Creative Manager/Songplugger Lisa Cullington
Lisa was a consultant UK Writer Manager/Songplugger for BMG Music Publishing in London. Since BMG Publishing was acquired by Universal Music Publishing, one of the world’s largest music publishers for $2.05 billion, Lisa now consults for Universal Music Publishing Group as a Creative Manager. Universal Music Publishing holds rights to songs from the biggest artists including Coldplay to Jessica Simpson and Barry Manilow to Mariah Carey.
Lisa talks to us about how she tracks down the hottest songwriters and how she places music in the industry. Growing up in a very musical family, Lisa’s interest in the music business transported her to a career in music publishing straight after she graduated from University.
How did you get involved in the music business?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): After receiving my first class degree from Westminster University and getting my feet wet in the music industry by doing an internship during my studies, I decided to go into music publishing. I started off at Sony/ATV where I remained for 4 years until I moved to Universal (formerly BMG), which is where I am currently.
How many songwriters have you signed in the past year and what do you look for?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): Actually, I have added one new writer to our roster in the past year – Alex James. Currently, I am looking at four A-list songwriters who are coming out of deals at the end of the year. What I am looking for when I sign a new songwriter is someone who really stands out, that has had success in the past and who I think I can help bring move to the next level. Strategically, I’ll also look at our current writer roster to see what type of writers would fit in, and what we are missing i.e. do we need more topline writers or more track writers etc.
Interesting, how exactly do go about finding these outstanding songwriters to fill gaps in your roster?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): Primarily, I find out about writers through networking with my established contacts – whether it’s managers, A&Rs or other music industry professionals. They often point out a particular writer and then we’ll try to set up a meeting. In addition, you also hear about a publishing deal expiring and the possibility of adding a new writer.
I will also have meetings with developing writers that are not as well known, if they have an exciting, fresh sound. But with the way the industry is at the moment, I am concentrating on signing established A-list writers, rather than new developing ones. That said if someone amazing comes along I will of course sign them!
Say for example you’re about to set up a meeting with a new songwriter you heard about, what are some red flags that make you think twice about setting up that meeting?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)):
Sometimes I receive inquiries from songwriters that tell me they’ve worked with some big name writer/producers, but later it turns out they did just some “production/engineering” work, but less of the actual writing part. So for me it’s important to find out to what extend they are involved with the actual writing part before I meet with them. Because it’s a relatively small songwriting circle in the industry, I know most of the people out there and so I check out who they’ve worked with before. I then call some of my contacts to find out how they rate them.
What are your recommendations for up and coming songwriters?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): Because it’s very hard to break into the industry, you have to have passion for what you are doing, work very hard and not be fazed by knock backs!
Aside from writing lots of music and developing your sound, it’s imperative that you start to establish a network. The more people you know in the industry, the better! People talk and because the industry is so small, if you’re good your name will get out there quickly and publishers will start to call!
Once we sign a writer, we’ll also help in the networking part, but it’s a definite plus if you already have an existing writer network.
Do you have any creative input when you work with your songwriters or do you take the laid-back approach?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): I pride myself in being creative with our writers – that’s what my job is all about! I am all about getting involved – giving our writers the latest briefs, finding new songwriting opportunities for them etc, even if they are very active themselves. I’ll also introduce them to other songwriters they may not be aware of or don’t know how to get in contact with for possible collaborations.
What’s the rate of hit songs you get?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): It’s hard to put a number on that, because it’s obviously very different for every songwriter. Nevertheless, for a new, developing songwriter I would say that on average 5 out of 50 songs will be big hits with the balance still being great songs that can be cut internationally.
For established, A-list songwriters on the other hand, we can have 7 out of 10 songs cut with big artists. So it really depends on the level in their career.
Do you pitch rough demos?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): It depends how rough we are talking! Most of the songs I receive from our writers sound like finished records anyway, so I tend not to have that problem. But in rare cases, when I have a roughly recorded song with just piano/vocals or guitar/vocals, I’ll still pitch it if the song is great. You have to use your discretion – some A&Rs can listen to a rough demo and and hear its potential, but in general the trend is towards better quality demos.
Do you have a strategy when pitching songs?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): Definitely! After finding out which artists are currently working on a new project, I like to talk to A&Rs directly to get an even better understanding of the project and what exactly it is that they are looking for.
I will pitch perhaps 1 or 2 songs, 2 songs maximum to an A&R at first. I don’t want to send out more than that initially, because I believe less is more. I will then wait for feedback and then if appropriate, pitch some more songs. I don’t pitch for the sake of pitching, but only if I find something really suitable for the act. This largely increases the likelihood of getting a cut and is what good songplugging is all about!
You definitely don’t want to fall into the trap of over-sending songs, because it dilutes the impact of the songs sent and then A&Rs will never listen to them all. In fact they may get so annoyed having to listen to so many songs, particularly if they are not very good, that they’ll say “this person doesn’t have any good songs, so I won’t bother listening to them anymore.”
Given your strategy, how many songs do you place in a year?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): On average, we place around 50-60 songs in a year, which is what we placed last year as well.
Okay, so then to place these 60 songs how many did you present to A&Rs or managers?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): To place 60 songs we sent out approximately 100 songs.
That clearly indicates that you’re very selective in what you pitch, which is very important to know. What are you currently working on?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): We’re working on a number of projects including Will Young, Kylie Minogue, Pop Idol Germany, as well as some French artists and a few classical cross-over projects.
Finally, what has made you so successful in the industry?
Lisa Cullington (BMG Music Publishing (now Universal Music Publishing)): My passion for Pop music and songplugging and of course a good ear for a hit! I love listening to music and I am very passionate about the songs that I pitch. Being very personable is another important aspect that helped me in the industry, as you have to create a lot of personal relationships, whether it’s with A&Rs, songwriters, managers or artists.