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Or as another of Carter's new songwriting partners, Derek Bramble (hits for David Bowie, Whitney Houston and Faith Hill), explains about his job: "It's like somebody set me down with ten boxes of Lego bricks: OK, what am I going to make today?"
Alan Melina does a lot of his business at the Commons at Calabasas, a high-end open-air retail development about 25 miles north of Hollywood. A few years ago he cut most of his staff, stopped renting office space and started holding meetings at Starbucks, organizing his days on his BlackBerry. Though it sounds like a low-budget operation, it's anything but.
As a college kid in Sussex, England, Melina got into the music business booking concerts by the Who, the Kinks, Donovan and Muddy Waters. He became an agent in 1971 when he signed on with a young David Bowie; he also worked with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. By the end of the decade he was general manager of Chappell Music, which had on its roster the catalogues of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd. and pretty much every other British band of the time.
In 1984 the Icicle Works hit "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" rocketed up the Billboard charts with Melina credited as executive producer, and Melina relocated to LA. He was named head of Paramount Pictures' music-publishing division, where he signed a young pop chanteuse named Sade. When he struck out on his own again in 1989, he took Sade with him, giving him instant credibility. Artists represented by Melina's New Heights Entertainment have sold a combined 750 million records.
It was Melina's cachet that convinced Carter to commit to the Butterfields. "We signed with 7Fourteen to have Alan Melina walk Carla's music through the door of every major label there is," says Carter's manager, Chris Hansen. "To ding it. To get a deal for her songs. The Butterfields knew from the beginning that the only reason we were sitting at the table was because of Alan's weight."
Melina's success has its perks, the least of which is the ability to run down his curriculum vitae and talk music business at a table at Starbucks, clad in white Adidas tennis gear. (An aging British baby boomer with a tight smile and a head full of curly silvering black hair, Melina is a vague ringer for Monty Python mainstay Michael Palin.) He's just finished a match and has another scheduled for later in the day, at which he'll arrive in a black Lexus with a license plate that reads: MUSIC PUB.
Melina has made his living on the side of the music world where the real money is: publishing. When Carla Carter writes a song, she automatically owns it. But songwriters typically aren't salespeople, and they lack reliable methods of getting their work into the hands of artists. Music publishers like Melina sell their networking services in exchange for a share of royalties.
Melina's iPod is his portfolio. In the past he'd have to tote around acetates or CD demos; now he simply hands buyers his earbuds and hits "Play." Still, while technology has revolutionized the science of songwriting, the process of hitmaking hasn't changed in at least half a century. To borrow a page out of Alan Melina's dictionary: A music publisher is like a car salesman.
"It's not enough to have good material which is of course hard enough," explains Tess Taylor, president and founder of the National Association of Record Industry Professionals, an industry trade group. "You have to be able to get it into the right hands. It's extremely competitive. Getting a song on a Beyoncé record, or even a Barry Manilow record, is big money. People are lined up for blocks to get that."
Melina is always at the front of that line. He brunches with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record exec Clive Davis, has Randy Jackson's cell phone number and can walk into Atlantic Records headquarters in New York and be greeted with a hearty handshake.
"He doesn't have to go through third parties anymore," Taylor says of Melina. "He's brilliant at conceiving methods of getting to the right people. He's a terrier, the guy. He's absolutely unstoppable when he gets his teeth into something. That's the kind of publisher you want and need to represent you."
Still, the odds against any given song are staggering. First of all, says Melina, "It hasn't been recorded. And if it hasn't been recorded, it's not going to make any money. My bank manager would say it has 'zero value.' If I'm looking to get a song on the Beyoncé record and there's ten songs on that record, she writes maybe seven of them." That leaves three open slots, and every songwriter in the world is gunning for them.
Andy Goldmark does the math: "You make eight and a half to nine cents per song for every copy. If she sells a million units, you make $85,000 to $90,000 for the song."
Radio play pays another few cents per spin. Say Beyoncé's record tops the urban and pop charts, crosses over to adult contemporary stations, jumps the Atlantic and explodes in Europe. Goldmark: "You're looking at a very substantial amount of money: half a million to a million dollars."