MBW’s World Leaders is a regular series in which we turn the spotlight towards some of the most influential industry figures outside the US and UK markets. In this feature, we speak to Johnny Tennander, Sony Music Publishing MD, Scandinavia and SVP A&R, Europe. MBW World Leaders is supported by PPL
Music publishing is a business built on songs (mostly) written by real people, scouted and signed by real people. So it’s a sector that could have been devastated by the minimal human interaction-by-product of the pandemic.
Not at Sony Music Publishing in Scandinavia.
According to Johnny Tennander, Sony Music Publishing MD, Scandinavia and SVP A&R, Europe, the company’s Swedish office “actually signed more than ever, because of COVID”.
“All of a sudden, no one is travelling. No artist is on tour, everyone is sitting by the computer, ready to do business,” he tells MBW.
One of the highest-profile signings from Sony Music Publishing Scandinavia in recent months was multi-platinum-selling Swedish singer-songwriter Zara Larsson (Ruin My Life, All The Time, Lush Life, and Never Forget You) who inked a worldwide deal with the publisher in February.
Another notable SMP signing of late is multi-platinum producer Benjamin Lasnier from Denmark who’s worked with hip-hop stars like Lil Mosey, Trippie Red, Young M.A. and Megan Thee Stallion.
In spite of Sony Music Publishing’s own increased signing activity in Scandinavia, Tennander says that he’s conscious of not replacing A&R with a strategy of signing hit songs without the traditional development process.
“You can be smart about songs, you can be smart about hits, but in terms of the long-term creative thinking, some people are forgetting about old-school A&R,” he says.
“Sometimes people forget about developing and spending time with the music.”
Tennander knows the benefits of songwriter development inside out, following an almost 20 year career in the publishing business.
Songwriters he’s worked with include stars like Avicii, Lykke Li, Peter Bjorn and John, Lido (Halsey, Chance The Rapper, Ariana Grande) and Noonie Bao, who has written hits for Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Avicii, and MØ.
Tennander’s music career started at V2 Records in Stockholm under Helen McLaughlin, who was then Managing Director of V2 Music Scandinavia.
After three years at V2, he moved across to the publishing business, joining EMI Music Publishing Scandinavia in 2002. He was later promoted to Head of A&R at EMI by 2006 and Vice President of A&R Europe in 2009.
Following Sony’s acquisition of EMI, Tennander was appointed as Head of A&R Scandinavia and Senior Vice President A&R Europe at Sony/ATV in 2012,
By early 2015 he was made Deputy Managing Director of Sony/ATV Scandinavia and stepped up to the MD role in Summer 2016 following the departure of Patrik Sventelius.
Here, following SMP’s global rebrand from its former name of Sony/ATV, Tennander gives MBW an insight into his career and the challenges of running a publishing company during a pandemic…
How did you end up working in your first industry job at V2 Records?
I was hoping to become a rock star, but I guess I didn’t make it! When we split up the band, I chased down labels in Stockholm. The only [person] that got back to me was Helen McLaughlin, who was running V2 Records at the time.
I kept pushing and then she said, ‘Okay, come in and do your thing.’ I worked for free for the first six months. I worked at V2 for three years. I started in 1998 and it was a great school.
“It was the last of the golden days. You could sell a lot of CDs by having a band play at the one music show on a Sunday on national television [in Sweden].”
It was the last of the golden days. You could sell a lot of CDs by having a band play at the one music show on a Sunday on national television.
Then, around the millennium, things went downhill because of Napster and illegal downloading. V2 had to cut down so all of a sudden I was out of job.
I was unemployed and looking for a job and I heard that the new MD [Stefan Gullberg] at EMI Publishing was looking for an A&R.
I hit him up, we met the day after and we clicked big time. He offered me the job on the spot.
How did you find the transition from label A&R to publishing A&R?
I had no clue how you did A&R at a publishing company. Back then it was a completely different time. Publishing and publishing A&R was much more old school or passive at that time.
I couldn’t really understand that. The good thing was that my boss, who had brought me in, also came from the label side. We had a proactive approach, like, ‘Let’s just do this and see what it gets us.’
Another really good thing was the timing musically, in 2002. Indie rock bands and indie pop acts were the hottest things around at the time. Globally, you had bands like the Strokes or Bloc Party or Arcade Fire and MGMT. In Sweden, we had Robyn, Lykke Li, Peter Bjorn and John, The Hives and José Gonzales.
It was amazing in Sweden from a band, artist perspective. That was my world, so I had a bit of luck. We were fortunate to sign Peter Bjorn and John. They went on to have a global hit with Young Folks (pictured inset). I signed Lykke Li shortly after that. We were off to a good start at EMI.
Who were some of mentors in the publishing business?
The first mentor was Stefan Gullberg, the MD [at EMI Music Publishing Scandinavia] and he’s still a close friend of mine.
Going back to the indie wave and the Peter, Bjorn and John days, what I learned pretty quickly was that my game should be to try to sign the best things in Scandinavia and then take it to the US the UK.
“It was funny, a band like Peter, Bjorn and John were pretty much unknown in the Swedish industry, but when you flew to New York, they played for 5,000 people.”
It was funny, a band like Peter, Bjorn and John were pretty much unknown in the Swedish industry, but when you flew to New York, they played for 5,000 people.
It was like two different worlds and the labels were chasing these artists. I understood that this is what we should be doing. I started travelling a lot, to London and mainly New York at the time to knock on doors to meet the UK and US players.
Guy Moot (pictured) was definitely the other mentor for me. I met him when he was Head of A&R for EMI Publishing [UK] and also Mike Smith. They were a fantastic A&R team in London.
Funnily enough, Jon Platt [now-Sony Music Publishing global CEO/Chairman] was an A&R at EMI Publishing back then in the US, and you also had Jody Gerson. That was an amazing A&R team within EMI Music Publishing and we all got to know each other.
What were some of your objectives when you took over as MD?
A bunch. As an A&R guy, one of the main focuses [was] the music, trying to raise the bar and of course, have more hits.
From a bigger perspective, I felt as a team – I’m talking about the Stockholm team, the Scandinavian team – there was a lot of growth and development to be done.
That was my main focus. How can we come together more as a team and how can we be more progressive, and proactive and take initiative? I had a lot of ideas. I still do and I’m still working on a few, but there’s always stuff to be done.
“Jon [platt] came in and changed a lot of things. All for the better. These last two years have been amazing, watching how we are becoming a different company.”
It’s been almost five years, and things have happened. I’m definitely not saying it’s down to me. It’s because of the team locally. What we’ve done together is fantastic. That’s been the biggest highlight for me [during] these five years.
Also globally, the way we have changed as a company [have been a highlight] the last couple of years. Jon [Platt] came in and changed a lot of things. All for the better.
You also oversee European and International A&R at Sony Music Publishing jointly with David Ventura. what are your goals collectively?
Obviously, David runs the UK company together with Tim Major. David and I go way back. He’s my French brother! David is one of the most passionate guys I’ve ever met in the music industry – and I’ve met most of them.
What we want to do is really make sure that we are across everything from a European and international A&R point of view.
“We want to be as transparent as possible, as global as possible, as a creative team and as a company.”
The other part is trying to build a culture around the creative teams in the company so that we become closer, more transparent and more of a team.
That’s been the whole mission with the European and international A&R. Especially since Jon came in. We want to be as transparent as possible, and as global as possible, as a creative team and as a company.
How do you attract new executive talent into the music publishing business?
Both on the corporate side and the creative side, [with] songwriters, and producers and artists, you have to think outside the box.
You have all these structures in the company world and also in the creative world. It’s more important than ever to break down those structures and really make an effort and look for talent in places that you haven’t looked before.
“[When] recruiting people to your team, you can’t do it the way the industry has done for the last 20 years. You have to look in other places, in other contexts.”
[When] recruiting people to your team, you can’t do it the way the industry has done for the last 20 years. You have to look in other places, in other contexts.
If you play by the same rules all the time, you get the yes-sayers and you do things exactly the same way.
How have your business activities been impacted over the past 12 months?
It’s been a different year. It’s also been the most [educational] year for me, ever. In a post-COVID world, there are some great things we will take from this horrible year and it’s going to be a fantastic combination.
You need to look for positive things. There have been upsides. Jumping on video conferences, [rather than] flying to London for two meetings, and then flying back… that’s not really great for the environment.
“There are people who love Zoom sessions and there are songs on emails flying all over the place, but from a creative point of view, in most scenarios, the magic happens when you have people in the room together.”
From a signing perspective, here in Sweden, we’ve actually signed more than ever, because of COVID. Because all of a sudden, no one is travelling, no artist is on tour, everyone is sitting by the computer, ready to do business, so signing has been super active.
There are people who love Zoom sessions and there are songs on emails flying all over the place. But from a creative point of view, in most scenarios, the magic happens when you have people in the room together.
To sit down in a studio and feed back to someone’s music is something I’ve really missed. It’s going to be amazing to go back to a somewhat normal world from a musical point of view, especially when it comes to developing the music.
The COVID year has sped up the song-driven market. Obviously, you [already] had Spotify and TikTok and everything, but then because of COVID, you had songs just flying all over the place out of nowhere.
“The COVID year has sped up the song driven market. Obviously, you [already] had Spotify and TikTok and everything, but then because of Covid, you had songs just flying all over the place out of nowhere.”
That could be fantastic, but everyone is making deals now. Everyone is signing a song, but a lot of people are forgetting about A&R. You know, working the music and developing long term careers and having a process.
You can be smart about songs, you can be smart about hits, but in terms of the long-term creative thinking, some people are forgetting about old school A&R.
How are your songwriters coping with the pandemic in terms of their mental health and what are you doing to help?
In October, we brought in a mental health coach for our songwriters. He used to be a producer and songwriter, but he left the business and went on to become a psychologist.
He is available to all our Scandinavian songwriters, and he’s free of charge, when they need him. It’s important to stress that he has full secrecy, so I don’t know anything about [the meetings].
When we launched the initiative, I sent out an email to our songwriters and their managers and I’ve never received so much love and appreciation for something we’ve done. That’s an initiative I’m super proud of. It’s definitely going to be a natural part of our A&R business going forward.
You’ve mentioned a couple times about how things have changed since Jon Platt joined. What’s it been like working with him over the past couple of years, since he took over and what’s changed?
It’s been so great to see the development in less than two years time. We’re [like] a different company.
We’ve done a bunch of initiatives, like we launched the Cash Out [service] and real-time accounting admin.
“It’s a different culture that Jon [Platt] brought to the company. It’s an inclusive culture, it’s a global culture, it’s a transparent culture within the company.”
We’re becoming much more transparent and progressive as a company, but the main fact is the culture. It’s a different culture that Jon brought to the company.
It’s an inclusive culture, it’s a global culture, it’s a transparent culture. That makes us that kind of company externally as well, towards the business and the creators.
Working with Jon personally is just amazing. Jon is an A&R guy at heart. That’s how he started his journey, so we can talk about an amazing track on a Sunday evening. For me, it’s A&R Jon, but also the leader, Jon. It’s a new chapter in all ways possible.
World Leaders is supported by PPL, a leading international neighbouring rights collector, with best-in-class operations that help performers and recording rightsholders around the world maximise their royalties. Founded in 1934, PPL collects money from across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. It has collected over £500 million internationally for its members since 2006.Music Business Worldwide