Live in Conversation: Miller Williams Part II of II

Miller Williams

Senior VP Creative, Kobalt Music Publishing

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips. 

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem. 

This episode’s guest was Miller Williams, Senior VP Creative, Kobalt Music Publishing.


Miller Williams’ role at Kobalt covers A&R, songwriter services, and catalogue acquisitions. He also works with their international agents and sub-publishers to exploit their songs and help their writers with co-write opportunities. Signings include Becky Hill, Milow, Jef Martens, Houston Comma publishing, Carla Monroe, AJ Tracy, Martin Sjolie, and Alex Clare. Williams has also held similar A&R and/or creative positions at Sony ATV UK, BMG Records UK, PWL Records UK, and Terrace Music (Nashville).

Kobalt is one of the most successful independent companies for music publishing, label services and rights management. In his role as Senior Vice President Creative, Miller works across A&R, collaborations and music marketing.

Music Publishing & Sync: Where to Start?

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Miller Williams took place on Tuesday, the 30th of August, live from London, UK. Miller Williams, Senior VP Creative, Kobalt Music Publishing

Miller joined us from London, UK

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In Part II (below) Marc and Miller delve into the world of K-Pop, and J-Pop. Then how different territories around the world have unique ways of working. They also discuss the developing African music ecosystem. Plus, how to approach one’s career if just starting out: deal or no deal…? When to hold up and when to sign up.

Miss Part I? Head back to read here.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc Brown: I have a strange, or maybe not so strange question. What should someone do if they have stage fright or a terrible voice – probably never going to play live? What would you do if someone walked through your door, they are an amazing songwriter but don’t want to be a singer or performer. 

Miller Williams: Again it comes down to the relationships that you form with other songwriters and managers. It’s about networking and finding those songwriters who are on your level and promoting yourself to them. For example, how did Justin Bieber find Omah Lay and decide to do a song with him? Justin Bieber heard one of his songs, found him on Instagram and reached out to him.

Marc: That is insane, isn’t it?

Miller: It is! So I always say to writers. If you hear something online that you like, do a little bit of research and send them a message! You might not get an answer but if you do it enough, it could pan out. It’s also about being strategic.

I tell our writers that we do a lot of work putting sessions together and pitching songs, so I expect the writers to be their own engine with us as well. The reason why some of the successful writers are where they are is that they’re really good networkers and people like to work with them, so they get repeat business.

Kobalt Publishing's Miller William's Live in Conversation

Marc: What are sessions – is that like a writer’s camp? How would a songwriter get in on that?

Miller: Yeah. There are a lot of these camps now. Ultra Records is running a camp now down in Cornwall in September. So they usually come to us and let us know about their camp and ask us to recommend people for it. Then we pitch some of the writers that we think might be good for that camp.

The other thing we like to do is put our writers directly in the room with the artist because there’s a bigger chance that the artist might like the writer and the song and want to release it.

Marc: Ah I see, so the shortest distance between the two points is to get a writer in the room with the artist.

Miller: Yeah. If the artist doesn’t wind up using the song but the song is really good, we also have a shot of maybe getting the song as a sync for something else.

Marc: Makes sense. Now I want to talk a bit about the Japanese and South Korean markets. Can you tell me about that music scene and about “the adapter”?

Miller: Well, if you have a chance of getting a song recorded by a K-Pop or J-Pop band like Red Velvet or Ivy, you’ll have to give up a share to someone we call the local adapter. Adapters re-write songs in different languages.

Marc: So are they translators?

Miller: Not really. They may keep the chorus or some parts in English but that’s it. They rewrite the song. For example, we’ve just got a song that’s being recorded by a K-Pop band, originally called “Scared of the Dark” and it’s been retitled to “Queen of Hearts” so it’s not a straight translation at all.

Depending on who the songwriter is it usually makes sense to go with a K-Pop or J-Pop band rather than an international one in those markets because the local artists dominate the charts there. The other big difference is that they also tend to still buy CDs in those markets which makes a difference financially.

Marc: So the mechanicals would be higher because the mechanical royalty on a CD is much higher than getting a stream, right?

Miller: That’s correct. It takes a bit longer for the money to come from Korea but overall, songwriters will earn more money. We had the band Ive release “Love Dive” in Korea and I think the first day sales were about 200,000 CDs (the first month was 544,339 copies)

Marc: Wow, that’s like a billion streams!

Miller: Yeah, you won’t get many bands in the UK that can sell that many in 1 day.

Japan is also quite insular, they don’t export anywhere near as much as the Koreans do for a variety of reasons, but it’s still a very lucrative market if you can get your song placed with a J-Pop act.

Marc: That’s so interesting, the idea that things work in different ways all over the world. I think these different stories you’re telling convey the message that there’s not one way of doing things. I’m here in Stockholm, so it’s cool to think that someone around the corner could be writing songs for records that are released in South Korea.

I know you have also been doing more stuff in Africa, how is the infrastructure for publishing there, like copyright societies, royalty collection, distribution etc?

Miller: I would say most of our income for the African artists or writers that we publish would be coming from outside of Africa. Most of the artists who are signed to emPawa Africa (a talent incubation initiative to nurture and support up-and-coming artists in Africa.) don’t belong to the local society. If they did join it, they likely wouldn’t see any income from it.

Marc: Is it because they don’t have the contacts to collect it?

Miller: It’s mostly just that they’re not up to speed yet. However, I think it will change pretty rapidly because in the past, music was a physical thing but now everyone has a mobile phone so it will start to change. Ultimately, the governments in those countries will have to have a look at their local societies and sort them out.

That is what is happening in China – they’ve amended their international copyright laws because the government realized that they weren’t collecting enough money. There is a light at the end of the tunnel but I think it will take a bit of time for Africa to catch up because most of the music that’s consumed in Africa is local, it’s not necessarily Western artists. I think there will be a push because there is so much talent and diversity there, so they need to create a sustainable music industry.

Marc: Yeah, we were talking about how big and diverse it is in our last interview with Chioma Onuchukwu. It is wrong to even refer to the music as “African” because each region like East or West Africa is different and unique. To generalize is impossible.

Miller: Very true. I know Universal has opened an office, and Sony Publishing has opened an office in Nigeria and Lagos so that’s great. I can’t say that if you did XY and Z it would fix the problem, I think it just needs time. The more famous African and Afrobeats artists get, the better it will become. You just need to make sure that there’s a sustainable industry in the countries the artists are based.

Marc: How you would describe the progress made by African artists so far in the time that you’ve been involved with them on the publishing side? 

Miller: I have only been working with African artists for the last two years, so not very long. But look at WizKiz, BurnaBoy, Mr Eazi, Tems – those artists are making an impact in the wider world which reflects well. From a publishing collections point of view, our deals are also doing well and we’re seeing money from all different parts of the world come in. It’s also great because we’ve seen a lot of collaborations with artists from all over the world which create more opportunities for these artists.

Marc: What do you think should be done to bridge the gap? Is aligning with international collection agencies the right path? It’s kind of a catch-22 because you want the local agencies to do well but if you’re worried about your career and you only have one chance. Maybe you do not want to be the guinea pig.

Miller: Ha! That’s exactly it. Well, there’s SAMRO which is good – it’s the South African music rights organization. I know David at Sheer Music does a lot of education across other parts of Africa so it just needs some time.

Right now, if you’re wanting to join a good performing arts society I’m not so sure how the other ones are apart from SAMRO. You may want to join some of the bigger ones for the time being and then you can always switch back!

Marc: I didn’t know that you could do that! So me being in Sweden, I could just join SOCAN in Canada?

Miller: Yeah! I’ve had one writer who was in three different societies. I said it was too complicated and they should just join one.

Marc: What was their logic behind that?

Miller: I don’t think there was any. I do think it makes your life more complicated because you need to keep in touch with multiple societies to make sure you’re getting all of your royalties as a songwriter. Plus a publisher has to remember which society is collecting for which place.

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Marc: I had no idea that was the case! We also talked last week about Sentric Music. What is it?

Miller: I can’t say how they operate now because they’ve been purchased by a company called Utopia. Before they were sort of like a mini Kobalt. Sentric had a no-advance deal model, and you could get out of your deal within 30 days. They would register and try to collect your money for you. They also provided some sync services. It was a flexible type of company. Some writers liked that a lot. But like I said, I’m not sure how they function now since they’re owned by a bigger company.

Marc: So it seems like as an artist you just need to figure out what you need and what you want to do because it is out there.

Miller: Yeah.

Marc: I do talks all the time called the Artist Journey and I tell people they need to know who they are and what they want to do. If an artist has an idea of what they want to do and a willingness to take a risk in terms of delaying revenue, does that mean that they can find a deal to suit them?

Miller: Yeah. I think there’s enough variety in the different models, whether it’s a Kobalt, a Sentric or an independent label. You could also just start by registering with one of the societies and collecting the money yourself for the time being until you feel you need a publishing deal in place.

Most of our writers have a manager in place to help them with their careers and these sorts of decisions. I’m not saying you should go out and get a manager straight away, but here, the London grapevine is pretty small so if people are out networking, writing songs and playing gigs, somebody will hear about it quickly, and then it gets on the A&R grapevine. Lots of opportunities.

Marc: I have a publishing question, do writers need to sign assignment details with PRS’ for exclusive licenses?

Miller: I’m not an admin expert, but generally what happens is a songwriter will affiliate with a performing rights society. You can be a member of that society and also have a publishing deal with Kobalt for example.

PRS (Performing Right Society) will collect all of the money from wherever it comes from and out of that total performance income, half of it goes back to the publisher to recoup their advances (if the artist got an advance), and half of it goes directly to the writer. The publisher also collects the other part which is the mechanical income part. So as a writer, you can join PRS, if you don’t have a publisher, and then they would pay you 100% of the performance income. And if you also joined MCPS (collects and distributes mechanical royalties to songwriters, composers and publishers) as a writing member they would pay you all of the mechanical income as well. So you’re not giving them anything, they just have the mandate to collect income for your songs but they don’t own the copyright of your music or anything.

Also be aware that in most territories, half of the value of a stream is classed as a performance income and the other half is classed as mechanical income even though there’s no physical thing. That’s generally just how it works. So, for the value of one stream: 80% of the value goes to the record company, and 20% goes back to the songwriters and the publishers. Of that 20%, half is usually mechanical and half is performance.

Marc: OK, interesting!

Miller: It’s not the same in all territories so that’s what makes it more confusing, but that’s a very general overview.

Marc: That’s good to know, I didn’t even know about that breakdown. 

Marc: Ok Miller, one last question. How would you take a songwriter from zero to hero?

Miller: Well, I had the good fortune to sign a young lady called Corinne Bailey Rae. She was working with a writer that I published, and he sent me a song called Like a Star that she’d written. I thought it was great, but no one was interested in signing her to a publishing deal at the time. As an independent, I decided to take a risk and signed a publishing deal with her. It took about 3 years for her to release her first album. During that time, I got her to work with Mark Hill and a bunch of other writers and she eventually started working with the 2 guys who wrote: “Put Your Records On”. It was a long process of finding her people to write with to get the best songs from her, but we finally got there.

As always, it comes down to having a great song. You can become successful on TikTok and YouTube, but if you have a great song you’ve won half of the battle.

Marc: Yeah, there are a few artists who got dropped, and then ended up becoming big later.

Miller: Yeah. Alicia Keys is one I can think of.

Marc: And Lana Del Ray, Aretha Franklin.

Miller: Yeah! Usually what I find is that if you scratch beneath the surface, the artists who have become successful have done a ton of work behind the scenes that no one has known about. I don’t think there’s any shortcut to success. Lil Nas X did become famous quite quickly through TikTok, but he’s proven that he can write hit after hit which is another important thing – longevity. That’s a real skill to be able to keep going and reinvent yourself.

Marc: That’s a great place to end – work on the music and the rest should fall into place.

Miller: Yes! The better the song, the more likely it is to get synced and the more people will listen to it.

Marc: Thank you so much, Miller, that was a great chat!

Miller: Thank you, I hope that’s helped. Sorry I couldn’t give a clearer roadmap to success!

Marc: That’s what I tell everyone – there is no linear path in this business.