January 13, 2011
One of the world's most acclaimed songwriters talks exclusively to MIDEMBlog about success, independence and the music industry. Take it away, Diane!
What do “Unbreak my Heart“, “Rhythm of the Night“, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now“, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” have in common? Who has written for artists as many and varied as Aerosmith, Toni Braxton, Meatloaf and Ace of Base to name just a few? And who owns all of these songs & more directly through her own company, Realsongs? Diane Warren is indeed such an award-winning living legend that the Golden Globes and the Oscars are keeping her from keynoting MIDEM 2011′s Publishing Summit. We can’t say we’re not upset: but even an interview with this limelight-shy music genius is plenty to be thankful for. We’re sure you’ll agree!
MIDEMBlog: You’ve had more Billboard hits than any other songwriter. I imagine that makes you proud?
Diane Warren: I don’t think about that sort of thing. I don’t have a rear-view mirror, I ‘m just on to whatever’s next, I don’t think “I’ve achieved this…”
MB: Any standout songs? There have been so many…
DW: They all stand out in their own way. It was particularly cool when Aerosmith did my song (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, for the film “Armageddon”), as they’d never really done other people’s songs, apart from the Beatles’. So when they did it and it became the biggest hit they’d ever had, that was a pretty cool thing.
MB: Aren’t a lot of artists too proud to let other people write their songs?
DW: Actually, it’s even harder for the artists in that case as you have to convince people that it’s your song; and Steven Tyler certainly did. The people listening to it on the radio don’t associate me with it. It’s like when you see a movie, you don’t mind that Robert de Niro didn’t write the lines he’s saying; their job is to make you believe it.
MB: So you’re happy to take a back seat, let the artists have the limelight?
DW: Yes, I’m fine with that, it shows they’re doing their job. Just put my name on the cheque!
MB: What is there in common, creatively speaking, between an Aerosmith song and a Christina Aguilera song? They seem worlds apart…
DW: Yes, and what I’m doing now is worlds apart too. There’s a 40-year age difference between Justin Bieber and Cher! What they have in common is great songs. I try to take an idea or concept and just make the best song I can, whether it’s for Aerosmith or Jennifer Hudson or Justin Bieber.
MB: You’re known as the “Queen of Ballads”; is that OK with you?
DW: I’m happy with that one – I’m happy to be the “queen” of anything! – but I’ve had uptempo hits too. “Unbreak my Heart” was written as both a balland and a dance tune, as that’s the way I heard it. But some people only know it as a – gay – dance song!
MB: As founder of Realsongs, you’re also an accomplished music businesswoman. How did that come about?
DW: It actually came about by accident. I became involved in a lawsuit with Jack White, the German publisher I was working with at the time, and because of that legal action I was unable to sign with other publishers. So my lawyer told me to keep my songs for myself, and so I founded Realsongs. I couldn’t believe noone had taken that name already, as it epitomises what I want to be. So I started the company, settled the lawsuit out of court, and just took it from there.
I’m fiercely independent, that’s just who I am. I can’t be told “you can’t do that.” You need to be dyslexic when you see the word “no”; you have to fight for what you believe in.
MB: What would you say are the strengths of Realsongs’ business model?
DW: It’s my company, it’s strength is its songs. I get along with everybody (in the music business), but I was never one to depend on publishers, even when I was with one. You have to be yourself and be passionate.
MB: Where would you say the new revenue opportunities are in songwriting?
DW: Someone else can figure out where new revenues come from; but from my point of view, there is more opportunity than ever, for example in the sync field, from ads and films. I don’t write for songs as such, but my first hit was through a film (her song “Rhythm of the Night” was used in the film “The Last Dragon” in 1985). Getting songs into films is a struggle, so you need someone working specifically on that for you. You have to earn those opportunities. But yes, good representation is key. I may have gone to court with Jack White, but without him I’d not have got anywhere, as he placed “Rhythm of the Night”. After that first breakthrough, when you gave success people are more aware of you.
MB: What’s your take on the music business’ ongoing difficulties?
DW: It’s not just due to [illegal] downloading. Artists have publishing deals where they have to cowrite a minimum number of songs on an album, say ten out of twelve. Why not have some they didn’t write at all? That could give them the breakthrough smash that could take the album on to sell ten million copies. People who buy records don’t care who wrote them.
MB: What about young people consuming much more music via YouTube than via legal downloads?
DW: Look at Taylor Swift: her fans are kids, she still sells millions of records.
MB: Isn’t it also due to artists putting out bad albums to fulfil their commitment to their labels?
DW: Some artists continue to grow, others don’t. When you’re successful you tend to become insular, you get lots of people kissing your ass. So you need to keep close to you the people who are honest enough to tell you when you’ve done something that’s not so good…
MB: So how can the industry recover?
DW: It needs to get back to good songs. It always come back to that. So you need good A&R for starters…
MB: What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters?
DW: Be really good, great even; and do the work. Luck opens the door, talent and hard work keeps you in there. It’s a very competitive sector; it’s like being an actor. Having thick skin doesn’t hurt! Being obsessed and obsessive works for me. At fourteen I asked my dad for a Billboard subscription, that was all I read. I got D and E grades at school, but you could ask me anything about music!