach for people in the arts and entertainment. I’m doing my part to help inspire and work with artists in developing their careers because I saw this need in the market plus I had passion for the arts. What is your perspective on that?
Trevor: You’re right. Like I say, the level of artist development is a completely different scenario now with labels. Labels are actually looking for artists who are developed already. They’re looking for artists who have fan bases already.
The phenomenon of these television shows, X-Factor, American Idol, the Voice, all these stuff is based on, “Okay, we’ll find semi-talented or talented artists or singers,” let’s call them (we don’t know if they’re artists), “…and we’ll put them on this TV show, which is a reality-based sort of thing and they’ll get fans from the people that watch the show. So as soon as we put the record out, they’ll have a fan base. Thus, we’ll have record sales from day one.”
That is their thing. Outside of that, if they do sign someone new, they’re looking for those who have already had a presence online. That way, they can say, “Oh, these people already have 500,000 views on their video and this and that and a web page and blah-blah-blah, so we don’t have to do anything. We just have to put the record out because all we want to do is make money.
So it is a completely different thing when you go to a label back in the old days and they had a staff producer who had a sound that the label is famous for and so to develop and hone this artist into something or an artist who was ready to go out and perform with a sound and with an identity and a look and all of that.
Now, you’d have to walk in the door with that. It is completely different.
That’s why I say that artist have to have the ability to work really hard because you have to not only work to say, “I’m the best guitar player in New Jersey,” but you have to have a vibe, a uniqueness and a message and a persona and character. “Who are you? What are you saying? What are you talking about? Why do I like you? Why should I like you?”
You have to come in the door with all of these before they even pay any attention to you. It takes a lot of thought, it takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of trial-and-error to get to that point where you’ve got that stuff together.
CS: Awesome advice! Are there any final things you want to share with Creative Spotlight?
Trevor: It’s interesting. Music to me that works and lasts is all emotional.
It speaks from the heart. It speaks from the soul actually. In order for an artist to do that, whether you’re sculptor, a painter, a photographer, a musician, a dancer, you have to find out who you are and understand who you are and what you have to say. Understand that that’s the only thing that really means anything.
CS: I can really connect to that!
Trevor: Or else you’ll be an artist that has a hit song. It’ll be one of those things that come on at three in the morning.
“You remember the Pink Doorknobs? They had this song, Baby, I Love You” and they were like, “Oh, yeah. I had the Pink Doorknobs, but then they only had that one song and then I never heard from the Pink Doorknobs again.”
I mean, that’s not bad. You can be one of the Pink Doorknobs. But if you want to be Bono or…or Otis Redding, you want to be somebody that somebody cares about or can change somebody’s life.
You have to really dig deep and work extremely hard to find your voice within your soul first and make it come across through music, which is sometimes difficult.